Extraordinarily, through the gap I’ve ducked into, between the medieval laterite walls and dense woodland, I can still glimpse magnificent Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction, that sees well over a million visitors a year scramble its sprawling sandstone structures.
I’ve slipped beneath what appeared from the uppermost levels of the Khmer Empire temple-city to be impenetrable jungle. Fortunately it’s not. There’s no need to slash my way through the forest Indiana Jones-style with a machete. Nor do I need a bullwhip. At worst, I brush spider-webs from my hair and when I stand in the same spot for more than a minute I have to swat the red ants that sting my ankles.
Beneath the canopy of trees — so dense only dappled light pierces through, spotlighting patches of sodden earth blanketed in layers of rotting leaves — the forest floor is dimly lit, yet airy and spacious. It would make a lovely camping spot.
Indeed, a short tramp away in a clearing, several colourful plastic tarpaulins are fixed to poles, providing shelter from monsoonal showers. As I get closer, smoke from a smouldering fire wafts my way. Built to deter mosquitoes as much as barbecue lunch, skewered dried squids wait beside it to be grilled.
On the ground I spy an ancient-looking slingshot and box of earthen balls rolled from the clay mud. Archaeological finds or tools for procuring lunch? For now, I still hear an abundance of birds chirping happily nearby.
This is no camping ground, but an excavation site — one of myriad archaeological digs underway in the Angkor area that come under the umbrella of the Greater Angkor Project.
Beneath one of the tarps, Coline Cardeño, a young University of the Philippines archaeology student with a big smile, stands in a deep grave-like trench scribbling measurements onto a clipboard. Not far away, at the end of another trench, American archaeologist Dr Alison Carter sits at a table piled with papers and a MacBook with a battery-life obviously longer than mine.
These two archaeologists, along with others I meet — Cambodian PhD candidate Piphal Heng, ceramics specialist Rachna Chhay from the APSARA Authority, which manages Angkor Archaeological Park, and the University of Hawaii’s Dr Miriam Stark — are doing fieldwork in the walled area surrounding Angkor Wat.
Archaeologists have worked around Siem Reap in northern Cambodia since soon after French naturalist Henri Mouhot ‘discovered’ Angkor Wat in 1860. Of course, he didn’t discover it at all. The locals always knew the temples were there, even those swallowed by the jungle, and Angkor Wat had always been their place of worship. Mouhot just brought the site to the attention of the rest of the world.
While there’s no doubt the majestic monument was a temple-city, there’s always been speculation about the area around it. In recent years, Sydney University’s Dr Damian Evans and Dr Roland Fletcher and French archaeologist Christophe Pottier, after mapping the area over many years using old-fashioned satellite imagery, guessed that a great city sprawled outside Angkor Wat’s walls.
However, it wasn’t until a hi-tech airborne laser survey conducted in April 2012 that was able to penetrate the dense foliage to deliver highly precise data, that the existence of a monumental urban conurbation could be confirmed. My arrival in Siem Reap coincided with the June 2013 public release of a report analysing the research.
As I trudge through the forest with Evans, architect of the groundbreaking project and an author of the report, he points out bumps and depressions on the ground that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. Thanks to the data collected, digital images of the terrain clearly reveal for the first time detailed traces of a sophisticated, highly engineered metropolis surrounding Angkor Wat.
Now it’s up to the young archaeologists in the trenches, digging up remnants of the civilization — from floor tiles to pottery shards — to figure out who lived in the city and how they lived. Were they priests, temple staff, artisans, or Apsara dancers? Did they live there permanently or only camp out during temple ceremonies and festivals? And what happened to them?
When I climb to the highest point of Angkor Wat, after wiping the beads of perspiration that quickly form on my brow, and I gaze across the landscape, lush green from recent rains, I will have to catch my breath. I won’t be able to look at the land around Angkor Wat or even Siem Reap in the same way again. That’s exciting.