6 mins

Hunt the hidden temple, Cambodia

In June 2013 it was confirmed that a jungly plateau in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province was the site of Mahendraparvata, birthplace of the Khmer Empire – and offering a rare chance for travellers to be true pioneers

A life-size elephant that stands at Srah Damrei, Phnom Kulen (Image: Terence Carter)

The silhouette of an enormous snake-like figure that seemed to be slithering along the surface of the earth suddenly emerged from the rice fields. Was I seeing things in the dark?

I rubbed my bleary eyes.

It was pitch black when our Cambodian guide Raftanak arrived at 5am in an air-conditioned 4WD to collect my husband and I from our hotel overlooking the river in Siem Reap, the popular base for exploring magnificent, Unesco World Heritage-listed Angkor Wat. The night before I’d fallen asleep with a book on pre-Angkorian history. It told the folk-story of Kaundinya, a Brahmin prince from an Indian solar dynasty, who’d arrived in the area and threw his javelin to identify the site of his future capital. That decision made, he married a snake-woman called Soma (moon), the daughter of the Naga, or cobra king, thereby uniting the solar and lunar dynasties. So maybe I was dreaming.

Thirty minutes later, as the sun began its rise from behind the mountain, its light piercing the low-lying clouds above, a strange phenomenon had me rubbing my eyes once more. Enormous pink, peach, apricot and gold puffs of cloud rose in a formation resembling smoke signals from old Hollywood cowboy movies, then vanished as quickly as they’d appeared. The sun illuminated the sky and the countryside, revealing clusters of coconut palms and ramshackle wooden huts on spindly stilts reflected in the still waters of the sodden rice paddies.

“Is that Phnom Kulen?” I asked Raftanak, pointing to the python-like plateau. ‘Phnom’ means ‘mountain’ in Khmer. “Yes, that’s Phnom Kulen – Mountain of the Lychees!” he confirmed. “It’s our holy mountain. Our ancestors called it Mahendraparvata, Mountain of Indra, King of the Gods.”

Indra was also the Hindu king of men, and god of the sky, rain and prosperity, frequently seen with his steed, the elephant Airavata. Yet it was the gods Shiva and Vishnu who were more important to Khmers; they adopted the Indian deities, which they worshiped beside their own.

Shiva, to whom many temples were dedicated, was supreme protector of the empire, responsible for the kingdom, while Vishnu protected universal order and harmony. Shiva was identified by his three eyes (representing the sun, moon and fire), the trident in his hand and the ox that carried him. Vishnu carried a wheel-like chakra, club, conch and a ball representing the earth, and rode a half-eagle half-man garuda. The Khmers worshipped Shiva in the form of a linga, a stone phallus that represented the essence of the god; it was mounted on a pedestal representing a yoni, a woman’s organ, and was the focus of ceremonies conducted by Brahmin priests.

We were headed for Phnom Kulen to see what remains we could find of Mahendraparvata. It was on this mountain that the Khmer Empire was founded in AD802, when a Brahmin priest performed a ritual that made Jayavarman II ‘universal monarch’ of what would become one of Asia’s most powerful empires. The young prince initially established his capital at Hariharalaya, now known as Roluos, not far from Siem Reap, before moving it some 30km north-east to Phnom Kulen.

Archaeologists working on the mountain had long suspected that the ruins – including vine-covered towers, massive mossy statues of elephants and lions, and sprawling carvings of lingas on the streambeds – suggested Phnom Kulen was the location of Mahendraparvata. Inscriptions on porticoes and stelae found at archaeological sites across the Khmer Empire supported this. But according to our guide, the locals residing in the villages that dot Kulen’s plateau had always known this was the case – the people of Mahendraparvata had been their ancestors, after all.

However, it wasn’t until July 2012, when Australian archaeologists Dr Damian Evans and Dr Roland Fletcher of Sydney University watched the results of a hi-tech airborne survey unfurl before their eyes, that there was finally confirmation that Mahendraparvata was buried beneath the vegetation blanketing Phnom Kulen. Not only that, but the data on their computer screen revealed that Mahendraparvata was far larger than anyone could have predicted – as was Angkor Wat.

The data was collected by a laser instrument called LiDAR, which was strapped to a helicopter that criss-crossed 370 sq km of archaeological sites. It confirmed what Fletcher had surmised years before: that Angkor was one monumental, highly engineered urban landscape without parallel in the pre-industrial world, and that Phnom Kulen and Koh Ker – another remote, ruinous city included in the survey – were later incorporated into Angkor’s conurbation as service cities.

After all, Phnom Kulen was resource-rich, the source of the water flowing down into the Siem Reap River and along streams and canals to the ponds that stored water for the colossal city. It was also home to quarries that provided the sandstone used to build Angkor Wat, and the skilled artisans who carved the elaborate stonework and statues.

It wasn’t until June 2013, when a peer-review of the findings was completed, that the news was publicly released. I was in Siem Reap at the time; I’d already revisited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other temples, including the Roluos group, but I hadn’t been to Phnom Kulen. I was eager to experience the mysterious Mahendraparvata, about which so little was known.

As we approached, the 32km-long plateau teased us each time it came into view, reeling us in closer with its history, myths, legends and recent news. Half an hour after the sun rose, we reached the base of the 492m-high mountain. Then it was another hour of measured driving over a rough road, cracked and pot-holed from monsoon rains, to the River of A Thousand Lingas.

There we met APSARA Authority archaeologist, Mr Hak, who is responsible for maintaining the Phnom Kulen sites. We hopped on motorbikes behind local guides and set off on a day-long bone-rattling ride to see some dozen sites. The additional guides were needed because much of Phnom Kulen, once a Khmer Rouge stronghold, was still riddled with landmines.

Few foreign tourists get to Phnom Kulen – Raftanak and his moto-guys do the trip on average twice a month. However, the River of A Thousand Lingas, its waterfalls and a giant 16th-century reclining gilded Buddha carved out of solid rock at nearby Preah Ang Thom, are popular with Buddhist pilgrims and picnicking locals looking for respite from the sticky heat.

We went to Phnom Kulen to see the sites few people see, so after photographing the carved lingas that lay beneath the water, we were on our way, bouncing along rough tracks, volcanic rocks and muddy courses. We crossed dilapidated wooden bridges and whizzed through rapidly flowing streams. We climbed slippery clay hillsides and hiked narrow trails lined with towering trees. We puttered along routes through thick forest only our guides could identify; when no path existed, they carved one out with a scythe. That was our routine for the day, each arduous journey ending with a reward.

We gazed in awe at gigantic stone elephants and lions resting in the dappled light at Srah Damrei (Elephant Pond), and a massive moss-covered jumbo at Damrei Krap (Kneeling Elephant). Time and again, we wearily alighted from the bikes in a shaded clearing only to be startled to life by the appearance of a solitary temple or trio of towers hidden beneath foliage.

There were the tumbledown brick temples of O’Thma, Prasat Neak Ta and Prasat Chrei, surrounded by long grass and grown over with shrubs, some decorated, others bare, their riches having been stolen. At the latter we felt like Indiana Jones when we discovered a lintel adorned with lotus flowers.

The most impressive site was the tangerine-coloured temple tower of Prasat O’Paong, tufts of long grass sprouting between its bricks. And then there were the carvings of Shiva, Vishnu and a row of rishis (wise men) on immense lichen-covered boulders at Poeng Tbal, where we got caught in torrential rain.

But the most special sight was not the most impressive visually. After scrambling over the remains of the laterite three-tiered pyramid temple of Prasat Rong Chen, we arrived at the top. Once, a linga on the pedestal here marked where the Brahmin priest performed the rite that made Jayavarman II absolute monarch. The place wasn’t much to look at. There were no shapely statues or intricate carvings. And there was very little in the way of a narrative, for much of Mahendraparvata – and what became of it – remains a mystery. Yet it was magical just knowing that I was standing at the very birthplace of the entire Khmer Empire.

The author travelled with Backyard Travel. A one-day Kulen Discovery Tour including transfers from Siem Reap to Phnom Kulen, entry tickets, motorbike hire, guides and lunch costs US$136pp (£90) based on two travelling.

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