|Phnom Penh from east drawn in 1887 (Courtesy of Phnom Pen Then & Now)|
Phnom Penh City takes its name from the present Wat Phnom or Hill Temple. Legend has it that in 1372, an old nun named Penh went to fetch the water in the Mekong river and found a dead Koki tree floating down the stream. Inside the hole of that dead Koki tree contained four bronze and one stone Buddha statues in it.
Daun (Grandma) Penh brought the statues ashore and ordered people to pile up earth at northeast of her house and used those Koki trunks to build a temple on that hill to house the five Buddha statues, then named the temple after her as Wat Phnom Daun Penh, which presently known as Wat Phnom, a small hill of 27 metres (89 ft) in height.
The city was originally called Phnom Daun Penh after it was founded, but it was later abbreviated to just Phnom Penh. The city was also previously known as Krong Chaktomuk meaning "City of Four Faces". This name refers to the junction where the Mekong, Bassac, and Tonle Sap rivers cross to form an "X" where the capital is situated.
Phnom Penh: The Royal Capital of Cambodia
Phnom Penh first became the royal capital of Cambodia in 1432 after His Majesty Ponhea Yat (b.1421, r.1432-1462), king of the Khmer Empire, moved the capital from Toul Bassan (presently called Srey Santhor) at Angkor Thom after it was captured by Siam a few years earlier. There are stupa behind Wat Phnom that house the remains of Ponhea Yat and the royal family as well as the remaining Buddhist statues from the Angkorean era.
Phnom Penh remained the royal capital for 73 years from 1432 to 1505 when it was abandoned for 360 years from 1505 to 1865 by subsequent kings due to internal fighting between the royal pretenders. Later kings moved the capital several times and established their royal capitals at various locations in Tuol Basan (Srey Santhor), Pursat, Longvek, Lavear Em and Oudong.
According to the historical records, in the 1600s, many Japanese immigrants had settled on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
But it was not until 1865 that Phnom Penh became the permanent royal capital of Cambodia when King Norodom I, great grandfather of Norodom Sihanouk, ordered 10,000 of his subjects to move out of the old royal capital of Oudong and settled in.
Phnom Penh and the current Royal Palace was built in 1866 under the supervision of Oknha Tep Nimitr Mak.
Phnom Penh during H. M. King Norodom’s Reign: (1860), (r.1865-1904)
Phnom Penh during the first ten years of king Norodom’s reign was little more than a village with few huts lining the river.
When Phnom Penh was re-established in 1865, it was divided into 3 villages: a Catholic Village located to the north of the city in the Russey Keo vicinity which was populated by the Vietnamese Catholic faithful. A Chen (Chinese) Village located in the middle of the city along Sap river which was populated by Chinese traders. A Khmer Village located to the south of the city, around the present royal palace and Wat Unalaom for Khmer population.
Beginning in 1870, the French colonial administration had turned a sleepy village into a city when it started to build hotels, schools, prisons, barracks, bank, public works offices, telegraph offices, Law courts, and health services buildings. In 1872, the first glimpse of a modern city took shape when the colonial administration contracted a French contractor, Le Faucheur, to construct the first 300 concrete houses for sales and rentals to the Chinese traders.
In 1884, the colonial administrator commissioned the constructions of underground sewage systems, canals to control the wetlands and roads, buildings and a port were also constructed..
In 1893, Wat Phnom park had been rehabilitated and a zoo was built, surrounded by gardens. A construction of Boulevard Doubart de Lagrée, presently renamed Blvd. Preah Norodom had also begun. In 1895, CEEL, the first French company that produced clean water for Phnom Penh, built its first water plant at Chroy Changva.
In 1897, the population of Phnom Penh city was close to 50,000 people out of a total population of the whole country of more than a 1,000,000. The population of Phnom Penh consisted of many ethnic groups such as the Chinese (22,000), Khmers (16,000), Vietnamese (4,000) and the French residents who were only numbered at about 400 people.
Besides above ethnic groups, there were Malaysians, Thais, Indians, Laotians and others who called Phnom Penh their homes.
Phnom Penh during the reign of H.M. King Sisowath: 1904-1927
There are not much records about the developments of Phnom Penh City during the reign of King Sisowath, except that the colonial administration had contracted the dredging of the Mekong and Sap rivers in order to facilitate marine navigation to enable ships and naval vessels to reach Phnom Penh. The records show that in 1914 the colonial administration had begun to expand the city to the west and to the south until Bassac river.
Phnom Penh during H.M. King Monivong’s Reign:1927-1941
King Monivong’s reign was a period that Cambodia had first begun a policy of constructions. In 1928, a French company, Grands Travaux de Marseille (GTM), had been contracted to begin pumping sands from the bottom of Tonle Sap River to fill up Decho lake and other lakes in the city. The year of 1929 also seen a construction of a steel Preah Monivong Bridge. In 1932, the first railway tracts and stations from Phnom Penh to Battambang had been commissioned. The Boulevard Miche, now renamed Blvd.Preah Monivong had also been constructed.
In 1935, the Grand Market, now called Phsar Thom Thmey Market, was built. And in 1939, Verdun Avenue, now renamed Blvd. J. Nerhu and Ave. Preah Sihanouk was built.
In 1939, the population of Phnom Penh City was about 108,000 people, and the population of the whole of Cambodia was about 3,000,000 people.
Phnom Penh during the reign of H.M. King and Prince Norodom Sihanouk : 1941-1970 and 1993-2004
Phnom Penh under the period of Sihanouk’s rule had seen the expansion and the constructions of many modern infrastructures. The City’s population had also grown dramatically. The city’s population had grown to 111,000 in 1942. By 1950 it had grown to 354,000 and 355,000 in 1958. By 1962, the population of Phnom Penh City reached 394,000.
The city had been expanded and many infrastructures had been built. In 1958, the Blvd. Mao Tse Tung was constructed. And in 1961, the city had expanded and Tuol Kork, a new flashy modern suburb, was constructed.
Other infrastructures had also been built during this period. The International Olympic Stadium was built in 1963. In 1964, Tonle Bassac Theater and a Casino, now renamed the Cambodiana Sofitel Hotel, were constructed. A railway line from Phnom Penh to Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) was also commissioned in 1964. And the International Airport of Pochentong was also built. And in 1966, the Sangkum Reah Niyum Bridge, now renamed the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge, was built with funds provided by Japan. Many tertiary institutions such as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum University, The Khmer-Soviet Institute of Technology, Royal Phnom Penh University, the Institute of Foreign Languages and many more were constructed during this period. Gardens and parks were constructed and beautified. Phnom Penh City in the 1960s was called the Pearl of Asia.
Phnom Penh during the Khmer Republic of Marshall Lon Nol: 1970-1975
Phnom Penh from 1970 onward had not seen much developments due to the Cambodian civil war. The original population of Phnom Penh City of 900,000 had swelled to over 2,000,000 at the end of the war in 1975 because of war refugees from the countryside.
On the contrary, many infrastructures had been destroyed by fighting and shells. In 1973, the Khmer Rouge mined Chroy Changvar Bridge two times which eventually destroyed it.
Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge Reign of Terror: 1975-1979
The Khmer Rouge took power on 17th April 1975 and immediately began to evacuate whole population out of the city. In three days, a city with a population of 2,000,000 had been reduced to a population of a few Khmer Rouge officials. Many infrastructures and buildings and part of the city had been significantly destroyed.
After the Vietnamese troops toppled the Khmer Rouge on 5th January 1979, the population began to return to Phnom Penh. As of 1998, the population of Phnom Penh City had numbered to 862,000 people, including 149,000 families. In 2009, the population of Phnom Penh is estimated to number more than a million out of a total country’s population of approximately 14,000,000.