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Phnom Penh Capital History

Phnom Penh formerly known as Krong Chaktomuk or Krong Chaktomuk Serimongkul, there is the capital and most populous city in Cambodia. Phnom Penh has been the national capital since French colonization of Cambodia, and has grown to become the nation’s economic, industrial, and cultural center.

   

Once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina in the 1920s. Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, are significant global and domestic tourist destinations for Cambodia. Founded in 1434, the city is noted for its beautiful and historical architecture and attractions. There are a number of surviving French colonial buildings scattered along the grand boulevards.

Situated on the banks of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers, the Phnom Penh metropolitan area is home to about 1.5 million of Cambodia’s population of over 14.8 million.

History

First recorded a century after it is said to have taken place, the legend of the founding of Phnom Penh tells of a local woman, Penh (commonly referred to as Daun Penh (“Grandmother Penh” or “Old Lady Penh”) in Khmer), living at Chaktomuk, the future Phnom Penh. It was the late 14th century, and the Khmer capital was still at Angkor near Siem Reap 350 km (217 mi) to the north. Gathering firewood along the banks of the river, Lady Penh spied a floating koki tree in the river and fished it from the water. Inside the tree she found four Buddha statues and one of Vishnu.

The discovery was taken as a divine blessing, and to some a sign that the Khmer capital was to be brought to Phnom Penh from Angkor. To house the new-found sacred objects, Penh raised a small hill on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River and crowned it with a shrine, now known as Wat Phnom at the north end of central Phnom Penh. “Phnom” is Khmer for “hill” and Penh’s hill took on the name of the founder, and the area around it became known after the hill.

Phnom Penh first became the capital of Cambodia after Ponhea Yat, king of the Khmer Empire, moved the capital from Angkor Thom after it was captured and destroyed by Siam a few years earlier. There is a stupa behind Wat Phnom that houses the remains of Ponhea Yat and the royal family as well as the remaining Buddhist statues from the Angkorean era. In the 17th century, Japanese immigrants also settled on the outskirts of present-day Phnom Penh. A small Portuguese community survived in Phnom Penh until the 17th century, undertaking commercial and religious activity in the country.

Phnom Penh remained the royal capital for 73 years, from 1432 to 1505. It was abandoned for 360 years (from 1505 to 1865) by subsequent kings due to internal fighting between the royal pretenders. Later kings moved the capital several times and established their royal capitals at various locations in Tuol Basan (Srey Santhor), Pursat, Longvek, Lavear Em and Oudong.

It was not until 1866, under the reign of King Norodom I (1860–1904), the eldest son of King Ang Duong, who ruled on behalf of Siam, that Phnom Penh became the permanent seat of government and capital of Cambodia, and also where the current Royal Palace was built. Beginning in 1870, the French colonial authorities turned a riverside village into a city where they built hotels, schools, prisons, barracks, banks, public works offices, telegraph offices, law courts, and health services buildings. In 1872, the first glimpse of a modern city took shape when the colonial administration employed the services of French contractor Le Faucheur to construct the first 300 concrete houses for sale and rental to Chinese traders.

By the 1920s, Phnom Penh was known as the “Pearl of Asia”, and over the next four decades, Phnom Penh continued to experience rapid growth with the building of railways to Sihanoukville and Pochentong International Airport (now Phnom Penh International Airport). Phnom Penh’s infrastructure saw major modernization under the rule of Sihanouk.

The Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in 1979, and people began to return to the city. Vietnam is historically a state with which Cambodia has had many conflicts, therefore this liberation was and is viewed with mixed emotions by the Cambodians. A period of reconstruction began, spurred by the continuing stability of government, attracting new foreign investment and aid by countries including France, Australia, and Japan. Loans were made from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to reinstate a clean water supply, roads and other infrastructure. The 1998 Census put Phnom Penh’s population at 862,000; and the 2008 census was 1.3 million.

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