People have inhabited parts of Southeast Asia since the early Stone Age, and the ancestors of the Khmer people have been in the area for at least 5000 years, perhaps much longer, but there is no firm evidence of settlements in the Phnom Penh area prior to about 2000 years ago. Though probably an active settlement in Cambodia's golden age of Angkor (9th-15th century AD,) Phnom Penh does not enter the historical record until after it became the Khmer capital 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. The chaktomuk is a riverine crossroads in the heart of Cambodia with the Tonle Sap River running northwest 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 River.
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, Old Lady Penh (Duan Penh,) living at the chaktomuk, the future Phnom Penh. It was the late 14th century and the Khmer capital was still at Angkor near Siem Reap 350km to the west. 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 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. To house the new found sacred objects, Lady 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 the Lady Penh's hill took on the name of the founder, i.e. 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 the area stretching from the present deep into prehistory. The Angkorian era Khmer Empire centered near Siem Reap dominated the region from the 9th-13th century AD, at its apex the Empire stretched 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 today’s Thailand. By the 14th century Ayudhaya was staging regular incursions, culminating with the sack of Angkor in 1431-32. Shortly thereafter the Khmer court of King Pohea Yat left the Angkorian capital and established a new capital at Phnom Penh. With a very brief exception, the capital would never return to Angkor.
The choice to move the capital to Phnom Penh at the confluence of the Mekong was probably not only a strategic response to Ayudhhaya’s aggression but may have also reflected a tectonic economic shift. The 15th century was the beginning of a general rise in international commerce throughout the region and Phnom Penh was an ideal location for a trade center. The move may have reflected the country changing focus from the old Angkorian agrarian economy based in the country’s interior to a trade oriented economy based in a riverine port town.
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 favorable location, was probably an active settlement at the time. After the capital moved from Angkor to Phnom Penh in the mid 15th century, the city remained the capital only briefly. Before the century was out, the capital had been relocated to Longvek 46km upriver. Though it moved a few more times in the subsequent centuries (primarily between Longvek and Oudong,) the capital always remained within a few tens of kilometers of the Chaktomuk area.
Maritime trade increased dramatically throughout the region in the late 15th century, with international players from as far as Japan. Though the capital had moved from Phnom Penh, the town remained the center of international commerce for Cambodia. Sixteenth century Spanish and Portuguese records paint a picture of small but 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 Tonle Sap river and the great stupa on the hill of Wat Phnom was visible from the river, marking the town to arriving visitors.
Arriving in the early 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish were the first Europeans to make contact with Cambodia, sending missionaries, establishing trade and eventually becoming deeply involved in the affairs of the Cambodian court. At the center of the drama were two larger-than-life characters, Spaniard Blaz Ruiz, Portuguese Diogo Veloso and their band. Arriving in the 1580s they ingratiated themselves to the Cambodian King, served him as a sort of Praetorian guard, were captured and then escaped the Siamese, retuned and murdered the new Khmer leader, fled to Laos, installed a new Khmer king in Cambodia, and amidst rising tensions, both died in 1599 coming to the aid of their compatriots in a battle between the Malay and Cambodians against the Spanish in Phnom Penh. The battle resulted in a massacre of the Spanish, bringing Spanish influence in Cambodia to an abrupt and permanent end.
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 came to a dire end in Phnom Penh. In a tale less colorful than the Spanish adventure, after a lengthy trade and diplomatic dispute between the Dutch 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 two bridges across the river behind them, effectively blocking the river. Upon returning downstream the Dutch ships were trapped by the bridges at Phnom Penh and besieged by fire from both banks. They fought their way through in a day long battle but suffered very heavy losses. Like the Spanish, Dutch influence in Cambodia never recovered. Though the first British and French explorers would arrive in the mid 17th century, European interest in Cambodia waned until the French in force returned in the late 19th century.
The 19th Century
Squeezed between Siam and Vietnam, the 18th and 19th centuries were hard on Cambodia. At the beginning of the 19th century the capital returned to Phnom Penh for the first time in 300 years, but again only briefly. In 1813, during a period of Vietnamese influence, King Ang Chan built the palace Banteay Kev in Phnom Penh, but it burned in 1834 when a 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 it 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 and wooden and bamboo houses, huts, shops and vendors lining a complex of paths and a single main road paralleling the riverfront. After a brief visit in 1859, traveler Henri Mouhot dubbed 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 Cochin-china (southern Vietnam,) then Cambodia and the remainder of Vietnam and Laos, finally coalescing in 1887 into a federation of protectorates called French Indochina. 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 of modern Phnom Penh.
The first modern stone structure to be built was the Royal Palace, opening in 1870. 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 rows of a deep, narrow apartment made up of a combined ground-floor businessfront and upstairs residence.
By the 1880s, early colonial buildings clustered near Wat Phnom but most of the rest of the city was a swampy place of wooden and bamboo buildings. In the 1880/90s fires periodically swept through sections of town, capped by the Great Fire of May 1894. After that brick and cement 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 the addition of several buildings 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 remained in control of 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, which are 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 opened in 1937. That same year the cyclo-pousse, the iconic bicycle rickshaw 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 existing structures such as the Independence Monument and Chaktomuk Theatre. Factories, roads, markets, power plants and hundreds of shophouse-style apartments were built, giving the city much of its current appearance. This all came to an abrupt end with the Lon Nol 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 city was totally evacuated, 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 December 1978-January 1979, leaving behind evidence of their horrors such as the S-21 facility, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
When people returned to the city after the Khmer Rouge period, it was a shambles, largely intact but thoroughly looted and neglected. Restarting the city began 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 by 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. After years of isolation, Cambodia was suddenly open for business. International investment started to flow into the country and Cambodia was back the tourist map as the newest 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 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.
+ Map of Phnom Penh