Too vast to walk and too congested to travel by car – how best to get around Phnom Penh is a tourist’s conundrum. There is one form of transport that lends itself particularly well to slow-paced, inner-city sightseeing, and that’s the humble cyclo.
Cyclos (three-wheeled bicycles with a wide passenger seat and canopy in front) were first introduced to the streets of Phnom Penh back in the 1930s. Twenty years ago an estimated 5,000 cyclos still roamed the city, hawking for passengers and scooping up old ladies and their overflowing shopping bags from outside the Central Market. But as tuk-tuks and four-wheel drives grew to dominate Phnom Penh’s roads, cyclos were slowly pushed out of the city. Just 1,000 or so remain in circulation today.
If you’re touring the colonial landmarks and learning about pre-war Phnom Penh, it feels rather apt to glide from place to place in the shaded seat of a cyclo. Khmer Architecture Tours partner with The Cyclo Tour company to offer a guided tour of central Phnom Penh, passing many of the city’s major landmarks and stopping off at some lesser-known spots.
Along with 13 friends, we took a cyclo tour with KAT a few days after arriving in Phnom Penh. Since a cyclo only seats one adult comfortably, everyone gets their own driver. Sweeping through the city streets in shifting formations, our cavalcade of cyclos was quite the spectacle.
We fanned out across the wide, shaded boulevards of central Phnom Penh before collapsing into neat lines to turn the corners into the city’s quieter suburbs. One of the highlights of the tour is riding single file along Sihanouville Boulevard, the Independence Monument looming in the background.
Our tour took us to Post Office Square where we were granted the rare opportunity to go inside one of Phnom Penh’s oldest colonial buildings. Located directly opposite the Post Office, the two old walk-ups painted in patchy shades of lemon and apricot were once lavish French-owned hotels before being abandoned in the 1970s. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown and people started returning to Phnom Penh, the building was put to residential use. Anyone was permitted to set up a living space in the building, no leases or rent involved. The hotel rooms were transformed into living quarters and renovations ensued; but many of the original features were kept, including the imported French tiles which can still be seen today. Some residents have lived inside the buildings for generations.
It’s a similar scene at one of Phnom Penh’s oldest Catholic churches. From the outside, the structure of the cathedral is still visible, but inside the church is unrecognisable. It too has been carved up into dozens of small living spaces. We also visited the Tonle Bassac Commune, commonly known as The White Building.
Khmer Architecture Tours runs regular cyclo tours of the city – check their website for dates and prices. It’s hard work navigating through Phnom Penh’s manic traffic with little more than peddle power, so remember to tip your driver generously! Have you taken a cyclo tour somewhere else in the world? What did you think?