16/03/17 – Jungle Amnesia

You’ll always see blue sky above you in the jungle of Angkor Thom, but you often won’t see an exit in front of you.

There are some days working in a socked-in jungle environment where all you can do is stare at the incredible nature around you.

For example, in this instance of a carefully-selected seemingly blissful image of jungle utopia.

You listen to the birds chirping, the insects buzzing, the twisted and incredible way the trees grow, or, like in my second-most-recent entry, you sit back with some popcorn and watch two insects kick the shit out of each other.

But what about when it’s not so easy to stand up and look around, and your path disappears into an impregnable fortress of fallen trees? What if the heat forces you to sit down to drink some water, but the water is gone? What if you see your exit back to civilization one hundred meters through the trees but that tiny spot is surrounded by tangled vines and thorns the size of your thumb?

That happened to me two days ago, and it was an almost out-of-body experience being completely and utterly lost. Even with a GPS, even with a compass, lost. It was like struggling to surface while swimming around in circles under a heavy tide. And I felt like I was completely out of control and losing my mind.

So this entry is going to be less of a photo-session and more of a real story. As you can imagine, getting lost in the jungle doesn’t often serve as motivation to pull out your camera and capture that “ah shit, where am I?” moment.

The day started fairly well, as all days with more twisted and odd narratives do. As of the end of yesterday, I’ve finished identifying all of the structures I’d mapped on my GIS map in the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest Quadrants of Angkor Thom, and there appears not to be much that was constructed in the Northwest Quadrant besides for the long-since-cleared temples. After that, I can finally start to begin writing notes on the Buddhist Terraces I’ve identified (which will be my upcoming A Day in the Field, Part 2 entry).

Of course, Theravada Buddhist monastic buildings weren’t just these so-called Buddhist Terraces, which means I’m going to have to revisit more than half of the sites I ground-truthed. That took me through some rough terrain, especially during my first week back in February when I was still metaphorically dipping my toes in the water and getting over my new-found arachnophobia.

Still, I don’t mind, because I found an incredibly cool set of funerary stupas surrounding a giant altar (with sima stones spilled down the hill) on a fifty-meter-high artificial mound above Angkor Thom’s second-largest pond. That’s one of those things you want a second look at, and I’m really excited to take a walk around the base of the mound when I can devote an entire day to it.

So that’s half of the altar and it already looks like you could use it as a doorway.
Ancient staircases tend to get dislodged easily.

The other Buddhist Terrace in that area wasn’t much more than a few sima stones, but it thus far has the largest statue of a wat I’ve ever seen:


I also located this cool sandstone shrine-ish structure that someone had actually excavated before (on my classification system: UK(unknown architectural point of interest)054).

This one reminds me of the giant altar complex where the Angkor Animal Planet battle went down.

Now that actually looking for these structures is nearly finished, my energy can begin to be focused on analyzing, investigating, and classifying what I’ve found, which is great because it gives me an opportunity to slow down and think a bit rather than just put down a list of objectives on paper. More than half of my effort during these survey days is making sure everything that’s on these maps actually exists, or it is what I think it is, so a structure like UK054 is nice and all, but because there’s no sima stones, no indication that it was ever Theravada, and someone’s already done an excavation there, I never have to go back again if I’ve done my own photography.

Which is fine with me – UK054 is the furthest from any main road I’ve ever ventured in any quadrant of Angkor Thom. How the hell “MF” got a team in that far is a mystery.

MF stands for “Monsieur Francais”?

Anyways, It was about 3pm when I left UK054 and I’d drank all my water, all three litres of it, over the five hours I’d been surveying that day. I was feeling fine, and was navigating slowly across an on-off path towards the next structure marked on my GPS. What I mean by on-and-off is, when Jacques Gaucher mapped the local paths he also cleared them, but that was back between 1992-2004, so things like to fall down, grow, and burrow at your feet regardless of how permanent the paths appear to be. A nicely-marked path on Gaucher’s GIS map in 2004 is now a pile of dead, thorny tree carcasses reminiscent of the thorns Prince Philip had to climb to fight Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.

Excuse the blur – cameras + balancing acts on top of wonky laterite bricks are not good bedfellows.

This structure I was looking for, a small square on Gaucher’s map I’d labeled BT036 (it had the shape of a Buddhist Terrace), was a chedi-like (large tiered stupa-like structure with a pointed top – in this case, the top has since disappeared) feature attached to a raised earthen platform that may or may not have once been a Buddhist Terrace. It was my last major structure of the day to ground-truth, too, and if it were any other day I would’ve bailed and come back when I was feeling more refreshed, but because I was so deep in the woods (and was realizing in my head that it wasn’t a Buddhist Terrace) I wanted to quickly take a few photos and move on forever.

However, the ten meters between me and this tiered laterite structure was this:

Thorns don’t always come out in photos.

There’s a point between 2:45-3:15pm in the mid-afternoon every day when my head starts to feel a bit heavier and my limbs a bit weaker, and the moment I saw the terrifyingly dense set of thorns, that feeling kicked in full-force. I sat down on a laterite brick, trying to flick some drops into my mouth from my empty water bottle, staring through the awful thorny crap that I would eventually have to navigate. Imagine an infinite corkscrew of a roller coaster spinning round and round, but instead of tracks there’s bristles and spikes. I was about to ride that roller coaster, and it sucked.

I muscled through it, of course, and did my work on this small little annoyance of a laterite structure for about fifteen minutes – I’m pretty sure it was some sort of reliquary structure, but I honestly don’t care and I’ll interpret the photos later.

I still had to walk 250m east to an open path, and while there appeared to be a marked path in front of me, it ended up just being the cleared embankment of dried-out pond surrounded by the usual impregnable bramble-patches. Having spent five weeks in this environment already, I’ve developed a sense of where the least treacherous routes can be, and 70% of the time I’m right.

This was not one of those times.

With every step east, my feet were caught in vine after vine after vine and my forearms were becoming more cut up than a mid-2000s Emo kid. It was definitely partially the fatigue, and while I knew I was moving the right way towards this path north, it felt almost as if the jungle didn’t want me to leave. Each step another vine latched on, I moved it, and then stepped into another one. There were no spiders here, no birds, no lizards, and not that many insects either, just an intense fight between me whatever force in the woods wanted me to stay there. I won the first round, and it was a pyrrhic victory for sure.

Fresh tracks #organic

The North-South road that leads from Beng Thom pond to West Prasat Top Temple (WPT) greeted me like an old friend, and I was so grateful as my tired legs could barely lift my feet from the ground. I passed WPT, and saw the road to the Bayon 100m in front of me.

But then, after checking my watch and only reading 3:30, I stretched my endurance too far: there were two more structures I thought I might try to identify just east of WPT that may have in some way been connected to the temple, and if I georeferenced them I could get even more done before I hopped in the tuk-tuk and called it a day. You know that feeling where you want to do just one more thing? Put a solid coda on a pretty solid, albeit tiring, day? And the wide-open West Gopura Road was only 100m north of me according to my GPS – if I couldn’t find the structures (which I didn’t because I was in no state to continue to keep suveying), I’d walk straight north and be totally fine.

Only, I couldn’t walk straight north. At all. Anywhere. Every path was blocked by brambles and thorns even denser than the ones at the chedi, and any time I tried to move north the jungle kept forcefully turning me around and moving me east. I got stuck nearly a dozen times, struggling to figure out how the hell I was going to move one hundred meters to an open road I could see through the trees! I kept checking the GPS and it kept showing me on the same ancient, submerged east-west road even though I could swear I was moving north.

An example of a similar environment to the one I got stuck in…although about 10x less intimidating.
This one is closer to 50% of what I was dealing with.

I felt like I had tunnel vision, my usually-awesome internal compass was completely off, and I was being pushed further back into the jungle by some unseen force. At one point I just stopped, tangled in nearly five trees worth of thorny bushes with blood dripping down my arm from a cut from a razor-palm (the name I’ve given the bright-green rectangular-leafed plants that have both thorns and jagged leaves) wondering if I was being tested by the Ghosts of Angkor Past or the jungle itself. I’d been feeling the same way since I’d stepped over the chedi at BT036 – was there someone buried in there that I’d just pissed off? In hindsight it was absolutely terrifying; despite how close I was to civilization, despite how desperately I fought and clambered through vine after vine to try to move north, I thought for many split seconds that I wouldn’t get out.

I kept saying to myself: it’s alright, 100m isn’t that far, and worst case I’ll end up back at WPT or the Bayon or something…and that was when I began to feel dizzier and dizzier working my way out of every tangle of vines and wincing from every cut and scrape. At one point I tumbled down beside a snake-pit and wondered how fast I’d have to get up before something slithered out. My GPS was on the fritz – it couldn’t decide which way was north and which way was east, and I had so little room between vines that I couldn’t grab my compass let alone my cell phone to call for help. I got dizzier and dizzier, my head got hotter and hotter, and at one point I thought it might just be easier to sit down and pass out.

And there’s a nice tree right there! Someone will find me in 11 weeks…or at least that’s what happened to the last Canadian who went missing at Angkor Thom back in 2014…

But suddenly, like the end of a bad dream, the landscape opened up and I inexplicably found myself 500m down the road eastward at a modern monastery 200m southwest of where I was supposed to meet my tuk-tuk driver. Monks’ robes hung on washing lines, the sima stones of the (modern) ubosot quickly came into view, and everything seemed fine – the panic was over. But how the hell had I moved 500m through the woods so quickly? The last time I checked my watch it was 3:54 and I was still closer to WPT than the Bayon – it was now 4:02. What seemed like forever took seven minutes! I had to have been in there longer than that – I’ve never moved 500m across the jungle in twenty minutes let alone less than ten!

I’m not religious, but I definitely gave this place a visit the moment I saw it as I was coming out of the woods…

Then came the actual coda of the day: I heard a growl behind me. A feral dog, its teeth barred, charged at me and barked violently. Another joined it, and I let out a loud yell and brandished my spider-thwacking meter stick. They kept barking, and I kicked at them. One bit my spider-thwacker meter stick and the other I had to kick in the face before it could bite my leg; they both whimpered and ran off as a worker repairing a roof jumped down and chased them back into the woods.

But what the hell happened there? I’ve never had a dog run at me like that! Did I bring some weird vibe out with me, or did I just startle a fiercely territorial monastic stray dog?

I’ve felt continuously uneasy since I re-emerged from the woods beside the monastery, especially riding home in the tuk-tuk. I’m in my room now, but I keep feeling like something is stroking my leg or tousling my hair. It may have just been my surprise at how far and quickly I struggled while completely and totally lost in panic mode, or how my sense of direction totally failed me to a point where I feared I’d never get out (even though I knew I could just go back to WPT and walk north on the normal, gravel road). That dog attack, though…damn…the first thing I thought was “dogs can see ghosts” and the second thing I thought was “I’m being ridiculous but I still moved 500m back there in seven minutes!”

It obviously didn’t deter me that much because I had an incredibly productive and fun day of survey today in the NW Quadrant, and I knew I’d eventually get a little lost, but not that lost, with my GPS compass spinning around like a dreidel under impregnable undergrowth. It just goes to show you that the remote places of the world continue to be remote for a reason, and even with a GPS and a GIS map, getting lost is always a risk.

But that’s no reason to stop exploring!

Andrew Harris

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