I’ve got a Dutch expat friend who has a rather novel idea for dealing with what he calls the “scourge of tuk tuks in Cambodia”.
“They should do what they do in Tunisia!” he says. “Ban them from even talking to the tourists – they can only speak to you if you speak to them first. It’s brilliant!”
It seems pretty extreme to me, even by Muslim country standards. But you can’t help agreeing with the sentiment to some extent. Talk to most expats or tourists, and they’ll say that one of the main detractions of this beautiful country is the continual gauntlet of pestering tuk tuk drivers trying to make a fast buck.
I once walked down the riverside in Phnom Penh and was bombarded by 17 “tuk tuk sirs” in the space of 50 yards. I know because I counted. They could see I’d just been asked several times in the space of a few feet, but the next ones asked anyway. With the heat and the traffic, and the piled-up tuk tuks, mopeds and Land Cruisers blocking every pavement, it’s enough to test the patience of even the most modest and saintly person.
But Siem Reap is the worst place for it. It makes no difference how long you’ve lived in town. There are hundreds of them around the Old Market area hissing “skunk”, “cocaine”, “massage”, “boom boom” and then giggling at your answers like a pack of hyenas. It can be quite intimidating at times, other times it’s just intensely irritating.
Sometime ago they banned tuk tuks from entering Pub Street at night. But although it means it’s about the only part of town you can walk through without navigating your way through the inch-wide gaps between prowling tuk tuks, it makes little difference. They just park their contraptions round the corner and clap their hands at you as soon as you leave – or look as though you’re about to leave – a bar or restaurant.
I hate it when they clap their hands. A friend came to visit me recently and was shocked at my general apathy towards taxi drivers.
“I think you should spend a week on a Buddhist retreat,” he said to me at one point.
He said he felt sorry for them and all they were doing was trying to feed their families. I said I’d have a lot more sympathy if they didn’t try to scalp you because you’ve got a white face. When you find out the prices the locals pay it makes your blood boil. I once spent a morning travelling around on a tuk tuk with a hard-dealing Vietnamese shop-owner. We must have driven 20km, stopping at various stores for supplies. At the end, the bill came to 10,000 riel. So you can imagine my rage the next day when a tuk tuk driver demanded $10 for a fare that was barely a tenth of the distance.
My friend is right, of course – I should be more tolerant. But the simple truth is not everyone can be a tuk tuk driver – there are not enough fares to go round as it is. And as each new crop appears, the incessant badgering is just going to get worse.
There should be a limit on tuk tuk numbers. It would be quite easy to police. You can’t just buy a tuk tuk and set yourself up on a corner shouting “skunk” at tourists, and demanding extortionate fares for a short trip up the road. Drivers have to pay $5 a year to the Government for a licence, and on top of this, depending on the allotted pitch, a fee of about $10 a month to the local tuk tuk guild – an amount that drivers can recoup by getting between $5 and $10 a month advertising a business on their back-board. I imagine if officials started putting limits on tuk tuk numbers, it would get strong support from existing drivers, not to mention the expats and tourists slowly being driven to madness.
It’s no surprise to see nearly every tourist in Siem Reap riding a bicycle these days. I’m surprised the tuk tuks aren’t going round with screwdrivers bursting tyres, they must be so livid at the sight. But if they only charged a reasonable fare, and you weren’t forced to go into a ridiculous haggling process every time you want a ride, they might get more trade.
It happened to me when I was cycling back from Angkor Thom one evening. There was a huge cloudburst and the road was soon a foot deep in water. Eventually I pulled over as a tuk tuk drew up beside me. We tied my bike to the back with rope, zipped up the tarpaulin, and then he hit me with the price.
“$15 to go back to the old market?!” I yelled at him, pointing out that it was normally $3 or $4 at most.
He looked out at the road, and smiled. “It’s raining,” he said.
As I say, I have to keep remembering to take a deep breath and remind myself that they’re only trying to feed their families, and I shouldn’t really blame them for trying it on. But whenever the 20th tuk tuk driver claps his hands at me in the space of a few yards, sometimes I can’t help wondering whether they’ve got it right in Tunisia.