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The Wat Phnom temple was built on a 27-metre high artificial hill with a diameter of 300 metres and is the highest religious building in the city. The sanctuary is accessible via stairs and ramps.

According to legend, the construction was ordered by the wealthy widow Daun Chi Penh in 1372, after she had found four Buddha satues on the banks of the Mekong. She had the hill to the north-east of her house heaped up and the temple that was to house the statues built from the washed-up tree trunks. She named the complex Wat Phnom Daun Penh. Phnom means "hill" in the Khmer language, and this formed the nucleus for the city, whose name translates literally as "Hill Penh".

Over the centuries, the structure has been completely rebuilt or renovated several times (most recently in 1926) and more shrines and other buildings have been added; the original 14th-century building no longer exists. The stupa houses the ashes of King Ponhea Yat and is the centre of celebrations for the Cambodian New Year in Phnom Penh.

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