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
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
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.