Located a short distance from the Royal Palace, the heart of the capital Wat Phnom is popular with Cambodians and tourists alike. It is the center of Phnom Penh that gives the city its name. At 27 meters above sea level, it is the highest point in the area, and, as a town gradually grew up around it, the settlement became known as Phnom Penh, the hill of Penh. It is zero point of the city.
Legend has it that a wealthy widow named Yeay (yeay means grandmother) Penh was walking by the Mekong Rive one day when she spied a koki (timber is famous for its ability to survive in water for hundreds of years) tree log floating near the bank. She found some locals to help her pull it to shore, and inside she found four statues of the Buddha. In AD 1372, she built a hill, or Phnom, and placed a shrine on top to house the precious artifacts. In AD 1434, King Ponhea Yat came and constructed a city and gave the name Pnhom Penh.
Today, the original shrine has been rebuilt many times—in AD 1434, 1806, 1894 and 1926—and each incarnation has seemed more beautiful than the one before.
On the hill there is a large stupa that holds the cremains of King Ponhea Yat and his royal family. Inside the stupa, there is a Buddha statue from the Angkorean era, from the 9th to 13th centuries. At the base of the hill, on the southern side, a huge clock, illuminated at night, has become one of Phnom Penh’s nighttime landmarks. To the north, at the traffic roundabout, a cluster of European restaurants line the beginning of French Street, purveying fine wine with French and Italian cuisines.
The climb up the hill via the grand eastern staircase takes visitors on a path guarded by stone magas and lions and through tree-lined lushness to the temple, which glitters with golden decorations and is always piled high with offerings. On weekends especially, locals flock here to pray for good luck and prosperity, returning when their wish is granted to bring offerings of thanks such as bananas or fragrant rings or orange blossoms.
Plenty of hawkers sell offerings for the gods of the hill. People with wire cages filled with small birds offer tourists and locals alike the chance to pay a small sum to set a pair of their charges free, and thus earn merit from the gods. Children selling lotus flowers and incense may follow visitors up the hill asking their name and where they come from.
During the Khmer New Year, Wat Phnom becomes the center of festivities. No one visiting at that vibrant time of year can escape the good-natured throwing of powder and water, all of it accompanied by shrikes of laughter, that mark mew year’s celebration.