This place is in many ways the centre, or heart of Phnom Penh. The word “Wat” in general Khmer use means Pagoda, or working temple. The word “Prasat” is used for ruined temples which are no longer in use. One exception to this is Angkor Wat, which is sometimes formally referred to as “Prasat Angkor Wat’. The word “Phnom” means hill or mountain, and Wat Phnom is the only hill in the nearby vicinity. The “Pehn” part of the city's name comes from an old story about how the pagoda and city were founded. Apparently a Lady Pehn found a tree trunk containing four images of the Buddha floating in the nearby river. This seems entirely possible, superstitions or beliefs aside. I have often, in various places in Asia, seen statues that have gradually been enveloped by trees, and some of these may sometimes be cut adrift by floods and could then possibly turn up downstream. So these statues were taken to a nearby hill, and Wat Phnom was born, in 1372. I may have read somewhere that the hill was raised quite a bit by the slow addition of buckets of soil, but I’m not too sure. after the abandonment of Angkor in 1431 Phnom Penh became the capital for a brief period, then the capital moved further north to Longvek and then Oudong. Phnom Penh was the capital again for a short time from 1813 till 1834 when it was destroyed by the Thai army. The capital moved again to Oudong, but finally returned to Phnom Penh at the time of the French arrival.
The first picture shows Wat Phnom perhaps in the early 20th century, the plaque you can see was put there to commemorate the return of the western provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap after over a century of Thai control. There is now a giant clock made partly with flowers and lawn in front of the plaque. The second picture shows a rather forlorn-looking Wat Phnom in 1960.
In recent years Wat Phnom has had a huge makeover. Where there were previously some shack-style restaurants and fortune-tellers stalls, there is now a very nice playground and a paved square with a statue in the middle. The pavements around the hill have been repaired, and new drainage has been installed. However, the place still has a somewhat seedy style to it, and is often mentioned in the papers in relation to vice, thieving and other crime. It is probably best avoided after sunset.