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Adventures in Angkor – Ta Prohm

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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

Categories: Angkor Cambodia

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Ta Prohm: A Glorious Era in Angkor Civilisation

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An informal presentation by the authors of the new book, Ta Prohm: A Glorious Era in Angkor Civilisation will be held at Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) Siem Reap on Monday, 25th June.

Ta Prohm: A Glorious Era in Angkor Civilisation
by H. Exc. Shri P K Kapur, Deputy Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA)
and Prof. Sachchidanand Sahai, Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla.

« Ta Prohm: A Glorious Era in Angkor Civilisation » ” (White Lotus, Bangkok) offers a new look at the biography of Jayavarman VII, focusing on the ideology of abnegation followed by this Angkorian monarch. With his well-developed policy of welfare, the king surpassed the contemporary European kings. The monograph shows how Ta Prohm was intricately connected with the royal welfare programs, since its foundation stele describes in details the assistance given to the hospitals from the royal treasury.

The monograph presents the temple of Ta Prohm in the context of Cambodian history, as the first dated temple of the reign of Jayavarman VII (1186), symbolizing the perfect wisdom in Khmer civilization with the mother of the king represented as Prajnaparamita, the mother of the Buddha.

The monastic and spiritual life at the temple has been graphically reconstructed through a closer study of the inscriptions of Ta Prohm. Impressive annual and daily grants offered by the royal treasury to sustain the spiritual life of the kingdom have been meticulously detailed.

A systematic study of restoration policy has been made in the context of over a hundred years of practical experience at the sites of Angkor. It has been argued that Ta Prohm can be a useful test case for the refinement of ideology and techniques of restoration based on the criteria of authenticity. This first monograph-length study of the most enigmatic temple of Angkor complex offers an indispensable reading, both for the visitors, and specialists, interested in unlocking the puzzles of Angkor art.

Shri Pradeep Kumar Kapur, a career diplomat of the Indian Foreign Service, is well-known for his deep interest in the theory and practice of political, economic and cultural diplomacy. He has worked in diverse areas in the Ministry of External Affairs and in the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India. He has also made significant contributions in expanding the scope and content of India’s external relations during his postings in the Indian Embassies/High Commissions in Spain, Tanzania, France, Nepal and Cambodia. During his tenure as Ambassador of India to Cambodia, Kapur took up the famous, but extremely difficult site for restoration of the Ta Prohm temple monument in Angkor, as a test case of cultural diplomacy between India and Cambodia.

Sachchidanand Sahai is an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University where he studied Indian and Southeast Asian Art and Archaeology. Specializing in the Khmer studies at the University of Paris, Sorbonne (1965-69) under the supervision of eminent French savant George Coedes, Sahai produced a pioneering doctorial thesis, published by the EFEO in 1971. Since, he authored many publications. The founder editor of the Southeast Asian Review, he has edited and published thirty volumes of this journal since 1976. In 1981, he founded the International Conference on Thai Studies. Sahai held a chair of Southeast Asian Studies at the Magadh University, Bodh Gaya (India) and worked as the pro-Vice Chancellor of the university in 2001. As Research Professor at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi (1988-90) he set up the Southeast Asia division of the centre. Recipient of French government scholarship, Fulbright post-doctoral Fellowship, Visiting Fellowship at Australian National University and Maison de Science de l’ Homme (Paris), Sahai is currently Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla.

Monday 25th of June 2007, at 6:30 pm at the EFEO.
P.O. Box 93 300, Siem Reap – Angkor
Phum Beng Don Pa, Khum Slâ Kram, Siem Reap, Cambodge
Email: efeo.angkor@online.com.kh / efeo.angkor.bib@online.com.kh

The archaeology insider’s guide to Angkor Wat

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CNN Travel tells you how to explore Angkor, featuring insights from archaeologists working there. Disclosure – I am one of the archaeologists quoted, and I know the other two in the article as well.

The Bayon

Exploring Angkor: You’re doing it all wrong, say experts
CNN Travel, 06 February 2015

For the uninitiated, a visit to Cambodia’s famed archaeological wonder, Angkor, can be a bewildering ordeal.

Imagine this scenario:

You’ve dragged yourself out of bed at 4 a.m. to elbow through hundreds of other camera-clutching tourists angling for the perfect sunrise shot at Angkor Wat.

A couple hours later, you find yourself waiting in a line to get a photo in front of a section of the famed Ta Prohm — better known as the “Tomb Raider” temple, thanks to its appearance in the film — with its surreal trees that appear to be slowly consuming the stones with their ravenous gnarled roots.

Your Indiana Jones visions of yourself, the Cambodian jungle and a landscape of wild ruins have been shattered.

You end the day with little more than sore feet and a memory card full of similar-looking photos that’ll mean little to you in 10 years — long after the quick history lesson you pulled out of your guidebook has slipped away.

Pretty grim, but it’s a scenario repeated thousands of times a week.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Full story here.

Categories: Angkor Cambodia Tourism

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Wednesday Rojak #42

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It’s almost been a month since the last Wednesday Rojak, and that’s because I’ve been traveling quite heavily for the last three weeks because of the term break and some family matters. On the flip side, it also means that I’ve amassed a few stories for this week’s very belated edition of rojak! Beside visiting Borobudur and Angkor, we also have a closer look at some of the sites in the Philippines.

Fort San Pedro
photo credit: thumbbook
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Tomb Raider temple to be restored

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Most visitors to Angkor would have already visited the site of Ta Prohm, the temple deliberately left overgrown with trees to preserve the sense of how the ancient complex of ruins was found in the 1800s. Local guides will also tell you that Ta Prohm’s claim to fame as one of the locations for Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie. The site is set to be restored by a team from India who, interestingly enough, will attempt to restore the temple without disturbing the trees that have taken root.

DSC 0972
photo credit: Darren On The Road

Temple tree
The Indian Express, 12 July 2008
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Disputed Khmer temple to be renovated by Archaeological Survey of India

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19 November 2007 (Earthtimes.org, Bangkok Post) – Preah Vihear, a hotly contested khmer temple that straddles between the Thai and Cambodian borders is to be renovated by a neutral party – the Archaeological Survey of India. The temple sits on a high cliff and rests on Cambodian soil; however, entrance into the temple is via the Thai side of the border. I’m not sure how this move resolves any diplomatic tensions over the site, however.

The other interesting aspect of the two stories is the involvement of the Archaeological Survey of India, which has been active in restoring many Hindu temples throughout Southeast Asia. Notably, it had helped restore the Prambanan temples in Indonesia after it as damaged during last year’s earthquake as well as the Ta Prohm, another Angkoran temple.

Preah Vihear, Creative Commons image by Hintz Family
Creative Commons image by Hintz Family

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Wednesday Rojak #8

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It’s a bumper edition of Rojak this week, as we travel around the blogosphere to bring you another side of Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos. This week:

  • John Hawks comments on Julien Riel-Salvatore’s earlier article about the Hobbit’s tools (featured in Wednesday Rojak #6!)
  • Planetmole republishes an article by Suryatini N. Ganie about the ancient spice, Ginger.
  • Carl Parks wonders if the travel writer who wrote about Ta Prohm in the Guardian actually visit the ancient monastery in Great Writing, but did this guy actually visit Ta Prohm?
  • Visithra scales up and down the steps of the majestic Angkor Wat.
  • Chleong visits a different kind of Wat in Cambodia, a more recently built one called the Killing Fields Memorial.
  • Chris visits a lesser-known archaeological mystery in Laos, the Plain of Jars.

In this series of weekly rojaks (published on Wednesdays) I’ll feature other sites in the blogosphere that are of related to archaeology in Southeast Asia. Got a recommendation for the next Wednesday rojak? Email me!

Also, do drop by the SEAArch bookstore for a selection of books related to the archaeology of Southeast Asia!