Siem Reap, Cambodia

April 25, 2008

AJ was in Ta Prohm, a ruined ancient temple within Angkor Archaeological Park. I wasn’t only referring to yours truly but also the famous AJ: Angelina Jolie. The actress-humanitarian-mother shot some scenes for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in the Angkor complex, most memorably in Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm: A Tyranny of Trees

The scene: AJ, as Lara Croft, saunters through a deserted temple overgrown with foliage. She hears a child’s laughter echoing through the ruins. She spots a young girl hiding behind the rubble. The girl runs, laughing. She follows her. The girl leads her to a courtyard, and then disappears. The ground opens up under her feet and AJ falls into a cavernous chamber.

This AJ found himself walking in that exact same courtyard that looked very much as it did in the film. I felt as if I walked into the scene. Alas, the only AJ there was – me! Thus began my Angelina Jolie experience in Ta Prohm.

Trees and Temple – Eternally Entwined in Ta Prohm

In fact, the real life Ta Prohm was akin to a movie set, and that courtyard was its centerpiece. Eerily beautiful, it had become a virtual arena where the battle between nature and man-made formidable fortresses was played out. Serpentine roots of banyan, fig, and silk-cotton trees had slowly strangled the corridors and columns of the temple over the centuries. Time was on nature’s side. The actual movement was invisible, but the dynamism was evident in the rubble, as if the temple had been demolished by an earthquake. The trees here had talons that held the temple in its unrelenting grip; their massive trunks cracked solid walls of stone apart. Tons of hard rocks were no match to the exuberance of life.

Root vs. Rock @ Ta Prohm

Even from afar, the temple was unmistakably different. Unlike the temple-mountains – Angkor Wat and Bayon,  Ta Prohm was sprawling rather than imposing. No sense of the majestic here. In contrast, a long pathway through the rainforest led to a crumbling gate. The archway seemed perilously unsteady and threatened to topple.  Some parts of the temple were cordoned off because of instability of the ruins.

Breaking News: Chubby Tourist Breaks Centuries-Old Rock @ Ta Prohm

Archaeologists intentionally left the temple in a partial state of ruin. For good reason. The sight of the encroaching forest and the temple eternally entwined was surreal. But then again, a throng of tourists and unsightly boardwalks made it look like Universal Studios instead. Perhaps owing to its smaller size, it was harder to lose the crowds here than in Angkor Wat and Bayon. Nevertheless, I could imagine what it must have been like for the first European explorers who discovered Angkor.

Lovely Lintel in Ta Prohm Temple
Classic Carvings in Ta Prohm Temple

Inside the temple, crouching was the only way to go. It was akin to a cavern, much like the one in the movie where AJ, as Lara Croft, fell into and battled a multi-limbed, four-faced Brahma made of stone, only smaller. Interestingly, Ta Prohm was named after “ancestor Brahma.”

Like a Bodhisattva
Temple Tots: Local Children in Ta Prohm

Like AJ in the movie, I heard echoes of children’s laughter too. I saw four of them at a large window, gawking at the procession of tourists. They seemed out-of-place there, much like that mysterious girl in the movie. There were no local children milling about in neighboring Angkor Wat and Bayon.

Outside the temple, I met a boy, smeared with dirt. He did not utter a word, but his searching face said it all. Alms. Such children panhandling in the temple grounds must have touched the other AJ’s heart. As the whole celebrity-watching world would soon know, she went back to Cambodia to adopt a Khmer orphan she named Maddox. No such luck for the children with this AJ.

Khmer Kid

Ta Prohm offered me a glimpse of what Angelina Jolie had experienced, and had most likely fallen in love with, in this country – that distinctly Cambodian complementary charm of the ancient and the innocent, of past glories and present struggles.

Tongue in Tree Trunk @ Ta Prohm