The Lost City of Cambodia

Angkor plateau
On a distant plateau, researchers reveal a royal capital whose splendors prefigure the glories of the Angkor complicated. Chiara Goia

Jean-Baptiste Chevance senses that we’re closing in on our goal. Paused in a jungle clearing in northwestern Cambodia, the French archaeologist research his GPS and mops the sweat from his brow with a bandanna. The temperature is pushing 95, and the equatorial solar beats down by the forest cover. For 2 hours, Chevance, recognized to everybody as JB, has been main me, together with a two-man Cambodian analysis crew, on a grueling trek. We’ve ripped our arms and faces on six-foot shrubs studded with thorns, been savaged by crimson biting ants, and stumbled over vines that stretch at ankle top throughout the forest flooring. Chevance checks the coordinates. “You’ll be able to see that the vegetation right here may be very inexperienced, and the vegetation are totally different from those now we have seen,” he says. “That’s a sign of a everlasting water supply.”

Seconds later, as if on cue, the bottom beneath our toes provides method, and we sink right into a three-foot-deep muddy pool. Chevance, a lanky 41-year-old wearing olive drab and toting a black backpack, smiles triumphantly. We’re fairly probably the primary human beings to set foot on this square-shaped, man-made reservoir in additional than 1,000 years. But this isn’t merely an overgrown pond we’ve stumbled into. It’s proof of a sophisticated engineering system that propelled and sustained a vanished civilization.

The huge city middle that Chevance is now exploring was first described greater than a century in the past, but it surely had been misplaced to the jungle till researchers led by him and an Australian colleague, Damian Evans, rediscovered it in 2012. It lies on this overgrown 1,300-foot plateau, often known as Phnom Kulen (Mountain of the Lychee fruit), northeast of Siem Reap. Quite a few excavations in addition to high-tech laser surveys performed from helicopters have revealed that the misplaced metropolis was much more subtle than anybody had ever imagined—a sprawling community of temples, palaces, odd dwellings and waterworks infrastructure. “We knew this is likely to be on the market,” says Chevance, as we roar again down a jungle path towards his home in a rural village on the plateau. “However this gave us the proof we have been hoping for.”

Phnom Kulen is just some 25 miles north of a metropolis that reached its zenith three centuries later—the best metropolis of the Khmer Empire, and probably probably the most superb non secular middle within the historical past of mankind: Angkor, derived from the Sanskrit phrase nagara, or holy metropolis, website of the famed temple Angkor Wat. However first there arose Phnom Kulen, the birthplace of the good Khmer civilization that dominated most of Southeast Asia from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. The Khmer Empire would discover its highest expression at Angkor. However the defining parts of Kulen—sacred temples, reflecting the affect of Hinduism, adorned with photos of regional deities and the Hindu god Vishnu, and a brilliantly engineered water-supply system to assist this early Khmer capital—would later be mirrored and enlarged at Angkor. By the twelfth century, at Angkor, adherence to Buddhism would additionally put its personal stamp on the temples there.


Nothing ignites an archaeologist’s creativeness just like the prospect of a misplaced metropolis. Within the late nineteenth century, French explorers and students, pursuing fragmentary clues in regards to the existence of Phnom Kulen, hacked their method by the jungles of Southeast Asia. Inscriptions discovered on temple doorways and partitions made point out of a splendid hilltop capital known as Mahendraparvata (the mountain of the good Indra, king of the gods), and its warrior-priest monarch, Jayavarman II, who organized a number of unbiased principalities right into a single kingdom at first of the ninth century.

One other French archaeologist, Philippe Stern, trekked to the highest of the Phnom Kulen plateau in 1936, and in 5 weeks of excavations he and his co-workers uncovered the ruins of 17 Hindu temples, fallen carved lintels, statues of the Hindu god Vishnu, and remnants of an awesome stone pyramid. Stern believed that he had situated Mahendraparvata. However the temples of Angkor, constructed on a extra accessible flat plain and visual on a bigger scale, have been extra compelling to archaeologists, and the excavations at Phnom Kulen by no means superior a lot past Stern’s preliminary dig. Then got here many years of neglect and horror.

In 1965, on the top of the Vietnam Struggle, Norodom Sihanouk allowed the North Vietnamese to arrange bases inside Cambodia to assault the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese Military. 4 years later, President Nixon escalated a secret bombing marketing campaign of Cambodia, killing tens of 1000’s and serving to to show a ragtag group of Communist guerrillas into the fanatical Khmer Rouge. This radicalized military marched into Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, in April 1975, declared the 12 months Zero, emptied out cities and herded hundreds of thousands into rice-growing communes. About two million individuals—practically one-quarter of the inhabitants—have been executed or died of hunger and illness earlier than the Vietnamese toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Phnom Kulen grew to become the final sanctuary of the Khmer Rouge, and their chief, Pol Pot, often known as Brother Quantity One. The final of the guerrillas didn’t give up and descend from the plateau till 1998—Pol Pot died that 12 months close to the Thai border, not removed from Phnom Kulen—abandoning a traumatized inhabitants and a panorama strewn with unexploded ordnance.

Chevance reached Phnom Kulen in 2000, whereas conducting analysis for superior levels in Khmer archaeology. “There have been no bridges, no roads; it was simply after the tip of the warfare,” Chevance says as we eat steamed rice and pork with members of his employees, all of us seated on the wood-plank flooring of a conventional stilted home, their headquarters in Anlong Thom, a village on the plateau. “I used to be one of many first Westerners to return to this village for the reason that warfare started,” Chevance says. “Individuals have been, like, ‘Wow.’ And I had a coup de foudre—the sensation of falling in love—for the individuals, the panorama, the structure, the ruins, the forest.”

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It wasn’t till 2012, although, that Chevance marshaled high-tech proof for a misplaced metropolis, after he teamed up with Evans, who is predicated in Siem Reap with the French College of Asian Research. Evans had grow to be fascinated by Lidar (for Gentle Detection and Ranging), which makes use of lasers to probe a panorama, together with hid constructions. Mounted on a helicopter, the laser regularly goals pulses towards the bottom beneath, so many who a big quantity streak by the areas between the leaves and branches, and are mirrored again to the plane and registered by a GPS unit. By calculating the exact distances between the airborne laser and myriad factors on the earth’s floor, pc software program can generate a three-dimensional digital picture of what lies beneath. Lidar had lately revealed particulars of the Mayan ruins of Caracol in Belize’s rainforest, and uncovered La Ciudad Blanca, or The White Metropolis, a legendary settlement within the Honduran jungle that had eluded floor searches for hundreds of years.

The jungles of Kulen introduced an issue, nevertheless: Rampant unlawful logging of helpful hardwoods had stripped away a lot of the first forest, permitting dense new undergrowth to fill within the gaps. It was unclear whether or not the lasers may find sufficient holes within the cover to penetrate to the forest flooring. Regardless of skepticism, Evans, with assist from Chevance, raised sufficient cash to survey greater than 90,000 acres in each Phnom Kulen and Angkor. “The entire thing was pulled along with chewing gum and duct tape,” Evans says.

In April 2012, Evans joined Lidar technicians as they flew in a helicopter at 2,600 toes in a crosshatch sample over Phnom Kulen. About two months after the overflights, Evans, awaiting the processing of visible information they’d collected, switched on his desktop. He stared “in astonishment,” he says, because the ghostly legendary kingdom resolved earlier than his eyes into an intricate cityscape: remnants of boulevards, reservoirs, ponds, dams, dikes, irrigation canals, agricultural plots, low-density settlement complexes and orderly rows of temples. They have been all clustered round what the archaeologists realized have to be a royal palace, an enormous construction surrounded by a community of earthen dikes—the ninth-century fortress of King Jayavarman II. “To suspect {that a} metropolis is there, someplace beneath the forest, after which to see all the construction revealed with such readability and precision was extraordinary,” Evans instructed me. “It was superb.”

Now the 2 archaeologists are utilizing the Lidar photos to know how Mahendraparvata developed as a royal capital. The early water-management system they now noticed intimately demonstrates how water was diverted to areas on the plateau that lacked a gentle circulate, and the way varied constructions managed provides throughout rainless intervals. “They employed a posh sequence of diversions, dikes and dams. These dams are big, and so they required big manpower,” Chevance says. On the daybreak of the Khmer Empire, he goes on, “They have been already displaying an engineering capability that translated into wealth and stability and political energy.”

The Lidar imagery additionally has revealed the presence of dozens of ten-foot-high, 30-foot-wide mounds in symmetrical rows on the jungle flooring. Chevance and Evans at first speculated that they have been burial websites—however, in succeeding excavations, they discovered no bones, ashes, urns, sarcophagi or different artifacts to assist that speculation. “They have been archaeologically sterile,” says Evans. “They’re a thriller, and so they could stay a thriller. We could by no means know what these issues are.” Lidar surveys of Angkor additionally detected a number of mounds which are nearly similar to these at Phnom Kulen—simply certainly one of many startling similarities of the 2 cities. Certainly, because the archaeologists studied the photographs of Mahendraparvata, they realized with a flash of perception that they have been wanting on the template for Angkor.


Chevance and I set out on grime bikes, bouncing over rickety picket bridges that cross silt-laden streams, groaning up steep hills and plunging down switchback trails hemmed in by dense stands of cashew bushes (grown illegally on this reserve). In a single giant clearing we come throughout the discarded remnants of giant mahogany bushes which were felled with a sequence noticed, minimize into items and dragged out in ox carts. Chevance suspects the wrongdoer is an prosperous resident within the village of Anlong Thom, however says that fingering him will likely be pointless. “We are going to ship a report back to a authorities minister, however nothing will change,” he says. “The rangers are on the take.”

On the highest level on the plateau, Chevance leads me on foot up a slope to a monumental five-tiered platform product of sandstone and laterite (a rusty-red rock): the mountaintop pyramid of Rong Chen. The title interprets as Backyard of the Chinese language, and refers to a neighborhood fantasy during which Chinese language seafarers smashed their ship in opposition to the mountaintop at a time when an ocean supposedly surrounded the height. It was right here, in A.D. 802, in accordance with an inscription in Sanskrit and historic Khmer present in an Eleventh-century temple in jap Thailand, that Jayavarman II had himself consecrated king of the Khmer Empire, at the moment a dominion most likely a bit smaller than modern Cambodia. And it was right here, too, that the king created a cult of divinely ordained royal authority. Greater than 1,200 years later, in 2008, Chevance had arrived on the mountaintop with a crew of 120 regionally employed laborers. Authorities consultants demined the world; then the crew started digging. The excavation advised that it was the centerpiece of a royal metropolis—a conviction later confirmed by the Lidar overflights. “You don’t construct a pyramid temple in the midst of nowhere,” Chevance tells me. “It’s an archaeological kind that belongs to a capital metropolis.”

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The Lost City of Cambodia
Braving leeches and cobras, JB Chevance plots floor findings to verify outcomes from the “largest Lidar archaeological survey on this planet.” Chiara Goia

As we speak Rong Chen is a darkly numinous place, the place the glories of an historic Khmer civilization collide with the terrors of a contemporary one. Unexploded mines nonetheless lie buried right here—the results of Khmer Rouge efforts to guard their mountain redoubt from assault. “We noticed a number of mines on the final second after we have been doing the excavations,” Chevance tells me, warning me to not enterprise too removed from the pyramid. “Many of the villages on Phnom Kulen have been mined. The highway between the villages was mined.”

The hilltop camp afforded the Communist fighters a sanctuary close to the strategic metropolis of Siem Reap, then in authorities palms, and served as the bottom from which the Khmer Rouge carried out acts of sabotage—together with blocking a spillway that carried water from Phnom Kulen into the town. “They prevented water from reaching Siem Reap, and the Cambodian Military knew that.” The end result, Chevance says, was that the mountain was bombed. “You’ll be able to nonetheless discover B-52 bomb craters right here.”

Chevance and I get again on our grime bikes and bounce down a path to the best-preserved remnant of Jayavarman II’s capital: an 80-foot-high tower, Prasat O Paong (Temple of the Tree of the Small River), standing alone in a jungle clearing. The facade of the Hindu temple glows a burnished crimson within the setting solar, and complex brickwork reaches to the apex of the tapered column. Ceramics inside this and different temples excavated on Phnom Kulen show that they remained pilgrimage websites as late because the Eleventh century—an indicator that the constructions continued to affect the remainder of the Khmer Empire lengthy after Jayavarman II moved his capital from Phnom Kulen to the Angkor plain and the town’s unique inhabitants had disappeared.


Angkor—which Chevance and Evans describe as “an engineered panorama on a scale maybe with out parallel within the preindustrial world”—is a spot that conjures up superlatives. Reaching its apogee within the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the location, at its peak, was an city middle extending over practically 400 sq. miles. Chevance leads me up the near-vertical stone steps of Pre Rup, a hovering tenth-century construction with a platform product of laterite and sandstone. It represents a transition level, a synthesis of the 2 extraordinary temples we explored on the plateau, Prasat O Paong and Rong Chen. “It’s a pyramid with three ranges,” Chevance tells me, as we clamber among the many abandoned ruins within the warmth. “On high you even have 5 towers just like those we noticed on the mountain. It’s a mixture of two architectural types.”

As has now grow to be clear, because of Lidar, Phnom Kulen, faintly seen on the horizon 25 miles away, influenced way over the later metropolis’s sacred structure. To assist Angkor’s increasing inhabitants, which can have reached a million, engineers developed a water-distribution system that mirrored the one used on the plateau. They collected water from the Siem Reap River, a tributary of the Mekong, that flows from the plateau, in two monumental reservoirs, then constructed an intricate sequence of irrigation channels, dams and dikes that distributed water evenly throughout the plain. Though Angkor’s soil is sandy and never extremely fertile, the masterful engineering allowed farmers to provide a number of rice crops yearly, among the many highest yields in Asia. “The key to their success was their skill to even out the peaks and troughs seasonally and yearly, to stabilize water and subsequently maximize meals manufacturing,” Damian Evans tells me.

Angkor was at its top in the course of the reign of Jayavarman VII (circa 1181-1220), regarded by students as the best king of the Khmer Empire. Two days after my arrival in Angkor, I’m standing with Evans on the very best platform of the king’s masterpiece, the temple often known as the Bayon. Evans gestures throughout a shocking tableau of sandstone terraces, pillars and towers, in addition to galleries carved with bas-reliefs depicting warriors marching into battle. “No king who got here afterward ever constructed on this scale once more,” says Evans. Jayavarman VII, who made Mahayana Buddhism the Khmer Empire’s state faith, grafted what are generally believed to be his personal options onto a serenely smiling Buddhist divinity. Its huge stone face beams in dozens of iterations all through this complicated, radiating compassion and kindness throughout the 4 corners of the empire.

It’s right here, within the coronary heart of Jayavarman VII’s capital, that the histories of Ang­kor and Mahendraparvata converge most powerfully. “You’re looking at cities which are extensively separated in house and time,” Evans tells me. “However every has an city core outlined by a grid of streets and a central state temple—the Bayon right here, Rong Chen there—on the middle.”

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But the Lidar information present that the cities adopted divergent paths. Whereas Mahendraparvata was a masterpiece of city planning, with temples and dwellings fastidiously laid out by Jayavarman II round extensive boulevards—a Khmer model of Haussmann’s Paris—Angkor developed haphazardly. Densely populated neighborhoods of picket homes squeezed in opposition to the sides of the Bayon. Evans describes Angkor as a “messy aggregation of centuries of improvement, with options superimposed one on high of one other.”

Beneath the jungle cover south of the town, Evans’ Lidar surveys have detected big spirals inscribed into the panorama, protecting one sq. mile, paying homage to the traditional geoglyphs found within the Nazca Desert of southern Peru. Just like the thriller mounds, the spirals contained no artifacts, no clues about their operate. “They might have a that means encoded in them which will by no means be recognized,” Evans says.


The sheer ambition of the Khmer kings, their re-engineering of a jungled panorama into an city one, sowed the seeds of destruction. New analysis has supplied a clearer image of the sequence of occasions which will have doomed Mahendraparvata. The Lidar information revealed that its inhabitants didn’t have interaction in terraced rice farming of their mountain metropolis—which meant that they virtually definitely relied on slash-and-burn agriculture. That will have depleted the soil quickly, and doubtless contributed to the decline and fall of the town. The proof backs up analysis performed by Chevance and a colleague, who analyzed soil samples taken from a reservoir on Phnom Kulen. Proof confirmed that huge quantities of soil and sand “received washed down the valley, indicating deforestation,” says Chevance. Soil from a later date contained a excessive focus of jungle vegetation, which means that the land had been deserted and brought over once more by the tropical forest.

Within the case of Mahendraparvata, this course of probably occurred extra quickly than at Angkor—a serious inhabitants middle for about 600 years—the place decline got here extra slowly. Over time, the artificially engineered panorama virtually definitely led to topsoil degradation, deforestation and different adjustments that drastically decreased the capability to feed the inhabitants and made Angkor more and more tough to handle.

Leaders of the rival kingdom of Ayutthaya, in what’s now Thailand, sacked Angkor in 1431. It was deserted and left to decay, doomed to the identical destiny as its predecessor, Mahendraparvata. “There are within the kingdom of Cambodia the ruins of an historic metropolis, which some say was constructed by Romans or by Alexander the Nice,” the Spanish explorer Marcelo de Ribadeneyra wrote when he chanced upon Angkor practically two centuries later. “It’s a marvelous undeniable fact that not one of the natives can dwell in these ruins, that are the resorts of untamed beasts.”

“There are nonetheless many inquiries to reply,” Chevance tells me. “We all know extra about temples and kings than on a regular basis life.” In the case of the inhabitants of Mahendraparvata, Chevance provides, a elementary query underlies his work: “How did they dwell?”

Answering that question will likely be tough, as a result of few traces of odd Khmer life stay: Whereas temples —constructed for the ages—endure, Mahendraparvata’s inhabitants constructed their dwelling locations out of wooden, which rotted away way back. Even the royal palace, which most likely employed 1000’s of individuals, has been decreased to some crumbling platforms, pavements, gutters, dikes and roof tiles.

Final 12 months, as a part of the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative, Evans and Chevance performed a brand new sequence of helicopter surveys of Phnom Kulen to absorb “all the mountain vary,” says Evans—greater than 100 sq. miles encompassing archaeological websites, rock quarries and traces of historic cities. The CALI undertaking additionally included overflights to research historic provincial facilities of army and industrial significance, in addition to the Khmer capital of Sambor Prei Kuk, 100 miles south of Angkor. Town endured from the seventh to the ninth centuries, declining simply as Angkor was on the rise. In complete, the CALI marketing campaign lined greater than 700 sq. miles.

Ten floor groups labored alongside the aerial survey groups in distant areas, and in excessive warmth, refueling choppers, conferring with native authorities, gathering precision GPS information at floor stations, and persuading native individuals to cease burning off forest, in order that flights counting on aerial sensors wouldn’t have the bottom obscured by smoke.

The results of this formidable effort, funded by the European Analysis Council, was a “distinctive archive,” says Evans, of the ways in which human beings reworked the pure atmosphere and formed Khmer historical past over 2,000 years. The outcomes will likely be printed in a peer-reviewed journal later this 12 months. Additional surveys are deliberate utilizing drones and satellites. Evans’ groups are presently on the bottom throughout Cambodia, investigating floor stays proven by Lidar. This formidable effort, he believes, finally will reveal all the mosaic of Southeast Asia’s biggest civilization, solely now starting to return into focus. Finally, he believes, what’s going to emerge is a blinding, nuanced understanding of a “complicated hierarchy with an unmatched scale.”

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