Phnom Penh is situated at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers with the Mekong. It was founded as a small monastery in 1372 by the rich Khmer woman Penh, after she had found four Buddha statues in a tree trunk on the banks of the Mekong. She set up the monastery on a hill near the bank of the Mekong. The Cambodian word for hill is Phnom. Therefore the name of the town correctly translates as Hill of Penh.
Rather significantly Phnom Penh's history is founded on an episode, in which the Buddhist religion played a part, contrary to the Khmer capital of that time, Angkor, which was shaped, and literally so, by Hinduism. Nevertheless, Buddhism had, since the beginning of the 13th century, become the dominant religion. (In Southeast Asia both religions are entwined to a much higher degree than first appears to be the case. For instance, numerous Buddhist temples in Thailand house altars of Hindu deities, especially Brahma, and the details of the royal ploughing ceremony in Bangkok are determined by Brahman, not Buddhist, palace priests... just like Thai coronation modalities).
In 1434, after the Siamese conquest of Angkor in 1431, the Khmer nobility unwilling to submit to Siamese overlords fled from Angkor and established Phnom Penh as the new Khmer capital, just 64 years after the Buddhist monastery had been founded on Penh Hill. However, the Khmer never succeeded in setting up a new kingdom to come close to the glamour of Angkor.
In fact, for long periods of time the Khmer kingdom centered in Phnom Penh wasn't a sovereign country but alternatively a satellite state of, or directly ruled by, the Vietnamese or the Thais. For more than 400 years - until the French made Cambodia their protectorate - the art of politics in Phnom Penh was just an exercise of balancing between the two powerful neighbours.
On April 17, 1864, the Cambodian king Norodom accepted for his country the status of a French protectorate. King Norodom expected the French to protect Cambodia from the neighbouring countries Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam.
However, the French protectors did not prevent politically strong Siam from temporarily annexing western parts of the country, including the town of Battambang. Nevertheless, by recognizing French rule, King Norodom preempted moves of Siam and Vietnam to entirely divide his country between them. In past centuries the loss of territory to Vietnam had been more significant. The Mekong delta, or rather the entire present-day South Vietnam, had been settled by Cambodians until well into the 18th century.
During almost 90 years of colonial rule the French reshaped and extended Phnom Penh according to their architectural taste. They built broad boulevards and the city received a touch of Mediterranean atmosphere.
During the Vietnam war the city grew to more than 2 Million inhabitants, creating an atmosphere of an overcrowded refugee camp rather than a French metropolis.
On April 17, 1975, 20 years after the end of French colonial rule, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh. Within weeks the city was emptied, its population forced into provincial labour camps; Phnom Penh became a ghost town.
After an increasing number of incidents at the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, Vietnamese troops move into Cambodia and on January 7, 1979, take Phnom Penh. Since then, many of the city's former inhabitants have returned, and new folks have arrived. The city now, once more, counts over a Million inhabitants.
Since the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty in 1991, Phnom Penh experienced a great economic boom, despite the civil war still smoldering in far-off parts of the country. Although streets and canalization - destroyed by the Khmer Rouge - are not yet fully repaired, a large number of modern hotels have been built.
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