One of the most remarkable features of Phnom Penh as the capital of Cambodia is its outstanding geographical setting. Actually, no other city in the world was built on four mighty river arms. Called “Chaktomuk” or the place of four faces, Phnom Penh had been already a meeting place of people during Angkor time, when trading ships from far away as India and China sailed the seas and came together to visit the local bazaar. Also, the settlement was a strategic and important place to begin a long journey into distant regions what is today modern Laos and then on their way back traveled down the Mekong River to the South China Sea and beyond.
The first Europeans, who reached the place, were the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th century, followed later by the Dutch, English and French. It was the French, who were lucky to get their “protection” role there in 1863 and their “colony” until 1953. Also, it was the French who called the place “Quatre Bras” or four arms. As the mighty Mekong River comes in from the northeastern direction to meet the smaller Tonle Sap River from the northwestern direction, it happened that the Mekong River on its southern course splits into two rivers, namely the upper Tien Giang (or Gold River) and the lower Hau Giang (or Silver River). These are modern Vietnamese names and the Cambodians call these rivers Tonle Thom and Tonle Bassac respectively.
The center of the old settlement had to be the foundation of the Unnalom Pagoda at Sisowath Quay, because it was established long before the court of Angkor abandoned there in 1431-1432 and resettled in Phnom Penh: somewhere in the 12th or 13th century. With the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Rivers at its natural border in the east, Sihanouk Boulevard to the south, Monivong Boulevard to the west and one of the north-west streets running in the north near the area of the JapaneseFriendship Bridge the old settlement exactly corresponded to “Khan Daun Penh” or the settlement of Lady Penh.
According to a romantic legend, the more familiar name of Phnom Penh originated, when in the 14th century a woman named Penh had lived close to the riverbank at the Tonle Sap. During a flood of the river she saw a huge floating “koki” tree. When she pulled that tree out, she found within its branches four Buddha statues and a statue of Vishnu. After taking the statues home, she later built the hill called “phnom” with the help of the people around and housed the statues in a temple on top. Since that time the settlement was called “Phnom Penh” or hill of Lady Penh. When King Ponhea Yat came to Phnom Penh after the fall of Angkor, he briefly settled there nearby and after his death the ashes were put inside the pagoda on the hill. At the time of King Ponhea Yat the settlement had much less than 10,000 inhabitants that were recorded, when the first Europeans came in the years of the Iberian traders and missionaries between 1512 and 1515. At that time, the capital of the king of Cambodia was in Lovek, a location somewhere upstream from Phnom Penh at the Tonle Sap River.
At the end of the 16th century, the capital moved to Srei Santhor, while Phnom Penh had become a cosmopolitan place, where Portuguese and Spanish, Chinese, Malays and Japanese lived in ethnically defined quarters. In 1636 the Dutch established a trading post in Phnom Penh, leaving it again in the 1670s during a time, when the capital of the court had moved to Udong. But there are still the traces of a church near the Tonle Sap a little bit north of the Japanese Friendship Bridgeknown as the Eglise Hoalong, which was destroyed during Pol Pot’s time (1975-1979). By the end of the 17th century, Vietnam had gained control over the areas of today’s southern part of Vietnam and blocked the Cambodians access to the sea via the Mekong River. In the 19th century Cambodia’s only port was in Kampot on theGulf of Thailand, a location reached in four days of travel on elephant-back from Udong.
It was in 1834 that the Siamese, who had occupied the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap, came to destroy Phnom Penh and the sack of the city was so complete that even the dogs were loaded onto wagons. Next the Vietnamese came, who placed a daughter of the king, named Ang Mei, to the throne after the death of King Ang Chan, while Phnom Penh was renamed “Tran Tay” or western command. After a revolt in 1840-41 of Cambodian officials, the Vietnamese took Ang Mei away to Vietnam, taking even the royal regalia with them. Only in 1848, the Siamese enthroned Ang Duang as the new king, who had lived for decades as a hostage in Bangkok.
With the coming of the French in the 1860s, there was King Norodom in Udong, who was crowned in 1864 and asked the French for protection against the Siamese and Vietnamese. In 1866, the king had moved to Phnom Penh and a new palace was constructed. We have early descriptions of the small one-road “bamboo” town from western travelers like Henri Mouhot, Adolf Bastian, John Thomson and Frank Vincent. The German explorer Bastian stayed only two nights in Phnom Penh in February 1864, visiting a Vietnamese temple, Wat Phnom and Wat Lanka, before continuing on the Mekong River down to Mytho and Saigon.
With King Norodom in Phnom Penh, the city slowly grew around two poles, firstly around the “Palace” and secondly around the “Phnom” with the official residence of the French representative. The population now reached around 40,000 and half of them were Chinese. Norodom’s death in 1904 was the true end of an exiting area with the completion of the “Silver Pagoda” within Wat Preah Keo Morakot inaugurated in 1903. The life of the Royal Palace was realistically given in the novel “Saramani, danseuse khmer” by Roland Meyer in 1919 during the reign of King Sisowath (1904-1927).
The transformation into a new Phnom Penh city came with the building of the throne hall of the Royal Palace, the Central Post Office and other administrative buildings, Hotel le Royal, the Railway Station, the National Library and the National Museum. During the reign of King Monivong (1927-1941) the Central or New Market named Psar Thmei was completed, the use of “cyclopousse” introduced and the Buddhist Institute founded in 1930.
At the end of the decade the Second World War started and the Japanese established a presence in Phnom Penh, but the French still held to their administration of the country. In October 1941 the reign of the 19-year old King Sihanouk started and on 13 March 1945 Cambodia’s independence was established with the help of the Japanese. But the French returned after barely six months and took control of the kingdom once again.
King Sihanouk successfully achieved full independence on 9 November 1953, but decided in March 1955 to abdicate the throne in favor of his father and announced the formation of his People’s Socialist Community, which became a mass movement and not a political party.
There began under the “mercurial” Prince Sihanouk a building boom in Phnom Penh with the construction of the Royal University and the National Sports Stadium and people saw the time of Sihanouk’s rule as a golden age, but the “American War” in neighboring Vietnam led to the real tragedy of Cambodian history. Complex events took place in the early months of 1970 with the coup of General Lon Nol and Cambodia becoming the Khmer Republic. Civil war started for five years that ended with the three years, eight months and twenty days of Phnom Penh under the communist Pol Pot regime until 7 January 1979, when the Khmer Rouge had emptied the cities and had killed some 1.7 million people.
Only a Vietnamese invasion army could end such power politics of “Democratic Kampuchea” that kept Prince Sihanouk under house arrest in his palace under the protection of the Chinese Government. The years between 1979 and 1989 saw the slow liberation of the country under a Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) with Hun Sen as prime minister since 1985.
With the arrival of UNTAC in 1991 Phnom Penh was becoming a real boom town. After the guarded elections in 1993, which the Royalist Party won, Norodom Sihanouk was re-instated as king only to abdicate again in favor of his son Sihamoni in 2004. In the meantime, Hun Sen as a second prime minister had led a successful putsch in 1997 against Prince Ranariddh as the first prime minister. Power politics were at work again and Phnom Penh with its half a million inhabitants became fully alive with big hope for the future.
Aged 89 years Norodom Sihanouk died because of heart failure on 15 October 2012 in Beijing. Sihanouk had pursued an artistic career during his lifetime and he wrote several musical compositions. He produced some 50 films between 1966 and 2006, at times directing and acting in them. Thus, Phnom Penh still shows an enduring strength.
Important recommended books to read:
1868 A Journey in Cambodia and Cochin-China (1864). Reprinted by White Lotus Press, Bangkok 2005.
1986 When the War was over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution. New York.
1986 Brother Enemy: The War after the War. New York.
1991 The Tragedy of Cambodian History since 1945. New Haven, Connecticut.
1992 Phnom Penh Then and Now. Bangkok.
1985 How Pol Pot came to Power. London.
1919 Saramani, the danseuse khmer. Saigon.
1861 Travels in Siam, Cambodia and Laos in 1858-1860. London.
2008 Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History. Oxford.
1979 Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia. London.
1875 The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China. London.
1984 Cambodia: 1975-1982. Sydney.
1875 The Land of the White Elephant: Sights and Sounds in South-Eastern Asia, 1871-1872. London.
Written by : Reinhard Hohler