Treasures of the Cambodian jungle
The lost Khmer city of Phnom Kulen is more ancient and less crowded than Angkor Wat
JUST how does a modern traveller find an ancient lost city? In the soupy heat of the northwest Cambodian j ungle, I choose Lin to lead the way. He is one of several boys on scooters waiting by the edge of a dirt track, surrounded by banana trees and chirping cicadas. Wearing thongs and a blue T-shirt that reads ‘‘cosmic’’, Lin’s 110hp Suzuki is my ticket into the black hole of time.
We are heading towards the lost city of Mahendraparvata, the sacred mountain site where the reign of King Jayavarman II was consecrated in AD802. From this capital, the mighty Khmer Empire began a rice-rich domination of Southeast Asia that was to last more than 600 years. More recent times saw a long period when Cambodia’s interests were bounced between neighbours, then the country came under French protection in 1863. In November last year Cambodia marked 60 years since independence from France.
Buried beneath centuries of vegetation, the existence of Mahendraparvata — now commonly called Phnom Kulen — was confirmed to the world last June. Some believe it to have been the largest settlement complex of the pre-industrial world. The remnants of the city were revealed by hi- tech archaeological research involving eight organisations, six countries and an airborne laser-scanning process known as Lidar. Pre-dating its neighbour Angkor Wat by three centuries, the edge of the city is only 40km from the two million people who visit those UNESCOprotected temples each year. The ‘‘lost city’’ is new, crowd-free and even more ancient. Suddenly old is new again.
Nobody said it would be an easy ride, though. We negotiate potholes, ankledeep bogs and one particularly rickety bridge where a plank of rotted two-byfour is all that lies between us and a watery garage sale.
Several kilometres on, Lin gears down abruptly and veers off the road. Both sides of the skinny trail are choked by inky-dark jungle foliage. What is out there is anyone’s bet. What is in my head is last night’s advice, gleaned in a bar in downtown Siem Reap: ‘‘The general rule in Cambodia is to always make sure that you stay on the path.’’
The sage counsel came from the lips of Stephane De Greef. He came to Cambodia in 2001 from his native Belgium to map minefields, a deadly business in a land where war raged from 1970 to 1998 and Pol Pot considered the invisible weapons his ‘‘perfect soldiers’’. More recently, de Greef applied his cartography skills to help University of Sydney archaeologist Damian Evans on Phnom Kulen.
After months of hiking, digging, plotting and scanning, the analysis finally came through. They had hit the jackpot.
Arranging an ersatz treasure map of chopsticks and salt shakers on the table, De Greef spells out what 1000 years of not mowing the grass can do. To get as far as the mapped zone, we will have to ride motorbikes, bushwhack through dense overgrowth and possible landmines and, oh yes, rebuild a bridge taken out by the arrival of the rainy season.
So, when Lin’s motorbike runs out of passable track, it demands full engagement of my inner explorer to access even the outer reaches of this metropolis. Who knew urban sprawl was a ninth-century invention? Slapped by rubber plants, beaten by the odd banana bush, we dismount for a half-hour tramp to Sras Damrei, a plateau 397m above sea level. Through the trees, I spy an elephant sporting a regal moss-green robe: 4.6m high and carved 1200 years earlier from a single sandstone block.
Beside it, two giant lions offer stoic company, ferocious jaws frozen open since AD802. Following their gaze through dark, damp foliage, just beyond a blood-red landmine marker hacked into a tree trunk, a millennia-old city as big as Hong Kong still waits to be unearthed.
Archeologists have already located about 30 temples on Phnom Kulen using helicopter-mounted lasers to measure variations in ground height through dense vegetation, a process De Greef