Wat Phnom is the most important temple in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.
Wat Phnom is believed to date back to 1372 and the city’s founding ‘father’ which in the case of Phnom Penh is in fact a woman, who is known affectionately by the residents of Phnom Penh as Grandmother Penh. Phnom Penh means ‘Penh’s hill’ in the Khmer language and the name relates to the mound of earth upon which Wat Phnom is constructed.
About Wat Phnom
According to local legend Grandmother Penh found a tree floating in the nearby Tonle Sap river. Inside the trunk of that tree she found four bronze Buddha statues, which became enshrined in a small wooden temple built on top of man made hill specially constructed to protect the temple and its Buddha statues from the frequent flooding which occurs across the plain upon which Phnom Penh is located.
The story of the temple continues in the 1420s or 1430s, depending upon which account you read, when King Ponhea Yat, the last King of the Khmer Empire, moved the country’s capital to Phnom Penh. He ordered that the original hill constructed during Grandmother Penh’s time be made taller and a new temple be built to house the Buddha statues. The ashes of King Ponhea Yat, and his family, are now enshrined within the large stupa which is located next to the main temple building.
Since the reign of King Ponhea Yat the temple at Wat Phnom has been rebuilt several times. The main temple building which currently stands dates back to 1927. The gardens around the base of the hill were added by the French colonial Government, and other more recent additions include shrines to Hindu and Taoist Gods, the most famous of which is the Chinese folk religion god Preah Chau which attracts large numbers of Vietnamese visitors.
Wat Phnom is open to visitors daily from 08:00 and 18:00 and entry is $1. The temple gets quite busy at times which coach loads of Chinese and Vietnamese tourists periodically turning up. A visit before 09:00 in the morning is advisable which is when the tour groups will still be eating their breakfast, and the vendors and beggars who hang around the entrance are still commuting to the city centre for a hard day of honest toil harassing the coach loads of tourists on their way up to the temple.
From the entrance to the park, which is near the National Library, visitors ascend 27 metres to the top of the hill via a grand Naga staircase. Once at the top you come to the name temple building, the vihara, inside which is a large bronze statue of a seated Buddha. On the walls and ceilings around the Buddha statue are paintings from scenes of the Buddha’s life as well as scenes from the Cambodia version of the Indian Epic the Ramayana, which is called the Reamker. Some of the paintings are very old and have been transplanted into the new temple from the older incarnations of the vihara. This is the main attraction in Wat Phnom.
If you have the energy, and the temple is still yet to fill up with tourists and locals bothering the tourists, then take a little time to explore some of the other part of the grounds of Wat Phnom. On top of the hill there are some curious shrines which appeal to Chinese and Vietnamese visitors with gaudily coloured figures of Chinese gods replete digital illuminations to emphasise how sacred they are. These may not be historically important shrines but they are nonetheless fascinating in their way. At the base of the hill in the gardens there are some interesting sculptures, the best of which is the dog made out of thin branches woven together and the large clock whose face is circle of manicured grass.
Location of Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom is located 1.4 km walking distance from Phnom Penh Railway Station.