ATV016, Angkor Thom – Whether you believe it or not, under those leaves is the basis of my entire Dissertation.
Sorry for the buzzkill, but I didn’t actually head up to Angkor Thom immediately the next day.
I woke up that morning and realized that I was still completely clueless as to how I’d approach my research to create a project that wasn’t a total dud. It was a Saturday, the EFEO was closed so I could do nothing more except for random searches on JSTOR for further literature, so took a trip up to Banteay Srei temple to collect my thoughts. Banteay Srei, known by me as “The Little Hindu Dollhouse”, is a mid 10th-century (967 CE) temple to Shiva considered by many to be the peak of Khmer art and architecture. It’s a relatively small temple 30km north of Angkor, easily accessible by tuk-tuk (motorcycle-powered autorickshaw – learn the vocabulary now, kids), and a great morning trip.
Banteay Srei Temple. It’s quite small…
…but also a bit of an artistic masterpiece. Sort of a Khmer Sistine Chapel.
But it got me thinking about how local populations surrounding religious structures interacted with their architectural surroundings, experienced them, enhanced them, or even converted them following the switch or adoption of a new religion. Banteay Srei was far away from any royal ritual centers in Yasodharapura, so how did this small temple act as a satellite of imperial power? Religion has, and will always be, tied hand-and-hand with politics – what’s the connection between central rule (of a reincarnated god-king) and religious practice and how does the state manipulate the latter?
I was starting to ask questions, and that was good. It’s what makes a Thesis instead of a book report.
On Monday I was back at the EFEO for a few more days of archive scouring. Article after article, book after book, and only a handful of mentions about Theravada Buddhism at Angkor Thom beyond Zhou Daguan’s noteworthy “worship of the Buddha is universal” declaration. It was a dead era, one completely ignored by historians and, seemingly, the Khmer history-writers themselves, which meant I had a chance to make a serious dent in my field at such an early point in my career.
That is, if I made the right dent. I’m grateful I trusted my instincts and gave myself a few extra days before charging into the capital.
I learned quickly that both archaeologists and Khmer guides called these rectangular tiered platforms (all facing east) Buddhist Terraces, a translation of the pseudonym terrasses bouddhiques given to any similarly-shaped structure by early 20th century French architects and surveyors of the Angkor region.
Preah Ang Thep (ATV003), Bayon, Angkor Thom – this is one of the few Buddhist Terraces not covered in leaves.
ATV020 (Trouve Terrasse “R”) – This is a good example of the majority of Buddhist Terraces I’ve identified thus far: completely covered by dirt, leaves, plants, insects, broken statues, and vines.
The most famous account of these Buddhist Terraces comes from a 1918 EFEO-published article entitled Monuments Secondaires et Terrasses Bouddhiques by “Curator of Angkor” Henri Marchal, which includes a map of all the non-temple structures he found during a two-year long survey alongside colonial Department of Forestry soldiers. Marchal didn’t find them all (as later maps revealed), but he found enough of them to delegate terrasse bouddhique as a specific architectural form. His successor, Georges Trouve, found nearly a dozen more than the baker’s dozen he identified, and coded them with letters (see below), but later maps have revealed even more. Many of them have never been properly surveyed.
Map from “Monuments Secondaires et Terrasses Bouddhiques” (Marchal 1918) – the Lettered monuments were identified by Marchal, the numbered and Romanized ones by the first French surveyor of Angkor Lunet de la Jonquiere in 1908.
Besides for my own GIS work on Angkor Thom, this is the only map I’m actually allowed to post here.
So I found out quickly that there was a lot of work to do. But I had to make a plan. You can’t just walk into an ancient city and shout “I’m HEEEEERE!” and expect the locals to show you exactly what you’re looking for “Dances with Wolves” style.
A truly Buddhist response to a dumb explorer.
What made the most sense, before I went out and started looking for Buddhist Terraces so early on in my research career only to be discouraged by the challenge of the project, was to learn how to walk around in the woods at Angkor Thom without getting lost. It was clear from the map, and from the images from Google Earth I’d been looking at of Angkor since I was a teenager, that everything I wanted to find was deep under a jungle canopy, buried in leaves or tangled in vines or even dislodged and destroyed by various 1970s Khmer Rouge building projects. There were only a few parts of the ancient city visible from the air: the main five roads (N-S, E-W, and the Victory Road), anywhere a large temple had been cleared, the main clearing around the Bayon and the Terrace of the Elephants, inside the Royal Palace, and a few arbitrary clearings and old water features that had been converted into farms by the monastery populations that functioned in the city. Everything else was completely shrouded in greenery.
A former North-South running road in Angkor Thom (photo taken February 2016)
The road above is one of the better-cleared roads – the trees and vegetation along that straight line were likely burned around the time Marchal published his findings and never regrew. It forms that straight line in the capital’s SW quadrant running through the criss-cross of trails carved out by the Department of Forestry (look at the map), and was once actually a real Khmer road. Others, meanwhile, are labyrinths of living and dead thorny, vine-y crap infested with spider-webs, scorpions, and the occasional tree-snake.The roads are definitely visible, mapped thoroughly between 1994-2004 before being photographically mapped using LiDar in 2008, but they are not fun. I knew this already going in because I’d decided to “play explorer” one day at Angkor Thom in 2012 when I finally started to feel better about life (it was probably the second or third last day in Cambodia – I can’t quite remember). I followed partially-cleared path after partially-cleared path and got myself completely turned around until I came out of the woods at the Bayon again, covering less than 100m in total and being covered by 100 subspecies of bramble.
Of course, that was no way to approach jungle research, so I had to actually get acquainted with the type of terrain I was going to spend my next five years stumbling over. So, during my second week in Cambodia (third overall if you count the five days I spent in Hong Kong and Singapore on various layover-cations), I taught myself how to be an old-timey explorer with nothing more than a phone-compass and a snake-bite kit.
Day 1 Creepy-Crawly: Centipedes can actually pack quite a venomous punch.
The first time I went to Angkor Thom, July 2012, it was so early in the morning and so humid that I felt like I was drunkenly taking it all in. Angkor Thom is unbelievably epic – an entire ancient religious cosmopolis intricately decorated with high-reliefs and planned down to a T, incorporating pre-Mahayana Buddhist temple complexes and infrastructure seamlessly into the new urban landscape and criss-crossing the walled capital with a brand new grid system of roads and canals. It’ll probably never be quite clear how the transition from Yasodharapura to Angkor Thom came to be, or how it was implemented, but there’s been so little real archaeological work done on Khmer sites that these answers may just present themselves after more work.
In my mind, Angkor Thom had suddenly become so much more complex than I’d previously understood, but I could never know how complex until I got out of the library. I’m one to take leaps, not baby-steps, so instead of sniffing around the Buddhist Terraces near the Bayon and fanning outwards like a normal person, I took a tuk-tuk from my hotel to the center of Angkor Thom, walked halfway down the Western Gopura Road (Porte Ouest on Marchal’s map), turned left on the road to Monument 486 (a complex temple called West Prasat Top (WPT) – more on that later), and marched right by the temple into the woods without seeing that WPT had a little Buddhist Terrace of its own.
The little map in Ancient Angkor was my primary guide during that first season of sniffing around (I actually didn’t look at the Marchal map until I was in Thailand), and I saw a beige black-outlined rectangle directly south of WPT. The worst that could come of it was that this wasn’t a Buddhist Terrace but some other stone monument, which meant I could either keep going down the path on Marchal’s map or head back to WPT and decide what to do next. So I stomped down a hill, through the base of an old road, then up a hill, and then wandered aimlessly through broken branches for nearly fifty meters until a very well-defined stone structure popped up directly in front of me.
It doesn’t look like much but there’s a Buddhist Terrace (Marchal I, ATV013) under there.
The structure was approximately…well…I had no idea how big it was until I checked in Marchal’s article two weeks later (20x8m) where it was labelled very briefly but very boldly. “Terrasse I”, the letter not the numeral, and it looked like folks excavating at WPT had been there recently due to the presence of a bright red GPS tracking stake. It was five rows of bricks tall (up to eight at some points), wtih a set of steps at the eastern end, and contained three near-identical altars embedded in earth near the center of the structure. The floor surrounding the altars was earthen, which meant that a Buddhist Terrace probably started as a piled mound of dirt with a brick layer of sandstone and laterite built as a retaining wall.
Three square altars – what I thought at the time was the find of the century.
It was incredible – I’d found something significant on the first day! Something that could be recorded, described, observed, and photographed (not in that order) as part of a larger typology of structures. I felt like a genius, like a master of the wilderness, ready to take on all the nay-sayers and skeptical experts that threw their critiques at my fledgling project.
What it was, in reality, was some very dumb beginner’s luck. I picked a structure at random, in close proximity to a temple, and came to a recently-cleared clearing that happened to have one. That never happened again…ever. The next day I went looking for what I eventually found out was Terrasse B (see map) and got lost in the woods after two minutes. The day after, I went back to West Prasat Top and took a bunch of insanely meticulous notes on the Buddhist Terrace there and felt like a rock star – that evening I was gifted a copy of the West Prasat Top site report which had all that information previously recorded. That helped a lot, but it nullified a day.
Buddhist Terrace, West Prasat Top Temple – I walked right by it…
In the end, that first season of research was a lot more misses than hits, but it definitely got me moving in the right direction. I spent five days in total looking around and taking notes at Angkor Thom, read thousands of pages at the EFEO, found/was given three of the four maps I’ve since used to create my GIS map, and started creating some categories of data to collect. But navigating the forest was something that I didn’t quite grasp past that Terrasse I find. I identified…what’d I say in the last entry…seven of them, but three of them surrounded the Bayon in plain sight, one was Terrasse I, one was attached to West Prasat Top, one was a gigantic Buddhist Terrace sitting in plain sight on the Victory Road, and one was constructed at the edge of a clearing east of the Preah Pithu temples and compared to the others seemed uninteresting.
ATV005: The Big One
I kicked myself for a year over that.
Now, let’s fast-forward to February 2016. Andrew Harris, Buddhist Terrace Hunter 2.0 struts into Angkor Thom, really (thinking he) knows his shit, and is now ready to undertake an actual preliminary survey. He’s got all four of his maps (Marchal, Trouve, Gaucher, and LiDar (see later entries), and is now ready to take on an ancient capital much less intimidating than it was before. At the northern boundary of the Terrace of the Leper King, armed with a pedometer, he walks four hundred meters, looks down at the LiDar jpeg on his phone, smiles, and walks into the woods to find Terrasse D and E.
I stumbled out near the North Gopura (gatehouse) covered in burrs, dead vines, and cobwebs, the wind completely blown out of my sails. It had been a year since Pilot Research and I still had no clue how to navigate the forest without a GPS. I practiced up at my parents’ cottage that summer, wandering into the woods and then navigating myself back, but I knew exactly where the roads were and the damn dog wouldn’t stop following me; he always knew the way home. But rather than give up and head back to Siem Reap, dejected, I tried again. Another fail, and ten minutes later I clambered out of the woods across from Preah Palilay Temple, the furthest temple tourists usually get to. No terrace, no problem, and I tried again, this time trying only for Terrasse D.
Preah Palilay Temple, Angkor Thom – not a bad spot to use as a waypoint.
It was like poking holes into a paper bag trying to find the last blueberry. The third time wasn’t successful, nor the fourth time. I needed a distance measure. Or a marker.
I walked along the west side of the North Gopura road for nearly half an hour, looking for something that might lead me in the right direction back into the woods.
An overturned naga and two bruised toes.
Sometimes you have to stumble to succeed. And I tripped right over that naga and landed on the one beside it. Wait…two identical statues ten feet apart running up a hill? A PATHWAY!!!! It was exactly where Terrasse D was on Marchal’s map and the LiDar, so I excitedly ran up the hill, over an overturned boundary marker (these are important – see Part 3), and caught a Khmer tuk-tuk driver with his pants down squatting on top of a laterite retaining wall.
Yep…the first Buddhist Terrace I found in 2016 was where the tuk-tuk drivers came to take a crap while their riders toured the Terrace of the Leper King. There were plastic bags everywhere, toilet paper scrunched up into the spaces between the stones, and apologetic , shameful tuk-tuk drivers running out from various corners of the site in retreat as I walked further down the side of the terrace.
Terrasse D, henceforth, became Terrace Dump.
ATV017, Angkor Thom – Terrasse D smells like S
It wasn’t a glorious find, and it was the only Buddhist Terrace I came across that day, but it was what I needed to keep going, to keep me wandering around in the woods aimlessly in various areas of Angkor Thom I thought something might pop up suddenly. The next four days were a series of hits and misses – I found a really big Buddhist Terrace on the Eastern Gopura road one day but spent the next day following little trails near the western wall trying to find something that I found out later was actually 200m north of where I was looking. And there was one day, the last day of the preliminary survey, I decided just to go for a walk in the woods and try to maintain a straight line.
Oddly, on the way back, I stumbled across some cobbles and found this:
A pile of upturned altars from ATV015 (Marchal H)
A headless statue of an elephant or cow, ATV015 (Marchal H).
This statue got my advisor really excited when I showed him the next day, and finding it may have pre-emptively actually secured my clearance permit for Winter 2018. Hey, APSARA, there’s stuff back here!
It seems odd to think, but there’s a knack to wandering aimlessly in the woods that some explorers and archaeologists naturally come by. Others are clueless and clumsy – without modern technology they’d be completely lost, without a snake-bite kit they’d be bitten to the point of deliriousness. Me, I like to think I fall somewhere in between. I could hypothetically find my cardinal direction from the sun, and I did have maps to consult, but the Buddhist Terraces I found were complete haphazard shot-in-the-dark surprises. In the future I definitely need more than that to succeed.
I learned a lot from those first two seasons at Angkor Thom about the environment I was researching: it’s nasty, humid, tangled, covered, and crawling, but it’s flat. And anything that isn’t is something that humans once constructed and used. Which meant that in constructing my GIS map I could never be sure from the air what was a Buddhist Terrace and what wasn’t. So, what the hell? Why not just go out and find everything!
Thankfully by that point I knew exactly not just how to find Buddhist Terraces, but also how to identify them thanks to the research I did in Thailand in early June.