Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom, the Temple on the Hill
The city of Phnom Penh owes its name, and--according to legend--its existence, to the events that took place in 1373 at Wat Phnom. According to legend, the Mekong River ran particularly high that year. After the flooding receded, a wealthy woman named Penh found a tree on the riverbank. Inside the tree were four statues of Buddha. In order to house the statues and to prevent their being carried away by the river again, Penh built an artificial hill (a phnom, in Khmer) with a Buddhist temple (or wat) on top of it. The temple became known as Wat Phnom (temple on the hill), and the city that eventually grew up around it as Phnom Penh (Penh’s hill).

The Eastern Staircase
Wat Phnom is located on top of the only hill in Phnom Penh. Standing 27 meters, or just over 88.5 feet, high, it’s a fairly small hill. But its cultural importance—and its convenient location right across the street from the U. S. embassy—made it a natural choice when I decided to get out of the house and go see something. And I needed to get out of the house and go see something.

Accordingly, this morning, Alexa and I joined Jeff in his daily tuk-tuk ride to the embassy. After a slight delay caused by the funeral procession of someone very important—no idea who, but there were two parade-like floats carrying mourners, another one with the coffin and four police guards, and then a bus or two of additional mourners in the procession, all clogging the streets during rush hour, with police stopping other traffic at each intersection, so he must have been very important—we dropped Jeff off and traveled the one block to Wat Phnom. It was 8:10 am. I instructed our driver to pick us up at 9:30, hoping that an hour and twenty minutes would be enough time to see everything.
A path down from the summit

It was plenty of time. Wat Phnom is interesting, beautiful, photogenic … and small. I’m glad we had as much time there as we did, although we would have been okay to leave 30 minutes earlier, but I’m also glad that we didn’t have more time, at least for today.

Our driver dropped us off by the main entrance, the eastern side. He pointed out the booth where foreigners should pay their $1 entrance fee, and I stopped there first. The two ladies inside were enthralled with Alexa, but eventually they took my dollar, gave me a receipt, and paused their attempts to gain Alexa’s attention long enough for me to politely take my leave. I proceeded up the grand staircase toward the wat. About halfway there, I saw a path leading around the hill. I decided to take it and finish the climb on a different staircase. As I reached the top of the smaller staircase, I saw a sign informing foreigners that they should give a $1 “donation,” and a woman stepped up to assist me in making this donation. I told her I’d already paid, and she smiled and waved me on before I even pulled out the receipt. I went back around to the main entrance, took off my shoes, and stepped into the wat.
Inside Wat Phnom

I was amazed. From outside, it’s a very pretty building. Inside, it’s stunning. There was a huge statue of Buddha, surrounded by smaller statues and offerings of flowers, money, fruit, and incense. The walls were covered with murals. Every surface was painted or otherwise decorated. There were people standing around the borders of what obviously was the petitioners’ area, waving sticks of incense. Petitioners bowed before the idol, making their requests or returning with their offerings after their previous requests had been granted. I didn’t take pictures focusing on the petitioners, as it felt disrespectful to do so, and I didn’t take as many pictures inside the wat as I wanted to, for the same reason, but I did get a few that I hope capture the overall scene.

After a few minutes inside, I went back outside, put my shoes on, and headed down and around the hill. On one side, at the base of the hill, there was a huge clock set into the land, with a statue in the background. There also was a pretty pavilion, where men were playing hacky sack with what looked like a crushed water bottle. There was a small structure with statues of elephants outside, possibly for Sambo the elephant. Sambo, presumably not the original, who is reported to have died last year, lives at Phnom Tamao Zoo but spends most days at Wat Phnom, giving rides to tourists. I’m not sure what time he shows up, or if or when he has days off, but he wasn’t there this morning.
Holding up the roof of Wat Phnom

I spent the rest of my time wandering around the premises. I let Alexa get out of the mei tai, so we meandered slowly over the weathered stone pathways. I saw the museum, but chose to skip it today. Maybe next time I’ll cough up the extra $2 to go in. Today, I chose to stroll. It was entertaining to watch the reactions Alexa elicited, and the reactions that were elicited from her. Everyone was enthralled with Alexa, from the ticket ladies to the vendors to the woman nursing her own adorable baby. Several approached her and touched her hand or hair (I allowed only very brief touches). For her part, Alexa shunned anyone who showed interest in her. She was fascinated by the children, though, especially the little naked boy—wearing only a leather necklace—playing with a helium-filled balloon tied to a sandal. He was almost her height, making me think he must be a few months older than her (Cambodians are short!), but he wasn’t walking, so maybe not. She was enthralled with the men playing hacky sack, enough so that other onlookers marveled at her interest.
On the grounds
In the end, when I was ready to go, I turned from taking one last photograph and saw my driver approaching me. He held out his arms for Alexa (she lets him hold her regularly while I get in or out of the tuk-tuk), and she shied away. Then she realized that his was a familiar face, and she allowed him to hold her hand as we walked to the tuk-tuk. I thought she would fall asleep on the way home, but she didn’t. She sat contentedly in my lap, holding on to the side of the tuk-tuk like she started doing after she saw her daddy do it once.

All in all, it was a pleasant 80 minutes or so. Next time, I hope to visit the museum, and maybe spend a little more time in the wat itself, but it’s shady and pleasant enough just to walk around outside—although it’s getting hot, and the humidity was bad this morning; it may not be very pleasant at all in another month. But even if I don’t spend much time there right now, I’ll remember it next time the cool season comes around, and take Alexa there again. Maybe next time she’ll even get to see Sambo the elephant.


  1. Those are beautiful pictures!

  2. Thanks, MK! I enjoyed taking them. One of these days we'll get our printer hooked up and then I can start scrapbooking. Of course the Phnom Penh one will have to wait; I still haven't done the Egypt one, or the Alexa's first year one, or the "our life in Christmas ornaments" one ...


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