Legend has it that Phnom Penh was founded by a revered woman, Penh, who discovered four golden Buddhas in a tree floating in the river of Tonle Sap. As she gazes out from her shrine atop Wat Phnom she must marvel at how her city is growing and changing before her eyes. Development is everywhere, with high rise buildings thrusting skywards and luxury flats spreading out into the surrounding countryside.
Like any big city, Phnom Penh has its uglier side; litter in the streets, questionable drainage in the streets, homeless people in doorways. But there is much to admire too, along the riverbanks, in the temples and museums and, in particular in the splendid Royal Palace.
We had spent the morning confronting the dark side of Cambodia’s past. The open green spaces of Wat Phnom proved a welcome antidote. This city park is popular with locals who throng to its open public areas and the central hill with its temples and shrines.
The main temple is reached by a stairway guarded by snake heads, lions and soldiers.
To one side is a Chinese shrine to multiple deities, complete with a fire to burn offerings in celebration of elder worship.
The main temple is Buddhist. Conscious that we had found the morning tour difficult, our guide suggested we make an offering and take a blessing. He kindly bought us lotus blooms and showed us how to fold each petal in turn to open the flower for offering up to Buddha.
We each took an incense stick, lit it and placed it before the statue. We bowed three times before offering up our flowers. Then we took some holy water with lotus petals in a silver bowl. Making a wish, we splashed some water on our faces and heads before throwing the water on the ground.
I also paid a visit to the temple of Wat Oulalum, just outside our hotel. This provided another quiet place for contemplation.
I am not a religious person but do count myself as spiritual. It is unusual for me to deliberately set out to practice a ritual such as this but I found it strangely comforting and soothing. I can understand why so many people choose Buddhism as an active, vitalizing belief to enhance their lives.
The temple at Wat Phnom was beautifully decorated with a large wooden stupa and colourful frescoes, detailing the Buddhas voyage to spiritual enlightenment.
We felt much happier as we left for the National Museum. Built in the 1920s to a design by local art students this is an attractive building which includes a serene central courtyard with a Buddha in situ.
Inside there is an interesting collection of ancient bronzes, statues and carvings. It is good to be able to get so close to appreciate the intricacy and skill of the craftsmanship. Many of the faces wear ‘the Angkor smile’ , an enigmatic emblem of peacefulness.
Our final stop was the spectacular Royal Palace. This is actually four vast complexes of buildings, two of which are open to the public. The King is normally in residence and is much loved by the people, despite having no power. First we visited the splendid throne palace with its gilded interiors; sadly no photos inside!
From the terrace we could see the King’s Gate, from where important addresses to the nation are made. Finally to the Silver Pagoda, named for the hundreds of silver floor tiles. A fitting end to a splendid tour of the gem of Phnom Penh.