By Kevin Wiles
A visitor’s first impression of the Ta Prohm temple complex is that of commercialism. One cannot really prevent this perception, as the drop-off point for the tuk-tuks is at a market, which appears to have been both improvised and added upon throughout the many years of tourism. The vendors are tenacious in their hawking of various wares and articles of clothing (yes, one persistent lady even had a size 4x shirt for yours truly!). This forced relationship is quickly severed as you step through the gate onto the long, sandy path to the temple itself. Here, a walk of a few hundred yards or so is disturbed only by the chords of a group of landmine survivors, playing a melodic, ancient-sounding tune on their handmade instruments.
Walking the west path to Ta Prohm, it is easy to forget the world just behind. The arching trees provide shade and a background whisper when there is a rare breeze. The first impressions of the temple are often reflective (literally) as pools of dark water, complete with cut stone stairs, greet the visitor. Previously, the temple was left in its discovered state intentionally, so as to give a view of the ruins. The temple was originally a monastery, believed to be a home to 94 monks, based upon the accommodations found within the complex. Now, recently constructed walkways built over a decaying terrace offer the first glimpse of the restoration work taking place.
The temple is laid out with 5 enclosures, the first consisting of a wall 1015 x 670 meters (yes, that is over a kilometer in length!). As tourists, we only see small portions of the outer wall up close. The focus of this temple is really two-fold — the beauty of design and restoration, and the ability of such to be rendered asunder by nature. This is the temple of the sprung and strangler fig trees, ones that are tall, strong and resplendent in their glory, both as givers and destroyers. Over the centuries, the roots of these monstrous entities have become one with the temple stones, twisting, pushing and toppling the handiwork of men. Hidden under and behind these sylvan giants are panels of intricately carved figures from the era of Jayavarman VII. Here can be found hints of the life and times of the age, including a stele (an ancient stone slab) which detailed not only the material and human resource needs of the temple, but places of respite found throughout the country and a list of hospitals (102) spread across the kingdom.
Extensive renovation and preservation is currently in progress, so not all areas of the ruins are available to sightseers. The extensive work seems to be fruitful, as rebuilt chambers and galleries are readily visible within the construction boundaries.
My impressions of this magnificent place are muted by the sheer sense of chaos which accompanies the ruins. Gauging the destruction wrought by natural forces seems so improbable when looked upon by the relative blink of the human lifetime; truly experiencing Ta Prohm requires a mindfulness which draws upon centuries, rather than the experience of a mere human lifetime. Through this, I sense a peace and solitude which beckons even across the years. Here are found chapels and sanctuaries in which prayer and meditation would have been the order of the day. The religious influences include Buddhist and Hindu, although much of the former was defaced or otherwise erased during Hindu times. The detail of the carving is breathtaking, and the fact that these edifices have survived until present day is astonishing. Every direction one looks, there are marvels to see, from the small medallions gracing the lintels to the storied panels depicting kings, princes, and devatas (deities).
Modern day influences abound amidst this peaceful destruction. A friendship can be forged with a woman who ties a brightly colored bracelet upon your wrist, a welcoming gesture often meant to bring good luck and fortune. A small donation would not be ignored, and is appreciated.
Artisans can often be found among the ruins. Often, they will be creating a miniature masterpiece in real time, which can grace your wall as a hand-made memento of your time within these ancient stones. For the traveler who bargains, haggling is almost always expected, and often will enhance the cultural experience.
Taking the time to fully appreciate the rebirth and destruction alike will augment your time in Ta Prohm. Having a basic understanding of the art and history will further enrich the experience. And by all means, support the local economy and the hard-working artists by taking home a literal representation of the beauty and historical significance of this amazing place.