The Heart Of Phnom Penh
By: Ann Creevey. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter ( March, 2002 Volume 2 No.3 )

Back in 1372, Phnom Penh was a nameless and sparsely inhabited place. It was merely a level piece of land to the west of what was then called Tonle Chab Chheam, or River of Blood perhaps because of the number of battles that had taken place upstream and regularly stained its waters red with blood. The river was also called Tonle Chaktomuk, or River of Four Faces, due to the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Tonle Bassac at this place. One day, a wealthy widow called Yeay Penh, or Daun Penh (Grandmother Penh) was walking by the river and noticed a large koki tree log floating close to shore. She called her neighbors to help drag it in, and in a hollow of the log she found four bronze statues of Buddha and one of stone. That signaled the birth of a city. The widow built a hill in an auspicious place and constructed a shrine on top to house the statues.

This hill became the highest point of the area and was named Wat Phnom. Phnom means mountain or hill. Wat Phnom is now the heart of Phnom Penh a city named after Yeay Penh and the hill she constructed here. People built homes around the hill and a town and then a city evolved. A powerful neakta, or deity, moved to Wat Phnom Loakta Preah Chao. A special shrine was built for him halfway up the hill. This shrine is often called the Chinese shrine because of its style, but this is probably only because the person who built it was Chinese. When King Ponhea Yat abandoned Angkor in 1434, he eventually moved to Phnom Penh and the city was stamped as the Kingdom's capital. Wat Phnom is considered a must-see for tourists. Several recent beautification projects, partially funded by the one-dollar entrance fee for foreign visitors, have enhanced the natural beauty of the area, providing lush lawns, a massive clock on the southern side which is illuminated at night, and a facelift for the wat itself.
Large trees provide shade for visitors who relax and sip cold drinks and young coconut juice around the hill, and for the many fortunetellers who sit waiting to tell mainly Khmer visitors what lies in store romantically and financially. An elephant called Sambo provides rides and photo opportunities. An ancient royal decree brought the brass statue of Buddha and bronze lions from Angkor down from Siem Reap to stand on top of the hill. The vihara, or inner shrine, has been renovated many times over the centuries in 1437, 1805, 1994 and again in 1998.

Some people say King Ponhea Yat's remains rest in the stupa on the western side of Wat Phnom but no one knows for sure. Eventually, a shrine to Yeay Penh herself was built on the hill. Although she never became a neakta herself, she is still regarded as the owner of the mountain and the hundreds of Khmers who flock to Wat Phnom to pray and give offerings of thanks for wishes granted also worship her. Fishermen pray for a good catch, others for good luck and health, and travelers for a smooth journey. "A lot of tourists visit Wat Phnom as well," said chief of the Heritage Office at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Tith Kim, 55.
"Especially Japanese, Chinese, French and Germans. Many ask about the Chinese shrine and I have to tell them it is for the neakta Loakta Preah Chao, but Chinese and Vietnamese here have a lot of faith in him and they often make offerings to him, too. "But for Khmers especially, this is a very holy place," she said. "Wat Phnom wasn't really hurt by the Khmer Rouge. It was the same before 1970 as now." But the secret of where the original statues that Yeay Penh found all those centuries ago lie and when they disappeared is now lost. "The four statues in the vihara now are not the originals. We believe those were probably put in King Ponhea Yat's stupa," she said.