When Angkor Wat was rediscovered in the early 20th century by French archaeologists, all of the temples were heavily overgrown – but none so spectacularly as Ta Prohm (Old Brahma or Rajavihara). When monuments of a once glorious period lay forgotten for nearly 500 years, the Cambodian jungle wasted no time claiming it. Silk-cotton and Strangler Fig trees snaked their roots deep into the loosened stones of the temple which was built entirely without mortar. Today, wood and stone share a symbiotic relationship. This state is purposely and delicately maintained to display an astonishing merger of nature and architecture.
Perhaps it’s not Ta Prohm that one is familiar with but the movie Tomb Raider filmed in this location in 2000. Angelina Jolie known as the unofficial ‘Patron Saint of Cambodia’ since and starring as Lara Croft in the video game-turned-movie, took this hidden piece of architectural wonder out of the Cambodian jungles and into the homes of many adventure-loving people around the world. Thus inspiring nearly 2 million travellers every year to throng Ta Prohm and have their own story intertwined in the roots of the giant trees that held it together. So much so, that Ta Prohm is now more popularly known as the “Tomb Raider Temple” in both guide books and by the local tuk tuk drivers. Today, local restaurants sell a Tomb Raider Cocktail (Cointreau, Lime and Soda – said to be Jolie’s favourite mix!).
Ta Prohm is about 3km North East of the main Angkor Wat complex and is less than 30 minutes from some of the finest hotels in Siem Reap. It is especially serene and beautiful in the early mornings. Built around the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, the temple’s main image represents Prajnaparamita (the personification of wisdom) modeled after the king’s mother. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found. UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992.
Traditionally access to the site was from the west, but since the clearance of the east entrance, this is becoming a more popular starting point. You can now start at the east, which is through a forest. The temple is large and quite tricky to navigate, and an occasional herd of goats or cows from nearby villages might just block the path. Giant carved heads of Gopuras, also found at the Bayon, serve as dramatic guardians at the entrances of the four points of the temple.
The eastern Gopura leads you to a grand crucifix-shaped sandstone terrace 500 meters long. Beyond the terrace sits a second Gopura, the most important of the Ta Prohm entrances with beautiful Buddhist bas-reliefs. Ahead of this is the Hall of Dancers, a 20mx30m building containing lintels carved with dancing Apsaras. The King had a penchant for Dancing Halls, as you will see in Bateay Kdei, Preah Khan and Bayon. Along the right are a series of galleries and shrines carved with Buddhist scenes. The Central Sanctuary is camouflaged among these galleries and it is not easily recognisable, mainly due to its lack of decoration. Perhaps there were perishable materials here that have long disappeared. From here onwards one gets lost in the charming passages and galleries while progressing westwards until you reach the last and western Gopura in the outer enclosure wall.
Some say that the voices of the 12,500 people to whom this was once home, can still almost be heard; sound waves embedded in the Echo Chamber, once used for cleansing mental and physical ailments carry the voices of the villagers. Close your eyes and feel the chanting of the 18 High Priests and the melodies of the 615 dancers who lived and performed in the temple.
If by now, the adventurer in you has not awakened, it certainly will when you see that treasures once hidden underneath statues within the temple have been looted by smugglers. The temple had collected considerable riches including gold, pearls and silks from China. The bronze statue of the King’s mother and the golden urn carrying her ashes had been dug out. Lara Croft came to the rescue, only too late.
The strange, haunted charm of the place intricately entwines itself about you as you go, as inexorably as the roots have wound themselves about the walls and towers. Come, experience it yourself. Find your roots of adventure here.