Set on top of a 27m-high tree-covered knoll, Wat Phnom is on the only ‘hill’ in town. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1372 to house four statues of Buddha deposited here by the waters of the Mekong River and discovered by Lady Penh. Hence the city name Phnom Penh or 'hill of Penh'.
The main entrance to Wat Phnom is via the grand eastern staircase, which is guarded by lions and naga (mythical serpent) balustrades. Today, many people come here to pray for good luck and success in school exams or business affairs. When a wish is granted, the faithful return to deliver on the offering promised, such as a garland of jasmine flowers or a bunch of bananas (of which the spirits are said to be especially fond).
The vihara (temple sanctuary) was rebuilt in 1434, 1806, 1894 and 1926. West of the vihara is a huge stupa containing the ashes of King Ponhea Yat (r 1405–67). In a pavilion on the southern side of the passage between the vihara and the stupa is a statue of a smiling Lady Penh.
A bit to the north of and below the vihara is an eclectic shrine dedicated to the genie Preah Chau, who is especially revered by the Vietnamese. On either side of the entrance to the central altar are guardian spirits bearing iron bats. In the chamber to the right of the statue are drawings of Confucius, as well as two Chinese-style figures of the sages Thang Cheng (on the right) and Thang Thay (on the left).
Down the hill from the vihara, in the northwest corner of the complex, is a museum with some old statues and historical artefacts, which you can definitely skip if you’ve been to the impressive National Museum.
Be aware that Wat Phnom can be a bit of a circus, with beggars, street urchins, women selling drinks and children selling birds in cages. You pay to set the bird free, but the birds are trained to return to their cage afterwards.