This was where the empire began, I was told — though from where I was standing it was hard to imagine the place as the center of anything, let alone a mighty kingdom. I was with my guide, Thon Varathana, on a crumbling stone pyramid in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. The cracks between the iron-red slabs under our feet erupted with vegetation, and we were encircled by a wall of lychee trees. No roads led there, just a maze of narrow forest tracks we had navigated on motorbikes, bouncing over exposed roots and dodging the creepers hanging over our path. Whatever this place had once been, nature had long since reclaimed it.
But then my sense of the landscape shifted. We clambered down from our perch and walked across the forest floor — or at least I assumed that’s what we were walking across. The ground at our feet was busy with convoys of black ants marching decisively through the tinder-dry leaf litter. Termite mounds rose from the sandy orange soil. We came to the edge of a steep slope, which at first I thought led down to even denser jungle 10 feet below. But Varathana urged me to look closer, and eventually I realized that I wasn’t on the ground at all but on a perfectly square platform that he said covered 2½ acres and formed a kind of giant concourse.
As I took in the scale of this structure hidden beneath the trees, of which the stone pyramid formed just a small central section, the experience was a little like staring at one of those Magic Eye pictures and seeing an image materialize from a kaleidoscope of color. The temple I had just stepped down from was not some isolated relic. It was the centerpiece of an overgrown city.