The Lost City of Cambodia

March 24, 2016

Jean-Baptiste Chevance senses that we’re closing in on our target. Paused in a jungle clearing in northwestern Cambodia, the French archaeologist studies his GPS and mops the sweat from his forehead with a bandanna.

The temperature is pushing 95, and the equatorial sun beats down through the forest canopy. For two hours, Chevance, known to everyone as JB, has been leading me, along with a two-man Cambodian research team, on a grueling trek. We’ve ripped our arms and faces on six-foot shrubs studded with thorns, been savaged by red biting ants, and stumbled over vines that stretch at ankle height across the forest floor. Chevance checks the coordinates. “You can see that the vegetation here is very green, and the plants are different from the ones we have seen,” he says. “That’s an indication of a permanent water source.”

Seconds later, as if on cue, the ground beneath our feet gives way, and we sink into a three-foot-deep muddy pool. Chevance, a lanky 41-year-old dressed in olive drab and toting a black backpack, smiles triumphantly. We are quite possibly the first human beings to set foot in this square-shaped, man-made reservoir in more than 1,000 years. Yet this isn’t merely an overgrown pond we’ve stumbled into. It’s proof of an advanced engineering system that propelled and sustained a vanished civilization.

The vast urban center that Chevance is now exploring was first described more than a century ago, but it had been lost to the jungle until researchers led by him and an Australian colleague, Damian Evans, rediscovered it in 2012. It lies on this overgrown 1,300-foot plateau, known as Phnom Kulen (Mountain of the Lychee fruit), northeast of Siem Reap.

Numerous excavations as well as high-tech laser surveys conducted from helicopters have revealed that the lost city was far more sophisticated than anyone had ever imagined—a sprawling network of temples, palaces, ordinary dwellings and waterworks infrastructure. “We knew this might be out there,” says Chevance, as we roar back down a jungle trail toward his house in a rural village on the plateau. “But this gave us the evidence we were hoping for.”

Phnom Kulen is only some 25 miles north of a metropolis that reached its zenith three centuries later—the greatest city of the Khmer Empire, and possibly the most glorious religious center in the history of mankind: Angkor, derived from the Sanskrit word nagara, or holy city, site of the famed temple Angkor Wat. But first there arose Phnom Kulen, the birthplace of the great Khmer civilization that dominated most of Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 15th centuries.

The Khmer Empire would find its highest expression at Angkor. But the defining elements of Kulen—sacred temples, reflecting the influence of Hinduism, decorated with images of regional deities and the Hindu god Vishnu, and a brilliantly engineered water-supply system to support this early Khmer capital—would later be mirrored and enlarged at Angkor. By the 12th century, at Angkor, adherence to Buddhism would also put its own stamp on the temples there.

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