At the north end of Norodom Boulevard bisecting Street 96 is a temple hill on a wide circle that conferred Phnom Penh its name. According to legends (or history for that matter), long ago in 1372 AD, a wealthy elderly woman living by the banks of the confluence of three rivers found a koki tree floating towards the river bank one rainy day. The woman’s name was Daun Penh or ‘Grandma Penh’.
She called for her neighbors to help fish the tree out of the water. While she was cleaning the tree to be used for building a house, she discovered four bronze statues of Buddha and one stone statue of Divinity at the center. In veneration of the Buddha, she built a hill or ‘phnom’ and a temple or ‘wat’ on top. Since then flocks of devotees started to worship at the sacred grounds, and the whole town grew out of the area into what we now know as Phnom Penh or Hill of Penh.
The temple has been rebuilt many times since its foundation, with the most recent renovation in 1926. The original temple no longer exists, but a small shrine dedicated to Daun Penh still remains in the grounds that also contains the vihear (monastery), stupa and temple.
The present stupa stands 27 meters above the streets and is the tallest religious structure in the whole of Phnom Penh. Inside the shrine is an altar at the center with a huge bronze seated Buddha encircled with various statues, candles, flowers and other artifacts of worship. Also in this structure are the remains of Ponhea Yat, the king who moved the Angkorian capital in the 15th century to the present site.
There are two ways to reach the top of the hill from the surrounding streets. There is a grand staircase facing Norodom Boulevard from the south side. The eastern side is the main gate, with a broad stairway bordered with seemingly contemporary lion-like statues, guardians and nagas (snake-like beings), and leading up to the vihear. At the bottom of the stairs are vendors, children and people combining into a somewhat festive atmosphere. Inside the complex, on the slopes of the hill, people gather and the grounds transform into a cool retreat for everyone else. There are monkeys and a resident elephant in the area as well.
Wat Phnom is the center of celebration during Khmer New Year (April) and Pchum Ben or Ancestors’ Day (September or October).
You may hire a reumork or a motodop to reach the temple which is open daily from morning to twilight. A ticket booth at the bottom of the stairs on the eastern side charges tourists US$1 for entry.