The Jungle Megacities of Cambodia

How Early Megacities Emerged From the Jungles of Cambodia and how instability, climate, and neglect drove their slow collapse.

When I arrived in Phnom Penh during Cambodia’s dry season in January, I stumbled through the streets in a jet-lagged daze, barely seeing the dense city around me. My mind was on thousand-year-old Khmer temples, their golden facades crumbling into worn stone blocks and imprisoned by thickly braided tree roots. These structures, from the Khmer Empire’s capital at Angkor, have been synonymous with the myth of lost cities for at least two centuries. You can even find Lara Croft exploring the legendary ruins of the Angkorian temple Ta Prohm in the first Tomb Raider movie. But unlike Roman civilization, Khmer traditions are not lost or dead. The culture that blossomed at Angkor—a form of Theravada Buddhism combined with centralized state power—continues to shape many aspects of Cambodian life today. Once I’d gotten some sleep, I could see it on the streets of Phnom Penh, the city where Khmer royals fled in the 15th century as Angkor fell apart. Today, the nearly 600-year-old capital’s buildings are obscured by tangles of electrical cables instead of tree roots, and fences around modern-day palaces are topped with coiled razor wire so fine it shimmers in the sun like jewels.

Phnom Penh is joined to Angkor by the Tonle Sap River, which winds north from the modern city before widening into the Tonle Sap Lake that provided the ancient capital’s farms with nourishing floodwaters every year. Eleven hundred years ago, Angkor was one of the biggest metropolises in the world, thronging with nearly a million residents, tourists, and pilgrims. When the 13th-century Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan visited, he described elaborate city walls, breathtaking statues, golden palaces, and vast reservoirs with artificial islands. And yet even as Zhou fought his way through crowded streets to witness the king’s sumptuous processions, the city was pregnant with its own demise. The Khmer kings were losing their hold over the empire’s provincial capitals abroad, and neglecting the city’s crucial water infrastructure at home. Some years, Angkor’s dams burst during rainy season; other years, silt choked the canals and slowed the flow of mountain water to a trickle. And each time this happened, repairs got harder. Farming got harder. Trade slowed down, and political tensions heated up. By the mid-15th century, the city’s population had fallen from hundreds of thousands to mere hundreds.

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