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 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. 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. 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. Merit bird vendors abound, one of the more unsavoury aspects of contemporary Buddhist worship. People buy the birds in order to release them and thus gain “merit” for granting life to a creature. Sadly, the birds all too often die as a direct result of this practice, exhausted, stressed, hungry and thirsty, many simply manage to coast a few metres before crashing their last.
And it is not just ordinary birds that fall victim to this trade — and trade it is. Endangered species are also captured and sold, with all of the attendant risks to them individually, but a greatly heightened risk to the continuing viability of the species. A 2012 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered that as many as 770,000 birds went up for sale in just two sites in Phnom Penh. If they don’t die immediately, as many as half of those are likely to die within days of release, their tiny hearts unable to handle the stress.
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. Just to the southeast, Post Office Square offers a glimpse into Phnom Penh’s colonial past, while Chinese House and The Exchange both offer a contemporary take on beautiful historical buildings, and great food to boot.