February 22, 2024

Cambodian legend has it that, 700 years ago, the wealthy village widow Grandmother Penh came across four Buddha statues within a Koki tree that had been uprooted and washed into the river by floods. She enshrined the statues within a pagoda that she had built at the highest point of the city, which is now called Wat Phnom.

Today, this is a major site of pilgrimage for the Cambodians, especially after the devastating atrocities of the Khmer Rouge against the majority of Cambodia’s historical heritage. Being built on the highest point of Phnom Penh, the 27-meter artificial hill affords great views of the Ton Le River and surrounding countryside. Additional shrines reflecting the passing syncretism of Hinduism and Vietnamese myths and beliefs flank the pagoda. Of special interest is the large stupa within which rests the ashes of King Ponhea Yat and the shrine of beloved Vietnamese genie Preah Chau, which is adorned with images of both Lord Vishnu and Confucius. The night-time illumination of the looming clock at the base of the hill is one of the area’s most distinctive landmarks.

A grand staircase with engraved images of the traditional nagas and lions stand sentry on either side leads into the east-oriented temple complex. The area is suffused with the cries of street vendors, the rainbow colours of their wares, the aroma of incense and the crush of pilgrims and tourists. The presence of Sam Bo the elephant simply adds to the feeling of carnival; the animal has been trekking up and down the hill since 1983 and is now an unofficial institution of the city. The popularity of the site is partially owed to the new renovations it has undergone and its promotion as a recovered Cambodian cultural site and partly to the local pilgrim tradition of petitioning for good luck and wishes in exchange for offerings of fruit and flowers.

The aforementioned post-Khmer Rouge renovations have not been as successful in preserving the originality of the site. On one hand, the jungle and tree roots have encroached upon so much of the original brick structure of the stupa that it is under the very real threat of crumbling altogether; on the other hand, the new plaster and paint covering the inner sanctuary mask the historical character of the complex.

However, the many fascinations of the Wat’s interior are still well-preserved enough to captivate. A large bronze seated Buddha dominates, flanked by a host of other effigies garlanded by flowers and incense. Frescoes of the Buddhist Jathaka stories and murals of the Khmer retelling of the Indian epic Ramayana create a pictorial narrative upon the walls.

Grandmother Penh is also honored alongside her historic creation and royalty; a small shrine to the southwest of the Wat houses a plump and smiling statue of the benevolent widow to whom women of the country still turn for good fortune and counsel. The entire site becomes the hub of the city’s colour and pageantry during celebrations of Pchum Benh and the Cambodian New Year in April; it is definitely the best season to visit this beloved icon of quintessential Cambodia.

Since the newly-discovered popularity of Cambodia for cultural tourism, finding an adequate Phnom Penh hotel is not a hard task.