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June 14, 2016

Archaeologists have uncovered the remnants of a network of medieval cities hidden in the Cambodian rainforest in one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in years.

The network, so vast in size that it rivals the country’s capital city Phnom Penh, was found near the complex of temples that make up Angkor Wat, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Cambodia’s most-visited ancient ruins.

To unearth the cities, a team of scientists used light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology, which involves shooting lasers at the ground from above in a helicopter. The technology makes it possible to see remains of civilization even through the forest canopy, and helped the archaeologists discover city centers and an extensive system of roads and water channels that connected them. The findings were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science on Monday.

Related: Incredible Medieval Castles

Study author Dr. Damian Evans, an Australian archaeologist, explained the significance of the most extensive airborne archaeological study ever done — covering 734 square miles — to The Guardian.

“We have entire cities discovered beneath the forest that no one knew were there,” Evans said. “This time we got the whole deal and it’s big, the size of Phnom Penh big.”

The discovery is making archaeologists reconsider what they thought they knew about the once-flourishing empire. The inter-connected cities may have been the largest empire on Earth in the 12th century, even larger than the Holy Roman Empire and the Song dynasty in China. Not only does the revelation shed light into the rich history of the region, but it may also give researchers more clues as to what caused the Khmer civilization to collapse some time around the 15th century.

While the cities remain buried in the rain forest, it only adds to the allure of Siem Reap. It’s one more reason to add Cambodia to your travel itinerary. 

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