Most people will recognise this fabled site from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, but there’s far more to Angkor Wat than hyperactive archaeologists running around in tight trousers (although you might see a few on a visit there, if you’re lucky). In tonight’s BBC2 documentary Jungle Atlantis (8pm), a team explore this mystical site, built nearly 1,000 years ago.
Incredibly, this jungle metropolis was the biggest city on earth until the late 19th century. Today, it remains the largest religious complex in the world, and is around four times bigger than the Vatican City in size. “No other religious complex on earth comes close,” says Ben Lawrie, the producer and director of the second part of the documentary. “It’s a phenomenal achievement in terms of engineering.”
Spanning some 400km2, the Angkor Archaeological Park contains the spectacular remains of the Khmer Empire, including the Temple of Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple. “We like to think of explorers finding lost temples,” says Lawrie. “This comes from Indiana Jones or Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. So the Cambodian government actually preserved the forest around the temple. Angkor is not a kind of cleaned up theme park,” he continues, “they’ve left this romantic sense of what it might want to be like when the first western explorers arrived in the 1860s. It’s a really fascinating place.”
Using remote sensing technology, the Jungle Atlantis team is able to find out what is hidden beneath the nearby paddy fields and jungle. They discover where three-quarters of a million people lived, in an incredibly sophisticated city. “There are secrets in the programme suggesting the huge moat that surrounds Angkor Wat wasn’t just placed there for ceremonial factors,” explains Lawrie. Instead, the moats had a very clever role: “There are so many stones piled up on dry soil to create Angkor Wat, it would get waterlogged during monsoon,” he says. “The moat that surrounds it prevents it from slumping down into the earth.”
Lawrie also tries to work out why the city was abandoned. There wasn’t a huge natural disaster like an earthquake, or plague-like disease, instead the show’s experts uncover a “perfect storm of contributing factors that led to the city’s decline,” says Lawrie.
Those who tune in will be treated to a mix of history, science and adventure. “It’s just an awesome location – to go and film there was really something special,” says Lawrie.
After you’ve experienced the wonders of Angkor Wat, says Lawrie, these incredible historical spots should be next on your list:
1. Mayan temples, Mexico
“If you’re seeking more great jungle civilisations, the Mayan temples in Mexico should be top of your list,” says Lawrie.
2. Machu Picchu, Peru
“It’s the last stronghold of the Incas in the spectacular Andes mountains of Peru,” says Lawrie.
3. Portsmouth’s Royal Historic Dockyard
“This is a great historical day out closer to home, and home to the excellent Mary Rose Museum,” says Lawrie.
4. The Coliseum, Rome
“Imperial splendour doesn’t get much better than this.”
5. Istanbul, Turkey
“Former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empire,” explains Lawrie. “Incredible historical sites in one of the greatest cities in Earth.”
Watch Jungle Atlantis at 8pm Thursday 25th September on BBC2