The city bears the name of Lady Penh, a rich woman who lived long long ago in the small village that was to become the future capital of Cambodia and the nation’s economic, industrial, and cultural centre. Legend has it that one day, the waters of the Mekong River broke free of their banks. During this rampage, they carried a hollow tree to Lady Penh’s home, and in it she found four bronze Buddhas. Taking this to be a sign, she built a temple on top of the only hill for miles around.
As word spread, the temple became an increasingly popular place of pilgrimage, and a city started to grow around it. In Khmer, phnom means ‘hill’, and thus the place became known as Phnom Penh, or the hill of Lady Penh.
That centuries-old pagoda is believed to be Wat Phnom, the temple rising majestically at the end of the tree-lined avenue in front of Raffles. When Raffles was built in the 1920s, its neighbourhood at the foot of the temple was the European quarter, a very fashionable place to live and work. Home to many embassies, it retains that international influence today.
Phnom Penh was fondly referred to as the Pearl of Asia during its golden years from the 1920s to the 1970s, its French Colonial architecture attracting visitors from far and wide. However, from 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came to power, until 1979, when the Vietnamese drove them out, the shiny pearl became a ghost town.
Since then, the city has more than regained its former glory. It may be far from the sea, but its situation on the Mekong River puts Phnom Penh in a strategic position for maritime trade. It continues to attract throngs of tourists, many of whom like to combine a city visit with a trip to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. While the temples are an incredible sight to see, there’s plenty to see and do in Phnom Penh, including the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the National Museum and, of course, Wat Phnom.