The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Cham Temple-City in Ratanakiri, Cambodia

While in Ratanakiri (northeastern Cambodia) on assignment last month, I took a day off and asked me guide to show me some things that were "off the radar." I told him that I was especially interested in ancient temple complexes. My guide consulted an elder Jarai man who told him that he knew about a dozen undocumented temple ruins spread around the province. Delighted, we asked him to tell us how to get to the one closest to town. "Closest" turned out to be a few hours away, and deep in the jungle.

The complex was massive, with an enormous earthen rampart (citadel wall) and elevated road leading up to it. The walls were nearly 7m (20+ feet high above the jungle floor). Here we are walking on top the wall, with a drop-off on either side.

Inside the walls was an enormous moat system, shown here with trees that don't mind their roots a bit wet, growing in the middle.

Inside the moat was an enormous man-made mountain, also about 7m (20+ feet) above the moats. The grand expanse of the mount can be partly seen here, with a flat plateau on top.

My guides had led me to think that they were taking me to see an Angkorian temple. It was however, when I saw piles of red bricks, that I knew immediately that this was no Angkorian ruin. This was a Cham temple city. More importantly, the only Cham temple city that I am aware of in Cambodia, and perhaps the largest individual temple complex in all of Champa (if one views My Son as a collection of seperate temple complexes rather than a unified whole, for the purpose of this comparison). Most of the structures in the complex were now entirely collapsed. However some vestiges of brick walls, towers and building foundations remained.

No temple complex ever escapes looters. This hole was dug--so I am told--by thugs employed by very well-connected individuals. Temple thieves commonly remove gold and jeweled objects, steles with written histories, statues and other invaluable relics.

Stone flooring panels which once covered the looter's hole.

My guide looking at the vestiges of a baked red-brick wall. Red bricks are the primary (nearly excursive) building material of the ancient Champa Kingdom. Though Khmers did use red sandstone in the Angkor Kingdom, most temples were made from laterite. The Khmer's Funan (pre-Angkorian) Kingdom used red-baked bricks, but their range was much further south. it is likely that the Cham acquired this architectural building principal of using red bricks from the Funanese.

A pile of rubble: red bricks covered in moss and lichen.

Though difficult to see, the pile of rubble under the greenery is a collapsed red-brick tower: a hallmark of Cham temples.

The find is very exciting and if acknowledged and further studied, could alter the history of kingdom expansion and territorial boundaries between the Khmer and Cham. It may also shed light on the development of Cham temple architecture. Though possibly one of the largest single structures now known in Champa, this site is not without precedent. Other Cham citadels exist in Vietnam within provinces such as Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh and Binh Thuan.

Many questions remain. What was this place? Why live here in the middle of the jungle (infested with malarial mosquitoes I might add), far from water sources and known cities? How did the inhabitants travel between this place and other populations? Are there more temple cities like this in the vicinity? Will we ever know?


Mack said...

I am always interest in hearing about the Cham people. Chamapasack is a soutern province of Laos. I wonder if it is related to the Cham people some how. I did read the Cham people fled every which way when the Khmer destroyed their kingdom.

Adam Bray said...

Thanks Mack! My understanding is that there is some debate over who (Khmer or Cham) occupied Champasak--and Wat Phou--at different times. I hadn't thought about it yet, but I supposed this Cham temple city might actually shed some light on the subject.

As for who "destroyed" Champa, usually the Vietnamese (Kinh) get that credit, though it was the constant battles with the Khmers (Angkor) that undoubtedly weakened and distracted them, eventually allowing the Vietnamese to annex all their territory.

Adam Bray said...

And know I know why they built here... :-) !!!

Unknown said...

WOW! Amazing yet again! Great work Adam! What's your conclusion on why the Chams built a temple city so far away from their usual rivers and estuaries? For the Wat Phou debate, I would like to believe that the Chams built the Shivaite temples there first. If Indian thought and ideology came via the sea (as it is widely accepted now), then it was most likely the Chams who built the original temples there. And the Khmers (who came later from the Dangdrek mountain range) supplanted themselves there and took over the temples.

Adam Bray said...

Hi Rofek, It turns out this site actually is on a tributary to a major river that flows down from The Vietnam highlands. Can't remember if its from Kontum or Pleiku. But from there a river runs all the way to the sea. Thus, there probably was a direct route for the Cham all the way from Cambodia/Laos to the ocean. It raises a lot of interesting possibilities for the size of their original kingdoms and conquests into Cambodia!...

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