In a clearing in the jungles of Angkor the Buddhist king King Jayavarman VII built a monastery, Rajavihara, meaning ‘Royal Monastery’. We know it today as Ta Prohm.
The monastery was built between 1113 and 1150. In it lived more than 12,500 people, including 18 high priests and 615 dancers. In 3,000 surrounding villages lived a further 80,000 people providing services and supplies to the monastery. The temple was wealthy, amassing riches such as gold, pearls and silks.
We know all this because of a stele found at the site, dated 1186 and written in ancient Sanskrit. It also tells us something of life in the Khmer empire at that time. There were 102 hospitals spread over the empire; and 121 rest houses along major routes from Angkor to places as far away as Phimai in Thailand or Champa in present day Vietnam.
Ta Prohm is sometimes known as the Tomb Raider temple because some of the scenes were filmed there. It is famous (and popular) because unlike some of the other temples at Angkor the surrounding vegetation has been allowed to ‘take over’ the structures, with trees growing out of the very stones in places.
Approaching Ta Prohm
This was a deliberate decision by the French body that oversaw the huge task of conserving and restoring the monuments of Angkor in the early twentieth century, the École Française d’Extrême-Orient. They chose Ta Prohm as the temple to be left in its natural state; their aim was to provide an example of how most of Angkor looked when first ‘discovered’ by Europeans in the 19th century. Of course this didn’t mean totally neglecting the structure; but rather carefully conserving it so that the trees remained but weren’t allowed to further destroy it – an ongoing task.
Visiting Ta Prohm
It is probably best to visit Ta Prohm early in the morning, when the light is at its best and tourists fewer. We didn’t do that. When we arrived, after watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat, spending some hours there and similarly exploring Angkor Thom, the sun was climbing higher. The light was a bit flat and harsh for photos; added to which there was quite a crowd of people queuing to take a photo of one of the most iconic ‘tree root and temple’ images. And this despite the fact that visitor numbers were down on the norm for that time of year by around 30%, due to the impending Covid pandemic; already no one from China was allowed to travel abroad, and this is a favourite sight for them.
The ‘Tomb Raider tree’
We didn’t join the queue, as taking selfies in front of the sights doesn’t interest either of us. But I did attempt, and sort-of succeed, to get some photos of the tree itself; grabbing them as one tourist left their stance in front of it and before another arrived to pose! This is, I am told, the tree where Angelina Jolie / Lara Croft picked a jasmine flower before falling through the earth. That explains its popularity with the selfie and Instagram crowd. But as I’ve never seen the film and have no interest in it, this tree meant no more to me than the many others here.
Escaping the crowds
Our guide Sam then led us a few metres further and around a corner. Suddenly there was only a handful of tourists and an unobstructed view of the same tree from the far side. There we could get our photos!
There are two types of tree at Ta Prohm. The tall ones with large roots are silk-cotton trees or Ceiba pentandra, while the smaller ones with thinner cascading roots are strangler figs, Ficus gibbosa.
For the rest of our time in Ta Prohm we had many areas almost to ourselves, with only a sprinkling of other visitors. It seems most people come to get that shot and move on. But there is a labyrinth of chambers and passages to explore, which we wandered through with Sam; such a shame that most people miss it. Or maybe not, as we enjoyed the peace and quiet here once we’d left the crowd behind.
And as we were to see there is much more to Ta Prohm than one tree, with some beautiful carvings of dancing girls and ornate doorways; and several more such trees!
I took loads of photos, many of which lend themselves to squaring for Becky’s current challenge of Past Squares.
I visited Ta Prohm in early 2020