Visiting Phnom Penh's Wat Phnom Temple

Seated Buddha at Wat Phnom, Cambodia
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Wat Phnom - translated as "hill temple" - is the tallest and most important temple in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The temple, first constructed in 1373, was erected on a man-made, 88-foot-tall mound overlooking the city.

The pleasant garden around Wat Phnom offers tourists and locals alike a green respite from the noise and chaos on the busy streets of Phnom Penh. The attractive grounds are used for concerts, festivals, and once a year becomes the epicenter of the Cambodian New Year celebration.

Angkor Wat in Siem Reap may monopolize most of the tourism in Cambodia, but Wat Phnom is a must-see if you are near Phnom Penh.

The Legend

Local legend claims that in 1373 a wealthy widow named Daun Chi Penh found four bronze Buddha statues inside of a floating tree on the Tonle Sap River just after a large flood. She rallied the nearby residents and had them create an 88-foot-mound and then erected a shrine on top to hold the Buddhas. This hill is said to be the origin of modern Phnom Penh, which literally means "Penh's hill".

Another theory states that King Ponhea Yat, the last king of the Khmer civilization, constructed the temple in 1422 after moving his empire from Angkor to the area of Phnom Penh. He died in 1463 and the largest stupa at Wat Phnom still contains his remains.

The History of Wat Phnom

Don't be fooled into thinking that everything around Wat Phnom dates back to 1373. The temple had to be reconstructed several times over the centuries; the current structure was built in 1926.

The French improved on the gardens during their colonization and the dictator Pol Pot made many modifications during the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Many new statues have been added to suit different political and religious interests - even shrines for Taoist and Hindu beliefs have been sprinkled in.

The faded mural on the ceiling above the largest Buddha statue is original and has never been restored.

Visiting Wat Phnom

Tourists must purchase a ticket at the ticket office before walking up the hill to the temple. The ticket office is located at the bottom of the eastern staircase. Entry to the attached museum is extra. 

Remove your shoes when entering the main worship area.

Carts offering water, snacks, and trinkets have set up everywhere around the temple entrance. Children and old women sell small, caged birds to release on top of the hill which is said to bring good fortune. Don't think that spending your money will help the frightened creatures, the same birds are captured again shortly after their release.

Things to See Around Wat Phnom

  • The small shrine dedicated to Daun Chi Penh in a neighboring pavilion.
  • The original mural painting on the ceiling of the main worship area.
  • The large stupa containing the ashes of King Ponhea Yat.
  • The shrine to Preah Chau which is worshiped by Vietnamese devotees.
  • Behind the temple is a stupa torn apart by the roots of a large tree.
  • Paintings depicting stories of Buddha before enlightenment.

Getting There

Phnom Penh is the largest city in Cambodia and is well connected by air and bus to the rest of Southeast Asia.

Wat Phnom is located in the northern part of Phnom Penh, near the Tonle Sap River. From the Central Market walk seven blocks northeast to the temple or follow the busy Norodom Boulevard which runs north and south directly to the temple.

Safety and Warnings

  • Any concentration of tourists in Cambodia will inevitably bring hawkers, vendors, and beggars; be prepared to politely refuse lots of offers.
  • Thieves that target tourists patrol the temple grounds; keep an eye on your bags.
  • Mischievous monkeys roam Wat Phnom; always promptly drop anything that they grab hold of to avoid a bite and possible rabies vaccinations! Be sure to familiarize yourself with monkey bites and safety.
  • During Chaul Chnam Thmey, the Cambodian New Year, Wat Phnom fills to capacity and traffic becomes out of control.