What kind of skill set does it take to discover a 1,200-year old city hidden in the Cambodian jungle? It doesn’t hurt if you are a professional map-maker, land mine expert, and dirt bike addict as I learned from Stephane De Greef, a full-time explorer and part time tour guide that Siem Reap specialists AboutAsia Travel set me up with on my last trip to Cambodia. De Greef, an adventurous 36-year old Belgian citizen, has lived in Siem Reap for more than a decade and is chief cartographer for the Archaeology and Development Foundation, an NGO that uses archaeological exploration as a tool for community job creation and tourism development and which last weekend announced the discovery of a lost city on a sandstone plateau 30 miles north of the famed temple Angkor Wat.
The plateau, known locally as Phnom Kulen, or “Lychee Mountain,” is where a warrior king, Jayavarman II was recorded to have founded the Angkorean empire in the ninth century AD. Between 1900 and 1970, French archaeologists discovered the ruins of about 36 small temples scattered here amid thick forest crisscrossed by streams and waterfalls. Hard to reach and contaminated by Khmer Rouge land mines laid between 1979 and 1996, the Phnom Kulen monuments have never been fully excavated nor incorporated into the larger Angkor site, which today comprises about 1,000 religious sites of which Angkor Wat is the best preserved, visited by three million tourists annually.
De Greef, a 36-year old citizen of Belgium, is a bio engineer specializing in nature forestry management. He originally came to Cambodia in 2002 to research and clear cluster munitions for several NGOs, including the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. An amateur myrmecologist (someone who studies ants), he guided visiting biologists in his spare time and helped identify hundreds of insect species; his collection of Cambodian ants has been incorporated into the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. In 2010 he joined ADF, which co-funded a $500,000 project to survey a 142 square mile area using a helicopter and LIDAR, a remote sensing technology that bounces millions of laser beams off the ground to detect man-made earth disturbances beneath forest canopy and other natural features.
His task was to map the mountain, exploring by foot and dirt bike. Wielding a machete to clear brush, watching out for old ordinance, De Greef used a digital camera and GPS to inspect topographic anomalies and compare LIDAR data with archeological and ethnographic maps from the 1970s. In the process he found physical evidence of old trails, dykes, and temple roofing that helped the ADF team understand how the ancient temples made of stone would have been connected to urban infrastructure and manmade waterways that enabled the Angkor empire to grow rice for a population of perhaps 1.9 million. "Phnom Kulen is not just a few dozen temples, but an entire city, linked by roads, canals, dykes, and divided into blocks. It's the first time to see the urban fabric of Angkor as opposed to isolated religious monuments," he confided to me last December over lunch at Khmer Kitchen, his favorite Siem Reap restaurant. (The official announcement last weekend, including the discovery of 28 previously unknown temples and dozens of carvings in a riverbed, had to await academic peer review.)
To an untrained eye the “city” looks like termite mounds and overgrown rice paddies, littered here and there by bricks, stone blocks, and relief carvings. It will take years for archaeologists to excavate the plateau sites, including one never looted temple with a mile-long boundary wall, and for the Cambodian government to secure and create infrastructure for tourism. In the meantime, I was lucky to have De Greef as my companion on a visit to Banteay Srei, a tenth-century Angkorean temple a few miles from Phnom Kulen. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, fantastically well preserved red sandstone carvings of elephants and horse-drawn chariots provide clues give to what life in the lost mountain city might have looked like. Fluent in Angkor history, De Greef was just as insightful about the lingering social effects of land mines and the ways tourism often fails to uplift the communities living around antiquities.
If you travel to Cambodia, the adventure travel company Terre Cambodge works with ADF to benefit the community living around Phnom Kulen, which is also the site of a national park with guided trails between waterfalls and some of the temples discovered by early French archaeologists. Stephane De Greef moonlights for AboutAsia Travel, which specializes in expert-led, off the beaten path itineraries.
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