This volatile history - from erection to defilation, healing center to wartime bunker, neglect, rediscovery and restoration - is what made Ta Prohm the perfect setting for Tomb Raider. And strangely enough, the movie came at a time when Cambodia was just opening up to tourism after fighting ended in 1998. It's anecdotal evidence, for sure, but ask any tuk-tuk driver whether the extra exposure helped spark Angkor's tourism boom and they'll tell you yes. After all, everyone wants some adventure.
Stepping into Ta Prohm's chambers in the early darkness is the closest most of us will get to feeling like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. The last comparison is especially apt in the more ruined areas. Tomb Raider's classic platforming sections leapt to mind as I walked across a chamber of fallen masonry, using a toppled pillar for a bridge. In the more deserted areas, I moved like someone expecting death traps - testing my weight on each block, always on the lookout for cobras. Negotiating these hazards gave me a unique appreciation for the 2013 Tomb Raider, and how it emphasized Lara's physicality as she ducked, crawled and wormed through ancient tunnels - that's quite realistic.
Though Ta Prohm's treasure hoard is long gone, some discoveries await the determined explorer. Instant noodle cups fill one disused chamber, where restoration crews take lunch. Probe deeper into the collapsed complex and you'll find shreds of fishing net stapled to a doorway - the people living around the temple use them to trap fruit bats, a local delicacy. The room beyond reeked of guano and dark shapes squeaked in the vaults. By far the best secret, however, is the date "1881" chiseled on a pillar - followed by a Khmer inscription from some long ago visitor.
The site has lost some of its mystique due to recent restoration work, but it's hardly fair to complain given how badly Ta Prohm needs it. The Indian government took an interest in restoring the temple after the Tomb Raider premiered in 2002, though it's impossible to know if the film helped encourage the effort. Inquiries to the Indian Embassy in Cambodia were not returned but one wonders if it gave the temple's higher profile gave project an extra push. The Indian team has been cataloging loose stones and rebuilding the area for a decade now, and have found a balance between preserving the incredible trees and safeguarding the walls the roots squeeze out of place. And it turns out Ta Prohm still has some treasures left to divulge - in 2012 while the Indian team was reinforcing a foundation they found a golden crown, presumably hidden there during a period of turbulence.
We came out of the temple an hour after dawn. Restoration workers burned leaves to keep away the mosquitos. Tour guides wearing yellow uniforms led hordes of tourists past us. Angkor was being invaded again, by a force as destructive as the Siamese. Two million visitors came to Angkor last year, and they're wearing the site down. Touching the carvings with acidic fingers. Climbing on roofs that barely hold together. Buying statues in Thailand that - without their knowledge - were chiseled out of a wall and smuggled across the border. Cambodia is a poor country and has little money for guards. What little signage exists is poor and doesn't properly mark what areas are off-limits. Visitors come here to feel like Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, but like those two adventurers their presence destroys the lost city they've come to see. In two hundred years, archaeologists may be restoring the damage we did today.
But if Ta Prohm's history has taught us anything, it's that the temple will survive. Though Lara Croft made it famous, a structure like Ta Prohm is born, not made. For eight hundred years its walls have weathered both nature and man, they have been both cherished and neglected, they became the temple people see when they dream of lost cities.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong, but he's actually in
Thailand Vietnam Cambodia. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.