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About Phnom Penh

The largest city in Cambodia, and the capital, is Phnom Penh. It is a fast-growing, bustling city on the banks of the Tonle Sap River and the Bassac River. The capital was moved from Angkor to Phnom Penh to facilitate trade with the rest of Asia. However, Cambodia became a buffer state between Siam and Vietnam until the French arrived and established French Indochina...........

Situated on the banks of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers, Phnom Penh was originally settled around the 1370s. It is now the capital of Cambodia, and the largest city in the country. It has seen rapid growth in the past few years. The legend of Phnom Penh says that it was founded when an old woman named Penh found four Buddhist images in a tree washed up on the banks of the Mekong River. She had a temple built for the statues on a nearby hill, and the town that grew up around the hill became known as Phnom Penh (Hill of Penh).

 

The Khmer capital was moved to Phnom Penh by King Ponhea Yat, from Angkor Thom a few years after its defeat by Siam. Phnom Penh was the royal capital from 1432 to 1505, but subsequent kings moved the capital to several other locations (Srey Santhor, Pursat, Longvek, Lavear Em and Oudong). 

Phnom Penh was in a more central location in the Khmer territory, and was an excellent position for river trade with Laos, China and Vietnam. By the mid-1500s, Phnom Penh was a regional trading power with large numbers of traders from all over Asia coming to the city. However, a hundred years later, the Vietnamese had taken control of the Mekong Delta, and deprived Cambodia of access to the sea. The landlocked and isolated kingdom eventually became a buffer state between Siam and Vietnam. In 1772 Siam sacked Phnom Penh and burnt it to the ground. The city was rebuilt, but Phnom Penh and Cambodia continued to be caught between the two rival powers of Siam and Vietnam.

The French took over in 1863, and it was the French who gave Phnom Penh the layout we see today. At one time, Phnom Penh was regarded as one of the finest cities built by the French in Indochina in the 1920s. In 1866 it became the permanent seat of government and capital of Cambodia, under King Norodom I. It was at this time that the current Royal Palace was built. 

When the French left in 1953, they left many important landmarks in the city, including the Royal Palace, the National Museum, Psar Thmei (New Market), and many government buildings and residences. Even today, a number of French colonial buildings survive along the wide boulevards.

After independence, the city grew to approximately 500,000 by the time King Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970. When the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia, and with the onset of civil war, the city swelled with refugees to more than 2 million. The Khmer Rouge entered the city on April 17, 1975 and forcibly evacuated the entire city to the countryside. During the period of Democratic Kampuchea, the population of Phnom Penh was never more than about 50, 000.

With the arrival of the Vietnamese army in 1979 and the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, the repopulating of the city began. In the 1980s the city was strictly controlled by the new government, but then Phnom Penh began to develop, and in the 1990s with the arrival of UNTAC, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, prices and rents soared. Businesses started to grow, and commercial building was booming. Over the years the dirt roads were paved, sewage improved, parks were built, and a new middle class emerged.

Today Phnom Penh is the industrial, commercial, cultural, and political capital of Cambodia, and is once again home to a population of more than 2 million. It is the wealthiest and most populous city in Cambodia, and is young, vibrant and dynamic, but is still a city of extremes of poverty and wealth.

 

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