Wat Phnom
   
  Royal Palace
   
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  National Museum
 
 
   
   
   

 

 

During the heyday of the Khmer Empire, when the political and religious life of the country was centered at Angkor, the site of present-day Phnom Penh was occupied by a small village. According to Cambodian legend, a lady named Penh lived in that village in a house on a hill. One day the floodwaters of the Mekong washed a huge tree into her house. Inside its hollow trunk she found four bronze statues of the Buddha, the Indian founder of the religion Buddhism, which had become popular in Cambodia. The lady Penh built a temple, or Wat, on her hill to house the statues.
The temple became famous and was visited by throngs of pilgrims. The people of Cambodia believed that the statues were a sign that the gods wanted a new home. So when enemies from Siam (present-day Thailand) invaded Angkor a hundred years later, the capital was moved to a new site near the temple. The new capital was called Phnom Penh. Phnom means “Hill” in the Khmer language, so the city’s name means “The hill of the lady Penh”. At its center stands a many-towered hilltop temple six centuries old. It is called the Wat Phnom (“Hill Temple”), and Cambodians believe that it is the one built by the lady Penh for the miraculous Buddha’s.

Phnom Penh gradually grew into an important center of commerce on the Mekong River. Junks, barges, and barges, and sampans (small, flat-bottomed boats) loaded with traders and their goods plied the river’s waters from the city of Luang Prabang in Laos to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The shops of Phnom Penh and the huge open-air market called Toul Tompoung were among the liveliest spots in Asia.

As Phnom Penh’s population and importance grew, the city began to spread out over the surrounding countryside. Many palaces and temples were built. French administrators, who governed Cambodia in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, erected government buildings, theaters, and an opera house in the European style. These square stone structure shared the skyline with traditional Khmer architecture, which features buildings that have roofs ornamented with yellow carved serpents and soaring pagodas (towers with many levels). The French also built wide, tree-lined boulevards, broad plazas, hotels, a railroad station and miles of docks along the muddy riverbanks.

By the time Cambodia gained its independence in 1953, its capital was a thriving, cosmopolitan city that attracted tourists and visitors from all over the world. Its streets were filled with the automobiles of government employees and rich merchants, the Kong dup (bicycles with a passenger seat attached) that serve as taxis throughout much of Asia, and crowds of pedestrians and vendors. Many people could be seen carrying buckets of water on poles balanced across their shoulders of leading ox drawn carts whose wooden wheels screeched beneath the weight of heaping loads of farm produce.

The years of civil disorder and warfare that began in the late 1960s took a heavy toll on Phnom Penh, however. First, its population swelled as people from the countryside swarmed to the city to escape bombing and fighting. Slums sprang up, the supply of clean water grew scarce, and the successive governments spent less and less money on the city.

Phnom Penh City
Get Around Phnom Penh

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