Jungle Atlantis: Archaeology at Angkor

Any expat knows that foreign television is just not as good as the shows we leave behind. Thanks to Hola, a genius invention which blocks your IP address, I am able to access iPlayer in Cambodia when I feel the need for a BBC boost!

This week, BBC 2 aired a two part documentary on Cambodia, more specifically Angkor Wat and the lost metropolis beneath the iconic ruins: Jungle Atlantis. After messages from several people on Facebook, I felt obliged to settle down on my favourite couch in my favourite cafe and pretend that I was back in the UK. As a historian, with a limited understanding of archaeology, and someone who loves Cambodia, this show allowed me learn so much about a different era of Khmer history to that which I am accustomed to studying. Sadly, Cambodian internet deemed that I was only going to learn about part one of the documentary and decided not to summon enough wifi strength to allow me to watch the second.

Angkor reflected in a lily pond

Angkor reflected in a lily pond

Cambodians are very proud of their history as a giant superpower of Southeast Asia but most Khmer have limited knowledge of this time period. The new technology used in the programme by a team of international experts, LiDAR, creates 3D images of the buildings, infrastructure, and layout of the city which once surrounded Angkor Wat, the only visible (to the naked eye) sign that Angkor was once home to almost 750,000 people. It was fascinating to see this long forgotten city brought back to life, illustrating the progressive hydraulic engineering works, extensive road networks, and sophisticated societal layout of this Khmer metropolis.

Mysterious coiled buildings

Mysterious coiled buildings

Hydraulic engineering around Angkor

Hydraulic engineering around Angkor

Although the Khmer Empire and the monuments which continue to dazzle millions of tourists every year were built and maintained using forced labour, this is a period of history which Cambodia can and should be proud of. Instead, the country is all too often by its more recent, more brutal, more well known genocide. The fact that this show spent barely one minute summarising the Khmer Rouge regime and instead focused on Cambodia’s former successes, was a definite positive. The Khmer Rouge dramatically impacted Cambodia’s development within the modern era. My Masters research highlighted many of the continued traditions between medieval Cambodia and modern day Cambodia, something also shown in this documentary. The continued use of ox carts and the entire country’s dependence on rice as an economic basis illustrates the limited progress of the Khmer community, somewhat surprising since the Khmer Empire was so progressive.

The presence of so many international experts in Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, is a great positive for the country and they all seemed very well informed and passionate about their studies of the area. However, I do have to wonder why a woman who has spent the last ten years translating Khmer temple inscriptions chose to walk around a sacred religious site in a strap top and short shorts. And then when she does put on her beige shirt, she looks like she’s dressing as Lara Croft … Why is that always the case with archaeologists? Additionally, who is stupid enough to be filmed eating prahok (fermented fish)? Rookie mistake!

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 15.49.21

Overall the documentary (part one at least) was very interesting and informative. My two complaints are that there were an excessive number of shots of Ta Prohm, the touristy jungle temple where Tomb Raider was filmed, without mentioning where it was. Nor was Kbal Spean named as the riverbed covered in carvings which is one of my favourite, lesser known temples in Siem Reap. However, I hope that the show inspired more Brits to visit this wonderful nation, focusing on the historic good rather than the recent bad. And I hope this article inspires a few of you readers to install Hola (it works best on Google Chrome) and watch the documentary…. Here’s the link.

Sunrise over Angkor

Sunrise over Angkor

Categories: Archaeology, Cambodia, Empire, Expat, History, Review, Television | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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