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Travel Report: Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

Wat Phnom Buddhist Temple Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

September 2020. We were into the last few days of our seven month adventure in Cambodia. Having finally gotten through the capital’s essential but mentally draining genocide sights, I figured we needed to lighten the tone.

When I first read about Wat Phnom my initial reaction was: Do we really need to see another temple? And then I read that the Cambodian capital takes its name from the hill the temple stands on, which has a long and quirky backstory. Oooook, you’ve twisted my arm, let’s go.

Climbing Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

Located on a 27 metre hill in the city centre, Wat Phnom enjoys a handsome location. We arrived by tuk tuk on a sticky, overcast afternoon. Fearing that it may rain, Sladja and I immediately began the ascent of the eastern staircase, with its familiar lion and naga guardians. Our climb turned out to be a slow one, as we found ourselves stuck behind a pair of plodding women and their bouquets of flowers.

Wat Phnom Buddhist Temple.

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

Wat Phnom dates back to 1372 and a charming legend involving an old lady by the name of Doun Penh. She lived on a small hill where there was no access to running water. Thus she undertook a daily hike to the port in order to get a bath.

One day she came across a floating koi tree in the water. Inside she found four tiny bronze and brass Buddha statues. Employing the help of some townsfolk, she transported the tree up to the top of her hill. There, she assembled a makeshift house of worship for the Buddhas. Eventually, monks from all over the region arrived to see Lady Penh and her statues. 

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

Inside Wat Phnom Buddhist temple Phnom Penh

Inside Wat Phnom.

Inside the small interior there are statues depicting Lady Penh scattered across a giant Buddhist shrine. Moreover, there are several sculptures of King Ponhea Yat, the last king of The Khmer Empire. He increased both the size of the hill and the temple in the early 1430s.

Buddhist shrine Wat Phnom.

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

Positioning ourselves discreetly at the back of the hall, we watched the two ladies add their flowers to the shrine before descending into prayer. Elsewhere, visitors bowed down before several statues and left money in the various golden cups and trays.

Monetary offerings at Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

In fact, people left money just about everywhere. They wedged notes between Lady Penh’s fingers and at the feet of Buddhas. At the back of the hall, tucked behind the main shrine, I saw a man drop a handful of notes into an enclosed glass case. Inside, there were over a dozen golden Buddha statuettes.

Little golden Buddha statues Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

According to a wooden info board, a succession of kings rebuilt the temple over the centuries. Its last renovation took place in 1926 with the addition of colourful wall murals. They tell the stories of Jataka and the Buddha’s earlier reincarnations prior to enlightenment.

Wat Phnom Temple in Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

While it’s certainly a pretty temple, for us it was the winding garden paths leading back down to street level that made Wat Phnom such a memorable visit. We have the French to thank for today’s lovely tree-lined walkways, created in the late 19th century.

The French Hill Gardens.

The 19th century French gardens at Wat Phnom

The 19th century French gardens.

We took our time descending, stopping on several benches to listen to the birds and watch dozens of red squirrels darting around.

A red squirrel at Wat Phnom Temple

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

In a city as hectic, noisy and dirty as Phnom Penh can often be, we treasured every moment of that afternoon. It was the perfect opportunity to reflect on a crazy seven months living in Cambodia at the height of the pandemic. And of course to ponder what lay in store for us in Turkey and Serbia.

Wat Phnom Temple gardens in Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

There were some cool spots to check out as we made our way back. The hill’s towering main stupa was built in honour of King Ponhea Yat following his death in 1463. His ashes, they say, lie inside.

The main stupa at Wat Phnom Cambodia

The main stupa.

At the foot of the hill there’s a statue to King Sisowath. It stands in honour of the 1907 treaty that saw the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap returned to Cambodia from Siam.

King Sisowath statue Cambodia

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

The statue overlooks a giant lawn clock, a gift from China that arrived in 2000. It actually replaced an earlier (and much prettier) flower clock installed by the French in the 1960s.

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

giant clock Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

From the clock we strolled around the base path back towards the line of tuk tuks. Along the way, we noticed the traditional Khmer bandstand where there is sometimes live music.

Bandstand Wat Phnom.

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh.

Finally, the area is also home to one of the city’s more peaceful cafes. In addition to lattes and all the usual artisan coffees, they do sandwiches and noodle and rice dishes.

Wat Phnom Cafe Phnom Penh.

Wat Phnom Cafe.

Overall, I’d say Wat Phnom is well worth a visit. The temple itself is pretty, the brief hike is invigorating and the gardens are just lovely. Furthermore, entrance is just $1, inclusive of squirrel action.

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For more info on my adventures in and around the city, have a leaf through my other reports from Phnom Penh

Like these? Then why not have a look at my articles from across Cambodia.

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  • Anonymous

    Cambodia is full of vibrant color.

    June 12, 2021 - 10:33 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading! Yes, the temples are particularly bright and attractive on the eye. This one, with its French gardens, stands a peaceful oasis in the otherwise chaotic buzz of Phnom Penh.

      June 12, 2021 - 10:36 am Reply
  • Toonsarah

    I really liked Wat Phnom and found it interesting to visit with our city guide Van, who explained some of the worship practices such as the fortune-telling tablets. I agree the story of Madame Penh is a lovely one. And I loved the wall paintings inside – but for us this was the first temple of the trip, not the last!

    However we went back down the hill via the steps so missed the gardens and red squirrels – I would have loved to have seen them too 🙁

    Btw, I do really like your photo of the women with their flowers – the one on the left seems to have a bouquet for a head! So I guess that’s some compensation for being stuck behind them on the climb. I managed to get a photo of a similar pair of women releasing birds on these steps. You’ve prompted me to post about our visit at some point 🙂

    June 12, 2021 - 11:56 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Sarah, thank you for your thoughts. Sounds like the guide gave you some good additional insight. The gardens were just lovely, not sure I’ve seen a temple grounds like that before. Glad that this has inspired you to put out your own report on Wat Phnom and look forward to reading it.

      June 12, 2021 - 12:30 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Wat Phnom Temple and its gardens looks like an oasis of calm in such a crowded, densely populated city. Another reason to visit one day. Hope your weekend is going well. Marion

    June 12, 2021 - 1:53 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Marion, enjoy your weekend too!

      June 12, 2021 - 1:59 pm Reply
  • History Trover

    incredibly beautiful; thank you.

    June 12, 2021 - 2:54 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment.

      June 12, 2021 - 2:57 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    Such a peaceful area in the middle of city chaos. The people’s devotion and faith is on full display here, for sure. Loved your description of a sticky overcast afternoon. I would imagine many days would fit that description there. Have a great weekend. Allan

    June 12, 2021 - 3:11 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks For dropping by Allan, enjoy your weekend too.

      June 12, 2021 - 3:21 pm Reply
  • Memo

    The temple and hill is indeed lovely, and immaculate. They must have a very large staff. Were the original Buddhas from the tree still viewable? I have never seen a lawn clock before. How accurate is it? This would indeed have been a relaxing way to spend the day, flower ladies, squirrels and all.

    June 12, 2021 - 4:51 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Good question. Unfortunately, it wasn’t clear if those original Buddhas were in the hall or not. Thanks for reading!

      June 12, 2021 - 5:07 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    The French Hil gardens look beautiful inside such a busy city. We didn’t know about them, too bad they look really nice. Maggie

    June 12, 2021 - 4:58 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I think these kinds of spots are so important in a city like Phnom Penh, which often feels like one giant concrete jungle. Thanks for stopping by!

      June 12, 2021 - 5:09 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    It’s often the places we hesitant to visit (in your case, “another temple” by the likes of Wat Phnom) that end up being one of the most-memorable on the trip. There have been particular sites that almost did not make my itinerary, but I’m very glad they did! Looks like Wat Phnom was a great end to your time in Cambodia!

    June 12, 2021 - 11:17 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Absolutely Rebecca, I think the lesson is to overcome apathy and give things a try. Even if you think you’ve seen it all before. Thanks for reading!

      June 12, 2021 - 11:27 pm Reply
  • Lookoom

    I would have to check my notes but it seems to me that during my visit there was an elephant in the gardens downstairs who was doing tours on his back and letting himself be fed with fruit bought at the nearby counter. He knew not to help himself at the counter but to wait for the fruit to be handed to him. Poor thing.

    June 13, 2021 - 12:21 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Oh dear. Well, I’m happy to say there was no elephant in evidence that day. In fact, I didn’t see a hint of elephant riding during our seven months in Cambodia. Some progress. Thanks for reading!

      June 13, 2021 - 8:06 am Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    What a fascinating progression of the temple through the centuries. I just love the intricate details in every part of it. So beautiful!

    June 13, 2021 - 2:28 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks, glad you liked it!

      June 13, 2021 - 2:52 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    I missed these sites when I was there. They definitely are worth checking out if I get to return.

    June 13, 2021 - 11:22 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey John, thanks for catching up with recent posts. The gardens and the cute backstory alone make this temple a worthwhile stop.

      June 13, 2021 - 11:51 pm Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    Wat Phnom and the French Hills Gardens look beautiful. I can’t believe entrance is only $1!! I’d say it was well worth your money and time!

    June 14, 2021 - 1:58 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yes, one of the best value visits one can make in Phnom Penh. Thanks for visiting!

      June 14, 2021 - 2:03 pm Reply

    Fabulous photos and account of Cambodia, makes us sad that we had to cut our journey short because of the pandemic. Although you were there for 7 months, do you feel that you saw the real country or did the pandemic take that away from you? We so want to resume our travels and explore Cambodia one day.

    June 14, 2021 - 11:02 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I feel we got to see the real country for sure. We met and spent quality time with so many locals, including tuk tuk drivers, restaurant owners, hotel managers and private tour guides. After the pandemic hit there were hardly any foreigners left in Siem Reap. Just some diehard expats and a few stranded folk like us. Luckily we didn’t experience a lockdown during our time there, so we were able to continue exploring, often having sights all to ourselves.

      June 14, 2021 - 11:12 pm Reply

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