One of the backdrops for the Tomb Raider movie, Ta Prohm, Cambodia
Of all the temples you have to choose from of the great smorgasbord of temples around Siem Reap, Cambodia, the jumping off point for Angkor Wat, I am so glad I chose Ta Prohm, or what is now commonly called in the local parlance, 'The Angelina Temple' as the first temple I saw. Not because of it's fame as one of the exotic locations for the film 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' in 2000, but because it is really the most incredible of all the temples at Angkor, hugely atmospheric with its background ambiance of flocks of circling wild parrots, ancient crumbling walls and...and then there are the trees. So much time has passed that these trees, giant banyan and kapok trees, are reclaiming the temple with limbs that are more like animal flesh than plant life, so much so that they appear animate, and it's as if you are not on the set of a movie about the search for a sacred talisman but to a science fiction movie, a cross between Day of the Trifids and something very alien from HR Giger.
Shortly after I arrived the light shifted to that pubescent yellowish purple pre-storm light and then the heavens cracked and it absolutely poured rain. Soon the red earth in which these huge trees and their now permanently attached temple ran bloodlike into creeper strewn ditches. People, and I was relieved to see I had chosen the time well because not many were there at that time in the afternoon, huddled in the interstices of the dank temple looking out at the great opera of storm outside the giant stone-cut windows. I have to say that inside the temple there was no elevation of feeling or awareness I would associate with sacred architecture, which I have experienced first hand in the temples of Egypt. Here the overwhelming feeling, not negating the still powerful impact of Ta Prohm, was one of heaviness and morbidity, the huge weight of the stone above you that lent a sobriety to the experience, no elevation of spirit in sight. Actually, I had the same feeling here as I experienced at the Mayan temple of Chichen Itza in the Yucutan in Mexico, of great heaps of time stored in the stones, of the weight of murder and human sacrifice. Perhaps some of this effect is to do with the fact that the outline of Angkor Wat became a symbol on the flag of the Khmer Rouge during the four years when Pol Pot renamed Cambodia 'Democratic Kampuchea' and was busy killing 1.8 million of his fellow countrymen. The symbol then stood for the national traditions of the Kampuchean people - but only those that Pol Pot took to be the ones deserving of retaining. Perhaps that's why the outline of Angkor Wat is so resonant with meaning.
Afterwards, seeing Angkor Thom and then Angkor Wat itself, I was increasingly disappointed by these ruins I had heard so much about finding the architecture clunky and dischevelled and, eh, really rather ugly. As soon as I stepped into Angkor Wat I wanted to beat a hasty retreat and considered going back to Ta Prohm, because at least there I knew was a visual intricacy that the camera loves and that kind of thing makes me happy. I did photograph some of the other temples, but they were much less impressive visually than Ta Prohm.
Human context: the amazing, animal-like limb of a great Kapok tree as it embraces a moss-infested temple building at Ta Prohm temple, Cambodia
Detail of Kapok tree limb, Ta Prohm, Cambodia