Trea­sures of the Cam­bo­dian jun­gle

The lost Kh­mer city of Ph­nom Kulen is more an­cient and less crowded than Angkor Wat

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia -

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

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