When Lara Croft burst onto screens in 2001, viewers fell in love with the jungle-engulfed temple that was used as a location for the film. The Ta Prohm temple is featured in the movie when Angelina Jolie's character, Lara Croft, is seen following/chasing a girl who keep disappearing around the ancient temple walls; the young girl eventually leads Croft to a white flower, where the Earth shakes and Croft falls through the surface. After the movie came out, Cambodia and the "Tomb Raider Temple" seem to find their way to the top of every traveler's bucket list.
Ta Prohm is undoubtedly the most photographic temple in all of Angkor. The most unique, awe-inspiring part of this temple is that it is engulfed by the jungle. The thousand year old towers are crumbling, vines entangle broken Buddha sculptures, and the muscular roots of trees spill over the temple walls like tentacles. It is easy to see why travelers feel such an otherworldly, raw ambiance when they visit the site.
Back when Tomb Raider was being filmed, the Ta Prohm temple was largely untouched. The ground was still dirt and visitors trekked through the ruins, much like Lara Croft did. Now in 2019, the temple has wooden walkways for tourists and parts of the temple have been restored. Even still, many of the narrow corridors have been rendered impassable by dislodged blocks of stone and those that are navigable are largely in shadow thanks to the thick roots that fill window openings.
Ta Prohm is also a place of scars, and I say that in reference to the Khmer Rouge era of Cambodia. During the communist Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), the regime tried to completely destroy Buddhism and very nearly succeeded. By the time of the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 (which ended the regime), nearly every monk and religious intellectual had been either murdered or driven into exile, and nearly every Buddhist temple and library had been destroyed. While walking through Ta Prohm, specifically, you see the evidence of these four years of destruction. Thousands of Buddha engravings and statutes covered Ta Prohm temple at one point, and now nearly every single one of them has been etched off the wall, broken, or completely destroyed.
We entered Bayon temple through the Victory Gate, before biking slightly south to the East Gate, or Gate of the Dead. The Gate of the Dead was just as eerie as it sounds. While we were there, there was no other groups around, only the Death Gate and us. Tradition holds that the name derives from the custom of the gate only being used when transporting a king to his funeral, but there is no historical evidence for this.
From there, our group traveled to the center of Bayon, where hundreds of stone smiles awaited us.
Four faces, looking toward the cardinal directions, are carved on the sides of fifty-four standing towers at the temple. Over 200 giant smiling faces and 54 towers, know as "face towers", remain standing. It's believed the faces are a representation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, though they have a striking resemblance to King Jayavarman VII, who built the temple in late 12th or early 13th century.
Bayon's outer walls have breathtaking engraved reliefs, not only of warfare but of the everyday life of the Khmer army and its followers. These reliefs show camp followers on the move with animals and oxcarts, hunters, women cooking, female traders selling to Chinese merchants, a naval battle on the great lake, and celebrations of common foot soldiers. Our guide took us around the Southwest perimeter of Bayon and walked us through the stories depicted on the walls before getting on our bikes and exiting Bayon via the South gate, heading towards Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is the largest of all the Angkor temples and is one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Surrounded by a huge rectangular moat and an outer wall, the temple consists of three tiered galleries and five towers shaped like lotus buds. The temple was built between roughly A.D. 1113 and 1150, and encompassing an area of about 500 acres. Its name means "temple city." Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We arrived at the Angkor Wat and starred in awe from across the moat before crossing the water on a man-made water walkway (the original walkway was being restored). After we crossed the moat and hung out with the wild monkeys that roam free around the area, we made our way to the the central structure of Angkor Wat, which is simply stunning. Again, like at Bayon, there are beautifully engraved reliefs which depict a story on the outer walls of the temple, and our guide walked us through the meanings of the engravings.
The heart of the temple is the central tower, entered by way of a steep staircase. We had to wait to get up to this tower since they only allow a certain number of people at a time. Luck for us, they built a new staircase, which is still very steep, so we did not have to trek up the original steps which ascend at a 70 degree angle. Once we were up in the tower, we were blessed with a beautiful view of Angkor Wat. We also got the opportunity to see monks and many of the native people praying. It was truly an experience that cannot be explained with words.