When Lara Croft and Tomb Raider pushed Hollywood
images of Ta Prohm temple into cinemas around the world in 2001,
they consolidated the case for Cambodia as a tourist destination.
Little over ten years later, millions of visitors flock to Siem
Reap each year, many of whom will have their picture taken under
"that tree" that Angelina Jolie stood upon during one of the
movie's action scenes.
There is, however, obviously much more to Ta
Prohm than its famous friends. It is perhaps included in
"the big three" along with Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom as one of the must-see temples
because of the movie-attraction, but in reality Ta Prohm is a
mesmerizing temple to visit quite apart from its Hollywood status.
In fact, it is probably the decision not to clear the site of
trees, and leave some of the most impressive jungle/ruin take-overs
in place, that caught the attention of film location scouts and
made it one of the most atmospheric and most photographed of all
Ta Prohm is part of the small circuit of the
Angkor complex and is just a few minutes in a tuk tuk away from
Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom. The main buildings of the temple are
encircled by a large wall and so are not immediately visible from
the road but rather discovered by a short walk on a jungle-lined
path. A fantastic way to come to this temple is by bike, through
the trails in the Angkor forest and the lesser-used gates. It takes
an experienced bike guide to find the route through the crisscross
paths but it's a magical way to explore the area and arrive at the
inner enclosures of the temple.
Most visitors combine a tour of Ta Prohm temple with a visit to
Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat to fill their one-day pass at the
temples. However, Ta Prohm is surrounded by a myriad of other,
smaller sites that, combined, can make for a great day of
exploration. Banteay Kdei and Ta
Nei in particularly are quite under-visited yet
interesting sites which make for a peaceful break from the
Ta Prohm is included in the temple pass for the Angkor
Archaeological Park. There is no separate entrance fee to visit the
Ta Prohm temple is best visited early in the
morning when everybody else is at Angkor Wat. The
surrounding jungle is alive with sounds and the light is at its
best for keen photographers trying to catch the ongoing battle
between nature and architecture.
Ta Prohm's original name was Rajavihara, meaning
"monastery of the King". It was built as a Mahayana Buddhist
monastery and university. The construction of the
temple is dated to 1186AD, but it is generally considered to have
been added to and embellished over a period of several years. As
Maurice Glaize comments in his appraisal of the temple,
"While for some time all the various temples in the style of
the Bayon were attributed to a single king - Jayavarman VII -
during his twenty or so years reign, today it seems more likely
that he could not, in such a short time, have done more than just
transform, extend or complete already existing religious
establishments with his mark."
Jayavarman VII dedicated Ta Prohm to his
family, as evidence by the inscriptions on the stele. The inscription lists many of Jayavarman's
ancestors, as well as giving details of the construction enterprise
on the site. Perhaps most compelling though is the information the
stele gives about the people whose lives revolved around this site.
Nearly 80,000 people were involved in serving the temple, coming
from over 3,000 surrounding villages. The stele also mentions that
there were 102 functioning hospitals in the Kingdom. Numbers like
this give a fantastic insight into the sheer scale of the Khmer
empire at that time.
Although work has been done to stabilize the ruins, Ta Prohm was
deliberately left much as it was found, giving it the nickname the
jungle temple. As a result it can be confusing to
navigate the site as some parts are impassable, and it is tempting
to explore the temple from one amazing tree formation to the next,
rather than by any temple plan.
The layout of the site is relatively simple, consisting of a
number of one-story buildings (a "flat" Khmer temple rather than
pyramid structure) which are enclosed by a partially-standing
rectangular wall 600 x 1000m. Within this wall would have stood a
substantial town, but now the temple interior is inhabited by
jungle. At the east of the site there are four smaller enclosing
walls which wrap around the central sanctuary.
Most people enter the temple from the west, and after a short
walk are greeted by a stone terrace in the shape of a cross which
forms a walkway over a narrow moat. This leads to the fourth
enclosing wall and the beginning of the real Ta Prohm experience.
From this point there are courtyards, passageways and towers to
explore, all in nature's grip - partly destroyed and partly
conserved by the encroaching jungle. Some of the buildings in the
inner enclosures are thought to have been added in later years,
such as the libraries in the first and third enclosures. The famous
tomb raider tree is located in the central
sanctuary and is an impressive sight, the roots seeming to both
strangle and support the ruins beneath.
Ta Prohm does not feature many complex carvings, or narrative
reliefs. In the central sanctuary you can see the holes in the
walls that may have held a covering of stucco or metal. Original
carvings may have decayed in the jungle, or been destroyed
following the death of Jayavarman VII and the rise of Hinduism.
However, visitors may want to try and find the now-famous
stegosaurus carving and join the argument as to
whether the carving is merely a hoax, or if it does in fact prove
that the Khmer civilization had knowledge or even first-hand
experience of dinosaurs.
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