Ta Prohm is undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor and should be high on the hit list of every visitor. Its appeal lies in the fact that, unlike the other monuments of Angkor, it has been left to be swallowed by the jungle, and looks very much the way most of the monuments of Angkor appeared when European explorers first stumbled upon them. Well, that’s the theory, but in fact the jungle is pegged back and only the largest trees are left in place, making it manicured rather than raw like Beng Mealea. Still, a visit to Ta Prohm is a unique, other-world experience. The temple is cloaked in dappled shadow, its crumbling towers and walls locked in the slow muscular embrace of vast root systems. If Angkor Wat, the Bayon and other temples are testimony to the genius of the ancient Khmers, Ta Prohm reminds us equally of the awesome fecundity and power of the jungle. There is a poetic cycle to this venerable ruin, with humans first conquering nature to rapidly create, and nature once again conquering humans to slowly destroy.
Built from 1186 and originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII. It is one of the few temples in the Angkor region where an inscription provides information about the temple’s dependents and inhabitants. The numbers quoted really are staggering, although possibly include an element of exaggeration to glorify the king: close to 80,000 people were required to maintain or attend at the temple, among them more than 2700 officials and 615 dancers.
Ta Prohm is a temple of towers, close courtyards and narrow corridors. Many of the corridors are impassable, clogged with jumbled piles of delicately carved stone blocks dislodged by the roots of long-decayed trees. Bas-reliefs on bulging walls are carpeted by lichen, moss and creeping plants, and shrubs sprout from the roofs of monumental porches. Trees, hundreds of years old – some supported by flying buttresses – tower overhead, their leaves filtering the sunlight and casting a greenish pall over the whole scene. The most popular of the many strangulating root formations is that on the inside of the easternmost gopura (entrance pavilion) of the central enclosure. However, there are several other astounding growths including the famous Tomb Raider tree where Angelina Jolie picked a jasmine flower before falling through the earth into…Pinewood Studios. It used to be possible to climb onto the damaged galleries, but this is now prohibited to protect both the temple and visitor. Many of these precariously balanced stones weigh a tonne or more and would do some serious damage if they came down.
Because there’s such a maze of rubble and vegetation, there are predictably some children who manage to duck the security and want to guide you through the temple. Some readers don’t like-this idea, some do. Either way, the fact of the matter is that these are mostly poor kids from poor families looking for the chance to make some money. It is easy to say that it is somehow wrong and that they should be at school or doing a traditional job, but most Westerners have never experienced poverty in a Cambodian sense, and the desperation it breeds. Some of the kids will certainly make more money than their parents ever did, struggling in the rice-fields under the shadow of land mines. If you don’t want them to follow you around, politely tell them so, but try not to be rude or aggressive, as they are only young. If you want help to find some photo spots and the like, try and agree on a price (2000r or whatever) in advance. Throwing around dollar bills is not such a good idea, as it breeds expectancy and contempt.
Located southwest of the south gate of Angkor Thom, Baksei Chamkrong is one of the few brick edifices in the immediate vicinity of Angkor. A well-proportioned though petite temple, it was once decorated with a covering of lime mortar. Like virtually all of the structures of Angkor, it opens to the east. In the early 10th century, Harshavarman I erected five statues in this temple: two of Shiva, one of Vishnu and two of Devi.
Around 400m south of Angkor Thom, the main attraction of Phnom Bakheng is the sunset view of Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, and inevitably, the whole affair has turned into something of a circus, with crowds of tourists gasping up the steep slope of the hill and jockeying for space once on top. Coming down can be even worse as there is nothing at all in the way of lighting. Still, the sunset over the Tonle Sap take is very impressive from the hill. To get a decent picture of Angkor Wat in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun you will need at least a 300mm lens, as the temple is 1.3km away.
Phnom Bakheng is also home to the first of the temple-mountains built in the vicinity of Angkor Yasovarman I (r 889-910) chose Phnom Bakheng over the Roluos area, where the earlier capital had been located.
The temple-mountain has five tiers, with seven levels (including the base and the summit). At the base are – or were – 44 towers. Each of the five tiers had 12 towers. The summit of the temple has four towers at the cardinal points of the compass as well as a central sanctuary. All of these numbers are of symbolic significance. The seven levels, for example, represent the seven Hindu heavens, while the total number of towers, excluding the Central Sanctuary, is 108, a particularly auspicious number and one that correlates to the lunar calendar.
It is now possible to arrange an elephant ride up the hill, and the location certainly makes for a memorable journey, if you’re OK the idea of elephants hauling themselves up the steep hill day after day. It is advisable to book in advance, as the rides are very popular with tour groups.
The five brick towers of Prasat Kravan, which are arranged in a north-south line and oriented to the east, were built for Hindu worship in 921. The structure is unusual in that it was not constructed by royalty; this accounts for its slightly remote location, away from the centre of the capital. Prasat Kravan is just south of the road between Angkor Wat and Banteay Kdei.
The Prasat Kravan Group was partially restored in 1968 and is particularly notable for the stunning brick carvings cut into the interior walls. The images of Vishnu in the largest central tower show the eight-armed deity on the back wall, taking the three gigantic steps with which he reclaimed the world on the left wall, and riding a garuda on the right wall. The northernmost tower displays bas-reliefs of Vishnu’s consort, Lairshmi.
One of Vishnu’s best-loved incarnations was when he appeared as the dwarf Vamana, and proceeded to reclaim the world from the evil demon-king Bali. The dwarf politely asked the demon-king for a comfortable patch of ground upon which to meditate, saying that the patch need only be big enough so that he could easily walk across it in three paces. The demon agreed only to see the dwarf swell into a mighty giant who strode across the universe in three enormous steps. From this legend, Vishnu is sometimes known as the “long strider”.
BANTEAY KDEI & SRA SRANG
Banteay Kdei, a massive Buddhist monastery from the latter part of the 12th century, is surrounded by four concentric walls. The outer wall measures 500m by 700m. Each of its four entrances is decorated with garuda, which hold aloft one of Jayavarman Vll’s favourite themes: the four faces of Avalokiteshvara. The inside of the central tower was never finished and much of the temple is in a ruinous state due to hasty construction. It is considerably less busy than nearby Ta Prohm and this alone can justify a visit.
Just east of Banteay Kdei is a basin of earlier construction, Sra Srang (Pool of Ablutions), measuring 800m by 400m. A tiny island in the middle once bore a wooden temple, of which only the stone base remains. This is a beautiful body of water from which to take in a quiet sunrise.
Ta Keo is a stark, undecorated temple that undoubtedly would have been one of the finest of Angkor’s structures, had it been finished. Built by Jayavarman V (r 968-1001), it was dedicated to Shiva and was the first Angkorian monument built entirely of sandstone. The summit of the central tower, which is surrounded by four lower towers, is almost 50m high. This quincuncial arrangement (with four towers at the corners of a square and a fifth tower in the centre) is typical of many Angkorian temple-mountains.
No-one is certain why work was never completed, but a likely cause may have been the death of Jayavarman V. However, some scholars have also attributed it to an inauspicious lightning strike during construction.
Tanei, 800m north of Ta Keo, was built by Jayavarman VII (r 1181-219). There is something of the spirit of Ta Prohm here, albeit on a lesser scale, with moss and tentacle-like roots covering many outer areas of this small temple. It now houses the Apsara Authority’s training unit and can be accessed only by walking across the French-built dam. To get to the dam, take the long track on the left, just after Spean Thmor when coming from Siem Reap.
The temple of Preah Khan (Sacred Sword) is one of the largest complexes at Angkor – a maze of vaulted corridors, fine carvings and lichen-clad stonework. It is a good counterpoint to Ta Prohm, although it generally gets fewer visitors. Preah Khan was built by Jayavarman VII (it probably served as his temporary residence while Angkor Thom was being built), and like Ta Prohm it is a place of lowered enclosures and shoulder bugging corridors. Unlike Ta Prohm, however, the temple of Preah Khan is in a reasonable state of preservation and ongoing restoration efforts by the World Monuments Fund (WMF; www.wmf.org) should ensure stabilization.
The central sanctuary of the temple was dedicated in 1191 and a large stone stele, originally located within the first eastern enclosure, but now housed safely at Angkor Conservation, says much about Preah Khan’s role as a centre for worship and learning. The temple was dedicated to 515 divinities and during the course of a year 18 major festivals took place here, requiring a team of thousands just to maintain the place.
Preah Khan covers a very large area, but the temple itself is within a rectangular enclosing wall of around 700m by 800m. Four processional walkways approach the gates of the temple, and these are bordered by another stunning depletion of the Churning of die Ocean of Milk, as in the approach to Angkor Thorn, although most of the heads have disappeared. From the central sanctuary, four long, vaulted galleries extend in the cardinal directions. Many of the interior walls of Preah Khan were once coated with plaster that was held in place by holes in the stone. Today, many delicate carvings remain, including essai (wise men) and apsara.
The main entrance to Preah Khan is, as with most of the other Angkorian temples, in the east, but the standard practice is to enter at the west gate near the main road. You then walk the length of the temple to the east gate before doubling back to the central sanctuary and making your way to the north gate (drivers usually offer to wait at the north gate). Approaching from the west, there is little clue to nature’s genius, but on the outer retaining wall of the east gate, a pair of trees with monstrous roots embrace as they reach for the sky. There is also a curious Grecian- style two-storey structure inside the east gate, the purpose of which is unknown, but it looks like an exile from Athens.
PREAH NEAK PEAN
The late-12th-century Buddhist temple of Preah Neak Pean (Intertwined Naga; pronounced preah neak po-an) is a petite yet perfect temple constructed by…surely not him again…Jayavarman VII. It has a large square pool surrounded by four smaller square pools. In the centre of the central pool is a circular “island” encircled by the two naga whose intertwined tails give the temple its name. Although it has been centuries since the small pools were last filled with water, it’s a safe bet that when the Encore Angkor casino is eventually but inevitably developed in Las Vegas, Preah Neak Pean will provide the blueprint for the ultimate swimming complex.
In the pool around the central island there were once four statues, but only one remains, reconstructed from the debris by the French archaeologists who cleared the site. The curious figure has the body of a horse supported by a tangle of human legs. It relates to a legend that Avalok iteshvara once saved a group of shipwrecked followers from an island of ghouls by transforming himself into a flying horse.
Water once flowed from the central pool into the four peripheral pools via ornamental spouts, which can still be seen in the pavilions at each axis of the pool. The spouts are in the form of an elephant’s head, a horse’s head, a lion’s head and a human’s head. The pool was used for ritual purification rites and the complex was once in the centre of a huge 3km- by-900m baray serving Preah Khan, now dried up and overgrown. It must have been truly spectacular to approach this island temple by boat.
Ta Som, which stands to the east of Preah Neak Pean, is yet another (if the late-12th-century Buddhist temples of Jayavarman VII, the Donald Trump of ancient Cambodia. The central area of Ta Som is in a ruined state, but restoration by the World Monument Fund is getting closer to completion. The most impressive feature at Ta Som is the huge tree completely overwhelming the eastern gopura, providing one of the most popular photo opportunities in the Angkor area.
EASTERN BARAY & EASTERN MEBON
The enormous one-time reservoir known as the Eastern Baray was excavated by Yasovarman I (r 889-910), who marked its four corners with steles. This basin, now entirely dried up, was the most important of the public works of Yasodharapura, Yasovarman l’s capital, and is 7km by 1.8km. It was originally fed by Stung Siem Reap.
The Hindu temple known as the Eastern Mebon, erected by Rajendravarman II (r 944-68), would have been on an islet in the centre of the Eastern Baray, but is now very much on dry land. This temple is like a smaller version of Pre Rup, which was built 15 to 20 years later and lies to the south. The temple-mountain form is topped off by the now familiar quincuncial arrangement of towers. The elaborate brick shrines are dotted with neatly arranged holes, which attached the original plasterwork. The base of the temple is guarded at its corners by perfectly carved stone figures of harnessed elephants, many of which are still in a very good state of preservation.
Pre Rup, built by Rajendravarman II, is about 1km south of the Eastern Mebon. Like its nearby predecessor, the temple consists of a pyramidshaped temple-mountain with the uppermost of the three tiers carrying five square shrines arranged as a quincunx. The brick sanctuaries were also once decorated with a plaster coating, fragments of which still remain on the southwestern tower; there are some amazingly detailed lintel carvings here. Several of the outermost eastern towers are perilously close to collapse and are propped up by armies of wooden supports.
Pre Rup means ‘Turning the Body’ and refers to a traditional method of cremation in which a corpse’s outline is traced in the cinders, first in one direction and then in the other; this suggests that the temple may have served as an early royal crematorium.
This is one of the most popular sunset spots around Angkor, as the view over the surrounding rice-fields of the Eastern Baray is beautiful.
Banteay Samre dates from the same period as Angkor Wat and was built by Suryavarman II (r 1112-52). The temple is in a fairly healthy state of preservation due to some extensive renovation work, although its isolation has resulted in some looting during the past two decades. The area consists of a central temple with four wings, preceded by a hall and also accompanied by two libraries, the southern of which is remarkably well preserved. The whole ensemble is enclosed by two large concentric walls around what would have been the unique feature of an inner moat, sadly now dried up.
Banteay Sarnre is 400m east of the Eastern Baray, which in practical terms means following the road to Banteay Srei to the village of Pradak and continuing straight ahead rather than following the tarmac to the right. A visit here can be combined with a trip to Banteay Srei or Phnom Bok.
The Western Baray, measuring an incredible 8km by 2.3km, was excavated by hand to provide water for the intensive cultivation of lands around Angkor. Just for the record, these enormous baray weren’t dug out, but were huge dykes built up around the edges. In the centre of the basin is the ruin of the Western Mebon temple, where the giant bronze statue of Vishnu, now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, was found. The Western Mebon is accessible by boat from the dam in the southern shore. The baray is also the main local swimming pool around the Siem Riep. There is a small beach of sort at the western extreme (complete with picnic huts and inner tubes for rent), which attacts plenty of Khmers at weekends.