Wat Phnom is defined as the heart of Phnom Penh. It’s a historical and cultural tourist site which attracts tourists from near and far each day, thanks to its unique architecture, Buddhist temples and relics of the late King Ponhea Yat and the royal family.
Currently, however, the site is feeling the negative effects of comments by people linking this holy place to unsavoury tales of prostitution and sordid happenings after dark. This is becoming a concern among certain commentators and youth groups, as it devalues one of the capital’s cultural gems.
Hin Ponleu, a third-year university student, laughed as he recalled his friends’ reactions when he told them he lived near Wat Phnom.
He said he believed the area’s reputation was largely based on an interview with a street walker that was posted online by a former online journalist. The story spread widely, and had changed the way many youths thought about the site, from a place of history to some kind of dirty joke.
“Whenever someone mentions Wat Phnom, almost everyone starts laughing. When I tell people my home is near there they start referring to prostitution,” he said.
A young woman, who asked to remain nameless, said that while people joked about the area, she often did school work in a cafe nearby, thanks to the green surroundings and fresh air.
She expressed her disappointment at the negative opinion of the area that some people still held.
“Their laughter is a clear sign that they have serious misconceptions about this cultural treasure,” she said.
Cambodian history professor Sambor Manara said that when speaking about Wat Phnom, people should ponder the historical significance of the site. The late night activities that go on there have seriously affected the way people think of it, he added.
“The fact that sex workers are gathering there at night is disgraceful. The Wat is the home of the stupa of the late King Ponhea Yat. On top of the immorality of what goes on, the area is unsafe at night,” he said.
He added that after dark, the location was considered dangerous by most members of the public. There were few who would walk through the area between 6pm and 8am.
He said that young people may laugh about Wat Phnom’s reputation, but they should look beyond that and learn about its important its significance to the Khmer Empire.
“It is true that they may crack jokes, but this is purely from ignorance. They have clearly not been taught about the cultural value of Wat Phnom,” he added.
Part five of the Book of Khmer Myth – published by the Buddhist Institute – describes the origins of the temple. The last King of the Cambodia Empire, Ponhea Yat, ordered a hill to be formed on the site of the old temple of Daun Penh (Lady Penh, the rumoured founder of the city).
Originally called Wat Por Stupa, the site is sometimes referred to as Wat Daun Penh.
Chhort Bunthang, Cultural Relations, Tourism and Education research officer at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that if the after dark reputation of the area was allowed to flourish, it would soon attract unsavoury elements.
“If people treat the place as somewhere they can secure the services of street walkers, it will have a detrimental effect on its value to tourism,” he added.
It is not just locals who are concerned about the area’s seedy night time reputation.
Tristam, 39, works for a large company in Phnom Penh. He became aware of Wat Phnom’s history when he read the story of Lady Penh.
“I like Wat Phnom. It is a nice place to relax during the day, with its many large trees and a pleasant atmosphere. In my opinion, it should be five times bigger, but I enjoy it,” he said.
Tristam has lived in Phnom Penh for four years, and was aware of the sex workers who gathered there at night. This made the area feel unsafe, he added.
Similarly, six year resident of Phnom Penh, Melissa, 36, said that when she thought of Wat Phnom during the day, she recalled the greenery and attractive architecture of the temple.
“At night, it is very dark and quiet. I don’t feel safe there, and would not walk through it alone,” she added.
Professor Manara urged the authorities to introduce security measures at the site. “If it were up to me, I would ask the authorities to install lighting which made the area as bright as day. That way, there would be nowhere for the sex workers to hide.”
The royal academy’s Bunthang noted that it was not possible to prohibit people from making jokes about Wat Phnom.
“After all, they are merely exercising their right to free speech. Removing the source of the jokes would be the best course of action,” he said.
“We cannot stop people from talking about Wat Phnom in a bad way. The smartest thing to do would be to eliminate the illegal sex trade in the area,” added.
Daun Penh district police chief Teang Chansa spoke to The Post about how the administration was responding to public concerns.
“It is the authorities’ responsibility to maintain public order and police social issues. Wherever activities that violate the law or disturb public order take place, we take action,” he said.
“However, for operational security, there are times when we do not publicise our actions. I assure the public that we are conducting regular raids on the areas surrounding Wat Phnom and will continue to do so until public order is restored,” he added.
Additional reporting by Kuch Sikol, Chhoem Sophort, Vuth Chandara and Rath Ty