Set on top of a 27m-high tree-covered knoll, Wat Phnom is on the only ‘hill’ in town. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha deposited here by the waters of the Mekong River and discovered by Madame Penh. The main entrance to Wat Phnom is via the grand eastern staircase, which is guarded by lions and naga (mythical serpent) balustrades.
Today, many people come here to pray for good luck and success in school exams or business affairs. When a wish is granted, the faithful return to deliver on the offering promised, such as a garland of jasmine flowers or a bunch of bananas, of which the spirits are said to be especially fond.
The vihara (temple sanctuary) was rebuilt in 1434, 1806, 1894 and 1926. West of the vihara is a huge stupa containing the ashes of King Ponhea Yat (r 1405–67). In a pavilion on the southern side of the passage between the vihara and the stupa is a statue of a smiling and rather plump Madame Penh.
A bit to the north of and below the vihara is an eclectic shrine dedicated to the genie Preah Chau, who is especially revered by the Vietnamese. On either side of the entrance to the central altar containing a statue of Preah Chau are guardian spirits bearing iron bats. In the chamber to the right of the statue (if you are looking at it) are drawings of Confucius, as well as two Chinese-style figures of the sages Thang Cheng (on the right) and Thang Thay (on the left).
Down the hill from the vihara in the northwest corner of the complex is a museum with some old statues and historical artefacts, which can probably be skipped if you’ve been to the National Museum.
If you show up at Wat Phnom before it officially opens at 7am, you may be able to wander around the grounds for free – or a guard may attempt to extract some money from you.
Wat Phnom can be a bit of a circus, with beggars, street urchins, women selling drinks and children selling birds in cages (you pay to set the bird free, but the birds are trained to return to their cage afterwards). Fortunately it’s all high-spirited stuff. Phnom Penh’s only resident elephant, Sambo, has been retired from his duties of circling Wat Phnom with tourists on his back. At research time it remained unclear whether a replacement would be sought.