Phnom Penh Capital City

Phnom Penh is Cambodia's one and only capital and most populous city. It has been the national capital in two separate periods: the first period is a capital city from 1434 to 1497 and the second one is during the French Protectorate of Cambodia (1863-1953) from 1865 till the present, and has gradually grown to become the nation’s economic, industrial, and cultural center. Phnom Penh, covering 679 square kilometers, borders only Kandal Province.

Phnom Penh Seal ©
Phnom Penh Seal ©

The autonomous municipality is divided into 14 administrative divisions called Khans (sections) and is subdivided into 105 Sangkats (quarters) and is further subdivided into 953 phums (villages). As of 2019, it is home to more than 2,000,000 people, approximately 14% of the Cambodian population, and its density is 3,361 per square kilometer. The capital is rank 24th in land area, but it ranks 1st in the most populous.

Phnom Penh, literally meaning Penh’s hill, gets its name from the present Wat Phnom or from the former Funan Kingdom, an ancient kingdom that existed from the 1st to 7th century AD in Southeast Asia and the forerunner of the current Cambodian monarchy.

Legend has it that in 1372, there is a wealthy widow named Penh found a Koki tree floating down the Tonle Sap river after a storm. Inside the tree were four bronze Buddha statues and a stone statue of Vishnu. Penh ordered villagers to raise the height of the hill northeast of her house and used the Koki wood to build a temple on the hill to house the four Buddha statues, and a shrine for the Vishnu image slightly lower down. The temple became known as Wat Phnom Daun Penh, which is now known as Wat Phnom, a small hill 27 meters (89 ft) in height.

Krong Chaktomuk Serei Mongkol, which literally means the City of the Brahma’s Faces, is the official name of Phnom Penh. While, Krong Chaktomuk, which literally means City of Four Faces, is an abbreviation of the full name which was given by King Ponhea Yat. The full name of the capital city is Krong Chaktomuk Mongkol Sakal Kampuchea Thipadei Serie Theakreak Bavar Intabat Borei Roat Reach Seima Moha Nokor, which frankly translates as the Place of four rivers that gives happiness and success to the Khmer Kingdom, the highest leader as well as the impregnable city of the God Indra of the Great Kingdom (in Khmer ក្រុងចតុមុខមង្គលសកលកម្ពុជាធិបតី សិរីធរបវរ ឥន្ទបត្តបុរី រដ្ឋរាជសីមាមហានគរ).


Early Angkor Period

According to the discovery of an ancient kin site (69 pottery kilns found) in Choeng Ek commune of Dangjao district, the southern part of central Phnom Penh in the early 2000s, this area is believed to have been established as an industrious community in the fifth century, about a thousand years before Phnom Penh. Based on the result of the 2000s discovery in terms of buried remnants of the kiln dating from the 5th to the 13th century including both early earthenware and the more advanced stoneware kilns of later centuries, Choeung Ek was one of the largest and the oldest known kiln pottery site in Cambodia and the earliest known kiln sites Southeast Asia to have produced the ceremonial vessels known as kendi since the 5th to 13th century. The archeology team from the Royal Academy of Cambodia itemized that a large community is encircled by a circular earthwork structure that is 740 meters in diameter and 4 meters high, built in the 11th Century. Moreover, there are remnants of other ancient urban infrastructure, irrigation system, inscription, Shiva linga as well as an ancient brick temple foundation and its ornate remains which dated back to the earliest known polity of Cambodia around the fifth century called the Funan era. Based on the geographical location and its surrounding ecosystem, the area lent itself to settlement thanks to the fish in the lake for food and nearby forests for fuel to fire the kilns. Top of that, the lake was a source of clay, while the nearby streams would have served as a waterway on which to trade their products with Angkor.

Post Angkor Period and the legend of Phnom Penh

In the past (around 1372 AD) there was an old lady named "Penh" who was noble and lived near the banks of four rivers. Her house was built on a mound east of a small hill. One day, there was heavy rain, the river was flooded, and Daun Penh went down to the port and suddenly saw a huge koki tree floating near the shore, and by the power of the water current flowing up and down, the koki tree kept floating nearby the shore. When Daun Penh saw this, she hurried to call her neighbors to help her to fish the Koki tree from the water. At that time, Daun Penh took a piece of wood to scrape and clean the mud, and she saw in the hole of Koki wood there were four small Buddha statues made of bronze and another deity of Vishnu made of stone. Daun Penh and the neighbors who went to help were very happy to pick up the revered things, so they brought the statues to Daun Penh's house and Daun Penh managed to build a small hut for temporary storage. The later day, Daun Penh called on her neighbors to help turn the mound west of her house into a hill. After that, she ordered the neighbors to cut down the wood to make the pillars of the temple that she intended to build on the hill. In 1372, Daun Penh and many locals agreed to build a thatched-roof temple on the top of the hill, and they marched the four bronze Buddha statues to be placed in the temple. While, the deity of Vishnu marched to an altar at the foot of the eastern hill, and realizing that the deity was floating from Laos and looked in Laos style, she assumed the name "Neak Ta Preah Chao" till the present. After the construction of the temple, she invited the monks to stay over the foot of the mountain in the west. The hill was called "Wat Phnom Daun Penh" and later called "Wat Phnom" from then until today.

Phnom Penh was first built in the 15th century (1434) and became the capital of Cambodia during the reign of King Srey Suryoporn (Ponhea Yat) when he abandoned Angkor Thom. The reasons for changing the capital are based on several grounds, such as:

1. People: Indeed, people are the core force of nation-building. During the Khmer-Siamese war, Khmer people were killed and almost completely evacuated from Angkor, which resulted in the Angkor area having a small population and indefensible from the attack. As well as, Others fled out of Angkor.

2. Economy: As Angkor was badly damaged by the Khmer-Siamese war and could not be saved in the short term, including society, economy, infrastructure, irrigation system, roads, etc. However, the moving of the royal court from Angkor to Chaktomuk (present-day Phnom Penh), was not by chance as Trade with China and other Asian kingdoms was well established in the Angkorian era long before Phnom Penh was the capital. Boats traveling upriver to Angkor would pass Chaktomuk (Phnom Penh) which, due to its favorable location, was probably an active settlement at the time. 

3. Geography: Angkor is close to the Ayutthaya Kingdom, only 400 km away, which favors the Ayutthaya army and makes it easier to attack later.

The Booming of Global Maritime Trade during the 15th – 17th century

Maritime trade increased dramatically throughout the region in the late 15th century, with international players from as far as Japan. Though the capital had moved from Phnom Penh, the town remained the center of international commerce for Cambodia. Sixteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese records paint a picture of a small but cosmopolitan port of trade hosting significant populations of Chinese, Malay, Cham, Japanese (Japanese immigrants also settled on the outskirts of present-day Phnom Penh), and some Europeans (they are normally undertaken commercial and religious activity), all living in separate camps in and around the Phnom Penh area. Structures of wood and bamboo crowded the west bank of the Tonle Sap river and the great stupa on the hill of Wat Phnom was visible from the river, marking the town to arriving visitors.

Arriving in the early 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish were the first Europeans to make contact with Cambodia, sending missionaries, establishing trade, and eventually becoming deeply involved in the affairs of the Cambodian court. At the center of the drama were two larger-than-life characters, Spaniard Blaz Ruiz, Portuguese Diogo Veloso, and their band. Arriving in the 1580s they ingratiated themselves to the Cambodian King, served him as a sort of Praetorian guard, were captured and then escaped the Siamese, returned and murdered the new Khmer leader, fled to Laos, installed a new Khmer king in Cambodia, and amidst rising tensions, both died in 1599 coming to the aid of their compatriots in a battle between the Malay and Cambodians against the Spanish in Phnom Penh. The battle resulted in a massacre of the Spanish, bringing Spanish influence in Cambodia to an abrupt and permanent end.

In the 17th century, Phnom Penh continued to prosper and the Dutch East India Company became the dominant European trading partner, but this relationship also came to a dire end in Phnom Penh. In a tale less colorful than the Spanish adventure, after a lengthy trade and diplomatic dispute between the Dutch and the King of Cambodia, negotiations came to violence. A Company embassy was killed and captives were taken. The Company sent warships to force the issue with the King at Longvek. Once the ships had passed Phnom Penh on their way up the Tonle Sap, the Cambodians built two bridges across the river behind them, effectively blocking the river. Upon returning downstream the Dutch ships were trapped by the bridges at Phnom Penh and besieged by fire from both banks. They fought their way through a day-long battle but suffered very heavy losses. Like the Spanish, Dutch influence in Cambodia never recovered. Though the first British and French explorers would arrive in the mid-17th century, European interest in Cambodia waned until the French in force returned in the late 19th century.

Phnom Penh remained the royal capital for 73 years, from 1432 to 1505. It was abandoned for 360 years (from 1505 to 1865) by subsequent kings due to internal fighting between the royal pretenders and political pressure from outsiders. Later kings moved the capital several times and established their royal capitals at various locations in Longvek (46 km upriver of the Chatomuk area), Lavear Em, and Oudong (approximately 10 km of the Chatomuk area).

Phnom Penh Before and During the French Protectorate Era

Due to political pressure from Siam and Vietnam during the 18th and 19th centuries, Cambodia was in a hard-hitting situation. According to historical records, in 1813, during the Vietnamese influence, King Ang Chan (1796-1834) established the palace called Banteay Kev (literally Crsystral Citadel) on the site where the current Royal Palace stands, unfortunately, it burned down a year after (1834) when a retreating Siamese army wrecked the city. After King Ang Chan, the capital was relocated several times ranging from Longvek, Lavear Em, and Oudong.

And It was not until 1866, under the reign of King Norodom I (1860–1904), the eldest son of King Ang Duong and the great grandfather of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled on behalf of Siam, that Phnom Penh became the permanent seat of government and capital of Cambodia, and also where the current Royal Palace was built in 1866 under the supervision of Oknha Tep Nimitr Mak. The re-establishment of Phnom Penh capital happened right after Cambodia first came into the French sphere in 1863. The time that France gained colonial control of much of mainland Southeast Asia begin in the 1860s, initial taking portions of southern Vietnam (known as Cochin-China), then Cambodian and the remainder of Vietnam and Laos, lastly amalgamating in 1887 into a federation of protectorates named French Indochina.

Through her re-establishment, the administrative division was divided into 3 communities: A Catholic community situated to the north of the city in the Russey Keo neighborhood which was inhabited by the Vietnamese Catholic faithful. A Chinese community situated in the center of the city along the Tonle Sap river was occupied by Chinese traders. Lastly, A Khmer community is situated to the south of the City, around the present royal palace and Wat Unalaom for Khmer people.

During this time, the area homed to about 10,000 of the population including a large Chinese community and many other foreigners. There was a multi-ethnic port town of floating villages and wooden and bamboo houses, huts, shops, and vendors lining a complex of paths and a single main road paralleling the riverfront. A French explorer and traveler, Henry Mouhot, labeled Phnom Penh as “the Great Market of Cambodia”, during his brief visit in 1859.

Beginning in 1870, the French colonial administration turned a riverside village into a vibrant city where they began to build hotels, schools, prisons, barracks, banks, public works offices, telegraph offices, law courts, and health services buildings. Of course, the first modern concrete structure to be built was the Royal Palace, opening in 1870. In 1872, the first glimpse of a modern city took shape when the colonial administration employed the services of French Contractor Le Faucheur to construct the first 300 concrete houses for sale and rental to Chinese traders (also called Chinese shophouse –style’ buildings), initially appearing along the riverside near the Palace. The shophouse design is contemporaneous across Southeast Asia and ubiquitous in Phnom Penh, characterized by rows of deep, narrow apartments made up of a combined ground-floor business front and upstairs residence.

Between the 1880s and the 1890s, the colonial administration ordered the construction of early colonial buildings clustered near Wat Phnom such as the Post Office and Treasury Building. Due to the construction sector was increasingly developed (brick and cement became the standard for new buildings) and the city population gradually increased, numerous city infrastructures and facilities were constructed ranging from the construction of underground sewage systems, and canals to control wetlands, road expansion, bridges, buildings, and a port. For example, in 1893, Wat Phnom park had been rehabilitated and a zoo was built, surrounded by gardens. A construction of Boulevard Doubart de Lagrée presently renamed Blvd. Preah Norodom had also begun. In 1895, CEEL, the first French company that produced clean water for Phnom Penh, built its first water plant at Chroy Changva. In 1897, the population of Phnom Penh city was close to 50,000 people out of a total population of the whole country of more than 1,000,000. The population of Phnom Penh consisted of many ethnic groups such as the Chinese (22,000), Khmers (16,000), Vietnamese (4,000), and French residents who only numbered about 400 people. Besides the above ethnic groups, there were Malaysians, Thais, Indians, Laotians, and others who called Phnom Penh their homes.

Phnom Penh in Her 20th Century

For most of the first half of the 20th century (roughly during the reign of H.M. King Sisowath 1904-1927 and the reign of H.M. King Monivong 1927-1941), France continued in control of Cambodia, specifically in Phnom Penh, the colonial administration had started to expand the city to the west and to the south until the Bassac River in 1914. Moreover, many classic colonial buildings were built including the Police Station (next to the Post Office), the Hotel Le Royal, and the large villas around the Royal Palace area. Through the 1930s, the canals and lakes in the city have been filled and turned into public gardens along the boulevards, which are now parks along Sihanouk Blvd and also other streets. Between 1930-1940, the first railway line and stations from Phnom Penh to Poipet on the Thai border has been built (the final connection with Thailand was completed in 1942), with the Phnom Penh Railway Station opening in 1932. Three after, in 1935, the distinctive, domed, art deco Central Market, literally Phsar Thom Thmey, was built in the filled-Beoung Decho. This market opened to the public in 1937 originally known as the Grand Market. In 1939, the population of the whole country was about 3,000,000 people, and the population of Phnom Penh capital was about 108,000 people.

During the reign of H.M. King Norodom Sihanouk (1941-1970), the city’s population had also grown vividly, were 111,00; to 354,000; to 355,000; and to 394,000 in 1942, 1950, 1958, and 1962, respectively. As the result, Phnom Penh has seen the expansion and the construction of many modern infrastructures, significantly after Cambodia gained full independence from France in 1953. This is a period of considerable urban and commercial development and the beginning of the distinctive New Khmer Architecture, reflected in existing structures such as: The International Airport of Pochentong (presently called Phnom Penh International Airport) was built in 1957 and was inaugurated on January 19, 1959; The Independence Monument was built in 1958 to memorialize Cambodian’s Independence from France in 1953; The International Olympic Stadium was built in 1963; In 1964, Tonle Bassac Theater and a Casino, now renamed the Cambodiana Sofitel Hotel, were constructed; A railway line from Phnom Penh to Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) was also commissioned in 1964; In 1966, the Sangkum Reah Niyum Bridge, now renamed the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge, was built with funds provided by Japan;  Many tertiary institutions such as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum University, The Khmer-Soviet Institute of Technology, Royal Phnom Penh University, the Institute of Foreign Languages and many more were constructed during this period; Gardens and parks were constructed and beautified. Phnom Penh City in the 1960s was continuously called the Pearl of Asia since the name was initially labeled in the 1920s.

Phnom Penh from 1970 onward had not seen many developments due to the Cambodian civil war. The original population of Phnom Penh City of 900,000 had swelled to over 2,000,000 at the end of the war in 1975 because of war refugees from the countryside. On the contrary, many infrastructures had been destroyed by fighting and shells. In 1973, the Chroy Changvar Bridge two times was mined which eventually destroyed it.

When the Khmer Rouge came to power on April 17, 1975, people were immediately forced to leave the city. In three days, a city with a population of 2,000,000 had been reduced to a population of a few Khmer Rouge officials. All infrastructure was significantly destroyed, in general, Phnom Penh became a ghost town in 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days.

After the day of liberation on January 7, 1979, the population began to return to Phnom Penh. When people returned to the city after the Khmer Rouge period, it was a shambles, largely intact but thoroughly looted and neglected. Restarting the city began from scratch. As the low-level war continued in the western provinces, the 1980s saw Phnom Penh repopulated and revitalization began. The city was scoured and basic services were re-established. Phnom Penh’s population grew from 100,000 at the end of 1979 to 615,000 by 1990.

In 1991 UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) began its 2-year administration of the country as part of an UN-brokered peace agreement leading to national elections in 1993. After years of isolation, Cambodia was suddenly open for business. International investment started to flow into the country and Cambodia was back on the tourist map as the newest adventure destination.

In the situation of preventing the return of the genocidal regime, and restore and rebuilding the country, the government and the people have worked together to overcome all kinds of difficulties in a row and have changed the beauty of Phnom Penh to be more proud and consistent. With the final demise of the Khmer Rouge in 1998 and increased stability, development accelerated. The 2000s have seen another boom in Phnom Penh. The city’s population increased to 1,300,000 in 2008 and reached over 2.2 million in 2019, there has been significant infrastructure improvement and recently the first high-rise structures have been built, giving considerable change to the skyline and architectural character of the city. Phnom Penh is now a city in the midst of rapid change.   

There were 11 Governors of Phnom Penh from 1979-Present, including:

1.     H.E. Khang Sarin (ឯកឧត្តម ខាង សារិន) served as City Governor from 1979-1980

2.    H.E. Chan Ven (ឯកឧត្តម ចាន់ វ៉ែន) served as City Governor from 1980-1982

3.    H.E. Kea Chenda (ឯកឧត្តម កែវ ចិន្តា) served as City Governor from 1982-1985

4.    H.E. Thong Khon (ឯកឧត្តម ថោង ខុន) served as City Governor from 1985-1990

5.    H.E. Hok Lang Dy (ឯកឧត្តម ហុក ឡង់ឌី) served as City Governor from 1990-1992

6.    H.E. Sim Ka (ឯកឧត្តម ស៊ីម កា) served as City Governor from 1992-1993

7.    H.E. Chhim SiekLeng (ឯកឧត្តម ឈឹម សៀកឡេង) served as Capital Governor from 1993-1998

8.    H.E. Chea Sophara (ឯកឧត្តម ជា សុផារ៉ា) served as Capital Governor from 1998-2003

9.    H.E. Kep Chutema (ឯកឧត្តម កែប ជុតិម៉ា) served as Capital Governor from 2003-2013

10.  H.E. Pa Socheatvong (ឯកឧត្តម ប៉ា សុជាតិវង្ស) served as Capital Governor from 2013-2017

11.  H.E. Khoung Sreng (ឯកឧត្តម ឃួង ស្រេង) served as Capital Governor from 2017-Present


Phnom Penh is located in the south-central region of Cambodia at the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong, and Bassac rivers. These rivers provide potential freshwater and river ecosystems as important resources for sustainable environmental conditions, natural beauty, and a prosperous culture for People in Phnom Penh from the past to the present.

Phnom Penh is located in front of the Mekong River, one of many important rivers in Asia, with a length of 4,200 kilometers (2,610 miles). The origin of this river is from the Tibetan plateau of China. The river flows through Cambodia from north to south for a total length of 486 km (302 miles) and crosses Phnom Penh as the confluence of four rivers, creating an attractive ecosystem and freshwater for the city.

Administrative divisions

As of 2020, the Capital and an autonomous municipality are divided into 14 Khan (sections), 105 Sangkat (quarters), and 958 Phums (villages).

1.     Khan Chamkar Mon (05 Sangkat)

2.    Khan Daun Penh (11 Sangkat)

3.    Khan Prampi Makara (08 Sangkat)

4.    Khan Toul Kouk (10 Sangkat)

5.    Khan Dangkao (12 Sangkat)

6.    Khan Meanchey (07 Sangkat)

7.    Khan Russey Keo (07 Sangkat)

8.    Khan Sen Sok (06 Sangkat)

9.    Khan Pur SenChey (07 Sangkat)

10.  Khan Chroy Changvar (05 Sangkat)

11.  Khan Prek Phnov (05 Sangkat)

12.  Khan Chbar Ampov (08 Sangkat)

13.  Khan Boeng Keng Kang (07 Sangkat)

14.  Khan Kamboul (07 Sangkat)

The capital symbol is declared by the Ministry of Interior. The symbol has shape and image as follows:

-       Rounded Shap with golden color. The ring consists of a golden color with a palm tree and other trees of the same color. Others include Wat Phnom and Spean Neak also in the same color.

-       The Palm tree image represents Cambodia

-       The other trees image represents nature

-       Wat Phnom and Spean Neak images represent Phnom Penh



-     As the capital of the country, a number of national roads connect the city with various parts of the country: National Road 1 (from Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese Border, 167 km in length), National Road 2 (from Phnom Penh to Vietnamese Border, 121 km in length), National Road 3 (from Phnom Penh to Veal Renh, 202 km in length), National Road 4 (from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, 226 km in length), National Road 5 (from Phnom Penh to Thai Border, 407 km in length), National Road 6 (from Phnom Penh to Banteay Meanchey, 416 km in length),

-     Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is served by a municipal public transport system called the Phnom Penh City Bus (mostly used BYD electric Bus), operated by the Phnom Penh Municipal Government in collaboration with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The JICA urban transport master plan for Phnom Penh was completed and implemented with 3 lines in 2014 and as of 2021 the city now is served by 17 bus lines. The fare for the public buses is KHR1,500 (USD0.37) per voyage irrespective of distance. Senior citizens (age over 70), young children (under 1 meter), disabled, monks, teachers, and students travel for free, though they must confirm their identity.

-     Apart from those above, Private transportation within the city include the cycle rickshaw, known in Khmer as "cyclo", the motorcycle taxi known in Khmer as "moto", the auto-rickshaw known locally as "Remorque Kang Bei", the trailer attached to a motorcycle taxi known in Khmer as "Remorque", and the standard automobile taxicab known in Khmer as "taxi".


Phnom Penh city is Cambodia's main freshwater port, a major port on the Mekong River. It is linked to the South China Sea, 290 kilometers distant, via a channel of the Mekong in Vietnam.


As of 2022, Phnom Penh International Airport is still the largest in terms of land area and the busiest airport in Cambodia. It is seven kilometers west of central Phnom Penh. The airport is connected to the city center by taxi, train, and shuttle bus. Cambodia's national flag carrier, Cambodia Angkor Air, launched in 2009, is headquartered in Phnom Penh and has its main hub there, with an additional hub at the Angkor International Airport.


The Phnom Penh Airport Shuttle Train was the first and only airport rail link in Cambodia, connecting Phnom Penh International Airport to Phnom Penh Railway Station in the city. The journey from Phnom Penh International Airport to the city center, and vice versa takes under 40 minutes. The airport train first began service on 10 April 2018. However, the operation was suspended in 2020 due to consistently low passengers and the impact of COVID-19 travel restrictions.


Phnom Penh received a capital city status in Cambodia nearly 600 years ago and has gradually transformed into a modern, bustling metropolis, international tourist destination, and regional business hub due to its rich in culture, civilization, tradition, a center of security, politics, economy, culture, and diplomacy. Moreover, the city is homed to a blossoming art scene, world-class accommodations and bars, restaurants, and collective tourist attractions ranging from Historical/Cultural, Manmade, and Natural attractions: The Royal Palace, National Museum, Wat Phnom Historical site, Toul Sleng Genocide Museum or S21, Killing Fields, Central Market, French Colonial Buildings, ancient pagodas, and more.