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Amid the ruins of an ancient city in Cambodia's former empire

By Leif Coorlim, CNN
  • Banteay Chhmar, alongside Angkor Wat, made up the great Cambodian empire
  • Much of the city today is in ruins; no tourists
  • Efforts are under way to preserve the ancient city
  • Archeologists: Building began on Chhmar in 12th century, following Angkor Wat plans

Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia (CNN) -- On a steamy Wednesday afternoon in October, a well-worn jeep pulls off the pock-marked dirt road and ambles to a stop in the tall grass. This is not a respite, it's an arrival.

Beside the jeep, two giant Buddha heads serve as the only welcome to Banteay Chhmar, an ancient city in the Khmer Empire that at its prime was the largest empire in the world.

Located in a remote area of northwest Cambodia, Banteay Chhmar is roughly 165 kilometers from Siem Reap and the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat. But unlike its larger, more famous cousin, there are no clusters of camera-toting tourists or clamoring souvenir hawkers.

At Banteay Chhmar there is only the silence of a jungle, interrupted occasionally by the distant drone of a monk's voice on a loudspeaker, coming from a pagoda in the nearby town.

Too dangerous for tourists

Video: Cambodia's fallen empire
  • Angkor Wat
  • Cambodia
  • Siem Reap

John Sanday, an architect and the director of conservation at Banteay Chhmar, agreed to show CNN around the site. It's not a typical walking tour, however, mainly because there is very little space to walk.

Much of the city today is in ruins. Moving about the area involves climbing over clusters of fallen walls or under naked archways and navigating around the spectacular, stone-carved face towers that forever teeter on the brink of collapse.

"One of the main problems we've discovered here are the foundations," said Sanday. "When we started excavating, we thought we'd find foundations, but there aren't any. Everything is built on densely packed sand."

That the ancient architects chose to build the temples without foundations makes the structures at Banteay Chhmar especially susceptible to leaching and erosion. Those factors, along with root expansion from growing trees, are common causes of structural collapse. Still, the site, or what remains of it, is considered an architectural masterpiece.

" ... I think it's important for the world to hear a little bit about what we're doing."
-- John Sanday, an architect and the director of conservation at Banteay Chhmar

Still a mystery

No one is certain why Banteay Chhmar was constructed, or why it was abandoned. Archeologists know King Jayavarman VII began building Banteay Chhmar at the end of the 12th century, following the same plans as Angkor Wat.

Many scholars believe it was intended as a funerary temple for the king's son. Another theory is that it was built following the death of Rajapatindralakshmi, King Jayavarman VII's paternal grandmother.

Sanday: 'One of the most prized pieces of all of Khmer art'

Time and trees are the enemies at Banteay Chhmar. But so is Cambodia's recent past. To date, the site has still not been fully excavated. And it was inaccessible for decades while under control of the Khmer Rouge. Even today, small flags and spray-painted tree trunks are the only indications that it's safe to walk in a given area without fear of stepping on a landmine.

Unfortunately, the site has also seen an explosion in looting in the last few years. In 1999, Thai authorities arrested a team of thieves who had crossed the border after raiding the site and pillaging nearly half of the wall's carvings. Inside the truck, the authorities found more than a hundred stone pieces from a dismantled wall.

Standing next to that same wall, Sanday marvels at the art that remains.

"The Lokitesvaras, or multi-handed Buddha... there are two here now. There were originally eight. You can see how they literally jack-hammered them off. They are now in a corner of the Phnom Penh museum. And of course we would love to have these pieces back, once the site is secure. But that may take several years," Sanday said.

Sanday hopes that by working with laborers from the local village he and his team will be able to restore the site to the point it can attract, and safely host, tourists. At the same time, he is working with community leaders to develop a sustainable tourism industry so Cambodians, rather than foreign investors, will be the beneficiaries.

"What we're focusing on now is to establish a council of local businesses that can help support us," Sanday said. "And I think it's important for the world to hear a little bit about what we're doing."

He is also getting help from Cambodian scholars. Dr. Pheakdey Nguonphan has developed software that uses 3-D radar imaging to virtually reconstruct the temple site.

With that data, Dr. Nguonphan is able to tell workers the exact location each fallen stone had originally occupied on the wall. "It's very useful for reconstructing Khmer temples," said Nguonphan. "And it gives me great pride to provide information that will help shed light on the Khmer history and culture."