Wat Phnom towers above Phnom Penh on the only hill in the city. Enter the Buddhist monastery through the grand staircase on its eastern side. You will immediately notice the gates, which are adorned with lions and snakes.
Legends say that Madame Penh, a local woman, found four statues of Buddha in the Mekong River. She had the first vihara, or temple, built here in 1373 to house the statues.
Since then, it has been rebuilt several times, most recently in 1926. Although the vihara is small, it is very beautiful. Note its ornate gilded details and a perfectly symmetric layout.
West of the vihara, look for a tall stone stupa covered in intricate carvings. This holds the ashes of King Ponhea Vat, who reigned in the 1400s.
Walk through a narrow passage between the vihara and the stupa. Here, you will find a statue of the corpulent Madame Penh cheerfully presiding over the area she cultivated.
As you wander the grounds, notice a variety of shrines, pagodas and statues. One madcap shrine is dedicated to the genie Preah Chau. Near the entrance is a chamber containing another statue of Preah Chau accompanied by spirits armed with iron bats.
Continue down the hill to another royal stupa, which features full-grown trees growing from its roots. Check the time on the massive lawn clock, which spans nearly 66 feet (20 meters) across.
Today, people make pilgrimages to Wat Phnom to pray for good fortune. If a person’s wish is granted, he or she will often return to make an offering to the spirits, such as a flower garland or a bunch of bananas, as a way of showing thanks.
Wat Phnom charges a token admission fee for non-Cambodian visitors. Although bona fide monks live and worship here, beware of imposters and hustlers who will try to trick you into buying bracelets and other trinkets.