People have inhabited parts of Southeast Asia including Cambodia since the early Stone Age, but the first firm evidence of settlements in the Phnom Penh area does not appear until about 2000 years ago. Though probably an active settlement in the Angkorian era (9th-15th century AD,) Phnom Penh doesn’t enter the historical record until after the Khmer capital had been moved to the area in the mid 15th century AD. At the time it was known as Chaktomuk - the 'Four Faces' - so called for its location at the four-branched confluence of the Mekong River, a riverine crossroads in the heart of Cambodia with the Tonle Sap River running west to the old Angkorian capital, the Mekong River north to Laos and branches south to the delta and the South China Sea. Phnom Penh is, before all else, the city at Chaktomuk on the Mekong. The earliest record of the name 'Phnom Penh' comes in the legend of Lady Penh and the origin of the city.
First recorded a century after it is claimed to have taken place, the legend of the founding of Phnom Penh tells of a local woman, Duan Penh, 'Old Lady Penh,' (see photo left) living in the area that was to become Phnom Penh. It was the late 14th century and the Khmer capital was still at Angkor near Siem Reap 350 kilometers to the west. Gathering firewood along the banks of the Chaktomuk, 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 numbers vary on different tellings.) 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. Lady Penh raised a small hill and crowned it with a shrine to house the sacred statues at the site of what is now Wat Phnom ('phnom' is Khmer for 'hill,') (see photo right.) The hill later took on the name of the founder, Phnom Duan Penh, and the area around it became known after the hill - Phnom Penh.
Cambodia is the land of the Khmer, the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia stretching from the present time deep into prehistory. The Angkorian era Khmer Empire centered near Siem Reap dominated the region from the 9th-13th century AD, at its apex stretching across most of mainland Southeast Asia. But by the 15th century the Empire was in political and territorial decline and under challenge from the rising Tai kingdom of Ayudhaya in the west. Ayudhaya was staging regular incursions culminating with the sack of Angkor in 1431-32. Shortly thereafter the court of King Pohea Yat left the Angkorian capital and established a new Khmer capital at Phnom Penh.
The choice to move the capital to Phnom Penh at the confluence of the Mekong was probably not only a strategic move but also reflected a tectonic economic shift from the traditional Angkorian agrarian economy based in the country’s interior to a trade/commerce oriented economy based in a riverine port town. The move to Phnom Penh was a change not only of location but in the nature of the state.
During the first Royal occupation of Phnom Penh in the mid 15th century, King Pohea Yat set the foundations of city, establishing several wats and laying out the town along moats/rivers which approximate the area and layout of modern central Phnom Penh. Wat Ounalom, on the riverfront near the Royal Palace, may even slightly pre-date King Pohea Yat, making it the oldest known Buddhist foundation in the city.
Trade with China and other Asian kingdoms was well established in the Angkorian era long before Phnom Penh was the capital. Boats traveling upriver to Angkor would pass Chaktomuk (Phnom Penh) which, due to its location, was probably an active settlement at the time. After the move from Angkor in the 1430s or 40s, Phnom Penh remained the capital only briefly, moving to Longvek 46km upriver (see map page 31) before the century was out. With a very brief exception, the Khmer capital never returned to Angkor. It moved a few more times over the coming centuries (primarily between Longvek and Oudong,) but always within a few tens of kilometers of the Chaktomuk area.
The 15th century saw the beginning of a dramatic increase in maritime trade throughout the entire region with international players from as far as Japan and Europe. Though the capital had moved from Phnom Penh, the area remained a center of international trade for Cambodia. Sixteenth century Spanish and Portuguese records paint a picture of cosmopolitan port of trade hosting significant populations of Chinese, Malay, Cham, Japanese and some Europeans, all living in separate camps in and around the Phnom Penh area. Structures of wood and bamboo crowded the west bank of the Chaktomuk and the great stupa on the hill of Wat Phnom was visible from ships on the river.
Arriving in the early 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish were the first Europeans to make contact with Cambodia, establishing trade and eventually becoming deeply involved in the affairs of the Cambodian court, culminating in the 1599 massacre of Spaniards in Phnom Penh. In the 17th century, Phnom Penh continued to prosper and the Dutch East India Company became the dominant European trading partner, but this relationship also ended in tears, climaxing at the 1644 Battle of Phnom Penh. After a lengthy trade and diplomatic dispute between the Company and the King of Cambodia, negotiations came to violence. A Company embassy was killed and captives taken. The Company sent war ships to force the issue with the King at Longvek. Once the ships had passed Phnom Penh on their way up the Tonle Sap, the Cambodians built bridges across the river behind them, effectively blockading the river. On returning downstream the Dutch ships were trapped by the bridges at Phnom Penh and besieged by cannon and gunfire from both banks. The ships eventually escaped but suffered very heavy losses. The Company never regained its status in Cambodia and European contact waned until the French arrived in the late 19th century with colonial aims.
The 19th Century
The capital did not return to Phnom Penh until the 19th century, first only briefly, under King Ang Chan. In 1813 he built the palace Banteay Kev in Phnom Penh, but the palace burned in 1834 when the retreating Siamese army razed the city. The capital subsequently moved back to Oudong 35km away. It was not until the French arrived in the 1860s that capital returned to Phnom Penh once again, this time permanently. At the time the area had a population of about 10,000 including a large Chinese sector as well as many other foreigners. It was a multi-ethnic port town of floating villages along the riverfront and wooden houses, shops and vendors lining a single main road paralleling the river and grouped into separate ethnic communities. After a brief visit in 1859, traveler Henri Mouhot called Phnom Penh “the great market of Cambodia."
France gained colonial control of much of mainland Southeast Asia beginning in the 1860s, first taking portions of Cochinchina (southern Vietnam,) then Cambodia, followed by the remainder of Vietnam and Laos, finally coalescing into the federation of protectorates called French Indochina in 1887. Cambodia first came into the French sphere in 1863. Seeking assistance fending off Siam and Vietnam, and under pressure from France, Cambodian King Norodom signed a Protectorate agreement with France in August 1863. On French encouragement, the seat of government was officially moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh in 1866. It was only then that the city first began to take on the appearance we see today.
The first modern stone structure to be built was the Royal Palace, opening in 1870. (See page 22.) Soon thereafter the first stone 'Chinese shophouse-style’ buildings were constructed, initially appearing along the riverside near the Palace. The shophouse design is present across Southeast Asia and ubiquitous in Phnom Penh, characterized by a long, narrow, combined ground-floor businessfront and upstairs residence.
By the 1880s, some early colonial buildings clustered near Wat Phnom but most of the city was a swampy place of wooden houses and huts. In the 1880s and 90s fires periodically swept through wooden sections of town, finally capped by the Great Fire of May 1894. After the Great Fire stone became the standard for new buildings. The 1890s saw an expanding population (50,000) and accelerated development including draining wetlands, constructing canals and bridges, expanding the Grand Rue along the river and adding several colonial structures such as the Post Office and Treasury Building which still exist today. The city stretched from the French Quarter around Wat Phnom south to Sihanouk Blvd, most squeezed within a few hundred meters of the river.
The 20th Century...
France continued to control Cambodia for most of the first half of the 20th century. Many classic colonial buildings were constructed including the Police Station (next to the Post Office,) the Hotel Le Royal and the large villas around the Royal Palace. By the 1930s the canals had been filled and turned into garden boulevards, now parks along Sihanouk Blvd and also Streets 108/106. As the population grew (109,000 in 1939) the city continued to expand, mostly westward into the wetlands, which were drained accordingly.
In 1935 the Boeung Deco lake was filled and the distinctive, domed, art deco 'Central Market' (Phsar Thmey) was built in its place, originally known as the ‘Grand Market’ when it was opened in 1937. (See page 18.) That same year the cyclo-pousse, the iconic bicycle rickshaw that has become known the ‘cyclo,’ was first introduced in the city. This was Phnom Penh at its colonial apex, reputed to be the most beautiful city in French Indochina.
Independence from France came in 1954 issuing in a period of considerable urban and commercial development and the beginning of the distinctive 'New Khmer Architecture,' reflected in structures such as the Independence Monument and Chaktomuk Theatre. Factories, roads, markets, power plants and hundreds of shophouse-style apartments were built. This period came to an abrupt end with the coup of 1970 and Cambodia's descent into war between the government and the communist Khmer Rouge (KR.) As the Khmer Rouge took over the countryside in the early 1970s Phnom Penh became swollen with refugees. In 1974 the city was lain siege and eventually cut off, finally falling to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. Three days after the fall the Khmer Rouge ordered the total evacuation of the city, leading to thousands of deaths. Though some workers and Khmer Rouge remained in Phnom Penh, the city was essentially a ghost town until the Khmer Rouge fled the invading Vietnamese army in December 1978-January 1979, leaving behind evidence of their horrors such as the S-21 facility, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. (See page 25.)
When the people returned to the city after the Khmer Rouge period, it was a shambles, largely intact but thoroughly looted and neglected. Restarting the city had to begin from scratch. As low level war continued in the western provinces, the 1980s saw Phnom Penh repopulated and revitalization begun. The city was scoured and basic services were re-established. Phnom Penh’s population grew from 100,000 at the end of 1979 to 615,000 in 1990.
In 1991 UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) began its 2 year administration of the country as part of a UN brokered peace agreement leading to national elections in 1993. With the elections Cambodia was suddenly open for business. International investment started to flow into the country and after years of being off the tourist map, Cambodia quickly became a new adventure destination. The city saw the beginning of a period of economic and urban development that has continued to this day. There was a flurry of new construction in the 1990's including most of the distinctive 'wedding cake villas.' With the final demise of the Khmer Rouge in 1998 and increased stability, development accelerated. The 2000's have seen another boom in Phnom Penh. The city’s population has increased to near 2,000,000, there has been significant infrastructure improvement and, very recently, the first high rise structures have been built, giving considerable change to the skyline and architectural character of the city. Phnom Penh is now a city in the midst of rapid change. .