Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ta Prohm: Angkor Untamed

Greetings Everyone!
Sean and I spent the day Monday visiting various temples and ruins of the Khmer Empire.  We weren't as adventurous as many tourists who start sight-seeing at dawn to watch the sunrise at one of the higher temples.  We figured a 09:00 a.m. start was sufficient enough.  With about 40 different sites in the Angkor area, there was no way we were going to be able to see everything anyway.  Our plan was to see some of the main sites and whatever else we could before we got too tired or hot.  After breakfast at the hostel, Dara, our driver, met us out front with his tuk tuk to take us to our first stop, Angkor Wat. 
Angkor Wat is the largest and most well preserved site in the Angkor area.  The site is absolutely huge and took a couple hours for us to tour.  It's surrounded by a pretty large moat and it's characteristic five towers rising up from the middle of the huge complex are what most people recognize from pictures.  Actually, the towers viewed from directly in front of the temple is also depicted on the Cambodia flag.  One of the most impressive features was the bas reliefs covering many of the walls.  These carvings and inscriptions telling various stories are so intricately carved and beautiful, even today, one can only imagine what the complex what have looked like when it was first built.  We couldn't help but compare Angkor Wat to Machu Picchu from an engineering and architectural perspective in the sense that it's hard to believe something so impressive could even be built so long ago given the tools and knowledge the people had at the time.  It would be an engineering marvel to build something like Angkor Wat even today, and as you look at the site, it's hard to even fathom how many people, how many materials, and how much work it took to build something so massive and beautiful.  It's also amazing to learn that the entire complex only took about 30 years to build.  We took a ton of pictures of Angkor Wat so be sure to view the photo album. 
After Angkor Wat, we visited a few more temples, including Prasat Ta Keo and Bayon, the latter of which is known for the many massive faces carved into it's stone towers.  But of all the places we visited, one of my favorites, by far, was Ta Prohm.  I have to give credit to Dara for being such a great guide and making sure we didn't miss out on some of the last temples we visited.  After the first few sites, we stopped and ate our packed lunch, but it was so hot, it was hard to continue on climbing the steep stairs of many of the temples and just being out in the heat and humidity.  We were ready to head back to the hostel, but Dara convinced us to check out one more site after one more site.  He really wanted to make sure we saw the best things and got the most out of the fact that we only had a one day pass.  
Ta Prohm, as I mentioned, was one of my favorite sites and one of the last that we visited.  Unlike most of the other sites, this particular temple had very little excavation and restoration done and aside from the path that was cleared leading to the temple and a few structural braces, the temple was left pretty much as it was found, presumably as an example of how the jungle completely takes over and to give people an idea of how most of the sites looked like when they were rediscovered.  There was a very good documentary on Discovery Channel last year called something like, Earth After People, which basically discussed and showed what would happen to all of man's structures and creations if all of human kind were to suddenly disappear and nature were allowed free reign of the earth.  The show focused on how long it would take for certain things to stop working, fall apart and ultimately disappear into the natural environment.  It was amazing to watch the computer-generated pictures showing how traces of mankind such as roads and buildings could disappear completely in just a few hundred years.  Well, Ta Prohm was a perfect real life example of this.  Remember, this place is located in deep jungle, a location that gets plenty of rain and sun, and where trees and plants grow wild and fast.  The most amazing thing was the sheer number of trees literally growing out of the structures of Ta Prohm.  There were trees even growing from the roof of the buildings, their roots snaking down the outer walls to the ground.  To borrow a simile from Sean, the tree roots were like candle wax dripping down from a candle.  It was just amazing that a tree could even take hold, let alone grow so large and remain so stable while sitting atop a stone building, which says a lot about the building itself.  Sure, there were some walls that were in danger of collapsing and some parts of the ceilings had long caved in, but many parts of the building were still standing, with these massive trees weighing tons just growing right on top of them.  Now, how many structures do we build today that can withstand the weight of such a massive tree standing on it's roof or atop one of it's walls?  It truly must have been an amazing sight to happen upon for the person who rediscovered the temples of Angkor.  So many amazing structures lost to the jungle, taken over by nature.  I can't imagine the intricate work involved in clearing the other sites that had been swallowed by the jungle, nor the amount of work involved in maintaining them and keeping the jungle at bay.  And while places like Ta Prohm showed amazing ability to withstand the forces of nature for so long, it's quite apparent that the entire place would not have held up for another hundred or two hundred years.  It's a great thing that we have stepped in to save them. 


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