A comprehensive archaeological map of the world’s largest preindustrial settlement complex at Angkor, Cambodia

Source: http://www.pnas.org/content/104/36/14277.full

A comprehensive archaeological map of the world’s largest preindustrial settlement complex at Angkor, Cambodia

  1. Damian Evans * , ,
  2. Christophe Pottier ,
  3. Roland Fletcher § ,
  4. Scott Hensley ,
  5. Ian Tapley ,
  6. Anthony Milne**, and
  7. Michael Barbetti ††
  1. Edited by Michael D. Coe, Yale University, New Haven, CT, and approved June 29, 2007 (received for review March 17, 2007)


The great medieval settlement of Angkor in Cambodia [9th–16th centuries Common Era (CE)] has for many years been understood as a “hydraulic city,” an urban complex defined, sustained, and ultimately overwhelmed by a complex water management network. Since the 1980s that view has been disputed, but the debate has remained unresolved because of insufficient data on the landscape beyond the great temples: the broader context of the monumental remains was only partially understood and had not been adequately mapped. Since the 1990s, French, Australian, and Cambodian teams have sought to address this empirical deficit through archaeological mapping projects by using traditional methods such as ground survey in conjunction with advanced radar remote-sensing applications in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Here we present a major outcome of that research: a comprehensive archaeological map of greater Angkor, covering nearly 3,000 km2, prepared by the Greater Angkor Project (GAP). The map reveals a vast, low-density settlement landscape integrated by an elaborate water management network covering >1,000 km2, the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. It is now clear that anthropogenic changes to the landscape were both extensive and substantial enough to have created grave challenges to the long-term viability of the settlement.

The first century of scholarship on Angkor, in Cambodia, was dominated by the need to conserve and restore the monuments, to locate Khmer civilization within broader cultural history, and to establish a basic chronological framework for Angkor and its Southeast Asian empire [9th–16th centuries Common Era (CE)]. In the early 1950s, Bernard-Philippe Groslier of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) became the first scholar to pay serious attention to the traces of a hydraulic network that had been partially mapped in the first half of the 20th century. Groslier surmised that it was both built and used for irrigation, specifically, to ameliorate variations in agricultural output caused by an unpredictable annual monsoon and to support a huge population of greater than a million people (1) in a constellation of suburbs. He also argued that the extent and breakdown of the network was implicated in the demise of Angkor (1, 2).

As one of the very few scholars in the 20th century with both an awareness of and an interest in the settlement pattern surrounding the monuments, Groslier also understood that a comprehensive and integrated program of archaeological research, including ground survey, remote sensing, and archaeological mapping, was needed to broaden the perspective beyond the great monuments and to provide a firm basis for assessing his theory (15). Importantly, he commissioned topographic maps of Angkor at 1:10,000 scale (5) that provided a much-needed foundation for archaeological mapping.

However, the burden of the conservation d’Angkor in the 1960s and the dire circumstances of Cambodia from the 1970s to the early 1990s made it impossible to fully realize his agenda: his archaeological mapping never went beyond the preliminary and raw topographic base maps, which remained unpublished until 1993 (6). Additionally, these maps were never completed for the area north of Angkor Thom, thus reinforcing a longstanding focus on the central and southern areas at the expense of the northern region. As a result, Groslier continued to use simple schematic maps to develop his theory (1) and Angkor remained, until the early 1990s and still to some extent even today, only partially understood as a settlement, as an inhabited space in which much of the economic, residential, agricultural, and probably even ritual activity took place beyond the walled enclosures and great stone temples of central Angkor.

Since the early 1990s, successive cartographic projects have sought to address this empirical deficit by producing detailed archaeological maps of the Angkor region. These maps include the main temples but also detail the residential areas, fields, and infrastructure that stretched far beyond the massive sandstone constructions (710). In the 1990s, the temple-centric focus of Angkorian studies was, for the first time, comprehensively challenged by the development of a new map of the central and southern areas of Angkor by Christophe Pottier of the EFEO (9, 10). His work originally grew out of the need to map and document the landscape of Angkor for the purposes of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage nomination and site management. Noticing the puzzling dichotomy between the clusters of monuments on the earlier maps and the hundreds of newly identified local temples dispersed across the landscape, Pottier then developed the mapping on a more precise scale by collating existing maps and documentation, analyzing aerial photographs and undertaking systematic field surveys. His final map, completed in 1999 (10), thus documented a built landscape of occupation mounds, local temples, and household ponds interspersed among the great monuments and the hydraulic works associated with them (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1.

Oblique aerial views of remnant Angkorian urban features. (Upper Left) Occupation mounds and ponds. (Upper Right) Canals and embankments. (Lower Left) Multifunction roadway/canals. (Lower Right) Classic “village temple” configuration.


Pottier also showed decisively that the great reservoirs, or barays, had inlets and outlets and were connected to a network of channels and embankments, contrary to the assertions of critics of Groslier’s hydraulic thesis from the 1980s onwards (1114). Moreover, the longstanding assumption (2, 11) that the extensive agricultural field systems visible on the surface today might date from Angkorian times was supported by his new map, which displayed the integral connection between the local temples and their agricultural space (15). Various other elements of the classical Angkorian landscape, in particular, the small ponds described in an account of Angkor in the 13th century (16), have also persisted on the surface, were clearly identifiable from the air and have often been renovated and reused by the contemporary Khmer population. Archaeological evidence of Angkorian occupation (in particular, brick and ceramic debris) was consistently found at the sites that had been identified from the air and was documented and collected wherever appropriate (10). Field verification continues across the greater Angkor region in a process that has consistently matched aerial observations with surface evidence. Recent excavations at the Siem Reap airport (17) and elsewhere have provided further stratigraphic evidence of continuity between subtle topographic features visible on the surface today and the urban landscape of medieval Angkor.

Pottier’s new study used the maps commissioned by Groslier as a cartographic base (because they were the only available ones at that time), and began the process of creating a comprehensive archaeological map of Angkor by recording several thousand of these features and part of agricultural field system within an area of ≈1,000 km2. The coverage of that survey was limited to the southern and central parts of Angkor by the available cartographic base and by the persistent security risks in Siem Reap Province until 1998. However, it was clear from remote sensing that the contiguous settlement space of Angkor extended well beyond what had been mapped; further survey was therefore required.

Since the completion of Pottier’s initial mapping in 1999, the Greater Angkor Project (GAP), an international research program (Australian, Cambodian, and French) focusing on the spatial structure, the water management network, and the reasons for the decline of Angkor, has continued to extend the spatial coverage of detailed archaeological mapping by using a diverse range of data sources, field techniques, and, notably, airborne imaging radar (AIRSAR) data acquired for GAP in 2000 by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).


One of the first tasks was the digitization of Pottier’s 1999 hand-drawn map and the conversion of its data into a geographic information system. Subsequent mapping work has concentrated on the use of airborne radar imaging (AIRSAR/TOPSAR) for archaeological survey, in particular using data acquired over Angkor in September 2000 by NASA/JPL on behalf of GAP (18), expanding on previous radar data acquisitions in 1994 on behalf of the World Monuments Fund (SIR-C/X-SAR) and in 1996 on behalf of Elizabeth Moore of the University of London, London, U.K. (AIRSAR). The first stage of GAP’s analysis, begun in 2001 and completed in 2002, was undertaken with a view to very quickly producing a “broad-brush” picture of the settlement pattern to the north of Pottier’s study area. The specific aims were to gain an understanding of the interaction of microwave sensors with the archaeological landscape, to develop and refine methods of systematically applying imaging radar to an archaeological investigation, and to assess the feasibility and likely outcome of a more detailed survey incorporating heterogeneous data sources.

The AIRSAR instrument is an active sensor with the ability to penetrate clouds. On its 2000 deployment over Angkor, multiple channels of data (C band at 3 cm, L band at 25 cm, and P band at 64 cm, with polarisation measured at transmit and receive) were aquired over ≈8,000 km2 through 98% cloud cover. The ability of the AIRSAR instrument to produce high-quality, high-resolution data sets describing surface roughness and electrical properties is well documented [Jet Propulsion Laboratory (2006) AIRSAR Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar Documentation. Available at http://airsar.jpl.nasa.gov/documents/index.html] and does not warrant detailed treatment here. It is, however, worth noting that the ability of the instrument to distinguish very subtle differences in surface vegetation and surface moisture was of particular use in uncovering the archaeological landscape at Angkor. The distinctive spatial patterning of features manifests itself primarily in slight variations in topographic relief, which in turn produces variations in the species of surface vegetation and soil humidity. These strongly influence the amplitude or “brightness” of the radar signal returned to the sensor.

A very important example of this phenomenon is the local temple, which usually consists of a ≈20-m square central mound of ≈0.5 m to 2 m in height, surrounded by a shallow moat of less than ≈1 m in depth and usually traversed by an earthen causeway on its eastern side, lending the moat-and-mound complex a distinctive spatial structure. This complex in turn typically has a small rectangular reservoir immediately to the east, whose orientation is generally east-to-west and whose ratio of length to width is ≈2:1. Some of the local temples have architectural remains such as bricks scattered on the surface and are well known as temple sites, whereas many others have been completely subsumed by modern residential or agricultural developments and are essentially undetectable on the ground. Most of these temples, however, can be detected in the radar imagery. For example, in many cases the slightly lower elevations of the rice fields in the former moat and reservoir and the slightly higher elevations of the fields built on top of the remnant mound and reservoir banks result in different stages of rice maturity and in differential levels of soil moisture content, which strongly affect the returned radar signal. Moreover, the bunds of the rice fields act as very bright corner reflectors to the radar signal. The fact that remnant moats and reservoirs are usually subdivided into these fields serves to delineate the typical spatial configuration of a temple site very clearly within the radar imagery. For the same reasons, the identification and mapping of Angkorian field systems, linear features such as roads and canals, and the ponds that surround the local temples can be performed very quickly and effectively using these data (19).

From 2000 to 2002, some 1,500 km2 of the landscape beyond Pottier’s 1999 map were studied from the AIRSAR images (7), with all features documented and mapped within a geographic information system environment. The results of this initial survey were extremely promising. A highly complex linear network to the north of Angkor was revealed, adding great detail to the area described by Groslier, as well as significant residential and agricultural development throughout a large part of the study area. The GAP excavations have indicated a degree of human occupation along some of the embankments and channels of the network (8), connecting the infrastructure to the residential pattern of Angkor. The mapping also showed that Angkor had a complex, tripartite, water management network for systematically stabilizing, storing, and dispersing water.

The preliminary archaeological map of the Angkor area resulting from the AIRSAR study has, until now, represented the most complete picture of the settlement. Importantly, although the map and any conclusions drawn from it were highly provisional, it became increasingly clear from this work that the site represented possibly the largest complex of low-density urban development in the preindustrial world.

Ultimately, however, the ability of this map to provide a final, decisive picture of the settlement landscape of Angkor was limited by the horizontal spatial resolution of the radar data. At 5 m it did not allow the consistent recognition of occupation mounds and made the identification of local temples and small ponds problematic. Also, the methodology was dedicated as much toward assessing the radar’s capabilities as it was toward the particular historical problem of urban development at Angkor.

The next stage of mapping, from 2003 to 2007, was designed to move the cartographic project toward a definitive conclusion. A notable change from previous surveys of Angkor was the specification of a nonarbitrary survey boundary. In light of the GAP focus on the extent of human manipulation of water resources, it was decided to use the watershed catchment boundaries of Angkor’s rivers ‡‡ to define a study area. The study area covers 2,848 km2, divided into 1-km grid squares. Each was analyzed individually in detail, with consideration given to all of the available evidence, including the diverse site inventories, every archaeological map produced over the last century, topographic data sets, and remotely sensed data from a range of sources, including Landsat, ASTER, SPOT, AIRSAR, Ikonos, Quickbird, and conventional aerial photography, in particular the 1:25,000-scale Finnmap 1992 coverage already used by Pottier (10).

The understanding of radar’s interaction with the archaeological landscape developed in the previous study was brought to bear heavily on this work, which was considerably enhanced by the delivery in 2003 by NASA/JPL of a digital elevation model derived from the September 2000 AIRSAR deployment. This TOPSAR data set specifies a height value for every 5 m2 of the landscape with submeter accuracy and allows for extremely precise analyses of the subtle topographic variations that characterize remnant Angkorian features.

In contrast to the radar-derived preliminary archaeological map of 2002, the 2007 map is conservative in the features mapped and displayed. A feature had to be visible in at least two different data sources or to be verified from ground level or low-altitude aerial-survey to satisfy the criteria for inclusion. It is anticipated, therefore, that a number of features will be added to the map as verification continues, just as some features will inevitably prove to be post-Angkorian and will need to be removed. This process continues even for Pottier’s map, which has been well verified and covers areas that have been intensively studied for over a century. It is extremely unlikely, however, that the addition or subtraction of a relatively small number of minor features will qualitatively alter the current representation of settlement space and the overall layout of the water management network. In this sense the map presented here can be considered definitive.


The final phase of the mapping work, completed in 2007 and presented here (Fig. 2), reveals Angkor as an extensive settlement landscape inextricably linked to the water resources that it increasingly exploited over the first half of its existence. It was not simply a succession of spatially distinct ceremonial centers or a carefully planned sacred space but, as Coe suggested in 1957 (20), a low-density urban complex like the Classic Maya cities of the Yucatan peninsula such as Tikal (21). As with modern low-density cities and the Classic Maya cities, Angkor was a cumulative settlement palimpsest, with an organic and polynuclear form arising from social and environmental processes operating over more than half a millennium.

Fig. 2.

A new archaeological map of Greater Angkor.


Angkor is visibly an infrastructural network, along which people also lived, imposed on the regional pattern of the residential landscape north of the Tonle Sap. The large-scale infrastructure gave coherence to the scatter of traditional residential units and “created” Greater Angkor as a corporate entity. The key question is the extent of the low-density urban complex. The critical point is that the smaller component of the settlement pattern (the local temples, the occupation mounds, the ponds, and the durable and highly structured web of agricultural space that binds them) occurs with remarkable consistency within ≈15–25 km of the current high-water mark of the lake. Furthermore, an analysis of the Landsat data shows that this form of small-scale, low-density occupation continues essentially uninterrupted far beyond the north-western and south-eastern boundaries of the study area, and there is evidence of contiguous, even lower-density occupation across a large swathe of the Cambodian landscape (see Fig. 3). Although there are areas of somewhat more concentrated occupation, there is, at this stage, no particular spatial or temporal pattern that lends itself to a convenient boundary definition.

Fig. 3.

Approximate extent of temple-and-pond-based agricultural settlements of the Angkorian and pre-Angkorian periods on the basis of an analysis of Landsat imagery and the spatial coverage of recent archaeological maps.


For the time being, perhaps the most satisfactory solution to the question of Angkor’s extent is therefore to take the infrastructural network as an indicator of cohesion in relation to the major monuments in the central 200–400 km2. The sheer scale of the network and its capacity to impact profoundly, regularly, and immediately on large areas of the inhabited landscape integrated an extended area into a single operational system within a circuit of great monuments and hilltop shrines located ≈20–25 km out from the center. Within this area of ≈1,000–1,200 km2, the northeast quadrant near Banteay Srei is largely empty of visible occupation features. The “boundary” of the urban complex of Angkor, as it can be loosely defined from the infrastructural network, encloses ≈900–1,000 km2 compared with the ≈100–150 km2 of Tikal (21), the next largest preindustrial low-density city for which we have an overall survey. Mirador, a Pre-Classic Maya urban complex, and Calakmul, a Classic site near Tikal, may be more extensive, but as yet we do not have comprehensive overall surveys for these sites; it is nonetheless clear that no site in the Maya world approaches Angkor in terms of extent (M. Coe, personal communication).

Notably, amongst a variety of significant outcomes, the mapping has resulted in the identification of two massive earthen structures, whose precise function remains unclear, east of the East Baray and to the southwest of Phnom Dei 1 (Figs. 4 and 5). Eventually, several thousand individual features (mostly ponds) were mapped as part of this process. A large number of these features do not appear in previous maps or within existing site inventories, including, for example, 79 linear features and 94 local temples. The class of “linear feature” is used here in preference to a specific identification as roadway or canal, because a careful analysis of the available remote sensing data, and of the radar data in particular, supports Groslier’s (1) observation that many of the linear features were multipurpose. In the extremely flat topography of the Angkor plain, an elevated roadway inevitably obstructed and/or channelled water on its upslope side, and the elevated banks of canals would have been used as convenient routes of transportation and locations for residential development, especially in view of the extremely waterlogged condition of the surrounding landscape for part of the year. In rare cases, the linear features are double-banked and were clearly designed and used for channelling water. In most cases, however, only one bank would have been required to channel water and/or create a road; thus the intended function of linear constructions cannot be categorically limited. The count of newly discovered temples represents only those that can be unambiguously identified as local temples because of their spatial patterning and/or verification from pedestrian survey, which has been carried out over part of the study area and is ongoing. The count is also provisional: at the time of writing, another 74 sites have been identified as likely temples but require field verification. The increased spatial resolution of the source data sets meant that features that were too small to be mapped using radar alone, such as occupation mounds, could be included in the new map of Angkor presented here (Fig. 2), which supersedes the mapping data produced in 2002. Some of the newly mapped features have been verified only through low-level aerial survey by using an ultralight plane. The task of verifying the thousands of features identified in the imagery on the ground has been a focus of GAP since 2002 and will continue to occupy field workers for many years to come. This notwithstanding, the new mapping work can generally be considered comparable in terms of methodology, content, and detail to the 1999 Pottier map, which it extends.

Fig. 4.

An arrangement of eight grid-like enclosures between the Angkor-Phimai Road and Prei Vihéar/Phnom Dei. Note that the road partially obliterates one of the enclosures, indicating that the structure is older than the (circa 11th- to 12th-century) road. Note the large Angkorian embankments running south from the Puok River toward the northeast corner of the West Baray, the size and great complexity of the infrastructure in the area, and also the numerous breaches of dykes and embankments by later watercourses.

Fig. 5.

An enclosed grid of mounds to the east of the East Baray. Note that it is isoclinal with Banteay Samrè and with the eastward extension of the northern wall of the baray, rather than with the baray or its outlet. Note also the extremely complex water management system in the area, including a northeast corner entry to the baray and the Krol Romeas distribution outlet from the center of the east bank of the East Baray into the Roluos River system.


Even on a quite conservative estimate, Greater Angkor, at its peak, was therefore the world’s most extensive preindustrial low-density urban complex. This has substantial implications for heritage management, as the well-preserved remains of Greater Angkor extend far beyond the designated World Heritage zone that surrounds the central temples. The scale of the site also has implications for its history and its demise. Angkor stands in a vast expanse of rice fields that would have required extensive forest clearance over the entire Angkor plain and up into the Kulen and Khror hills to the north. The new maps show that landscape modification at Angkor was both extensive and substantial enough to have produced a number of very serious ecological problems, including deforestation, overpopulation, topsoil degradation, and erosion. Whatever the functions of the infrastructural network, the impact of extensive clearance for rice fields, the economic and demographic consequences of constant modifications to the landscape, and unpredictable events such as flooding or warfare would potentially have been extremely serious for such an elaborate and interlinked system. The Siem Reap river is now incised 5–8 m into the Angkorian floodplain, and a major canal in the south of Angkor that postdates the 14th century CE is entirely filled with cross-bedded sands, indicating rapid movement of large quantities of sediment-laden water (8). There is also evidence, particularly in the newly mapped northern region, of ad hoc adaptations, breaches, modifications, and failures within this system, suggesting that it became increasingly complex and unmanageable over several centuries of development (Figs. 4 and 5). Current work by the GAP, including annual seasons of coring and excavations, is focused on dating those events.


From a theoretical point of view, the key issue with the current map is the common problem of chronological resolution within an extraordinarily large collection of temporally undiagnostic surface data (22). Although it is unrealistic to expect archaeologists to be able to excavate a substantial proportion of the newly mapped sites in the near future, efforts to attach temporal attributes (derived from inscriptions, artifacts, architectural analyses, absolute dating methods, and so on) to critically important features within the map data are ongoing as part of the GAP. From this research, the spatial and temporal development of urban form at Angkor will be amenable to modeling with a much greater degree of precision. Early settlement may have been along the lakefront and perennial water sources as Groslier suggested (1), a theory that has also been supported by recent excavations (23, 24). For the time being, the new mapping is consistent with Pottier’s (10) observation, based on his 1999 map of the south, that there appears to have been a gradual increase in occupation across all of the areas that were eventually inhabited over the course of about a millennium. This gradual process appears to have been punctuated by occasional, localized rapid development, for example in the Roluos area in the 8th and 9th centuries CE. However, this observation is based largely on the development of the major temple sites, and it remains to be demonstrated that the phenomenon is an accurate reflection of the nature of smaller-scale residential development. Ceramics found throughout Angkor are also consistent with Groslier’s (1) assumption that, at its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries CE, the entire settlement space as mapped was largely inhabited. At this stage, the only compelling evidence of the decline of an entire area during the Angkor era comes from the Roluos region, in particular the Bakong temple, where palynological studies (25) and archaeological excavations (23, 24) suggest a marked decrease in both agriculture and occupation in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. The Bakong moat fell into disrepair at around the same time. However, the spatial extent of abandonment beyond the temple, which saw very substantial redevelopment in the 12th century (26), cannot be precisely determined from the pollen data at this stage (D. Penny, personal communication).

Angkor meets the material requirements of Groslier’s proposed “hydraulic city” in that it possessed an immense, integrated, and highly complex system of water catchment, storage, and redistribution. The fact that the hydraulic city concept has previously been associated with the outmoded ideas of Wittfogel (27) is, as Pottier (15) points out, insufficient grounds for abandoning the entire concept and its various implications, especially in light of evidence emerging from recent archaeological research. Although ground-based archaeological investigations at Angkor are nowhere near as advanced as at comparable sites in Mesoamerica, for example, surface surveys (10) and excavations (8, 17, 23, 24) have consistently demonstrated that the features identified through remote sensing are of Angkorian origin and have the potential to provide crucial data about the rise and fall of urbanism in this area and the role of water management systems in that process.

Around the ponds and the local temples and on the occupation mounds it is now possible to see the fabric of residential life stretching around and far beyond the infrastructural network. The areal extent of the urban complex remains to be clarified by detailed analysis of its network connectivity. What is critical is that the present study has affirmed Groslier’s essential propositions about the structure of Angkor and now directs attention to his overall hypothesis that the collapse of Angkor was due to overexploitation of the landscape (1). The discussion of the implications must therefore be broadened well beyond the prevalent debate about whether or not the network was used to irrigate rice. As Groslier himself pointed out (1), this aspect of the hydraulic city was just one among many, even if it was the one that he elaborated on the most and that he clearly believed to be the most important.

Although it is important to recognize that certain elements of Angkor (for example, the temple of Angkor Wat) were never entirely abandoned, it is nonetheless very clear from the new maps that the settlement declined dramatically from a level of high complexity in the mid-second millennium AD, and that this constitutes a “collapse” by any standard definition (2830). By pursuing both the ideas and the methods proposed by Groslier combined with innovative techniques, such as airborne radar, the GAP will continue to investigate the degree to which the water management network and the environmental effects of the urban expansion of Angkor were implicated in that decline.

The size and settlement pattern of Greater Angkor have substantial implications for its management as a cultural resource. The well preserved remains of the urban complex extend far beyond the designated World Heritage zone that surrounds the central temples, highlighting the need to reappraise, in due course, how this remarkable heritage site is to be managed.

The outcomes presented here are also of considerable relevance for understanding the nature of urban settlements in Southeast Asia (31) and the analysis of past landscapes in the same region (32) and in particular for research on other temple complexes of the 1st millennium CE in the tropical world. Many of these, like Angkor and the Maya temples, may also lie at the center of previously undetected low-density urban settlements that are often obscured by vegetation or modern settlements. The key sites to be examined in South and Southeast Asia include Pagan in Myanmar, Anuradhapura and Pollonuruwa in Sri Lanka, Borobudur and Prambanan in Indonesia, Sukhothai in Thailand, Sambor Prei Kuk and Koh Ker in Cambodia, and My Son in Vietnam. Although there may prove to be no substantial occupation around the monuments at these sites, further analysis is critical, because similar discoveries in these locations would transform our understanding of their social, cultural, and environmental contexts in much the same way as has happened for the Maya settlements and now for Angkor. This, in turn, will provide a foundation for comparative studies of the great cities that emerged and then collapsed in fragile tropical ecosystems, an important and topical field of research that has received minimal attention thus far.


We thank Dan Penny, Terry Lustig, Andrew Black, and Michael Coe for their comments on drafts of this paper; Bruce Chapman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for his work on processing the radar data; and Donald Cooney, Eddie Smith, Alexandra Rosen, and the crew of the Angkor Ultralight Survey Group for their support of this project. Funding was principally from the Australian Research Council but also from the Mekong River Commission, the University of Sydney, l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient, the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap, the Carlyle Greenwell Bequest (D.E.), and the Iain A. Cameron Memorial Travel Grant Fund (D.E.).


  • To whom correspondence should be addressed at:
    Archaeological Computing Laboratory, Madsen Building F09, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.

    E-mail evans@acl.arts.usyd.edu.au

  • Author contributions: D.E., C.P., R.F., and M.B. designed research; D.E., C.P., S.H., I.T., and A.M. performed research; D.E., C.P., R.F., S.H., I.T., and A.M. analyzed data; and D.E. and R.F. wrote the paper.

  • The authors declare no conflict of interest.

  • This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

  • ‡‡ Kummu, M., 5th World Archaeological Congress, June 21–26, 2003, Washington, DC, available at http://users.tkk.fi/∼mkummu/publications/kummu_WAC_WashingtonDC_2003.pdf.

  • Abbreviation:
    Common Era.




Lawrence Osborne Reflects on Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Source: http://www.newsweek.com/lawrence-osborne-reflects-phnom-penh-cambodia-65741

Phnom Penh
A legacy of violence and the sweetness of life meet in Phnom Penh. Mark Henley / Panos
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Filed Under: World

Phnom Penh, one might say, is the last truly Indochinese city. Ten years ago it was filled with legless beggars mutilated by land mines who chased tourists around in strange green machines operated by their arms. The boys had guns, and the Khmer children of the rich sometimes had their bodyguards shoot up the most infamous of Southeast Asian bars, Heart of Darkness. It was a wild city. The long shadow of Pol Pot was still upon it, and the visitor did not wander through it lightly. There was sweetness, but it could kill.

The Khmer capital is still wild and languid at heart. True, the city is periodically “cleaned up” at the urging of the American ambassador, but, mercifully, to no effect. In the parks and street corners shadowed by tangled wires, the girls with cellphones still whisper all night to passing motorbikes. The Hotel de Paris and the Sakura, half-hidden brothels on out-of-the-way streets, still have their devotees. The French villas are still there in their slow-motion decay, their walls ocher and dark blue and sparkling with crenellations of glass. The douceur de vivre seems improbably intact, a relic of disappeared regimes.

The Tonle Sap flows through the city like a freshwater sea. Not far from this wide, sinister, and beautiful river stands the Hotel Le Royal. Opened in 1929, the Royal was built by the French architect and town planner Ernest Hébrard, the man most responsible for laying out and building modern Phnom Penh. The British war correspondent Jon Swain featured the hotel in his harrowing account of the Indochina war, River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam. He portrayed it as it appeared when he stayed there in the mid-’70s, just prior to the apocalyptic arrival of the Khmer Rouge. It was, he wrote, the only place in the city where there was “something of the lazy charm of the prewar days.” Rooms at the top could be had for $5 a day, he wrote, but they were cheap only because they were exposed to daily rockets and artillery shells. Peril made the city sensual; genocide made it haunted.

I love it at dusk. I sit at the Café de Coral, a Viet place with outdoor tables opposite the Smile supermarket. This little area has perhaps the greatest concentration of dentists on earth, with molar-shaped signs with happy faces painted on them dangling above the mayhem. At 6, it will be the hour for bau (steamed buns) and “purple kelp roll” and “turquoise herbal pudding” downed with “salt lemon water.” Who has yet fully described the wonders of twist rolls and mini cage buns? After which comes an iced Vietnamese coffee with the filter resting on a glass cup and a bowl of condensed milk on the side while I smoke a cigar, always legal here, and watch the smoke in the windless air.

The lights come on, but just before they do there is a half hour of tropical semi-darkness in which the cement-and-plaster façades and the disintegrating shutters suddenly look intimately formal. I walk to Van, the restaurant in a colonial building opposite the Banque d’Indochine, and eat a steak Rossini with foie gras for about $14; afterward I find the blind masseurs wounded by the war, and then the bars on the far side of the Friendship Bridge that sit over the water and from where one can watch the longtail boats with their lanterns moving toward the Mekong.

The city is filled with ruins that elsewhere would have been torn down long ago. Great houses surrounded by gardens that are really fragments of forest; streets that do not feel like streets—more like paths cut through a landscape of plants. At night, then, you are alone, in places unlit, with the smell of giant mango trees. And even in the crowds and markets, in the fierce hedonism of Street 63 or 51, you feel beautifully self-contained and free. The past swamps the present, but not by design.

I ride a motodop through the rivers of motorbikes, and yet there is no friction. Everything is slow. Such cities—like opium dens—will no doubt soon be a thing of the past, and everywhere will be like Brussels or Vancouver. But until then Phnom Penh reminds me of what Indochina was once like: a place given to a curious, indefinable privacy and a merry tolerance, to horror and its forgiveness. You leave your door every night with a slight apprehension, and you return to it hours later with a satiation that is quite mysterious but does not conform to the knowing wink-wink of the outsider: it’s the alchemy of lotus eaters who have also tasted suffering, and of visitors who no longer quite want to go home.

Getting Stares on the Streets of Cambodia: Buses for the Masses

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/20/world/asia/getting-stares-on-the-streets-of-cambodia-buses-for-the-masses.html

By  FEB. 19, 2014




Luc Forsyth for The New York Times

Phnom Penh’s First Buses

A Japanese-sponsored pilot project introduced a bus service to the chaotic streets of the capital of Cambodia.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — This city of nearly two million people has many of the amenities of a modern metropolis — broadband Internet, automated teller machines and fancy restaurants, to name a few. But until this month, the capital of Cambodia had no public transportation system. To get around, residents had to inure themselves to perilous rides on motorcycle taxis or dust-smothered commutes in open three-wheeled tuk-tuks.

Now, in an experiment underwritten by the Japanese government, Phnom Penh is giving the relatively alien concept of public city buses a try. Ten buses are making their way up and down Monivong Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, for a month to see if they catch on with Cambodians.

Egami Masahiko, representative of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, said that with Cambodia’s economy growing steadily and the streets of Phnom Penh choked with traffic, the timing was right. Mass transit, he said, is “fundamental infrastructure for a modern city.”

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A public bus stop in Phnom Penh last week. Luc Forsyth for The New York Times

Since the buses began running Feb. 5, curious residents have been climbing aboard just for a test ride.

“We don’t know where we are going,” said one rider, a 13-year-old high school student, staring out the window one recent morning. It was her first time on a bus, she said, adding, “It’s kind of a new experience.”

Cambodia has plenty of private buses that ferry people across the countryside and connect provincial cities with the capital. But developing mass transit within Phnom Penh has until now ranked low on the priority list in a country where one-third of the population does not have running water.

The genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, which ended in 1979, damaged the country’s social fabric so badly that Cambodians came to assume that in many facets of life, including transportation, they were mostly on their own.

Some riders on the new Japanese-sponsored buses in the capital said that the lack of a public transportation system was emblematic of a country where government assistance was rare and civic-mindedness in short supply.

“People here don’t have a long vision,” said Khem Vannary, an actress on Cambodian television and an enthusiastic adopter of the bus experiment. “They don’t understand how a bus can improve their lives.”

Ms. Vannary lamented the unruliness she said she saw in the streets, where traffic laws are rarely enforced. She described Phnom Penh’s traffic as a free-for-all, comparing it to “children refusing to obey their parents,” and wondered whether the bus service would prove effective. An earlier experiment, sponsored by Japan in 2001, ended after several weeks.

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Passengers on a group motorcycle taxi waiting to depart near Chbar Ampov Market. Luc Forsyth for The New York Times

The new experiment, relying on rented buses and temporary staff, appears to have rapidly won admirers. The buses are often packed at rush hour, and a supervisor of the line says that about 3,000 people are using them daily.

Ticket collectors wear shirts that say, “Take the bus for a better future of Phnom Penh.” And yet the immediate future of public transportation remains cloudy. The government has yet to set many of the specifics, including the starting date, for a permanent service that will follow if the one-month experiment is deemed a success.

Mr. Egami, the Japanese agency’s representative, emphasizes the importance of low fares to lure customers. He said he doubted that a public transportation system could be run at a profit, at least in the early stages. “It will require a subsidy,” he said.

That appeared to be at odds with the city government’s intentions. Long Dimanche, a spokesman for the Phnom Penh municipality, said that it had chosen a private company to run the buses and that “there will be no subsidy.” The contractor “has expertise,” Mr. Dimanche said, but he declined to identify the company.

“If everything works out,” he said, a permanent service will begin this year.

If it does, many city residents may need a quick primer on the ins and outs of bus riding.

Khay Sovanvisal, a supervisor on the experiment, said he was constantly fielding questions from curious people who wandered past his white canvas tent at one terminus of the route. He hands out about 500 brochures a day, listing the fare — 1,500 riels (less than 40 cents) — and declaring that it “is not too expensive.”

A woman hurried up to Mr. Sovanvisal, apologized for interrupting and asked what time her relative, who had boarded the bus on the other side of the city, would arrive at this end of the line.

“I can’t tell you that,” Mr. Sovanvisal said patiently. “The bus comes every 10 minutes. It depends which one she’s on.”

A version of this article appears in print on February 20, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Getting Stares on the Streets of Cambodia: Mass Transit. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

Climate change could worsen Mekong Delta woes

Source: http://www.thethirdpole.net/climate-change-could-worsen-mekong-delta-woes/


Scientists say climate change will have grave impact on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, a region already battling pollution, salinity and flooding

(Photo: ImageMD)

A slew of controversial hydropower dams proposed for stretches of the Mekong River will heighten the risk of more saline intrusion in the delta. (Photo: ImageMD)

Vietnamese scientists say climate change will probably exacerbate existing ecological problems in the Mekong delta, such as water pollution, salinity intrusion, loss of aquatic biodiversity and rising susceptibility to flooding.

Their concerns echo a 2006 warning by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the Mekong River Delta and two others — the Ganga and the Nile — are particularly susceptible to rising sea levels.

The delta region – a low-lying area in southern Vietnam dotted with paddy fields and shrimp farms – is home to an estimated 17 million Vietnamese, yielding not only rice but also a third of the country’s GDP.

It is also among Vietnam’s poorest areas, and environmental restoration projects in the region are often a low priority for officials busy trying to kickstart a slumping economy.

“They’ve made some progress, but because of the economic crisis, investment capital is a serious problem,” said Tran Minh Khoi, director of the Center for Water Quality and Environment, a government institute in Ho Chi Minh City that monitors water quality in the Mekong Delta.

Large-scale rice production causes soil pollution

The problems are rooted in the large-scale expansion of rice production in the Mekong Delta, which now produces roughly half of the country’s rice.

In the 1990s, the Vietnamese government began the widespread construction of sluice gates, high dikes and other irrigation measures that were designed to control the Mekong River’s natural flood pulses for the sake of boosting rice cultivation. While the measures have helped Vietnam become one of the world’s top three rice exporters, they have also altered the Mekong’s alluvial flood pulse and changed its ecological balance.

For example, rice farming in the upstream regions of the delta discharges effluents that cause eutrophication of freshwater systems and damages fish populations, according to a recent study by a team of scientists from Can Tho University. And because so many of the delta’s soils are naturally acidic, converting them to rice fields has increased the mobility of heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium.

Le Anh Tuan, a professor at the university’s college of environment and natural resources, said the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides by many Mekong Delta farmers only exacerbates those problems.

“Native fish species will be lost, and biodiversity will be degraded,” he said. “And the consequences may be worse with climate change.”

The construction of high dikes in the delta’s upper reaches has also correlated directly with an increased risk of flooding in Can Tho, one of the delta’s largest cities, according to research by Hideto Fujii, a researcher at the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences.

According to Fujii, upstream dikes store a large amount of water that can be dangerous when dikes break. That was evident in 2011 when heavy floods in the delta province of An Giang broke through dikes and caused damage in downstream areas, he said.

And when seasonal floods subside, fresh danger surfaces in the form of saline intrusion.

Because the Mekong is a tidal river, it has a flood pulse in which saline water from the South China Sea travels up its tributaries during the February-to-April dry season. But the construction of so much irrigation infrastructure, coupled with heavy water use in upstream provinces, has in many cases reduced seaward flows of freshwater — and allowed more saline water to travel in the other direction.

A slew of controversial hydropower dams proposed for stretches of the Mekong River in China, Laos and Cambodia would only heighten the risk of more saline intrusion in the delta, according to Dao Trong Tu, senior advisor to the Vietnam Rivers Network, a Vietnamese NGO.

“In the Mekong Delta we have very dense canal system, so if water intrudes it impacts agricultural production very much,” he said. “It’s a big impact.”

International funds pour in to tackle climate change

Several governments and international donors have recently identified climate change as a central priority in Vietnam, and there are several ongoing projects aimed at mapping the extent of the delta’s environmental problems and devise solutions.

The German and Australian governments, for instance, are promoting climate-adaptation measures in the Mekong Delta, and the Dutch government has partnered with local researchers to develop a 100-year plan for sustainable growth in the region. The first version of the plan, released in 2012, suggests closing off branches of the Mekong River in the dry season to prevent further saline intrusion.

On a recent trip to the Mekong region in December ,US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US will give US$17 million for a new American-led project to help Vietnamese communities adapt to climate change and ”reverse” environmental problems. He said the project will be administered by the US Agency for International Development.

“Vietnam is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change,” Kerry said. “And we will see very serious impacts if we don’t change course today.”

But there are considerable obstacles. Here’s one challenge — though demand for freshwater is increasing across the Mekong Delta, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has largely resisted calls from Vietnamese scientists to alter itsambitious agricultural production targets, which scientists say are ecologically unsustainable and sorely outdated.

According to Tung Phung Duc, director the Mekong Development Research Institutein Hanoi, a central problem is that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) exert significant control over Vietnam’s nearly US$4 billion rice-export industry and are resistant to reforms that would cut into their profits.

“We don’t have a problem with food security,” he said. “There are a lot of SOEs in the agriculture sector, and I think it’s better (for the government) to sell them.”

Shrimp industry causes fresh conflict

And in the southern reaches of the Mekong Delta, the creation in recent years of coastal shrimp farms has led to “severe losses” of mangrove forests, according to aJanuary study by a team of German and Vietnamese scientists. Shrimp exports from Vietnam are now worth US$2.8 billion per year, according to the state-controlled media, but scientists say the loss of mangroves is problematic because the trees have historically been a natural defense against storms along the delta’s 600 kilometre coastline

And as the shrimp industry grows, conflicts are deepening between shrimp and rice farmers, according to Tran Minh Khoi. He said shrimp farming uses a mix of fresh and brackish water, and the conflicts typically arise when the practice prevents rice farmers from getting the freshwater they require.

The conflicts, Khoi added, are likely to worsen as sea levels rise and demand for freshwater increases.

Building Trust International PP Workshops


Source: Via e-mail from Building Trust International

Please contact: Louise Cole with questions

Sustainable Live Build Workshops

We are excited to announce that Building Trust international are hosting a two week long sustainable build workshop in Phnom Penh during February. I am writing to ask as to whether you would be interested in taking part.

We are offering a hands on participatory workshop where you will gain experience in sustainable building techniques and understand more about humanitarian design while supporting a worthwhile community project that will have a huge benefit to the local community and positive effect on the local environment. You will gain an insight into a number of building techniques and architectural styles including some of those listed below.

What will you will learn?

  • Adobe bricks mixing and making
  • Breathable plastering
  • Palm thatch
  • Bamboo structural design concepts.
  • Bamboo anatomy and species familiarisation.
  • Bamboo treatment

This is a hands on course, working with others you will learn on-site skills like site management and material procurement. You will also see first-hand how we promote and work with local communities taking on traditional skills and a host of other sustainable build techniques.When: Mon 10th – Fri 21st  February 2014Please note the workshop will take place between 9am – 5pm on weekdays.Location: KOUK KHLEANG YOUTH CENTER
The youth center is operated by Cambodian organizations Cambodian Volunteers for Society (CVS) and Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA) and was 
designed and built by Komitu Architects.

Donation:  We have daily and weekly rates for our educational workshop, please get in touch to find out more.
*Please note all funds raised through the workshop will go towards buying materials to make the projects happen. The running and organisational costs have been covered.We look forward to discussing further as to how you can use your skills to help communities very much in need in Cambodia. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or queries. 
Our volunteer workshops offer you the chance to meet some fantastic people, learn new skills, visit fascinating locations and contribute to the empowerment of local communities and worthwhile causes. We look forward to hearing from you!

Human Rights Leaders Arrested Leaving US Embassy, Later Released

Source: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/ban-foes-undeterred

Land rights activist Yorm Bopha shouts as she is pulled into a police vehicle by authorities near the US embassy in Phnom Penh

Land rights activist Yorm Bopha shouts as she is pulled into a police vehicle by authorities near the US embassy in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Ban foes undeterred

Wed, 22 January 2014
Eleven rights activists delivering petitions to foreign embassies yesterday morning were pulled into waiting vans by district security forces and detained before being released after questioning in the early afternoon.

Dozens of men wielding batons and wearing navy blue uniforms and black motorcycle helmets arrived at the US embassy as a small number of activists gathered to deliver a petition signed by 181 NGOs calling for the release of 23 people jailed after a crackdown earlier this month.

Tep Vanny from the Boeung Kak lake community and Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, were arrested as they left US embassy property along with a staff member of the Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) and Chheang Thida, director of the Cambodia Union Association at the Kin Tay garment factory in Chak Angre Krom commune.

Shortly after her arrest, Vanny told the Post that she had been unjustly detained.

“We were questioned related to gathering at the US embassy to file the petition. The authorities always arrest me and other people without arrest warrants,” she said.

Two US embassy security guards were seen negotiating with the security forces and protesters during the stand-off.

Sean McIntosh, spokesman for the embassy, condemned the arrests, adding that the embassy officials were requesting that the activists demonstrate on public property across the street.

“The US embassy condemns the arrests of the activists today who were attempting to exercise their constitutional rights to peaceful assembly and expression,” he said. “We continue to urge the Cambodian authorities to rescind their ban on demonstrations in Phnom Penh.

“In keeping with security procedures, the group of activists was asked to conduct its demonstration in the public space across the street from the embassy.”

Another seven activists, including prominent Boeung Kak representative Yorm Bopha, were arrested when security forces blocked the road as they attempted to reach the French embassy on Monivong Boulevard.

The remaining activists then delivered petitions to the British embassy, the headquarters of Unicef and to Amnesty International Asia researcher for Cambodia Rupert Abbott, who had arrived at the Unicef offices to observe.

“We’re going to try to raise international awareness about what’s happening and call on the government to stop this crackdown and really try to look for a way forward,” Abbott said. “In the short-term, [we will try] to help bring national reconciliation and everybody together, but also in the long-run for systematic human rights reforms.”

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the arrests were a legitimate enforcement of the ban on public gatherings in the capital.

“The question is one of public order. The temporary ban has been issued from the City Hall,” he said. “Those people, the leaders of the demonstration, we can’t let them disturb public order. They were arrested and brought back to the Municipal Police office.”

Shortly after 11am, activists gathered at Phnom Penh Municipal Police Station to demand the release of the 11 detained protesters. All were released at 1:30pm after signing a document stating they will not “induce or participate” in illegal demonstrations.


Land rights activists call for the release of 23 detained people yesterday in front of the US embassy in Phnom Penh.

Land rights activists call for the release of 23 detained people yesterday in front of the US embassy in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Chhun of CITA said: “The government usually urges us to obey the law, but they are government forces and they did not obey the law. We just filed a petition to the embassies and we have not set up a protest or demonstration, but they arrested us. How can we believe in government to implement the law?”

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, condemned the use of unofficial private security guards to enforce the ban on gatherings.

“They must be learning from China and Vietnam. These are basically hired thugs; it’s a lot easier to hire thugs than pay police properly. The police have been pretty bad, because the salaries are pretty low,” he said. “How do we know these people are trained to handle arrests? To me it’s illegal, but it tells me a lot about the Cambodian security sector.”

Government spokesman Siphan said he thought the practice was justified.

“They are hired by City Hall. We call them ‘police agents’. They are working at private security [firms] and are hired by City Hall to enforce public order. I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” he said.

Contact authors: Daniel Pye and Khouth Sophak Chakrya

Workers of the World Faint!

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/opinion/workers-of-the-world-faint.html


Sarah Mazzetti
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just over two years ago, at the Anful Garments Factory in Kompong Speu Province, a young worker named Chanthul and 250 of her colleagues collapsed in a collective spell of fainting. They had to be hospitalized; the production line shut down.

Two days later, the factory was back up, and the mass faintings struck again. A worker started barking commands in a language that sounded like Chinese and, claiming to speak in the name of an ancestral spirit, demanded offerings of raw chicken. None were forthcoming, and more workers fell down. Peace, and production, resumed only after factory owners staged an elaborate ceremony, offering up copious amounts of food, cigarettes and Coca-Cola to the spirit.

This episode, however bizarre, was not singular. In the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a slew of mass faintings among garment workers: One after the other, hundreds of women have fallen to the floor of their factories in a dizzy spell called duol sonlap in the Khmer language. The swooning has been attributed, variously, to heat, anemia, overwork, underventilation, chemical fumes and food poisoning. But according to one group of medical anthropologists and psychologists who have studied the phenomenon, two-thirds of these episodes are associated with accounts of possession by local guardian spirits, known as neak ta.

The mass faintings have paralyzed production, to the consternation of the government, factory owners and international clothing retailers. The United States opened its market to Cambodian exports in the 1990s, and the garment industry in Cambodia has since become a $5 billion-a-year business. According to the country’s Garment Manufacturers Association, there are now over 600 garment factories, most owned by Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, Hong Kong and Singaporean companies. Many were hastily erected on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh and in a few other free-trade zones — on land where people believe neak ta have lived for generations.

Although Theravada Buddhism has been the official religion of Cambodia since the 13th century, it never supplanted the existing pantheon of ancestral spirits, local gods and Brahamanic deities. Perhaps the most important of these is the neak ta, a spirit strongly associated with a specific natural feature — a rock, a tree, a patch of soil. These spirits represent a village-based morality and are inseparable from the land. This connection is so strong that in past times even some kings were seen to be merely renting the land from neak ta.

Like those kings of old, Cambodia’s deeply superstitious prime minister, Hun Sen, in power for almost three decades, calls on land and water spirits to curse his enemies. Most Cambodians today, while Buddhist, ply spirits with tea and buns at small altars.

These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts. These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.

Early last year, I met a 31-year-old woman called Sreyneang, a worker at Canadia Industrial Park, west of Phnom Penh. She had recently caused dozens of her co-workers to collapse after speaking in the voice of a neak ta. While entranced, she had also assaulted the president of the factory’s government-aligned union, pounding him with her fists and pelting him with insults.

We chatted on the dirt floor of the tiny wooden house where she lived; there was nowhere else to sit. She said she had been feeling ill on the day of the fainting, and that the factory nurse had refused to let her go home. She did not remember most of what had happened next, but a spirit healer later explained that a neak ta had entered her, infuriated that a banyan tree on the factory site which had been his home for centuries was chopped down, with neither ritual propitiation nor apology, during the construction of the building.

A few months after that event, something similar happened at a sporting-goods factory near the capital that was said to have been haunted ever since it opened in August 2012. Female workers asked their supervisor, a man named Ah Kung, if they could hold a ceremony and offer a chicken to a neak ta angered at being displaced from the site. He refused. Two days later, the spirit entered the body of a young female worker, Sreymom, and claiming, in her voice, to have been “looked down upon,” began shouting in a mixture of Khmer and short, quick syllables her colleagues took to be Chinese. Several dozen other workers lost consciousness and had to be treated at a local clinic.

“When she was possessed, she just pointed around everywhere,” one eyewitness explained afterward. “She said, ‘I want to meet Ah Kung.’ She said, ‘I want to meet him because I lived here a very long time and he never respected me and this is my land.”’ When Ah Kung arrived, the bystander said, “He came out and knelt down in front of her and offered whatever the neak ta asked.”

What the spirit was asking for was respect. He demanded that an altar be built and that ritual offerings be made to him there four times a month. He demanded that the owner roast a pig for him and throw a Khmer New Year party for the workers. The owner complied. The faintings stopped.

In other times and places, ethnographers have also noted seemingly magical manifestations when indigenous populations first confront industrial capitalism. As the manufacture of linen intensified in northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, household spirits began to appear in textile workshops in a more malevolent form. There was the story about the demonic imp Rumpelstiltskin, for example, who helped a young woman spin grotesque amounts of thread, but only in exchange for her firstborn. Other fairy tales sublimated the distress caused by the environmental and social costs of intensified flax production. The anthropologist Michael Taussig has written about Colombian peasants who were newly incorporated into wage labor on sugar cane plantations in the 1970s and reportedly sold their souls to the devil to increase their productivity.

Aihwa Ong, another anthropologist, documented an outbreak of spirit possession in the 1970s among Malaysian women in Japanese-owned electronics factories. These workers often screamed hysterically and attacked their supervisors under the influence of a native spirit called a datuk. Ms. Ong interpreted these acts as a spiritual rebellion against the drudgery of factory life and the rupturing of the women’s longstanding social ties as they migrated from villages to newly established free-trade zones.

She also concluded that the spirit visitations did the women little good because they allowed the factory owners to cast the women’s valid complaints about working conditions as mass hysteria.

In Cambodia, the opposite seems to be true. Like Ms. Ong’s subjects, the vast majority of garment workers here are female and young. Many are the first generation in their families to work outside their native rice-farming communities. They often send a large portion of their wages back home, and feel both lucky to be able to do this and desperate. “The conditions are terrible — very, very bad,” Sreyneang told me as she described working six days a week to eke out $120 a month, without being allowed to take days off even when sick. “The factory has always been really strict.”

Despite efforts to diversify, the garment industry in Cambodia still makes up around 80 percent of the country’s total exports. Because the economy is so vulnerable to instability in the sector, the government has often reacted harshly, even violently, to garment workers’ efforts to unionize or take any collective action to ask for higher wages. During recent demonstrations, on Jan. 2 and 3, striking workers at Canadia Industrial Park and another factory near Phnom Penh were set upon by soldiers and military police; at least four were killed and dozens were injured.

Cambodian workers frequently complain that they are forced to work overtime and threatened when they try to join independent unions rather than one of the many government- or factory-backed unions that have sprung up over the past decade. (For an estimated garment workforce of at least 450,000, by the International Labor Organization’s tally, there are now over 400 unions, according to Solidarity Center, an international labor rights group.) Pro-government and pro-factory unions occupy most of the seats allotted to labor on the national committee that determines wage increases, and their dominance complicates collective bargaining.

In September 2010, when the national minimum wage was $61 per month, some 200,000 workers took to the streets to ask for a raise. It was the largest-ever strike in the garment sector, but after just three days it came to an anticlimactic halt due to police violence and threats against union leaders. Hundreds of the striking workers were illegally fired in retaliation. The minimum wage remained the same.

Then the neak ta appeared. Mass faintings in garment factories increased exponentially in early 2011, just a few months after the mass strike fizzled. Production lines shut down after the workers’ bodies shut down, and spirits bargained with management on the factory floor.

Public sentiment started to shift. During the 2010 strikes, few seemed preoccupied with workers’ rights. Even the foreign media and the Asian Development Bank’s chief economist wondered aloud whether the workers’ demands would hurt the industry. But when the mass faintings began, concern for the workers grew: Were they earning enough to feed themselves? Were they being exposed to dangerous chemicals?

Since then, basic pay for garment workers has risen from $61 to $80 per month, and is set to rise again to $100 in February. Numerous conferences on occupational health and safety have been convened. Individual factories, the consortium of garment producers and mass retailers like H&M have commissioned studies of working conditions in Cambodian factories. Garment workers have started to receive monthly bonuses for health and transportation.

Not all improvements can be attributed to spirit visitations: The country’s six independent unions have been fighting hard for wage increases. And working conditions still leave a great deal to be desired; labor rights advocates say that $160 a month is the minimum workers need to adequately feed and house themselves. But insofar as conditions have gotten better, it is partly because the factory-floor faintings have reframed the debate. The government’s brutal repression of this month’s strike has shown that it will still not tolerate large-scale collective bargaining. But mass swooning is a rare form of group action that can hardly be suppressed.

And now neak ta have been showing up to defend other victims of development. The spirits have appeared at demonstrations and sit-ins organized by the political opposition, which has been contesting the results of elections held in July, which kept Hun Sen’s governing party in power. At protests against urban dispossession in Phnom Penh, traditional animist curses are often levied at state institutions. Salt and chilies are hurled at courthouses, chickens are offered to spirits, mediums summon local gods to mete out justice in land disputes.

Last year, in a slum in Phnom Penh, a demonstration by residents who were being evicted by a wealthy landlord was interrupted when a neak ta possessed an indigent woman who lived under a staircase with her mentally ill husband, both suffering from H.I.V. The woman assaulted a local official who was trying to shut down the protest, forcing him to stand down. Previously, the landlord had cut down an old banyan tree believed to be the neak ta’s home.

“I have been protecting this area for a long time,” the woman shouted, “and I am very angry because the company demolished my house. I am very, very angry.”

Julia Wallace is executive editor of The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 19, 2014, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Workers of the World, Faint!. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe


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