In the northeast of the city, just a few hundred metres from the riverfront, Wat Phnom, where the hilltop sanctuary from which the capital got its name once stood, is one of the principal pleasure spots for the inhabitants of Phnom Penh, drawing the crowds especially at weekends and on public holidays. Before climbing the hill (which, even at a mere 27m high, is sufficient to dwarf anything else in the capital), you’ll be directed to one of the payment booths to buy your ticket. The nicest way up the hill is by the naga staircase on the east side, passing some bronze friezes (depicting scenes of battle) and dancing apsaras (reproductions of bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat) on the way. The sanctuary on the summit has been rebuilt many times, most recently in 1926, and nothing remains of the original structures; the surrounding gardens were originally landscaped in the late nineteenth century by the French, who also installed a zoo (of which nothing remains) and the clock on the south side of the hill, restored for the Millennium, now sports a dial that glows in fluorescent colours as night draws in.
This taste for the luminous bizarrely continues inside the vihara (which, before entering, you must take off your shoes) where a neon disc revolves behind the sitting Buddha, visible through the haze of burning incense. Over the years, the smoke has darkened the wall paintings, making it hard to make out the depictions of the Jataka stories. A constant stream of Khmer pass through the pagoda, paying their respects and trying to discover their fortunes by holding a palm-leaf book above their heads and, without looking, inserting a small pointer between the pages; the page thus picked out contains the prediction, although sometimes it takes three attempts to get an acceptable fortune.
Behind the vihara is a small shrine to Daun Penh, the woman credited with founding the sanctuary here; the shrine contains her genial image, much revered. The large white chedi contains the ashes of King Ponhea Yat. On the north side of the hill just below the summit is a busy shrine to Preah Chao, a Taoist goddess whom people come to ask for good luck, health or success with their business; her helpers, Thien Ly Than (who can see for 1000 miles) and Thuan Phong Nhi (who can hear sounds 1000 miles away), stand close by. Judging by the elaborate offerings on the altar, requests are obviously granted – it’s not unusual to see whole cooked chickens, surrounded by their cooked innards and unlaid eggs offered on plates. Resident monkeys are very good at stealing the offerings, and feeding them is said to be a good way of acquiring merit for the next life, as is releasing the tiny birds which hawkers sell from cages all around the hill – you may spot a Cambodian buying up the entire cage – although it is rumoured that the birds are trained to fly back to their cages once released.
For thirty years, Sam Bo, the much loved 50-year-old elephant at Wat Phnom, gave rides around the base of the hill, was fed endless bananas and posed placidly for countless photos. However, at the time of writing, the authorities announced that Sam Bo was a disruption to the traffic, and had to move elsewhere. For now she is lodging by Naga World complex, but where she will end up is uncertain.