They talk of it as being hidden deep in the jungle, “overrun by parrots, cicadas and banyan trees”.
Of course it isn’t quite like that.
Unless you happen to be very lucky.
Unless, for instance, your guide (who doesn’t know that this one building out of all the others is the sole reason you are in his country at all) decides that you are the kind of person who needs to see this place as it is meant to be seen.
In a quiet solitude.
In the pre-dawn greyness a gateway loomed with the moon behind it. It was deathly quiet. Only three of us wandered beneath the ancient walls. Human beings: tiny insignificant beings of the kind who long ago had constructed this temple, but who felt their insignificance even more in the presence of the mighty trees who were slowly, inexorably, ripping it apart. Roots grasp the mighty walls like giant fingers, taking hold, ready to pull and teartrunks too slender, too tall and waiflike to hold such destructive force, much less wield itdust and desolation like the aftermath of a war
It is silent. The trees do not bend or moan in the predawn breeze. The slight dew does not drip from branches or overhanging stonework. If night-creatures haunt this place, they are gone already. The daytime chaos of tourists and hawkers is yet to awaken. For now there are three of us, scarcely daring to breathe, or click a camera, or take a step.
It is a sacred space. Echoing with history, and faith, and myth, and the overwhelming power of the natural world that contains or crushes all of the others.
Ta Prohm at daybreak is an experience that etches itself onto your soul, so that the being there is reason enough. If you get this lucky, you will never forget it.
Then day breaks.
It doesn’t come creeping over the walls or seeping through the branches as I might have expected. It shatters the night. Day erupts, screaming with the wail of a fire alarm. What the .!
Ah yes: the cicadas are awake.
And extremely angry by the sound of them. A pair of geckos echo across the site trying to hold a conversation, but you can’t help wondering if they’re also just bemoaning the sudden the screeching of insects.
The upside is that now you have daylight and can begin to try to capture some of this glorious experience in media more tangible than your mind. By the time we came to leave one or two other early explorers were beginning to arrive, but it would be some 12 hours later when we drove past the gates, with the market in full swing, the tour buses parked up, the children begging the last of the moneyed visitors to buy something, that we’d fully appreciate how lucky we were. If you can’t get there at dawn, spend the day hiking and aim to arrive as everyone else is leaving.
Ta Prohm is not a place to be shared.
WHAT AND WHERE
So much for the eulogy – you want some facts and figures.
Ta Prohm is one of the many temples that comprise Angkor, the area just beyond Siem Reap in western Cambodia. Understandably most famous of them all is Angkor Wat itself – the largest religious site in the world – but the whole Angkor region is under UNESCO world heritage designation and protection, any number of countries are involved in funding or otherwise supporting the archaeological and restoration activities on temples large and small throughout the area.
Whilst the magnificence of Angkor Wat cannot be underestimated, if you do visit be sure to allow sufficient time. You WILL be tempted away from the main event to the supporting cast and a week or more can easily be spent before temple-fatigue even feels like a remote possibility.
Of these my favourite (“everybody’s favourite” according to many of the guides) is Ta Prohm. It was built in the 12th/13th centuries. Later expanded, it was started by Jayavarman VII, who was largely responsible for the whole expansive building programme in the Angkor region at the time. The dedication stele, only relatively recently removed from the site, gives an inauguration date of 1186.
The temple was constructed to transfer merit in accordance with Hindu beliefs to the ancestors. In this specific case the honorific was the king’s mother and Prajnaparmita the temple’s primary deity is said to be depicted in her image. Someone once said that God created man in his image, and man returned the compliment. If this is true anywhere it is in the temples of Angkor. Jayavarman’s face turns up again and again in the Hindu gods and in the representations of the Buddha. Likewise, other members of his family also get their moments of glory. It may seem odd to the modern western mind, but with no true facial image to go on, is it really any different to much later paintings of, say, The Last Supper or other historical or imagined events where local dignitaries were immortalised by the renaissance painters? If a god or goddess needs a face, it almost makes sense to choose that of the most powerful person around at the time.
For all we latter-day Indiana Joneses might wish to fantasise, the building is not exactly “as found”. It remains in its semi-collapsed state, but much of the vegetation has been cleared away: to allow relatively safe public access, to assess the nature of the ruins for academic study, and most latterly to try to limit or at least slow the further erosion by the stranglehold of nature and her more subtle weapons of dust and water.
My companion idly wondered what “this one will be like when they’ve rebuilt it”, to which I couldn’t suppress the plaintive “I don’t want them to!”. We agreed that what we were looking at was a classic “no win” situation.
You could take all of this, extract the building blocks, catalogue them, reinstate them. Like all of the other temples around, you could rebuild. What would result would be one more temple. As subtly or fundamentally different from all of the others in style and/or purpose as they are from each other. It would be interesting. It would also be unbelievably sterile compared to what exists here, now, and in the imagination it provokes by its current form.
Or you could leave it be. In which case, nature will have her way and it will be dragged down, inexorably, into oblivion. As if it had never been but a dream in the minds of man.
The French solution – for this one came initially under the jurisdiction of the cole Franaise d’Extrme Orient – is inspired. Their plan was to endeavour, so far as is feasible, to limit both directions of travel. Clearance and stabilisation will continue to try to maintain the essence of the as found’ state and limit the destruction, but rebuilding will not be carried out except in the minds of the visitors. In doing so, Ta Prohm not only retains its own special place in the Angkor complex, but it also serves as a reference point for all of the reconstruction work that has gone on elsewhere. This is what the archaeologists started with. Marvel not only at the building, but at the rebuilding.
Of course, the romanticism of ruins lies not only in the stones. Any reader of, say, Tales of the Alhambra, will speak of the work of man and that beyond his control combine to produce a sum greater than the parts. The awe at Ta Prohm is in the scale of the natural incursion.
Any number of local plant species are wandering the floor and walls of this place, adding their own gentle mystique, but the real masters of the place are the silk-cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) whose knobbled, pale brown roots dominate in the manner of an extra-terrestrial monster, and its adjutant, the strangler fig (Ficus gibbosa) whose, thinner more grey roots cause less harm than the clutches of new growth to whatever is to hand in the attempt to climb towards the light.
The trees are initially benign, merely using the walls for support, but their strength eventually surpasses that of the masonry, prising the walls apart and ultimately, when the tree itself dies, allowing them to fall.
What remains of the stonework is as impressive as any you’ll find through-out the area and covers the same panoply of Hindu and Buddhist myth and legend. The convergence of these two beliefs is explained by the fact that Jayavarman VII brought Buddhism to the Hindu kingdom, but it did not survive long as the official religion as infighting and politics did what they tend to do to official notions of faith in the years after his death. Throughout it all, older Khmer animist beliefs also survived in lightly disguised forms.
Getting a clear idea of the layout on the ground is difficult because of the semi-collapsed state of the building.
Beyond the outer defences there would have been a sizeable urban and semi-rural area: home to some 80,000 people – all now lost to the forest and to later development. Records show that the building was originally conceived of as a monastery building, unlike many of the others which were only ever intended to house the deities. Such an institution would have required and encouraged a support structure of ordinary workers, tradesmen, and markets. The outer defences themselves accommodated 12, 640 souls according to the wording on the stele.
The remaining central section of the temple is in the style of the time. A series of concentric galleries, surrounded by a moat. There are gateways at the main compass points. Miscellaneous free-standing structures and towers adorn the interior.
To suggest a tour of Ta Prohm is almost to miss the point. Both the Eastern and Western gates are accessible and any guide or taxi driver will know where to drop you. The main site is compact enough to fully explore in a couple of hours, though if you get it to yourself, you might just want to sit in awe for a little while as well.
To access any of the temples of the Angkor protected area, you will need to have paid the necessary fee at the entrance to the park’. Day, Three-day and Weekly tickets are available. At the time of our visit a three-day pass cost $44, which covers full access to any and all areas. In view of entrance fees to museums around the world this is not unreasonably. Passes are personal (you will be photographed) and non-transferable. They are routinely and randomly checked. Transgressors, you are warned, will be handed over to the police. (Interestingly, that is considered threat enough, with no mention of what the ultimate penalty under the law might be.)
Ignore any advice which says you will need to have photographs with you: the Cambodians have entered the digital age.
In addition to the park fees, there will be the usual cost of taxi, tuk-tuk or bicycle hire to get you from your accommodation. If you’re not travelling with a guide, none is required for this particular temple. We had a guide for the week, and very good he was too, but at Ta Prohm, he stood back.
“The poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be” as someone else once said.