Phnom Penh (/pəˈnɔːm ˈpɛn/ or /ˈnɒm ˈpɛn/; Khmer: ភ្នំពេញ phnum pɨñ, Khmer pronunciation: [pʰnum ˈpɨɲ]), formerly known as Krong Chaktomuk or Krong Chaktomuk Serimongkul (Khmer: ក្រុងចតុមុខសិរិមង្គល), is the capital and most populous city in Cambodia. Phnom Penh has been the national capital since French colonization of Cambodia, and has grown to become the nation’s economic, industrial, and cultural center.
Once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina in the 1920s. Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, are significant global and domestic tourist destinations for Cambodia. Founded in 1434, the city is noted for its beautiful and historical architecture and attractions. There are a number of surviving French colonial buildings scattered along the grand boulevards.
Situated on the banks of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers, the Phnom Penh metropolitan area is home to about 1.5 million of Cambodia’s population of over 14.8 million.
Phnom Penh from east drawn in 1887.
Phnom Penh (literally, “Penh’s Hill”) takes its name from the present Wat Phnom (“Hill Temple”). Legend has it that in 1372, a wealthy widow named Lady Penh found a Koki tree floating down the Tonle Sap river after a storm. Inside the tree were four bronze Buddha statues and a stone statue of Vishnu. Daun Penh ordered villagers to raise the height of the hill northeast of her house and used the Koki wood to build a temple on the hill to house the four Buddha statues, and a shrine for the Vishnu image slightly lower down. The temple became known as Wat Phnom Daun Penh, which is now known as Wat Phnom, a small hill 27 metres (89 ft) in height.
Phnom Penh’s official name, in its short form, is Krong Chaktomok (Khmer: ក្រុងចតុមុខ) meaning “City of Four Faces”. Krong Chaktomuk is an abbreviation of the full name which was given by King Ponhea Yat, Krong Chaktomuk Mongkol Sakal Kampuchea Thipadei Serey Thereak Borvor Inthabot Borei Roth Reach Seima Maha Nokor (Khmer: ក្រុងចតុមុខមង្គលសកលកម្ពុជាធិបតី សិរីធរបវរ ឥន្ទបត្តបុរី រដ្ឋរាជសីមាមហានគរ). This loosely translates as “The place of four rivers that gives the happiness and success of Khmer Kingdom, the highest leader as well as unimpregnable city of the God Indra of the great kingdom”.
First recorded a century after it is said to have taken place, the legend of the founding of Phnom Penh tells of a local woman, Penh (commonly referred to as Daun Penh (“Grandmother Penh” or “Old Lady Penh”) in Khmer), living at Chaktomuk, the future Phnom Penh. It was the late 14th century, and the Khmer capital was still at Angkor near Siem Reap 350 km (217 mi) to the north. Gathering firewood along the banks of the river, Lady Penh spied a floating koki tree in the river and fished it from the water. Inside the tree she found four Buddha statues and one of Vishnu.
The discovery was taken as a divine blessing, and to some a sign that the Khmer capital was to be brought to Phnom Penh from Angkor. To house the new-found sacred objects, Penh raised a small hill on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River and crowned it with a shrine, now known as Wat Phnom at the north end of central Phnom Penh. “Phnom” is Khmer for “hill” and Penh’s hill took on the name of the founder, and the area around it became known after the hill.
Phnom Penh first became the capital of Cambodia after Ponhea Yat, king of the Khmer Empire, moved the capital from Angkor Thom after it was captured and destroyed by Siam a few years earlier. There is a stupa behind Wat Phnom that houses the remains of Ponhea Yat and the royal family as well as the remaining Buddhist statues from the Angkorean era. In the 17th century, Japanese immigrants also settled on the outskirts of present-day Phnom Penh. A small Portuguese community survived in Phnom Penh until the 17th century, undertaking commercial and religious activity in the country.
Stupa of King Ponhea Yat on the top of Wat Phnom
Phnom Penh remained the royal capital for 73 years, from 1432 to 1505. It was abandoned for 360 years (from 1505 to 1865) by subsequent kings due to internal fighting between the royal pretenders. Later kings moved the capital several times and established their royal capitals at various locations in Tuol Basan (Srey Santhor), Pursat, Longvek, Lavear Em and Oudong.
It was not until 1866, under the reign of King Norodom I (1860–1904), the eldest son of King Ang Duong, who ruled on behalf of Siam, that Phnom Penh became the permanent seat of government and capital of Cambodia, and also where the current Royal Palace was built. Beginning in 1870, the French colonial authorities turned a riverside village into a city where they built hotels, schools, prisons, barracks, banks, public works offices, telegraph offices, law courts, and health services buildings. In 1872, the first glimpse of a modern city took shape when the colonial administration employed the services of French contractor Le Faucheur to construct the first 300 concrete houses for sale and rental to Chinese traders.
By the 1920s, Phnom Penh was known as the “Pearl of Asia”, and over the next four decades, Phnom Penh continued to experience rapid growth with the building of railways to Sihanoukville and Pochentong International Airport (now Phnom Penh International Airport). Phnom Penh’s infrastructure saw major modernisation under the rule of Sihanouk.
During the Vietnam War, Cambodia was used as a base by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, and thousands of refugees from across the country flooded the city to escape the fighting between their own government troops, the NVA/NLF, the South Vietnamese and its allies, and the Khmer Rouge. By 1975, the population was 2-3 million, the bulk of whom were refugees from the fighting. The Khmer Rouge cut off supplies to the city for more than a year before it fell on April 17, 1975. Reports from journalists stated that the Khmer Rouge shelling “tortured the capital almost continuously,” inflicting “random death and mutilation” on millions of trapped civilians. The Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the entire city after taking it, in what has been described as a death march: Francois Ponchaud wrote that “I shall never forget one cripple who had neither hands nor feet, writhing along the ground like a severed worm, or a weeping father carrying his ten-year old daughter wrapped in a sheet tied around his neck like a sling, or the man with his foot dangling at the end of a leg to which it was attached by nothing but skin”; John Swain recalled that the Khmer Rouge were “tipping out patients from the hospitals like garbage into the streets….In five years of war, this is the greatest caravan of human misery I have seen.” All of its residents, including the wealthy and educated, were evacuated from the city and forced to do difficult labour on rural farms as “new people”. Tuol Sleng High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s forces and was turned into the S-21 prison camp, where people were detained and tortured. Pol Pot sought a return to an agrarian economy and therefore killed many people perceived as educated, “lazy” or political enemies. Many others starved to death as a result of failure of the agrarian society and the sale of Cambodia’s rice to China in exchange for bullets and weaponry. The former high school is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where Khmer Rouge torture devices and photos of their victims are displayed. Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), 15 kilometers (9 mi) away, where the Khmer Rouge marched prisoners from Tuol Sleng to be murdered and buried in shallow pits, is also now a memorial to those who were killed by the regime.
The Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in 1979, and people began to return to the city. Vietnam is historically a state with which Cambodia has had many conflicts, therefore this liberation was and is viewed with mixed emotions by the Cambodians. A period of reconstruction began, spurred by the continuing stability of government, attracting new foreign investment and aid by countries including France, Australia, and Japan. Loans were made from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to reinstate a clean water supply, roads and other infrastructure. The 1998 Census put Phnom Penh’s population at 862,000; and the 2008 census was 1.3 million.
Phnom Penh has a tropical wet and dry climate (Köppen climate classification Aw). The climate is hot year-round with only minor variations. Temperatures typically range from 22 to 35 °C (72 to 95 °F) and weather is subject to the tropical monsoons. The southwest monsoon blows inland bringing moisture-laden winds from the Gulf of Thailand and Indian Ocean from May to October. The northeast monsoon ushers in the dry season, which lasts from November to March. The city experiences the heaviest precipitation from September to October with the driest period in January and February.
The city has two distinct seasons. The rainy season, which runs from May to October, sees high temperatures accompanied by high humidity. The dry season lasts from November to April when temperatures can drop to 22 °C (72 °F). But temperatures can approach 40 °C (104 °F) in April.