I distinctly recall the exact moment that I learned of the Khmer temples of Angkor. It was the mid-nineties. I stood looking at a black and white print at a photo exhibit. The picture showed a mass of tree roots flowing over and surrounding a door to an ancient Asian temple. It was exotic and surreal and like no place I’d ever seen. The photographer standing nearby told me that the picture was taken in Cambodia’s Angkor region. It was a place I had not known existed in a country that I thought was too dangerous to visit. (The Vietnamese had only withdrawn from Cambodia in 1989 ending an invasion that terminated the reign of the despot Pol Pot; a comprehensive peace settlement was signed two years later in 1991.) The picture I was standing and viewing was taken only few years after stability had returned to the region. As I looked at the photograph I knew that Angkor was a place I wanted to visit. With the region’s political turmoil and its remote location, it seemed quite impossible; a visit to Cambodia felt like a dream that would never be fulfilled.
Still I quizzed the photographer further about his trip. He was blasé about the experience of traveling to such an exotic and seemingly dangerous place. To him a holiday in Cambodia was no big thing. And perhaps visiting Cambodia at the time wasn’t as big an adventure as it appeared. (The backpacking traveler crowd, which I assume the picture taker was part of, always seems to figure these things out first.) Post the Vietnamese occupation change occurred rapidly in Cambodia. Today Cambodia and the Temples of Angkor are well ensconced as a convenient and oft visited international tourist destination.
When I researched later I learned that the surreal photograph of Angkor that I’d seen was undoubtedly taken at the Ta Prohm Temple. By intent Ta Prohm was only partially restored by the French when they oversaw this area of Cambodia. The jungle vegetation was left overrunning the ruined walls of the complex; the combination of the ancient temple and thick tree roots is both exotic and visually striking.
Now it will come as no surprise that Ta Prohm was on our visitation agenda when headed to Siem Reap. Maybe I just wanted take a picture as good as the one I remember seeing. (In this I did not succeed.) Sometimes I wonder why photographers want to take pictures just like the great photos they’ve seen before. Isn’t it like a writer retyping A Tale of Two Cities into his or her word processor with a couple of altered sentences and then repackaging it as their own creation? I admit it; I do the same thing. I’ll be elbow to elbow in the crowd working to snap a personal version of the “classic” photograph of some notable place.
It was warm and dusty when we reached Ta Prohm from our hotel in the back of Mr. Panha’s tuk tuk. We joined the other tourists working their way past the clutch of children selling knickknacks. As usual the souvenirs were for sale for one US dollar exactly. Change was not an option. Past the young entrepreneurs we found the broad compacted dirt path leading into Ta Prohm’s ruins.
Ta Prohm is a complexly organized temple with multiple rectangular enclosing walls. Thick roots of Sompong trees (Tetrameles nudiflora) and the smaller webs of roots of Gold Apple (Diospyros decandra) drape over the ruins’ rough gray stonewalls.* In places the roots form intricate structures. In other areas the thick Sompong roots snake over the carved temple walls and run like massive serpents in search of soil. The combination of the ancient temple and the mass of roots makes for an intriguing place.
Though Ta Prohm is now undergoing restoration the choice was made long ago to leave some of the more dramatic encroaching vegetation in place. This temple was singled out by the École Française d’Extrême-Orient because it was “one of the most imposing [temples] and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it”. Today this temple serves as an example of the appearance of Angkor’s structures before wide scale restoration began in the early 20th Century. It provides a glimpse of how Angkor must have looked to the 19th Century western “discoverers” fantastically portrayed in the familiar Hollywood blockbusters. Indeed, Ta Prohm’s mysterious look was exploited as a location for the movie Tomb Raider.
In the end, Ta Prohm does not look just like it does in the pictures. It is more amazing and more astounding in person. Perhaps there is a reason to try to take a better picture. And though a photo may encourage a visit, pictures do not do Ta Prohm full justice. This is a place where a visit is necessary.
* Some accounts alternatively label Ta Prohm’s trees as silk cotton and strangler figs, respectively.