It’s 7am at Angkor Wat and there’s not a tourist in sight. It’s blissfully quiet, the first clear June morning after two days of torrential rains. The only souls around are a small group of Buddhist pilgrims, lighting incense at the spectacular Khmer temple.
I’m not here for sightseeing, however, I’m heading further into the forest surrounding the stupendous temple complex with Australian archaeologist Dr Damian Evans to meet the archaeologists from Cambodia, the Philippines and the United States, who are working on new excavations.
The release this month by the National Academy of Sciences in the US of a report on the results of a high-tech survey of Khmer Empire sites, undertaken in April 2012, has rocked the archaeological world and captured travellers’ imaginations.
A huge, sophisticated, densely populated urban landscape, which dates back more than 700 years, has been identified. It includes and connects Angkor cities such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon with the rarely visited medieval city ruins of Phnom Kulen, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, more than 100km away.
Evans was one of the report authors and the lead archaeologist on the project, which only became known outside local and archaeological circles with the release of the report this month.
As we make our way through dense vegetation, he explains how eight key archaeological groups, including the Cambodian government’s Apsara Authority, which manages archaeological sites, collaborated on the project.
It began with the survey using an airborne laser scanning instrument called Lidar, strapped to a helicopter, to search for ruins and other structures (the size of the area covered by the helicopter doing the survey was 320km2). Developed in the 1990s, it’s only recently that the technology has matured to the level where it can penetrate dense vegetation and provide extremely detailed models of the forest floor.
“For archaeologists, these lumps and bumps that we see in the forest, each has a meaning,” Evans explains, pointing out gentle mounds. “These are all the traces of the civilisation of the city associated with Angkor Wat that has disappeared. It’s these contours that we study.”
Smoke wafts from the fires lit to keep mosquitoes at bay. Dotted between the mounds are several rectangular holes in the ground where Dr Miriam Stark from the University of Hawaii and her team are at work.
“We’re really interested in understanding residence patterns, where and how people lived and who they were,” Stark explains excitedly, showing me X-ray-like images of the area we’re in. “Before, it took more than three intensive weeks of [preparation] before we knew where to dig. Now, with Lidar, it’s as if you just peel a layer off and it’s there!”
Scholars have based their idea of all medieval cities around the world on European cities, explains Professor Roland Fletcher, director of the Greater Angkor Project. But now, it seems there was a colossal low-density urban sprawl here, a conurbation of different places with massive working citadels with enormous infrastructure.
“This is a highly managed system, the most extensive preindustrial city in the world,” he says, though referring to its complexity rather than its size. “The Lidar results show there were three cities [here] at the end of the 9th century — the largest was on top of Mount Kulen, creating an [equivalent to] industrial 19th-century Britain.”
The city is so enormous it is unlikely ever to exist as one excavated site, but tourism here is likely to increase. There’s talk of a cutting-edge museum presenting the exciting new discoveries, new archaeological sites in the future, and greater interest in little-visited outlying temples already accessible to the public.
We decide to head to Phnom Kulen, a site rarely visited by tourists, with just a few companies offering expeditions and treks there.
“Phnom Kulen is a sacred mountain,” Tat, our guide from Backyard Travel, tells us en route. His ancestors called this place Mahendraparvata, or the Mountain of Indra, King of the Gods. “We call it the Mountain of the Lychees now. Look, you can see it here,” he says, pointing to a long, low, flat plateau that barely rises above the palms, banana plants and rubber trees that skirt the road.
Mahendraparvata was never really “lost” — the mountain has long been known as the location of the sandstone quarries that built Angkor’s cities, as well as the source of water for a system that irrigated the empire.
When we visit, people are wading in the River of a Thousand Lingas, a section of the stream boasting stone carvings on its floor. Villagers frequently stumble across finds, recently some bronze, copper and sandstone statues of Hindu gods. But the Lidar survey confirmed that Mahendraparvata was part of a city, and much larger than suspected — maybe as big as Phnom Penh is now.
We leave our 4x4 behind and soon we’re bouncing along muddy tracks on the back of motorbikes behind guides familiar with the landmine-riddled mountainside, which was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge.
They lead us towards the summit. It’s a slow journey and only the most intrepid travellers come here. Scattered across the mountain are ruined, foliage-covered temples, ancient highway markers and, at Sras Damrei, or Elephant Pond, massive statues of an elephant and lions. The thought that more sites like this could soon be discovered is thrilling.
Back in Siem Reap, we take to the air in a helicopter to get a better idea of what this urban landscape might have looked like. Had I taken the flight two weeks’ ago, I would have gasped at the magnificence of the isolated temple structures with their imposing walls and moats. Now, I see patterns of bumps and lines on the vast floodplain as beautiful remnants of an immense, effervescent city that technology and archaeology are finally bringing to life.
While many believe this site will become one of Asia’s greatest wonders, and tourism bodies are eager to see excavations progress quickly and more archaeological sites opened up to visitors, the extraordinary size of the area means work will be costly and take years. In the meantime, the intrepid can play at being Indiana Jones at undeveloped sites on Phnom Kulen, and temple cities such as Beng Mealea and Koh Ker. — © Guardian News & Media 2013
Backyard Travel (backyardtravel.com) offers one-day expeditions to Mount Kulen for $136, and day trips to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea for $126. Shinta Mani Hotel (shintamani.com) provided rooms from $170. HeliStar (helistarcambodia.com) offers flights over Angkor that start at $90