The Lost City: Cambodia

Clutching tightly to the back of a rickety motorbike, I bounce along the sandstone plateau of Phnom Kulen, which means ‘the mountain of the lychees’, in north-western Cambodia’s relatively unexplored hinterland.

Narrow, sandy trails weave their way across the grassland, rice paddies and cashew-nut plantations, near the historical footprint of the 1200-year-old Angkorian royal capital of Mahendraparvata, ‘the Mountain of the Great Indra’.

Until its archaeological discovery this year, it was completely hidden underneath impenetrable jungle. That it was lost at all is not surprising. In many ways, parts of Cambodia are still relatively untouched by Western influences. For instance, the traditional lifestyles of the ethnic hill tribes in the north-eastern provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri are, to a certain degree, yet to confront the trappings of modern development.

Over the Cardamom Mountains and mangroves on the opposite end of the kingdom, some tropical islands in the Gulf of Thailand still await electricity and the arrival of mass tourism. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed site of Angkor — Cambodia’s most famous attraction — is no hidden secret, however. A staggering architectural feat, Angkor Wat is said to be the world’s largest single religious monument.

In the last year alone, two million camera-toting tourists have jostled for the best vantage point to watch the sunrise brush its five looming towers, not knowing that Phnom Kulen and its hidden city were just 40 kilometres away.

A new discovery

A thin breeze escorts the motorbike along roads that have been tranquillised by the morning heat. Overtaking a motorcycle loaded with a mound of coconuts, we pass beaming children in green paddy fields quenched by recent monsoonal rains. The low-lying Kulen mountain range, home to the lost city of Mahendraparvata, peeks up from this flat canvas.

It may be lost, but it was never forgotten. Local legends and intricate inscriptions on the temples of Angkor have long given us clues, and the archaeological site was, in fact, old news to academics, with the discovery of more than 30 temple sites in the last century. It is only now that the scale is becoming apparent.

The team deployed Lidar, a new and groundbreaking technology that uses laser sensors to thrust its way through the dense jungle, bouncing helicopter-mounted beams over the thicket, searching for holes in the canopy to sketch the sprawling city of Mahendraparvata onto the world-wonder map.

“It was a bit of a gamble as we weren’t quite sure what we’d find,” admits Dr Damian Evans of the University of Sydney, who supervised a consortium of institutions to carry out an aerial survey over hundreds of square kilometres.

They scoured the land for “the tiny lumps and bumps on the surface of the landscape” that were indistinguishable at ground level. While the royal capital was never lost in the true sense of the word, researchers were staggered by the results. They revealed a massive urban infrastructure that integrated major temples such as the famed Angkor Wat. Computer images identified a complex network of long-forgotten avenues, roads, channels and man-made waterways that supported a vast, low-density urban population.

“This is a success story for Cambodia and it is incredibly fulfilling to be at the forefront of this research. It’s the first time international organisations have all come to the same table to work on the same project, and it’s the first time Lidar has been used for archaeological purposes in Asia,” Evans says with pride.

The real Indiana Jones work soon followed — hacking through vegetation to verify the data collected and distinguish any natural topographical features from man-made ones. The Lidar technology makes it seemingly easy to decipher the area. However, the picture is somewhat hazier on the forest floor, with the city’s scale confounding villagers as much as academics.

“When I first heard there was an entire lost city here in Kulen, I was very surprised,” local moto driver Bun Leak acknowledges. “But when I learned about the details — that minor mounds and that sort of thing had been found, it made sense. I’ve often seen these... I just had no idea what they really were until now.”

The temples have now turned to rubble, a littering of bricks ensconced beneath trees for centuries. They don’t quite match the glorious grandeur of the main Angkor temples, but they are by no means less historically significant. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, founded by King Jayavarman II in Phnom Kulen in 802 CE.

It was the cradle of a civilisation which went on to consolidate its power, so much so that for more than 600 years, it ruled much of what we now know as South-East Asia. Both a source of sandstone quarries and water, Phnom Kulen helped build Angkor’s cities and feed its complex rice irrigation system. This buried city is now juxtaposed with the contemporary rural life on its surface, although villagers carry out their daily routines in stark kinship to their ancestors.

How do you lose a city?

Cambodia was once more famous for its turbulent political history than its ancient culture. Under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, about two million people were tragically killed. Civil war consumed the mountain plateau, a Khmer Rouge stronghold that was laced with landmines, halting research.

“There is still a serious landmine issue, and very few temples are accessible on the ground,” affirms Evans. Coupled with impenetrable vegetation, there are no plans yet to radically expand visitor numbers as a result of the new findings. Indeed, it may be many years before that sort of infrastructure is in place.

The well-known areas of Phnom Kulen already draw tourists, as it’s venerated for its origins of the Khmer Empire and as a sacred religious site. Locals flock to the 16th-century hilltop monastery to view the giant Buddha carved into rock, while the River of 1000 Lingas and its rumbling waterfalls make for a popular one-day tour by car from Siem Reap. Adventurers can delve further into the undergrowth by heading by motorbike to the stone elephant statue of Sras Damrei, or the musty depths of the Bat Cave.

To highlight the environmental value of Phnom Kulen, 37,500 hectares of the range were named as national park in 1993. But it faces serious environmental challenges, says Evans, as the fragile territory is under threat from urban expansion and deforestation.

“I’m much more concerned about protecting the temples from looting than I am about their discovery,” admits Leak solemnly.

Phnom Kulen is the result of only one set of the Lidar data, with many undocumented networks similarly traced in Angkor and Koh Ker, a remote archaeological site in northern Cambodia about 120 kilometres from Siem Reap. Understanding the extent of the engineered landscape will help answer bigger questions, such as the causes of Angkor’s demise. The results place Angkor as the focal point of a more complex landscape than ever imagined, with satellite cities connected to the central metropolis.

“The real revelation is that the grid network is not limited to the circular walled city — this didn’t actually enclose the downtown area,” Evans points out.

As for Phnom Kulen, UNESCO and the Cambodian Government are currently considering giving it World Heritage status — the issue is whether to deem it a new site, or an extension of Angkor.

Back in the comforts of the lively town of Siem Reap, overflowing in first-class hotels and a spoiling selection of restaurants, it’s hard to recall the silence of the temples. Postcards try to capture the charming allure of Angkor Wat, Bayon’s beatifically smiling faces and Ta Prohm’s twisting tree roots (of Tomb Raider fame), but they give little clue as to the lost city of Mahendraparvata, or the wonders that are yet to be discovered.

Time traveller

Three more ancient wonders to help you step back in time.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Often draped in enigmatic mist, this 15th-century lost Inca city is nestled between two imposing mountain peaks. Each day, the first 400 intrepid travellers to arrive can ascend Huayna Picchu for staggering panoramic views, and visit less well-known sites such as the Temple of the Moon, which is tucked into a complex of caves.

The Acropolis, Greece

This awe-inspiring site of architectural ruins of ancient Greece in Athens includes the iconic Parthenon. On sultry summer days, escape the crowds and catch the funicular to Mount Lycabettus, the city’s highest point, to see the Acropolis perched on a rocky outcrop, with the modern capital of Athens sitting in its shadow.

The Colosseum, Italy

Once executions, mortal combat and battle re-enactments between gladiators played out to the delight of spectators here. Even today the glory of this Roman amphitheatre draws the crowds. Visit the subterranean passages of the Colosseum floor: renovated in 2010, they reveal traces of the machinery used to release wild animals into the battle arena.

Words by Caroline Major - Published in Voyeur November 2013
Quick Facts 
Population 8 million
Time Zone GMT + 7
Languages Vietnamese (official), French, English and Cantonese
Currency Vietnamese dong
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