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7 facts about Phnom Penh, Cambodia

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, is the country’s largest (population of some 1.5 million) and most famous city, and a focal point for the nation’s tourism. Though it’s now a thriving former colonial city with an optimistic outlook, it’s had more than its fair share of strife in days gone by. But this is only one aspect of this fascinating city, as today’s seven facts show.

1. The name means ‘Penh’s Hill’

Phnom Penh’s interesting and hard-to-spell name literally means ‘Penh’s Hill’, and it comes from a Buddhist temple called Wat Phnom, which has stood in the centre of the city since 1373. The ‘Penh’ referred to is a nun who features in a legend about the city’s founding. The story goes that the nun, upon fetching water from the Tonlé Sap (see below), discovered a dead tree in the water, inside which were four bronze statues and one stone statue of the Buddha. She had a temple constructed around the statues and the rest, as they say, is history.

It comes from a Buddhist temple called Wat Phnom

2. It became the capital city - for the second time - in 1865

Though it was founded in 1372, Phnom Penh only became the country’s capital in 1865. However, this was not the first time in its history that it had enjoyed status as a capital. Back in 1432 it was a royal capital, and it retained this status for 73 years until, in 1505, it was abandoned thanks to in-fighting between royal pretenders. It wasn’t until 360 years later, in 1865, that Phnom Penh was adopted again as a capital, this time by King Norodom I; the current Royal Palace was built at this time.

The Royal Palace, built by King Norodom

3. It was once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’...

Cambodia’s years of French rule have left a mark on Phnom Penh in the significant French influence still visible in the city’s architecture and wide boulevards. It was this Parisian-style architecture that gave it the epithet ‘Pearl of Asia’ by the 1920s, with some also referring to it as the ‘Paris of the East’.

Phnom Penh’s Parisian-style architecture

4. ...but its more recent history is dark and troubled

Though it’s come through it, it would be wrong not to acknowledge Phnom Penh’s more recent dark history. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, who took control of Phnom Penh in 1975, a fifth of Cambodia’s population were killed. The city’s inhabitants were evacuated and forced to work as agricultural labourers; Pol Pot, the brutal regime’s leader, had educated people killed along with anyone else he perceived as a threat to the regime. Thankfully this period of Cambodia’s history is now over - Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979 - but reminders of the atrocities that took place here are still present, particularly in the form of the chilling Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, 15km away, where countless victims of the regime were murdered.

Tuol Sleng genocide museum

5. Phnom Penh’s pagodas are particularly busy in October

Travel to Phnom Penh in October and you may notice an important festival taking place. Pchum Ben is, after New Year, the second most important event in the Cambodian calendar, and it sees Cambodian families heading to pagodas to dedicate offerings to their ancestors. Roughly translating as “gathering together”, Pchum Ben is a time when families meet to pay their respects and offer good karma to the dead, whom they believe may be suffering in the afterlife for their sins in life. What’s more, they believe that the spirits of the dead come looking for offerings left at pagodas, and if they can’t find any, they will curse them. On the other hand, they will bless their living relatives if they are offered food. So, if you notice the pagodas unusually busy at this time, that’s why.

Phnom Penh’s central pagoda

6. The Tonlé Sap: a river with a difference

Along with the Mekong River, the other water system upon which Phnom Penh is built is called the Tonlé Sap. This unusual system is part river and part lake, but its most bizarre characteristic is that its flow switches direction twice a year. In the dry season it’s like a normal river (albeit one with a small lake), running into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh; but come the monsoon rains, it flows the other way, backing up into a large lake. It’s of great importance in Phnom Penh’s history as a source of fish.

Tonle Sap – part river and part lake

7. Anyone for a tarantula kebab?

Yes, you read that correctly. Tarantula kebab is indeed a delicacy in Cambodia, and it’s a dish you’re likely to encounter on a trip to Phnom Penh. A tarantula kebab looks every bit as horrible as you’d imagine, but apparently it tastes like a cross between chicken and cod. Not one for the faint-hearted arachnophobe, but luckily there’s plenty of more appetising cuisine on offer in this bustling capital.