Phnom Penh History
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Discover the historical past of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Bustling modern-day Phnom Penh is a city rich with the legacies of kings and conquerors, both foreign and Khmer. Legend has it that Phnom Penh was founded when a woman called Penh discovered five images of Buddha inside a log washed up on the bank of the Mekong River. In 1373, Wat Phnom was built to house them. The town that grew around it became known as Phnom Penh. With phnom in Khmer meaning hill, the name literally means Hill of Penh.
Famous for Angkor Wat, its ancient capital, Cambodia has a long history. Around the first century BC a dynasty known to Chinese traders as Funan ruled. Impressive ruins from this great trading empire still stand at Angkor Borei & Phnom Da.From the sixth century, Funan's influence waned, and a new short-lived group of civilizations with a strong Indian influence called Chenla emerged along the Mekong and lower Tonle Sap Rivers.
In A.D. 802, Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a god-king and the Angkorian Empire was born. Construction of the first of the magnificent temples of Angkor began that same year and continued for almost six centuries. At its peak, the Angkorian Empire expanded to conquer most of the region, including large tracts of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. For reasons that remain unclear, Angkor eventually weakened--perhaps because of neighboring Thailand's rising might, frequent incursions from Thailand and Vietnam and distance from major trading ports. The elegant National Museum has a fine exhibition of artifacts from this period and preceding dynasties.
Oudong, 40 kilometers north, usurped Phnom Penh as the capital between 1618 and the mid-19th century, but it was Phnom Penh that was the seat of government when the French arrived in 1863. Their influence is obvious in many of the grand colonial buildings that dot the city, especially in the French Quarter around the Old Market. Colonial rule brought stability. During this prosperous time, in 1892, King Norodom constructed the stunning Wat Preah Keo (Silver Pagoda), paved with 5,000 blocks of silver.
In 1941 the current king, Norodom Sihanouk, was crowned at the age of 19. Believing that he would be easily manipulated, he was the choice of the French, but by 1952, King Sihanouk was spearheading a royal crusade for independence, which was granted in November 1953 and commemorated by Independence Monument. The years that followed were some of modern Cambodia's most prosperous. Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father to lead his ruling Sankum Reastr Niyum party as a politician.
War in Vietnam and growing leftist insurgency at home destroyed this "oasis of peace." In 1970, while Sihanouk was in France, General Lon Nol staged a coup and seized power. That same year, South Vietnamese and United States soldiers invaded Cambodia in an unsuccessful attempt to rout Viet Cong troops hiding there. The ensuing destruction only generated support for Cambodia's own communist insurgents, nicknamed the Khmer Rouge by Sihanouk. Cambodia quickly became the focus of world media attention. Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge against Lon Nol, but when the Pol Pot-led communists took Phnom Penh in April 1975, he found himself held prisoner in the Royal Palace. Most of the rest of the population was herded into the countryside. There, thousands starved to death.
Both Khmers and foreigners took refuge in the French Embassy compound in the days following the communist victory, but the Khmer Rouge demanded the French expel the Cambodians or they would slaughter everyone inside. Khmers fled the embassy, many never to be seen again, while foreigners were evacuated. With the country to themselves, Khmer Rouge leaders implemented their radical Maoist doctrine, purging everyone they believed "bourgeois." Teachers, doctors, artists, monks--even hairdressers--were slaughtered in the name of the revolution. As the regime's leaders grew more paranoid, thousands more, including loyal party members, were tortured at a high school-turned-prison called Toul Sleng (S-21). Survivors of Toul Sleng were then taken to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields, where they were killed and buried in mass graves.
On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese troops took Phnom Penh and installed the government of the People's Republic of Kampuchea. The defeated Khmer Rouge fled to the jungle, where a guerilla war continued until 1998. In 1989, the Vietnamese withdrew. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) soon arrived to prepare for democratic elections, which were held in 1993. The appointment of two prime ministers, Norodom Ranariddh (Sihanouk's son) and Hun Sen, proved to be intolerable to both sides, and in 1997, fierce fighting between factional troops broke out. When the dust settled, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party were ascendant. He won the 1998 elections and currently remains Prime Minister.
Today, Cambodia is considered relatively stable, and despite tremendous poverty there is also progress. Phnom Penh still carries evidence of its tragic recent past, but also of mighty ancient cultures and French colonial glory. Modern shops and restaurants peek from between beautiful, if crumbling, examples of French architecture. Cyclos and horse-drawn carts share roads with luxury cars. Cambodia is still dependent on foreign aid, but the kingdom was admitted into ASEAN in April 1999 and tourism is helping it to regain its economic feet. The ancient arts, such as dance, shadow puppetry and weaving, have been revived with the help of the handful of surviving exponents.
Cambodia has been ravaged by war, and although no one is forgetting the past, the country is also keen to modernize and to grow through the 21st century and beyond.
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