Sunday, September 27, 2015


This monster tree knocked down a wall!
When it comes to ancient Asian temples, everyone has seen that romantic image of an overgrown temple ruin in the jungle, as put forth by Hollywood movies. Massive carved stone heads are surrounded by immense stone pillars. Abandoned centuries ago, green vines cover the stone walls, while trees grow out of collapsed ceilings.

For once, Hollywood was right. That place does exist, and I'm looking at it now. It’s found here in Cambodia, in the Khmer temples of Angkor.

Part of the amazement of experiencing these temples in person, is seeing the variety of condition these many temples are in. Some like Angkor Wat are fairly well preserved. 

Others lie completely collapsed and destroyed. Several have been completely overgrown with jungle growth. Others seem to be a combination of all of the above.

But perhaps none quite captures the human imagination, as the temple of Ta Prohm.

Part temple, part ruin, part nature, as I approach Ta Prohm, the first sight that grabs my attention, is what can only be described as a great tree of destruction.

Is it a giant snake?? No, it's tree roots!
This massive tree sits on top of a wall, and towers high above it. Meanwhile, the tree’s roots look like the tentacles of a giant squid, as though formed from Jules Verne’s imagination. The roots appear to have pushed over this strong stone wall, with no more effort than it takes for a child to push over a wall of toy blocks. A gaping section of the wall, is now only a pile of stone bricks. A root of the great tree has creeped across them, burying itself in the earth beyond these measly human cut stones. The tree’s light bark contrasts with the blackened stones that have tumbled down below.

If you have read J.R.R. Tolkien, this tree could have been an ent from Lord of the Rings. It’s as though a mythical tree hopped up on the wall one night, and reasserted the power of mother nature, bringing back the jungle to cover the vanity of man. 

'Tomb Raider Tree' made famous by Angelina Jolie
Along another part of the wall, a colossal tree has grown up on both sides of the wall, towering over the tons of stone below it. This one gives the impression that it is supporting the wall, and holding it in place.

Others great trees have their roots flowing down over the walls smoothly, reaching downward like running water. They resemble a waterfall, frozen into tree roots. Still another has grown lengthwise over stone blocks, appearing as a giant serpent.

Movie buffs may recognize one stone gripping temple tree, from a scene in the film, ‘Tomb Raider’. I once chatted with a Khmer policeman, who had worked with the production crew while the film was in production here. “I see Angelina Jolie,” he told me perkily. “She beautiful!”

As a melding of temple and nature, Ta Prohm truly is a place of wonder and romance. I wonder if this exotic locale had any influence on Angelina Jolie. Cambodia certainly made some impression on the famous actress; she adopted a Khmer orphan to be her own son.

There used to be far more jungle growth covering Ta Prohm temple, but most of it was removed during restoration. When they got to these impressive trees however, they noted that removing them would damage the walls and monuments even further. Leaving the great trees where they are leaves a visual balance; it shows that Angkor is not just about temples, it is also jungle.

Restoration laborer, hard at work
Closer examination on some walls and reveals perfectly round holes dotting stone building blocks. These are not bullet holes as I saw at Angkor Wat; these are all holes left over from the days of original construction. Ancient Khmer construction methods had these blocks moved by sticking wooden rods into these holes for easier lifting.

I come to one of the temple's stone archways, and it’s blocked off. A sign reads, “NO ENTRY, WORK AREA”. Looking in near the sign, I find a workman lying asleep on a dislodged block. So much for working. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about Khmer men, they can sleep soundly on almost any surface. Whether it’s grass, concrete, a motorbike seat, or a stone block, you can find them snoozing almost anywhere.

Besides Ta Prohm, restorations are in progress in several other temples around the Angkor complex. As Cambodia is such a poor country, most of the funding comes from foreign sources. India is providing financial aid to restore one temple. That's not surprising, since India is the home of the Hindu religion. When these temples were first built, the Khmers were Hindu, before later turning Buddhist. The Japanese and German governments fund repairs on other temples. There are so many hundreds of temples around Angkor, that all of them will never be restored in our lifetime.

I know an American Vietnam War veteran, who spent time in Cambodia in recent years. He decided he would personally visit every single ancient Khmer temple in the Siem Reap region. 

It took him six weeks to see them all!!

The towers and trees of Ta Prohm