Phnom Penh, Cambodia – By the time they encountered a ten-meter-tall brick wall, trees growing from its top, they had been walking through the jungle for an hour. It actually wasn’t that far from the village, but there was no straight path. No path at all, in fact. A motorbike couldn’t get through, so they walked. Following their guide, they zigzagged through unfamiliar terrain. They were compelled to look steadfastly down at the ground and step, as best they could, into the footprints of the person before. It was a matter of life or death. They were walking through a minefield, not far from the border between Cambodia and Thailand in the Oddar Meanchay province.
Before leaving on this expedition through the forest, Nady Phann, an official from Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture, asked a local villager if there would be any mines. Phann was well aware of this legacy of his country’s war-torn past. “There are many”, the villager said. “We found five or six mines per day when we were planting rice.”
Despite that danger, on that day, in February of 2013, Phann and his team discovered five pre-Angkorian temples. These were temples that had been built before the rise of Angkor, a region of Cambodia that served as the center of the Khmer Empire, the most powerful empire of ancient Southeast Asia. Angkor flourished from approximately the 9th to the 15th centuries, AD, but these temples were made of brick and, according to Phann, they were probably built between the 6th and 8th centuries. Some were almost completely ruined. Others still stood. As he always does when he finds a new temple, he noted the exact location – latitude and longitude – took a few photos, and sketched a plan on a piece of paper. His favorite site, which the locals call ‘The Temple of the Black Water Lake’, consists of three temples in a line close to a nearly dried-up reservoir, with the tallest structure in the middle between the two smaller ones. He also recorded the names of the other sites: the ‘Little Monkey Temple’, the ‘Red Temple’, and strangely, the ‘Economic Development Temple’.
“I don’t know how (the economic development) temple got its name,” Phann admitted. “Maybe it comes from the Khmer Rouge. We have to study the names of the temples — (to find out) if the villagers gave the names or if the name relates to an inscription.”
He was pleased, but not completely blown away by his discovery. That is because more than 150 years after French traveler Henri Mouhot first stumbled upon Angkor Wat (Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction, which is sometimes described as the world’s largest religious monument) archaeologists working in Cambodia are still discovering ancient temples almost every year.
There are approximately four thousand known Angkorian and pre-Angkorian-era archeological sites in Cambodia, including temples, bridges, reservoirs, and theaters – and new sites are being added to this inventory every year, according to Damian Evans, a University of Sydney archaeologist who studies ancient Cambodian temples. However, most of the newly discovered “temples” do not resemble the grandeur of Angkor Wat. A temple ten meters high is an unusual discovery, he said.
“Over the last 20 years, it’s been a constant process of finding several hundred new temples per year,” he said. “But if they’re finding temples of that size, that’s quite an amazing discovery. Normally we just find piles of bricks, just some rubble on the ground, a few pots here and there. It’s definitely not every day that you find a structure with walls.”
During his career with the Ministry of Culture, Phann added dozens of long-lost ancient temples to the map of Cambodia – probably more than anyone else alive, says Evans.
According to Yern Hong, the director of the culture department of Oddar Meanchay province, the temples were initially discovered by villagers who went into the forest to gather fruits and hunt for animals. Others say that the temples were found by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, who hid in the forest near the Thai border while fighting the government’s army. But in either case, they didn’t inform authorities in Cambodia’s capital, and that is why the temples had not been documented or studied by archaeologists until now. Even after officials were told about the temples, they couldn’t visit them because of their remote location in the jungle, inaccessible by roads and surrounded by mine fields. Peace had only recently been restored in this sparsely populated area of Cambodia.
While Cambodia’s capital was liberated from the genocidal rule of the communist Khmer Rouge in 1979, fighting continued in some remote corners of the country – particularly near the Thai border – into the 1990s. According to Keo Tann, the police chief of the Traipang Prasat district where the temples were discovered, this area was occupied by the Khmer Rouge until 1998 or 1999.
“Both the Khmer Rouge and the government soldiers laid the mines. The Khmer Rouge reconciled with the government, but the landmines are still in the ground, they didn’t go anywhere. No one can go there because even the soldiers who laid the mines forgot where they put them,” he said.
Mining the areas around ancient temples was a common practice during Cambodia’s civil war because the stone structures could be used as bunkers, according to Heng Ratana, the director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), the country’s government de-mining agency.
The remote Oddar Meanchay province is one of the least populated in Cambodia. Christophe Pottier, an archaeologist with Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient who works in Cambodia, said that there is approximately one village every 50 kilometers. The temples, hidden by the forest, could not be seen in areal photographs.
In recent years, however, the country’s rapid economic development, the end of the war, and the push to build and pave more roads have led more people to move into previously unoccupied areas. More long-lost temples also began coming into view due to deforestation – in the last ten years, so much of Cambodia’s virgin forests disappeared due to logging that the country, which had appeared mostly green in photographs taken from space, now looks brown, a local newspaper recently reported.
Why so many temples?
There were thousands of stone temples in ancient Angkor, which between the 10th and 13th centuries extended from the border of Myanmar to the west and the Champa Kingdom in Southern Vietnam to the east.
Angkor’s temples, which were built to worship Hindu gods, were erected not only by the king, but also by ordinary people, and were also built to honor deceased ancestors, according to history professor Sombo Manara at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Over time, it was not uncommon for old temples to be abandoned and new temples to be built somewhere else, leading to an increase in the number of temples over time.
Finding the temples gives historians a better idea about the exact location and extent of the ancient kingdom, and allows them to study how populations moved over time.
“Each of these small temples was a center of a community in the Angkor Empire,” Evans said. “For reasons we don’t clearly understand, the temples were abandoned. Once Angkor collapsed, this whole extended area collapsed at the same time.”
Some theories posit that the empire collapsed after being defeated by a Siamese invasion. According to other versions, climatic changes or drought may have played a role, or the fact that Hinduism was replaced by Buddhism, a more egalitarian religion.
Whatever the reason for Angkor’s demise, Phann and other archaeologists will continue searching for more ancient temples in Cambodia. Nady said he will return to Oddar Meanchey province again in the near future to explore the forest further – as he has heard that there are more temples beyond the minefields.
“We have to do the inventory of all the temples,” he said. “If we know where the temples are, we can inform the companies (that work in the region) that we want to protect these areas”.
* * *
The Names of Angkor’s Lost Temples
Most of the names that are now used to refer to the ancient temples of the Angkor Empire are not original, according to Christophe Pottier, an archaeologist with Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient.
“In 98 percent of the cases, the current names are totally unrelated to the ancient names,” he said. “In the Angkor region, we know of temples that changed names three times in a century.”
Moreover, he says, “while some temples change names often, others share the same name. We have maybe 20 temples named ‘Prasat Pum,’ which means ‘the village temple’”.
Pottier explains that when archaeologists find an ancient temple that was previously unknown to them, they usually write down the name that the local people use, but also give the structure a new and unique number.