Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, situated at the confluence of the Tonlé Basǎk (Bassac), Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers.


Penh, a wealthy Khmer woman, founded the city as a small Buddhist monastery in 1372. In 1434 King Chao Ponhea Yat chose the present site to succeed Angkor as the capital city, probably because of constant Siamese aggression and the final conquest of Angkor in 1431 and the Cambodian reluctance to submit to foreign overlords. Phnom Penh has never rivalled the glamour of Angkor and ruled for long periods over what wasn’t a sovereign country but a satellite state of the Thais and Vietnamese.

On 17 April 1864 King Norodom accepted, on behalf of Cambodia, the status of French protectorate. He expected French protection to mean an end to incursions by the Thais and the Vietnamese but the French did little to stop the Thais temporarily annexing western parts of the country. During the 1870s the French colonial administration built a hotel, school, prison, barrack, bank, public works office, telegraph office, law court, a health services house and 300 concrete houses along the waterfront. These houses were sold to wealthy Chinese traders. In 1884 Cambodia’s status was changed from that of protectorate to colony. By 1897 the city’s population was 50,000 inhabitants but most of these were Chinese and Vietnamese traders.

In Sept. 1940, after Germany’s invasion of France Japanese troops invaded Cambodia along with the rest of Indochina, meeting very little resistance. The Japanese instated a Vichy French Government in Phnom Penh.

The period between World War II and the Vietnam War was a relatively quiet and constructive one for Phnom Penh with the city population growing to 90,000 in 1970. Phnom Penh was witness to much building, including an International Olympic stadium and the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge.

In 1969, with the encroachment of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, people in outlying villages fled to the relative safety of Phnom Penh to escape bombing, further swelling the population to 2 m. by 1975. In 1970, with Norodom Sihanouk in Moscow, Gen. Lon Nol staged a successful coup d’etat abolished the monarchy and declared Cambodia a republic. Sihanouk remained head of the Cambodian government in exile from Beijing, forming an alliance with patriotic forces including the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge, a radical communist guerrilla movement, launched an offensive against the US sanctioned Lon Nol regime and within 5 years only Phnom Penh remained under the control of Lon Nol. On 17 April 1975 the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh, executed large numbers of Cambodians associated with the Lon Nol regime and forcibly moved the inhabitants of the city to provincial labour camps. For nearly 4 years, during which time the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, enacted a brutal countrywide social experiment, Phnom Penh became a ghost town. It is estimated that more than a million Cambodians fell victim to the Khmer Rouge.

On 25 Dec. 1978 the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and quickly occupied the derelict Phnom Penh, installing a Vietnamese friendly government. Although this government was not internationally recognised it took until 1989 for a Cambodian coalition force to eject Vietnamese troops from Cambodia.

In 1991 King Norodom Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh and a year later the United Nations Transitory Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), led by Sihanouk, assumed control of the government form Phnom Penh.

In Nov. 2010, 347 people were killed and more than 500 injured in a human stampede during Phnom Penh’s Khmer Water Festival celebrations. Prime Minister Hun Sen described the stampede as the biggest disaster the country had experienced since the mass killings of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Modern City

During the 1990s Phnom Penh received grant aid to repair and rebuild the city. Today Phnom Penh is the cultural, educational, and commercial centre of Cambodia; a bustling city covering an area over 41 km2 and home to an estimated 10% of Cambodia’s population.

Places of Interest

Phnom Penh has numerous wats (temple-monasteries), the most famous being Wat Ounalom, Wat Phnom and Wat Lang Ka. The Royal Palace was built on the site of the former citadel in 1866. The National Museum houses a large collection of Khmer art, dating from the sixth century to the present. The Silver Pagoda, within the Royal Palace, has a famous floor constructed from several thousand silver blocks and a seventeenth century Emerald Buddha. A genocide museum at Tuol Sleng and a mass grave at Choeung Ek pay tribute to those who suffered under the Khmer Rouge.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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