The rather sombre concrete chedi that fronts Sisowath Quay belies the fact that Wat Ounalom is one of Phnom Penh’s oldest and most important pagodas, dating all the way back to the reign of Ponhea Yat in the fifteenth century – though there’s little evidence now of its age. In the early 1970s, more than five hundred monks lived at the pagoda, which also housed the library of the Institut Bouddhique, subsequently destroyed, along with many of the buildings, by the Khmer Rouge.
The pagoda gets its name from its role as repository for an ounalom, a hair from the Buddha’s eyebrow, contained in the large chedi behind the vihara; you can gain access if you ask at the small bookshop near the entrance. Within the chedi are four sanctuaries, the most revered being the one facing east, where there’s a fine bronze Buddha. The monks use the vihara, which dates from 1952, in the early morning, after which time visitors can enter. Unusually, it’s built on three floors, and houses a commemorative statue of Samdech Huot Tat, the venerable fourth patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism, who was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Despite its unappealing exterior, the dark-grey chedi is worth a quick look for its crypt, in which hundreds of small cubicles hold the funerary urns of Cambodian notables, most of which are adorned with bright plastic flowers and a photograph of the deceased.