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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Wat Phnom, the capital's most important temple

Wat Phnom, the capital's most important temple

The recent birthday of Phnom Penh - it was 567 years old in October - saw a celebration

giving thanks to the ancestors of those who helped found the city. Perhaps the best

known was a woman called Daun Penh, from whom the city takes its name.

A shrine on the side of Phnom Penh hill honors King Norodom Sisowath.

Daun Penh lived in the 14th Century on the bank of the Tonle Sap. She was by far

the wealthiest person in the area, although how she made her money is lost to time.

In 1372 heavy rains caused widespread flooding along the river, and when Daun Penh

emerged from her home she was surprised to see a fallen Koki tree floating around

and around in a circle outside her house.

Convinced this was a good omen, Daun Penh encouraged her neighbors to drag the log

ashore. Inside it she found four bronze Buddhist statues and a stone tevarop, the

statue of a god called Lokta Preah Chao. She decided that the statues deserved a

home, and stored them in a temporary shrine on the hill near her house. The villagers

named the hill Phnom Daun Penh in her honor.

Some 60 years later King Punhea Yat, whose Basan palace was originally in Kampong

Cham, tired of the perpetual flooding at his low-lying residence. In 1437 he decided

to move to the higher ground around Phnom Daun Penh, renaming it Chatomuk Mongkul.

The king ordered his followers to raise the height of the hill and build a wooden

temple on its peak. The area from which they took the earth filled with water and

became well-known reservoirs. One was Boeng Decho, where the Central Market now stands,

and another was Boeng Uknha Plong, which is more familiar as the park running from

the railway station to the river.

Over the years six more pagodas were built around the new capital: Wat Kos, Wat Langha,

Wat Preah Pud Khousana, Wat Peam Plong, Wat Unalom and Khpop-tayong - now known

as Wat Botumvadei. The royal palace also ordered civil protection measures for the

capital, including the digging of new canals and construction of high walls.

At the confluence of the four rivers - Tonle Bounmok - the king ordered

his followers to build a dike to protect against the annual flooding. Today the king's

remains are stored in a 19th Century stupa behind Wat Phnom in recognition of his

contribution to the city's history.

Eventually Phnom Penh declined in importance as the royals moved away. Several hundred

years later, in 1865, King Norodom Boromreamtevada (Preah Sovannakoth) moved his

palace from Udong Meancheay to Phnom Penh. That change saw the revival of Phnom Penh.

Today visitors to the temple at the top of Wat Phnom can see dozens of Buddhist statues

of various sizes. The original carvings that Daun Penh pulled out of the river are

no longer there, but copies of the four Buddha statues and the tevarop statue can

be seen.

A statue of Grandmother Daun Penh is also on display at the peak, on the southwest

side of the temple. She wears a crown on her head and makeup on her face, as well

as dozens of necklaces placed around her neck by people seeking her blessing. On

Buddhist holy days, said the caretaker of her statue, that area is packed with well-wishers

and devotees.

Daun Penh - still smiling after 600 years.

The Chinese-influenced statue of Lokta Preah Chao, a copy of the one found in the

log, is stored in a beautiful building north of the main temple on the hill. Prak

Samnang, deputy head of the Phnom Penh Heritage Office, which is based in the Lokta

Preah Chao building, said around 100 people visit the site a day, and on special

occasions numbers can easily exceed 1,000.

According to Samnang, the spirits of Lokta Preah Chao and Daun Penh are very effective

and consequently highly regarded by devotees. The day the Post visited, devotees

whose prayers had brought success, had left offerings of roasted pigs heads, chickens,

fruit and cakes.

More than 600 years after she was born, Daun Penh is still remembered affectionately

by thousands in the city she helped create.




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