Exploring Cambodia’s “Tomb Raider Temple”


We walked there under a dark sky, my iPhone’s flashlight lighting the dirt path. The day before the little LED had been enough to illuminate the staircases and bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat in the pre-dawn darkness, but here the jungle smothered the light. We’d been on the dirt path before, but that was in daylight when tourists choked the area and street children scuttled between them hawking postcards. But now it’s 5:40 AM and my wife and I are alone-unless you count the mosquitos.

We saw the library first, a moss-covered structure as big as a village chapel. Its sandstone roof had collapsed, scattering suitcase-sized blocks around the foundation. Ahead, a building emerged from the shadows. First, a stone terrace. Silk-cotton trees erupted from the platform where ritual dancers once twisted in the delicate Apsara. Behind the trees, a tower-gate stood half ruined and leaning in on itself. Shaded galleries jutted out at either side, with another silver silk-cotton tree, thirty feet tall, sprouting from the roof-its roots dripped down the side of the building like a candle burned too long on a windowsill. The stone underneath is splotched green, like oxidizing copper. Bas-relief guardians stand at the doors, ready to repel invaders.

The king who built this temple called it Rajavihara, “the royal monastery.” The French called it Ta Prohm, meaning “ancestor Brahma.” But to the tuk-tuk drivers and tour guides of Siem Reap, it’s “Tomb Raider Temple,” famous for appearing in the 2002 Angelina Jolie film.

It’s understandable why the location scouts chose to shoot here. The atmosphere is perfect. While the scene in question lasts only two minutes, it’s pivotal for the film’s mood. Lara explores the empty ruin, walking over fallen blocks and onto roofs as giggling children dart around the corners of her vision. Then, the ground opens and drops her into a chamber where she fights a living statue. It’s – well, it’s exactly what you’d expect from Tomb Raider.

For that scene to carry any weight at all, the temple itself had to look ancient, foreboding and magical. Ta Prohm fit the bill. It’s impossible to see its moldering stones and not imagine adventure, or sense magic in the way roots grow geometric grids in the spaces between the masonry. It looks exactly like an environment from the games. But unlike a film set, Ta Prohm was not constructed. Instead, it became the perfect setting after an 800-year history of ambition, desecration, neglect and rediscovery.

Ta Prohm was the work of Jayavarman VII, god-king of the Khmer Empire, and it is by far one of his lesser temples. History remembers Jayvarman VII as the most prolific builder in the Angkor period. He built more structures than any other Angkorean king, and his ambitious public works program ushered in a new baroque style to Khmer architecture.

Jayavarman’s most impressive achievement was city we know as Angkor Thom, an enormous walled enclosure with beautiful royal terraces and his grand temple the Bayon, its towers capped with enormous sandstone faces gazing serenely in cardinal directions. Angkor Thom was his masterpiece and love-a foundation stele describes the city as his bride. Though an excellent warrior and statesman, the god-king was an architect at heart.

Ta Prohm was not so grand as the Bayon, but this is not to say it was small. Ta Prohm served as the royal monastery, dedicated to a mix of Hindu deities and the Buddhist pantheon – something very rare at the time. Unlike his Hindu predecessors, Jayavarman VII was a Buddhist, and though neither religion is exclusive – even today they share divinities between them – Jayavarman pivoted the Angkorean state religion toward Buddhism and relegated Hindu deities to supporting roles. It was a change encouraged by his wife and his mother, both devout Buddhists, and perhaps it’s unsurprising that each of Jayavarman’s smaller temples were erected to gain merit for his family. The Temple of the Sacred Sword, Preah Khan, was dedicated to his late father. Ta Prohm was his mother’s temple. Based on inscriptions, archaeologists believe that Jayavarman incorporated his parent’s faces into the bodhisattvas that grace the walls.

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At its height Ta Prohm was a center for learning and healing. Temple officials there administrated 102 hospitals spread throughout the country, each staffed with doctors who could treat fevers and injuries. The hospitals were well supplied with herbal remedies for fevers and injuries – one record specifically mentions 1,960 boxes of hemorrhoid cream. There was treasure too. The foundation stele from Ta Prohm states that at the temple’s consecration in 1186 CE, it held gold and silver vessels, 35 diamonds, 40,620 pearls, 4,540 precious stones, 512 silk beds, nearly 900 Chinese veils, and over 500 sunshades to protect the high officials’ skins. When you look at the ruins today, it’s difficult to imagine that at one time, nearly thirteen thousand priests, officials, assistants and dancers lived within the temple, and nearly eighty thousand locals supported it with goods.

Jayavarman must have thought this monastery would stand for centuries, but it was defiled after only fifty years. Jayavarman VIII, the great builder’s grandson, was a Shivaite fanatic bent on destroying Buddhist influence in his inherited Empire. The new king removed or altered any Buddha images he could find. At Ta Prohm, his men gouged the Buddha out of every niche, leaving behind concave gaps filled with rough chisel marks. Some dig so deep into the stone walls that you can see sunlight shining between the blocks. After the destruction, Jayavarman VIII reconsecrated the temples to Hinduism. By and large, he proved an unremarkable king. He built no temples of his own, and reigned for 52 years before his Buddhist stepson removed him in a palace coup.

By this time, the Khmer Empire was starting to decay. Theories about the decline vary – some suggest that the city’s canals broke down, others that shifting trade patterns made the site less advantageous – but without doubt the death knell was when the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya besieged and sacked Angkor in 1431. The victorious Siamese stripped the temples and carried away anything they could – indeed, you can still see some of the spoils in present-day Thailand. Angkor never fully recovered from the blow, and the Khmer Empire moved its capitol south to present-day Phnom Penh, a site better suited for trade along the Mekong.

The jungle moved in and took over Ta Prohm and its sister temples, but the area was not forgotten. The temples, and Angkor Wat in particular, were famous in Southeast Asia, and Buddhist pilgrims continued to visit. While many fell into disrepair, Angkor Wat for the most part remained well maintained.

Portuguese traders and missionaries first saw the temples in the 16th century, and started circulating stories about a great stone city nestled in the jungle. Angkor’s scale and beauty impressed Europeans so much that they attributed the temples to Alexander the Great or the Roman Emperor Trajan, making the racist assumption that the local population would be unable to build such a wonder. (As noted in this excellent episode of The Big Picture, this was common thinking at the time.) After Cambodia became a French colony in the 19th century, the French School of the Far East decided that the Angkor region warranted further study, and sent several expeditions to document and restore the temples.

Or rather, restore every temple except Ta Prohm.

When the French arrived at Angkor, many of the smaller temples were beginning to merge with nature, and it appealed to the team’s sense of the aesthetic. Not only did the crumbling structure dovetail with the “lost world” narratives gaining steam at the time – King Solomon’s Mines published in 1885, four years before the first expedition – but ruined ancient, overgrown monuments were a common theme in Romantic paintings. Therefore while the team cleared the brush and trees out of the rest of the complex, the team left Ta Prohm in its “natural state” as a curiosity. In other words, the reason Ta Prohm looks like the perfect lost temple in Tomb Raider is because the French designed it to look like a lost city – which in turn, further fueled the adventure fiction Tomb Raider drew inspiration from.

Sadly, the restoration halted in 1970. The rise of the Khmer Rouge and the ensuing Cambodian Civil War made the area too dangerous, and temples suffered collateral damage. The Khmer Rouge used them as bunkers – even Angkor Wat bears scars from a firefight – and Pol Pot ordered religious figures and structures destroyed in an attempt to remake Khmer culture. Ta Prohm did not escape. Khmer Rouge soldiers destroyed the temple’s central linga, or Shiva phallic stone. When the Civil War ended in 1993, the international community mounted a joint effort to pick up the pieces in a country where war and genocide killed up to 20% of the population.

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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.

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