Cambodia 4: down in jungleland

February 25, 2010

John Wyver:

Wednesday 24 February: Ta Prohm (with photos still to come)
Here’s today’s (rhetorical) question: is Ta Prohm the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been? Well, quite possibly. Ta Prohm was constructed at the end of the twelfth century as a Buddhist temple and monastery just outside the walls of Angkor Thom (for more on which, see next post). After the fifteenth century fall of the Khmer empire it was abandoned and the jungle reclaimed the site. Which was the case also at many other buildings in the Angkor region. At Ta Prohm, however, the trees and roots continue to grow through and on and around the ruins. The decision was made to leave site more or less as it was found, although some tidying up was done and partial restoration is underway. The effect, even as the inevitable tour parties traipse through, is mysterious, melancholy and — there is no other word — magical.

Really this is an experience to be pictured rather than set down in print — and soon over of Art of Faith II I’ll post a host of further snaps. But here I can perhaps gesture towards something of why the intimate intertwining of nature and culture makes such a strong impression.

The monastery was a huge edifice — more than twelve thousand people lived, worked and worshipped here. But now the trees — a mix of soft wood silk cotton trees and a hard wood variety also — have grown through the buildings, and in many places they tower above them. This a site of pure picturesque, with a strong sense of time passed without any intervention by human agency. It’s truly humbling to see this, and almost inevitably recalls Shelley’s traveller faced with the ruined statue of Ozymandias.

Yet there’s delight here too, a delirium of crazy juxtapositions that seem beyond even the imagination of Piranesi perhaps, or James Cameron. When you crouch down to discover the face of a tiny Buddha just visible between the tentacles of a giant root, the child within you finds it impossible not to be enthralled.

Look! There’s a tree encased in wooden scaffolding, an expedient to allow it to be cut down branch by branch rather than having  a massive trunk crash down on masonry. See! That root looks like a python reclining on a half-collapsed roof. There’s a root that reminds me of an octopus. And over that small carving tendrils drape themselves like strands of hair. You can even marvel at the ‘Tomb Raider Tower’,  a particularly impressive tree growing from the centre of the complex. For, dear reader, as you doubtless know, this is the location for one of Angelara’s most daring missions.

We wander around, open-mouthed, capturing what at the time feel like remarkable images at every turn. John interviews Professor Vudthy about the monastery’s history and the part it played in the wider story of Angkor. After nearly three hours, I’m sure we have the sequence we came here to shoot, but it’s hard to leave this enchanted forest. We even begin to feel a little guilty that perhaps we prefer Ta Prohm to the celebrated-for-centuries Angkor Wat. But we have one more main location here — and that’s a feeling that’s going to return to us. In the next post, bring on the Bayon.

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