Built as early as 1372, Wat Phnom is a temple complex located on top of an artificial hill north of Phnom Penh and near the Tonle Sap River. (“Wat” is Khmer for temple, and “phnom” is for “hill”.) The sanctuary has gone through a number of repairs and rebuilding in 1434, throughout the 19th century, and then again in 1926. In 1975 to 1979, the temple was abandoned and did not receive the reverence it deserved during the horrific regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. They pillaged the capital city and neglected important national and Buddhist landmarks, not to mention the killing of approximately 2 million Cambodians. Needless to say, Wat Phnom underwent a few more renovations after the Khmer Rouge. New statues and shrines were built, and some sections of the temple were plastered and painted.
A well-known local legend surrounds the origin and construction of this temple on a hill. According the age-old story, a wealthy widow called Lady Penh (or “Daun Penh” in Khmer) was one day walking along the Tonle Sap River when she found a huge koki tree. Amazed by the size of the tree, she hoped to use it to make a house. When she examined the tree, however, she was surprised to see four bronze Buddha statues inside its hollow portion. (Another version of the legend narrates that there was also a stone statue of Vishnu.) Instead of converting the tree into her home, she put up a shrine to protect the statues. Word caught on and soon people considered the site sacred. They went to the sanctuary built by Lady Penh to wish and pray for good luck and good fortune.
Another story that is more likely to be a true historical account tells about the arrival of King Ponhea Yat to the hill sometime between 1405 and 1467. In 1422, he eventually moved his capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh and built a sanctuary in the area. Today, it is believed that the prominent stupa to the west of the temple within the Wat Phnom grounds contains the ashes of King Yat.
What’s inside the sanctuary?
Tourists and worshippers are treated to an array of exotic and rare artifacts inside and surrounding the temple on a hill. Approaching the sanctuary, one is welcomed by a broad staircase that is flanked by guardians, lion-like statues, and figures of the mythical naga. Inside the sanctuary is a large bronze sitting Buddha that is surrounded by statues, candles, flowers, and other items necessary for Buddhist worship. Paintings showing the enlightenment of Buddha and murals of the Ramayana are displayed all over the temple walls. The paintings on the upper sections are very old and have been blackened by the incense that has gone up over the years.
A small shrine in honor of Lady Penh is located at the southwestern corner of the sanctuary near the stupa. This is the most crowded part of the temple since a good number of worshippers regularly offer their prayers to the lady whom they regard as the founder of Wat Phnom. In other areas of the sanctuary, there are also shrines that represent Hinduism, Daoism, and Confucianism.