The place behind the name
Published/Last edited or updated: 24th January, 2019
The fulcrum of Phnom Penh’s north, the story goes that Wat Phnom is the hill from which the capital city drew its name.
According to the legend, a Khmer woman, Daun Penh, was dawdling by the riverbank one day when she noticed four Buddha statues inside a tree. She rooted the statues out and the first pagoda was built here in 1373 in order to house them. People have been coming here ever since to pray for good luck and success in business or school.
Today the well-shaded artificial hill—at a diminutive 27 metres high, it is nonetheless the only hill in Phnom Penh—sits at the centre of a roundabout and has a bit of a lively, day out atmosphere to it, with a giant clock built into the hillside, numerous hawkers ambling around, and families with kids strolling and enjoying the shade.
On the south side of the hill, by the winding path you’ll see a peculiar monument involving what looks like a French soldier, a king and some apsaras. Erected in 1909, it commemorates the event two years earlier when (under French pressure), then Siam (now Thailand) returned three provinces (Siem Reap, Sispohon and Battambang) it had annexed in 1795. Viewed from your right to left, the three apsaras come bearing three gifts (the provinces) to King Sisowath. To the king’s right (your left) a Cambodian soldier waves a French flag—the RF represents Republique Francaise. The statue of Sisowath is concrete—the original was bronze and was moved to the National Musuem in 1970.
A long staircase, guarded by nagas, garudas and lions, leads to the top of the hill, where you can check out the wat and the view, which isn’t as great as you might expect—although the trees which block that view also provide a great deal of the shade and softly cooled air that make this such a pleasant place to be. Quite a few hustlers also prowl the area, so keep your wits about you.
Another account of the founding of the wat suggests that King Ponhea Yat (r. 1405-63), the last king of the Khmer Empire, built the sanctuary (vihara or vihear) when he moved his capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh in 1422. At the summit, the prominent stupa immediately west of the sanctuary contains his ashes.
The giant flower clock at Wat Phnom is one of the temple’s most striking visual elements due to its nearly 20 metre width. The original clock was a gift from France that was installed in the 1960s. However, in 2000 it was re-installed with a newer version that was gifted from China. You can read into the symbolism of that what you will.
The pagoda is set across two levels and you’ll find plenty of little divergent paths that lead you to stupas and statues and shrines or just around the hill. While many pagodas are magically kitsch, the little shrine just beneath and to the north of the pagoda is a crown-holder. Dedicated to the spirit Preah Chau, it is popular among the Vietnamese community and thought to offer protection from enemies.
Wat Phnom sits at an interesting junction of the raw and the rarefied. Just to the north of here, you’ll find busy raucous markets where vendors noisily hawk their wares, shouting to one another and passers by as they go. The avenues are narrow, noisy, dirty and brilliantly entertaining. On the other hand, if you take a turn to the west, you could choose to drop into Raffles for a spot of afternoon tea, or just to the southeast, Post Office Square offers a glimpse into Phnom Penh’s colonial past.
Admission for foreign tourists is $1, but the fee is levied haphazardly, especially if you enter via one of entrances away from the ticket booths (cough splutter). As mentioned above, do keep your wits with regard to “new friends” you may encounter in the immediate area of Wat Phnom.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Phnom Penh