Siem Reap, Cambodia Part 2
February 7th, 2021
After yesterday’s tour around Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, today we’re exploring Ta Prohm and Pre Rup — two smaller temples in the vicinity. I was here over a decade ago in October, 2010 and originally posted this story in 2011.
Ta Prohm, overgrown with vegetation and lost in time, was to me the most beautiful temple of all we explored around Siem Reap. You may recognize it as the setting for the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, a footnote in Ta Prohm’s long history which is evident in its precarious forms that look as though they might tumble down at any moment.
Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.
After exploring Bantay Srei, we moved on to Ta Prohm. What a remarkable place. Ta Prohm has been overtaken by strangler figs and silk cotton trees, with roots draping over its stone walls like wax dripping from candles. Portions of the site are still intact, but in some areas the walls and ceilings have given way to time, leaving piles of rock in disarray.
Ta Prohm dates to 1186 A.D. and was a Buddhist temple built by King Jayavarman VII. Its layout consists of concentric walls around a center sanctuary. The entire site is easily accessed and open for exploring. Aside from reinforcement of some of the stone structures, little reconstruction has been carried out.
We were here late in the day with hardly another soul around. There was palpable contrast between the emptiness and the grandeur of the site… I felt a sense of lost time, forgotten legacy, disbelief, neglect. How can history and structures of this magnitude not be more prominently featured in the world of travel? On the other hand, how fortunate that sites like Ta Prohm are intact and undisturbed — the forgotten heritage of a poor country overshadowed by bigger world players.
We left Ta Prohm already planning to return for another longer stay so we could delve deeper into the whole region. We headed back to our hotel in Siem Reap. Along the roadside we were treated to some vignettes of daily life in rural Cambodia — families relaxing at home, laundry drying in the hot sun, a man fishing in the flood waters and the moment he cast his net into the murky depth, with a swath of electric green between him and the sky. In Cambodia, I felt like I was seeing the color green for the first time — as if every shade I had seen before was just an imitation.
We stopped at one more temple on the side of the road — small and deserted, we were the only two people there. Pre Rup was built around 961 A.D. — ancient, worn, weathered, enduring, lost, with flowers growing in the cistern. Incredible… to think the two of us could still walk up the steps and around the temple, appreciating the beauty and the views more than 1,000 years after its construction.
We passed a truck on the way back to the hotel, with men and women perched in and around its bed. They saw us passing slowly in our car, with our camera pointed out the window. A few women ducked and covered their faces, laughing and shielding themselves from the photo, while a few of them stared at me until I smiled at them… and then they smiled suddenly and waved back. What a fantastic photo captured in a fleeting moment as we passed each other — the patterns of their clothing, the smiles on their faces, the stories they could tell of their country’s survival of the Khmer Rouge. It’s astounding to think that every Cambodian is a survivor of the regime — either directly or by relatives who lived through the era.
Cambodia’s history is sad and complex, but its future is comparatively bright. After years of genocide in the 1970s, HALF the country is under 22 years of age. Tourism is a major source of income for the nation but only two million people visit annually — compare that to a country like France with over 75 million visitors each year. Yet Cambodia’s economy shows great signs of promise, growing over 7% every year since 2001 (not a claim many nations can make).
Regardless of the growth and the hopeful outlook, Cambodia will never forget its rich history that was derailed and destroyed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (for a heart-wrenching, incredibly detailed history read: Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short). There is sad evidence of this everywhere, even in 2011 — from the people around town without limbs, without eyes and without families to the three despots (Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea — all in their eighties now) who were put on trial just last month for their crimes against humanity (evacuating Phnom Penh and killing 1.7 million people while trying to create a highly productive communist society; Pol Pot, by the way, died peacefully in his sleep in 1998).
The horrific saga of 20th century Cambodia still lingers yet all are survivors who have endured, including this group of men who gather together on a wooden platform in Siem Reap. Each of them injured in some way by the Khmer Rouge and/or its tactics, their prosthetic limbs are detached and set aside while they sit together to make music and move forward. What courage and hope Cambodians have. Hopefully the worst is over and a better future lies ahead, with Angkor Wat leading the way.