Lady Penh slowly stood up and stretched her back. She had been working in her small garden the whole morning, and she could feel she was not as strong anymore as she had once been. With noon approaching it became time to go into the shade. She went back to her house, that she had built together with her husband at the bottom of the only small phnom, hill, in the surroundings. She enjoyed looking at the house, definitely one of the biggest and most beautiful in this neighbourhood, with its elegant porch, the windows that let through the wind but not the sun and enough rooms for all her children and guests. She smiled, thinking of all the good things that had happened here. The parties full of joy, the births of her children, the elaborate conversations with interesting guests. Of course there were not just good memories. Her husband had died here years ago, just like four of her six children, even before they reached maturity. But the other two had grown up healthy and had become virtuous and successful persons. They had built houses on nearby premises and daily at least one of her grandchildren visited her for a tasty snack or some good advice.
She enjoyed the green environment and the fragrant flowers while walking to the line of trees alongside the river. She sat down on a fallen tree and thought about how, sitting on this same tree, she had seen the river flow the other way a few weeks ago, full of fast-moving water. During the past weeks the level of water had lowered until the current started to flow the other way, just like it happened every year. Now the river flowed south again, as always during the dry season.
Suddenly she squeezed her eyes, was that something floating in the river? It looked like a big tree… She would love to find a whole tree, it would make good shelves to repair her house, but she would never be able to reach it like this, floating in the river. Although, in this season, maybe, with the river running as low as it did? Might it be that the tree would get stuck somewhere on the bottom and she would be able to wade to it and pull it to the riverside?
Lady Penh kept following the tree with her eyes, while it floated steadily in her direction. She jumped up when the tree got stuck for a moment, but then it floated on again. Closer and closer to the shore. When it was about two metres from the side it really became stuck and stopped moving. Lady Penh could hardly restrain her excitement. She took up her skirt and carefully stepped into the water. She teetered a moment when she stepped down, foot by foot she moved deeper into the water, to the tree. The water almost pulled her down when she had almost reached the tree, but at the last moment she grabbed one of the branches and kept herself standing. With the support of the branches, she moved closer to the trunk, moving easier when she stepped on the shallow. Next to the trunk she jumped back, screaming, nearly falling in the water yet. Two pairs of eyes looked at her through a crack in the trunk.
“Grandma!”, she heard the call from the riverside, “what are you doing? You always tell us it’s dangerous in the water. Will you come out quickly?” Lady Penh called back to her oldest grandson to get the hook from her house to pull the tree ashore, the hook they always used to drag heavy loads. Fortunately he was an obedient child, so within a few minutes he was back with the hook. The boy couldn’t let this opportunity slip away, so he jumped into the water before you could tell him otherwise. He was just tall enough to wade to her through the water, but the last few steps she had to grab him firmly to prevent him from being washed away. Startled the told him to be careful, but he just laughed and pointed at the tree: “We can’t just leave such a beautiful large tree behind, can we?” “No, we can’t, boy. But you better keep a hold of the branches the first part, it’s way too deep and dangerous for you.”
She firmly hooked the tree and moved slowly back into the deep water. It swirled around her and she had to pull hard to get the tree moving in the right direction. After a few steps it became easier. Her grandson was able to help a bit and she stood more firmly on her foot. Together they pulled the tree ashore. Only now she dared to look at the trunk another time, again two pairs of eyes were looking at her. They didn’t blink or move, but they seemed to invite her to come closer. Her grandson watched with his mouth open from a distance when she carefully pulled the two sides of the crack further open, the trunk was completely hollow. Bewildered she looked at what was inside. Statues of the Buddha, four of them, and not the simple kind she was used to. These were in bronze, richly decorated in beautiful colours and plated with gold. They had to come from the Royal Court! While she kept her eyes at the Buddhas, she told her grandson: “Run to your father and mother and tell them to come here with some strong people. We must take the tree to a better place and we can’t do that with the two of us.”
Within a few minutes there was a whole crowd around the tree, admiring the Buddhas, speculating where they came from and what it meant they came ashore here. Lady Penh told her neighbours: “The Buddhas have decided to leave Angkor to find a new place. We have heard stories about the problems in the Royal Court before, and this definitely is an omen. De Buddhas have decided to move, so the Royal Court will have to do the same, and the Buddhas took this place as their new home. We have to give them a place of honour, the highest place in this area. We will pull the tree with the Buddhas to the hill and will build a Wat, a temple, for them there.”
So all together they pulled the Buddhas to Lady Penh’s house, where they would stay until the Wat was ready. Lady Penh was very satisfied with that part but now she looked again at the hill, it was… well, it was so small. Again she addressed her neighbours: “That hill is too low for the holy Buddhas, it has to be enlarged before we can build a temple there.” A few of the older men started to grumble, the hill had always been like this, so why change that? The others opposed that they never had had Buddhas either and they had to be treated with a lot of respect. That way Lady Penh got what she wanted and the next day the enlargement of the hill started.
Lady Penh had risen at first daylight to be the first to start the work, but to her surprise there were people working already. All her grandchildren, even the smallest that could hardly walk, were carrying earth to the hill. Her daughter and daughter-in-law were trying to manage it, both laughed when they saw her. “Good morning, mother. We’ve already started, we couldn’t stop the children any longer.” More neighbours started arriving from all direction, so the real work started quickly. Lady Penh enjoyed to allocate the tasks en made sure everybody kept working. She did a lot of the work herself as well and made sure everybody had enough food and drinks. When the hill was three times as high as before, everyone thought it was enough and went home to his or her own jobs. Lady Penh climbed the hill that same evening and enjoyed the view over the fields and the river. It had become a place worthy of building a Wat for the Buddhas.
The next day she invited the best carpenters and builders around to come to the hill. “You have to build the most beautiful Wat you’re able to make. To build it you have to use the wood the Buddhas chose themselves, the tree they travelled in.” The builders shrugged and started the work right away. Very soon they were sawing and carpenting everywhere on Lady Penh’s compound and people came and went, closely monitored and instructed by Lady Penh. Because it had to become a magnificent building, the work took several weeks to finish. That was enough time for Lady Penh to invite some monks from the nearest monastery, some days travel away. The young men in their saffron-coloured robes, held a magnificent ceremony to initiate the temple.
During the years that followed, the Wat became an important holy place. Many people moved to the surroundings of the Wat and even more visited, so the story of how the Wat came to be and the role Lady Penh played in it became very well known. A few years later, after Lady Penh had died, the people of what by then had become a village, decided to name the hill after her, so it became commonly known as Phnom Penh. More than fifty years later the other part of her prediction became true when the Royal Court moved to Phnom Penh.
This is my version of the legend of the origin of Phnom Penh, a story so widely known that many believe it to be true, though there is no scientific evidence to support it. All the above supposedly took place in 1372, the Royal Court did indeed move from Angkor to Phnom Penh around 1440. The 27 metres high hill that gave it’s name to the city of Phnom Penh really man-made, but the Wat on top of it , like most other Wats, has been many times renewed and rebuild.