There was a time when a once glorious empire died and the entire place evacuated – a city of a thousand temples – left desolate without a backward glance. For centuries they waited for someone to take note but no one did and the trees around them took over – encroaching into once holy enclaves, their long roots snaked over walls and shrines and they grew over, completely shrouding them from the human eye. This could be straight out of Lord of the Rings or the stuff of video games, you might think and you would be right – the scene of Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider caught inside one such temple was shot here. Now, thousands of Japanese and Chinese schoolgirls stand there posing to have their picture taken for Facebook posterity.
Ta Prohm was discovered by the French in the 19th century in the deep jungle full of fig, acorn and silk cotton trees. 80% of the forest had to be destroyed to get to the ruins that are still being restored with the help of the Archaeological Survey of India. There are signs in Hindi as well as English and Khmer here. Amazingly, they’ve decided to leave the remaining 20% of the forest intact. The trees have become essential for the temple to survive and there they co-exist. The feeling of being within a surreal dream continued.
Vishnu Lok was the name given to Angkor Wat when King Suryavarman II built this temple to represent the universe. Wat is the name given to a Buddhist monastery and as in many a famous religious shrine (Cordoba – mosque to church, Hagia Sophia – church to mosque), one religion superimposes another here too. The vast moat represents the ocean, the 70 metre tower Mt Meru (where they believe Vishnu resided) and the massive temple complex the earth.
But the intentions of this temple are clear – this was a celebration of Vishnu in all his forms – an entire corridor 500 metres in length, has frieze after frieze of scenes from the Ramayana – Rama on Hanuman’s shoulder wielding his bow and arrow (shown above), Ravana falling and the depictions of the underworld full of crocodiles eating dead soldiers, fish and tortoises. Then there is Vishnu rising from the churning Ocean of Milk to depict creation of the world in the Hindu belief – aloft a turtle in the sea with Indra, the King of the Gods hovering above. There’s also Vishnu as Narasimha tearing open the stomach of the demon king Hiranyakashupu. Walk around and we also see scenes from the wars Suryvarman II fought to protect his people and then the final climax is the corridor showing scenes from the Mahabharata – of Krishna driving the chariot with Arjuna in the seat. Bhishma lies above in a bed of a thousand arrows and detail after detail of this complicated epic flow in the exquisite stone carvings. Climbing the tower right to the top gives a splendid view of the ambition of this king – coming very close to the accomplishments of the Pharaohs and the pyramids.
The next day we drove 40 km to the flood plains to Kampong Phluk. About a hundred boats or more are moored neck and neck and fishermen stand waist deep in the muddy water throwing their flimsy nets in the hope of some catch. Edging our boat out was a masterly piece of work by the young boatman. We rode over trees and shrubs half submerged in water from the recent monsoon season and came to the commune on stilts – where houses made out of wood are built high to avoid the water coming in. Pots and plants sprout high above and an entire community lives this way for about a mile.
Our goal was Tonle Saap – the largest fresh water lake in S E Asia – where we could only see water on the horizon. Somehow, combined with the temple ruins, this was enough proof to show that nature can easily dominate man’s efforts at living on this planet.