Phnom Penh is the capital city of the nation of Cambodia, but that has not always been so. This city was once a small area that was not widely inhabited, but that drastically changed after a positive sign given to a woman whose name the city is named after that changed that forever.
The first historical record related to the city dates back to the 14th century. The story is told that a rich widow, who went by the name of Duan Penh (which means Grandmother or Old Lady Pehn in Khmer) was living at chaktomuk, the location that would soon become Phnom Penh. According to the legend, she was out collecting firewood when she noticed a koki tree that was in the Tonle Sap River. When she pulled the tree out of the water, she found four different Buddha statues, all facing in different directions, and a statue of Vishnu. She took this as a prophetic blessing that the site was to become the capital of the Khmer Empire.
Excited by the findings, Penh built a small hill and a small temple that she used to house the sacred objects. It was located along the Tonle Sap River, and became known as Wat Phnom, named after her. This is still in existence today, although it has been rebuilt on many occasions over the centuries, including the grand structure that exists today.
At the time, Angkor Thom was the capital of the Khmer Empire, but it had been sacked by a Siamese invasion and the empire was in disarray. The king at the time, Ponhea Yat, opted to move the capital to the location of the great blessing. Soon Phnom Penh became an amazing city, where a large number of the Khmer people moved. The growth of the city helped to make it a key city in the area, and it was only natural that it would remain as the capital city through the generations, especially since the convergence of the three mighty rivers all come together in Phnom Penh.
From 1432 to 1505, Phnom Penh was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, but after they were destroyed, the city was abandoned for the most part for the next 360 years. While large numbers of people lived there, kings saw it as hard to defend, primarily because it was usually civil battles within their own royal courts that led to much of the infighting. Several times during that 360-year period of time, kings moved back to the city, only to abandon it again a short time later.
In 1866 that changed for good. King Norodom I, who was sitting as the governor of Cambodia under Siamese rule, decided to move the capital of his domain to the city. He built a large royal palace there and several government buildings went up was well. Many of the temples were rebuilt and people felt relative safety there.
The renaming of the city as the capital brought many French colonists as well, and it was not long before the French were in control of the area. Under their protection they built schools, prisons, courts, a telegraph office, an army depot, public works, and much more. The city not only grew rapidly, but took on a very French look. Over 300 houses and rental properties were built as well, which inspired many more French citizens to move her as well.
During the Vietnam War, many of the countries in Southeast Asia rebelled against French colonial rule, and this included Cambodia. Cambodia had gained their independence from France in 1956, and Phnom Penh became a location for the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong army to base their operations from. Thousands of people fleeing the war in Vietnam also flooded across the border into Cambodia, with many taking up residence in the capital city.
In 1975, nearly three million people lived in the city as it became one of the crown jewels of all of Asia. The city was a modern metropolis that saw businesses from all over the world come to setup shop. It was a beautiful modern city that was a haven from all of the turmoil going on in countries like Laos and Vietnam.
Sadly, the look of peace was quite deceiving. The Khmer Rouge army, under tyrannical dictator Pol Pot, was rapidly gaining control of the country, and in April of 1975 they were able to capture the capital. That led to what is likely the darkest time in the city’s history.
The new government forced the evacuation of virtually the entire city. This became known as the Death March and nearly two million people were exiled, murdered, or imprisoned. The city became known for the torture and prison camps that were built. For four years, the city was a place of incredible atrocities.
In 1979, the Vietnamese army invaded into Cambodia and freed the capital city from the Khmer Rouge’s control. It was an ironic twist in history, as Vietnam had traditionally been an enemy of Cambodia where many conflicts were fought. However, they were the ones that helped to free the nation from the tyranny of Pol Pot and his group, which has been seen with mixed emotions by the people.
With the help of many nations, including France, Australia, and Japan, the city has been rebuilt. The infrastructure was repaired, and the city has slowly come back to life. It took over two decades for Phnom Pehn to reach one million citizens again, and the most recent census has the population at nearly 1.8 million.
The city is once again a grand spectacle in the nation. The government has spent much money and time to make the city a place of safety and security, attracting millions of tourists to the city each year. While many have a stereotypical attitude about communist governments, with the help of China and Russia the city is thriving and is returning the glory days that were seen prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover. It is a great city once again.