History of Phnom Penh

Cambodia is the land of the Khmer, the dominant ethnic group in the area stretching from the present deep into prehistory. The Angkorian era Khmer Empire centered near Siem Reap dominated the region from the 9th-13th century AD, at its apex the Empire stretched across most of mainland Southeast Asia. But by the 15th century the Empire was in political and territorial decline and under challenge from the rising Tai kingdom of Ayudhaya in today’s Thailand. By the 14th century Ayudhaya was staging regular incursions, culminating with the sack of Angkor in 1431-32. Shortly thereafter the Khmer court of King Pohea Yat left the Angkorian capital and established a new capital at Phnom Penh. With a very brief exception, the capital would never return to Angkor.

The choice to move the capital to Phnom Penh at the confluence of the Mekong was probably not only a strategic response to Ayudhhaya’s aggression but may have also reflected a tectonic economic shift. The 15th century was the beginning of a general rise in international commerce throughout the region and Phnom Penh was an ideal location for a trade center. The move may have reflected the country changing focus from the old Angkorian agrarian economy based in the country’s interior to a trade oriented economy based in a riverine port town.

During the first Royal occupation of Phnom Penh in the mid 15th century, King Pohea Yat set the foundations of city, establishing several wats and laying out the town along moats/rivers which approximate the area and layout of modern central Phnom Penh. Wat Ounalom on the riverfront near the Royal Palace may even slightly pre-date King Pohea Yat, making it the oldest known Buddhist foundation in the city.

Phnom Penh
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, Old Lady Penh (Duan Penh,) living at the chaktomuk, the future Phnom Penh. It was the late 14th century and the Khmer capital was still at Angkor near Siem Reap 350km to the west. 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 numbers vary on different tellings.) 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, Lady 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 the Lady Penh’s hill took on the name of the founder, i.e. Phnom Duan Penh, and the area around it became known after the hill – Phnom Penh.

 

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