Adventures in Angkor – Ta Prohm

My first visit to Angkor was unfortunately short – with a stay of three days and two nights, there wasn’t very much time to go exploring and I had one and a half days planned ahead to cover at least parts of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The plan was to arrive in the morning, dump the bags in the hotel and meet up with the guide and driver after lunch to spend the afternoon exploring the temples. Alas, this was not to be – the Air Asia flight was delayed and instead of arriving in Siem Reap at just before noon, I touched down at 4 pm! (I was to later learn from the hotel reception that Air Asia’s flights to Siem Reap flights are frequently delayed – so plan ahead if you are going to use that carrier!)

On the bright side, there was still a chance to visit the temples. After 5 pm each day, you can purchase a One-day pass for the next day and still be admitted into the archaeological park that same day.* So I managed to And so it was with this happy entrance feature that we were introduced to our first temple, Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm - Terrace


Ta Prohm is an excellent introduction to the temples of Angkor because of its seeming state of disrepair – under French colonial rule, the restoration and conservation of Angkor was left under the direction of the École française d’Extrême-Orient (The French School of the Far East, or EFEO). The EFEO decided to leave Ta Prohm in its state of disrepair in order to show how the many temples looked in their overgrown state. The result is a deliberate facade of neglect.

Ta Prohm - Enforced neglect

Strangler figs and silk-cotton trees have taken root in much of the superstructure, often sprouting from the tops of walls while the roots edge down to the ground, often splitting the building below. In essence, the tree and the building become inseparable – in some instances, it is the tree that holds up the building. Ta Prohm’s overgrown state gives it an air of romantic, even ethereal, stillness. Needless to say, Ta Prohm has a lot of photographic appeal.

The temple itself was built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII (c. 1125-1215) and an associated inscription no longer at the site states that it was founded** in 1186. Ta Prohm was built to bring merit to King Jayavarman VII’s mother. In addition to that, the temple’s main deity Prajnaparamita, or the personification of wisdom, was modelled after the king’s mother. To the northeast, a nearby temple, now known as Preah Khan was built to commemorate Jayavarman VII’s father.

The name Ta Prohm, meaning ancestor Brahma, is the name ascribed to it today. In its time, the temple-monastery was known as Rajavihara. Within its grounds, this temple complex housed a total of 12,640 people within its wall enclosure. Today, as with the rest of Angkor, only the temple monastery remains as the houses of the everyday people were made of wood and do not survive in tropical environments. How could this seemingly cramped temple complex house so many people? A quick overview of the Angkor temples is in order:

Thankfully, Google Earth has some pretty good pictures of the plan of Angkor. Most Angkor temples are housed in a rectangular complex oriented in along an East-West axis. Entry into the complex is usually through a gopura (gateway) on the east side. Ta Prohm is no exception here, and the entrance is marked (1). The temple itself, the crumbling remains that you see here are at (2), while the terrace where the headless naga (snake) was taken is approximately at (3). As you can see, the rectangular boundary of the complex is still visible from the air. It is in this area, inside the wall and now overgrown by jungle, that the population would have lived.

In popular culture, Ta Prohm captured the imagination of moviegoers as some parts of the Angelina Jolie*** film Tomb Raider was filmed here – and indeed, this is another reason why Ta Prohm draws in the crowds. The carefully maintained facade of timelessness may certainly have boosted its popularity, but the trees that take root in the superstructure of this former monastery continue to grow – and continue to be a problem.

My guide pointed out this section of wall where the root had pushed the stone blocks apart by two inches. The year before, the gap was only hairline! It will only be a matter of time before the wall comes crashing down – and with that reveals the concern from my Cambodian guide: he questions this state of enforced neglect and wishes that Ta Prohm be conserved and restored fully, as much as the other temples in the area.

Exploration in Ta Prohm took approximately an hour, and in an case it was time to go because the archaeological park closes at 6 pm every day. Up next: Angkor Wat!

* Passes are US$20 a day, $40 for three days and $60 for seven days
** Unlike modern foundation stones, the date of foundation described in the inscriptions commemorate when the temple was “consecrated” – likely to be to time the sacred statue was installed in the temple rather than when the temple first began construction.
*** I write her name with some irony – the Angkor temples have been remembered for a good thousand years; I’m not sure if the same can be said for Ms. Jolie, such is the fleeting nature of fame.

For further reading, you might want to pick up:
The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham
Ancient Angkor (River Book Guides) by C. Jaques
Angkor Cities and Temples by C. Jaques
Angkor: A Tour of the Monuments by T. Zephir and L. Invernizzi

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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