Cambodia has a rich cultural heritage, a glorious past during which it performed feats the Western world could only dream of in those days. Its more recent past is just as astounding. But for far different reasons. Proving they were capable of building on a scale that awes, they set out to prove they were capable of tearing down on an equally massive scale. The atrocities they inflected on their own people under the Khmer Rouge is mind boggling. Even more so than the grandeur hinted at by the remains of the vast temples of the Angkor Wat complex.
Neither past is hidden. Today, both are equally on display, especially where it means an influx of torui dollars. You can try and ignore the genocidal period and only pay attention to the magnificent glory of the ancient temple cities. But then the numerous land mine victims prowling the streets of Siem Reap make it difficult to not take those years into account. The locals are still paying a price for the time their countrymen were busy trying to kill each other.
In Phnom Penh, maintaining a lack of awareness is a more difficult task; there are no ancient temples to vie for attention. Every tuk tuk driver wants to take you to see the killing fields, a general term used to collectively cover three different sites, each a homage to Cambodia’s bloody internal conflict. There are enough wats of more modern build you can visit instead. Or you can choose to just sit for hours riverside in a cafe instead of making the trek to touri traps that celebrate the death of millions.
You can try to ignore that period of history, especially in light of how warm and friendly Cambodians are. But all it takes is a stray thought, that under the Khmer Rouge’s rule, every single citizen of Phnom Penh was driven out leaving it an empty ghost town. The sheer size of the capital city and the amount of hatred required to accomplish that feat makes you stop and think. About something you’d perhaps rather not think about.
A massive body count and bloody history, and immense, wondrous temple complexes, both are equally impressive. And both pale in comparison to an even more momentous force of more recent time. You can decide not to bother with taking a trip out to see the ancient temples. You can close your eyes and ignore the country’s bloody past. But in Siem Reap, it is impossible to ignore Angelina Jolie. That bitch is everywhere.
Angelina made her mark on this sleepy little burb when she was in town to film Tomb Raider. Bored between takes, she went shopping for a few local souvenirs and ended up with a tattoo in khmer script – a well-known traditional yant for protection and wealth – and a little Khmer kid, her first foreign-born baby in what was soon to become a growing collection.
Angelina must of heard it was easy to buy a kid in Cambodia, she just didn’t know that usually meant through the sex trade. From a life destined to selling postcards at crumbling temples to instant Hollywood celebrity status, that kid has some amazing karma. Whether that’s good or bad karma is debatable.
But that bit of social gamesmanship doesn’t get much press in Cambodia. There it’s all about Angelina’s stunt work at the temple overrun by trees outside of Siem Reap. And where she stayed, slept, ate, urinated, and breathed while in town. The Red Piano, a well known cafe/bar in a prime spot anchoring popular Pub Street likes to claim it was a major hangout of Angelina’s when she was in town. You can buy her likeness on one of their T-shirts – in Angelina’s favorite color of #000000 – have a cool, high-octane drink concocted in her honor, or even order a sandwich named after her. Better yet, just outside of town you too can visit the temple where a portion of Angelina’s movie was filmed and see the tree she made famous the world over.
The temple of the goddess Angelina Jolie was previous known as Ta Prohm (though that isn’t even the ancient name of the temple; it was originally known as Rajavihara). Some tour guides and day trip operators still use the ancient name, but to avoid confusion, just ask for Angelina Jolie’s temple. Everyone in town knows where that is.
If you are negotiating with a tuk tuk driver or private car to take you on tour of the many temples that make up the Angkor Wat complex, Angelina’s place will be on your itinerary. Of course, some deference is paid to local heritage, so Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom get top billing. But your guide’s eyes will light up when he gets to the third best temple choice and starts singing the praises of Angelina Jolie.
The guides and drivers all know when the best times to visit each wat are. You get to define what ‘best’ means to you. That could be, for example, Angkor Wat at sunrise, when you and thousands of your fellow travellers will be there to greet the colors of the morning sun. Or a bit after noon, when the sun is at its hottest and the more intelligent touri have found a cool shady place to rest, leaving the massive wat to a few brave souls.
Ta Prohm is easy to visit during down times; it’s an add-on trip and the bus loads hit the place in sequence depending on which other wat the tour operators decided their charges should visit first. Your private guide will know the best time to avoid them.
With just a few touri about, it’s a beautiful wat, an atmospheric temple left to the clutches of the surrounding jungle, nicely overgrown and filled with paths strewn with rubble. It looks like a Hollywood film set, an amateur archeologist’s wet dream. There are numerous interior walkways and passages where you will be alone; even the main sanctuary can be empty of others if you time it right. And with just a few touri around, everyone is always willing to get out of your way so you can snap a photo of the tree Angelina evidently planted, nurtured, and blessed.
A Buddhist temple, Ta Prohm was built in 1186 by order of Jayavarman VII soon after he ascended to the throne of the ancient Khmer empire. Constructed in honor of his family, and dedicated to his mother, many of the images within the temple bear the likeness of his family members. In its heyday it was home to more than 12,500 people and served as a focal point and religious site for the surrounding community of 80,000 souls.
With the decline of the empire in the 15th century, Ta Prohm was abandoned and left to the will of the jungle for hundreds of years until restoration work began in the early 20th century. Rather than restore the site to its former glory, the decision was made to leave it largely as found, as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque.” The original restoration goal was to make it accessible, but to maintain its condition of apparent neglect.
If you’ve done the other two large wats first, Ta Prohm will immediately seem different. First, the temple is not visible from your drop-off point. It’s hidden down a long dirt trail whereas Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are both accessible a mere few steps from your ride. Second, unlike all the other temples you’ll visit, there is no gaggle of kids guarding the entrance demanding a toll be paid in the way of a few bucks for useless postcards or pirated guide books.
Ta Prohm does not have some major historical or religious significance above that of the other wats which would preclude the local kids from exhorting money from touri, so I have to assume it is out of fear over the kid that disappeared when Angelina hung out there. I think the locals believe Ta Prohm is haunted by Angelina Jolie’s spirit. I’m sure Khmer parents use her kid-snatching tale as a threat for scarring their children into behaving.
Leaving what passes for bustle in Siem Reap behind, an early morning visit to the ancient wat starts with a quiet walk along a path bordered by dense vegetation, tendrils of cottony moisture law low, curling through the trees, licking at the leaves. Giant trees tower above Ta Prohm, their leaves filtering the sunlight, providing dappled shade and casting a greenish light over the site that looks like it came from another world.
Before you reach the entrance of tumbled stones and blocks of laterite precariously stacked to form an arched passage, the silence of the morning is broken by the sound of a cat fight of major proportions. As you round the bend approaching the noise you discover it is not a pride of cats at war, or in lust, but rather a local band playing traditional Cambodian music.
As you get closer still, you realize that it sounds even worse than usual because this band is made up of land mine victims; every musician is missing at least one appendage. (I’d make a comment about the drummer here, but then you’d all hate me even more than you already want to.) If you passed on buying one of the ‘Danger! Land Mine!’ T-shirts back in town, now is a good time to grab a souvenir. The band’s greatest hits are available on CD. Recorded in a studio with higher production values, the music sounds much better than the live version. Less like cats in heat, more like Gwyneth Paltrow singing country songs. A small distinction to be sure.
Ta Prohm’s claim to fame, discounting Angelina for a minute, are the large silk-cotton and ficus trees whose roots have enveloped the structure; it appears as though the trees have grown out of the temple. With roots squeezing out of narrow fissures, and trunks intertwined with large stone blocks, some trees have laid claim to immense areas of the temple’s walls. Massive trunks soar skyward under a shadowy green canopy, their endless roots coiling serpentine-like seeming to devour the stone structure, reclaiming the land for the jungle. It is an eerie, fascinating, and unique sight.
Ta Prohm does not have the majesty of Angkor Wat nor the sheer massiveness of the gigantic heads of Angkor Thom. It not as large as either, not as impressive, not as overrun. At least by people. On my first visit to Ta Prohm there were less than a dozen visitors to share the grounds with. You got to know the others fairly quickly, recognizing the same faces again and again as you wound through the inner area, smiling in greeting to those who’d become familiar in so short of a time. A sole guard made his way through the grounds too, dressed in the officious type of uniform security guards in SE Asia tend to favor. His job is to keep a careful eye on the foreigners who might desecrate Angelina’s temple, and, evidently to run off any locals trying to make a buck inside. Even in Cambodia there are some rules that must be followed. Or ignored for the right price.
Angelina’s tree, of course, is one of the focal points. It’s even more massive than those around it. It has taken over an entire corner of the central sanctuary, it’s aggressive roots encircling the walls and doorways. Nearby, delicately carved reliefs on the walls sprout lichen, moss and even more creeping plants. In the movie version of the temple, this is where Angelina picked a jasmine flower and was sucked beneath the earth.
Ta Prohm is extensively overgrown and filled with crumbling structures, but you can still explore numerous towers, courtyards and narrow corridors, discovering hidden gems beneath the encroaching foliage. Many of the corridors are impassible, thanks to the jumbled piles of carved stone blocks that clog their interiors. Inside cleared, cool passageways, like at most of the area’s temples, nuns have set up small altars where for a small donation you can receive a blessing, or take a picture, or both. But the trees and their massive root systems are the main draw here. They are the photo op world travellers dream of.
But you better hurry if you want to see Ta Prohm in its overrun state. Last year a massive, aggressive restoration job began. Much of the vegetation and even some of the trees have been removed. A large crane for construction mars the charm of the temple, and wooden walkways and platforms have been built blocking some of the previously famous postcard photo opportunities. Brand new balustrades are being added in a decision that will only diminish the beauty and appeal of the place. Ta Prohm’s draw is its ruined state, any work that does anything more than preserve the temple lessens that which makes it such a unique historical site.
On the way out, past the mind numbing beat of the land mine victim band, finally a local trying to cash in on the touri hordes appears. This one is a young girl, face grimy as seems to be de rigueur in Siem Reap’s community of begging children. She has no postcards for sale, no pirated guide books to offer. Instead, she shyly displays a small lizard, a noose tied around its neck, hopefully as a leash and not in homage to her recent ancestors’ reign of terror. It’s a CD or this grubby urchin; at the temples of Angkor I’m too used to handing out the worthless riel I’ve collected as change during the day in exchange for souvenirs that are just as useless. The little girl wins. Besides, I can always listen to Gwyneth Paltrow when I get home.
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