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