Ta Som Temple

If you do like I did and take the Grand Circuit of Angkor in the counter-clockwise direction, you’ll get to Prasat Ta Som after visiting Pre Rup and East Mebon temples respectively. And if you start roughly at the same time as I did and do a thorough exploration of each ruin you pay a visit to, by the time you get to Ta Som the noon hour will be upon you and you’ll be sweating out of every pore on your body, including those you didn’t think contained any sweat glands. I provided myself with self propelled transportation, so when I reached Ta Som, I was ready to throw the clothes I was wearing in a garbage bin. Even my underwear was drenched in sweat to a point of drip marking my every step.

Photo: View of Collapsed Central Sanctuary of Ta Som, Angkor, Cambodia
Photo: View of Collapsed Central Sanctuary of Ta Som, Angkor, Cambodia

Ta Som Temple was built at the end of the 12th century by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII (the great builder king who also built Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Bayon, among others), which makes it one of the younger temples on the Grand Circuit. Because of its location (it is the most distant temple on the Grand Circuit, meaning that it is furthest away from other temples than any other ancient temple in the main area of Angkor) and great state of ruin, it doesn’t attract very many visitors. Being a single tier temple, Ta Som doesn’t have any stairways to climb making for a less challenging exploration however because of almost completely collapsed rooftops, the temple offers no real places to hide so a visitor gets pretty heavy beating by the merciless Cambodian sun rays.

There are three sets of walls surrounding the central sanctuary which in itself doesn’t look like much due to lacking restoration funds, however there are some well preserved carvings to be seen. Ta Som was one of the last bigger temples in Angkor Archaeological Park to be added to the World Monuments Fund (WMF) restoration program but the work so far has mostly only consisted of securing the structures to remove an immediate threat of collapse while visitors are around.

Photo: Ta Som Features Carvings of Devatas Which Show Individuality - A Unique Feature for Angkor Temples
Photo: Ta Som Features Carvings of Devatas Which Show Individuality - A Unique Feature for Angkor Temples

As is the case with many other Angkorian temples, centuries of neglect resulted in jungle overgrowth with huge fig and silk trees growing on top of the collapsing stone walls. The presence of the trees as well as an architectonic style of the temple which is similar to that of her more famous sibling has earned the temple a name of Mini Ta Prohm. Entrance gopuras in the outer enclosure are crowned with four faces similar to those found in Bayon. The main entrance gate used by everyone who visits Ta Som looked much like the South Gate of Angkor Thom, only smaller and more crumbled up. The state of Ta Som’s collapse seems to get worse with each enclosure you step within. Since outer gate still stands in a pretty decent shape, it is patrolled by aggressive child touts who wait in its shade for a sun beat tourist to walk right into their arms like a fly into a jar of honey.

Photo: Used as a Main Entrance Point to Ta Som, the West Gopura Hides Lurking Touts
Photo: Used as a Main Entrance Point to Ta Som, the West Gopura Hides Lurking Touts

Stone causeway which once served as a bridge over a moat is located inside the outer enclosure, rather than outside of it which implies that the outer wall was a later date addition to the temple. The causeway is decorated on both sides with serpents and Garudas, however they are broken into pieces and miss large parts which is the price the temples paid after greedy locals discovered that they could loot the temples and sell their ancient art for personal profit. What’s truly amazing is that despite looting and decay through neglect and time, many carvings and reliefs throughout Ta Som are in a remarkably good shape and are remarkably well carved for a late 12th century temple. These fine carvings of Apsaras and Devatas more than make up for a disappointing sight offered by a largely collapsed central sanctuary.

More Photos of Ta Som Temple at Ta Som, Angkor Photo Gallery.

Theft Problem in Cambodia

This was my second day at Angkor Archaeological Park, but I have already noticed several people with disposable cameras. I could not help but wonder what in the mighty heavens they were thinking – flying all the way to Cambodia to see Angkor temples and bringing only a measly disposable camera with them? It made no sense. But then while I was at Ta Prohm, I was approached by a couple of girls who asked me if I would take a picture of them in front of that picturesque spot with blind door where massive tree roots grow over the structure and a brief conversation with them made it all clear. They handed me a disposable camera so I got an opportunity to strike a conversation and ask why they would come all the way to Angkor without bringing some kind of decent device to capture their memories on.

Photo: Spot at Ta Prohm Offering Greatest Photo Opportunities
Photo: Spot at Ta Prohm Where Danish Girls Asked Me to Take a Picture of Them with a Disposable Camera

Given that at this time I have already been in Cambodia for a little over a week, I should really have known without asking. I already had a thief attempt to steal my bicycle but I had my guardian angel on duty that night so he only got away with stolen keys from the bicycle chain lock. I had to carry the bike on my shoulder to the shop to have the lock cut and get a new one, but at least I still had the bike. Theft problem is very prominent in Cambodia (as are other forms of crime) so the real reason why I saw so many people with disposable cameras at Angkor should have really been clear to me straight of the bat but for some reason I needed a heads up from those girls as a slap on the forehead. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Where are you guys from?
Girls: Denmark.
Me: Beautiful country, continuously ranking as #1 country with the highest standard of living in the world. But why would you come all the way to Angkor, from Denmark and bring nothing but a disposable camera with you?
Girls: We had nice cameras, but they were stolen along with our money and passports in Phnom Penh.

Oops! How could I have possibly not figured that out without asking? While Cambodia is not the only country in the world with theft problem, the number of Cambodian thieves on the loose looking for a foreigner who’s had a long day and is too tired to stay fully alert is staggering. After the experience with the Danish girls, each time I saw a person or a group of people with a disposable camera at Angkor, I didn’t go to ask why, I went straight to have the suspicion of theft confirmed.

Photo: Strong Cambodian Sun Causing Harsh Contrasts at Ta Prohm
Photo: Danish Girls Took This Picture of Me After I Took One of Them with Their Disposable Camera

Since I spent virtually every day of the rest of my stay in Cambodia at the Banteay Kdei temple and the Sras Srang moat, I had a chance to meet and speak with hundreds of Angkor visiting foreigners every day. The numbers of those who were victims of theft were alarming. You could see the sadness and horror in their eyes. You could see they only came to Angkor because they already had the ticket, but they could not wait to get the hell out of Cambodia before something more serious happens.

The stories of how it all went down varied, but the outcome was the same. Devastated individuals, couples and families who will definitely never consider coming to Cambodia again and I don’t blame them. Out of hundreds of people who had their cameras and other effects stolen, there was only one couple who didn’t think they were victims of theft. They told me they’d forgotten their camera on the table of the restaurant where they had eaten that day.

The couple realized they were missing the camera shortly after leaving the restaurant. Being new to Cambodia, they didn’t suspect any foul play and simply thought they must have left it on the table. They returned to the restaurant hastily, but the camera was not there. I asked them if they glanced over the table the way people do before leaving the restaurant and they both said they did but thought that the camera just didn’t stand out among the plates and silverware scattered across so they missed the sight of it and left without picking it up.

What really happened to them is hard to know for sure at this point. The only person who would know for sure is the one who took it. While dining, the couple was approached and bothered by several pestering touts who approached them in an attempt to sell them postcards, bracelets and other stuff Cambodian touts sell. Whether somebody saw a camera on the table and stole it while they were still there, or whether it was taken by someone after they’d left leaving the camera on the table is truly irrelevant, though. Honesty and will to help another are not traits commonly found among Cambodians. Greed and malice, on the other hand are omnipresent.

Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor, Cambodia

Ta Prohm is the temple that originally got me interested in Angkor. If it weren’t for Ta Prohm, I wouldn’t have probably landed in Cambodia right at the beginning of my round the world journey. When I saw photos of strong interconnection between ancient stones and wild growing jungle, I was sold. The fact that Angelina Jolie starred Tomb Rider was filmed at Ta Prohm had little influence over my decision to visit the temple ruins as I haven’t even seen the movie (I have always considered Angelina Jolie to be the ugliest and the most talent lacking actress in Hollywood).

Photo: Famous Blind Door Spot at Ta Prohm, Angkor
Photo: Famous Blind Door Spot at Ta Prohm, Angkor

As is the case of Bayon, Banteay Kdei and other major Angkorian era temples, Ta Prohm was also built during the reign of the builder king Jayavarman VII. However, unlike with most other Angkor area temples, Ta Prohm has not been cleaned off of intertwined jungle and this fact alone has become one of its mightiest selling points that attracts lots of visitors. Monstrous silk trees growing out of the ruins became part of the structures to the point that one cannot be without another.

According to the inscription on the foundation stele, Ta Prohm was consecrated in 1186 AD. Originally named Rajavihara (Royal Temple), Ta Prohm was one of the first temples with which the god king Jayavarman VII embarked on its immense mission of temple building. The sanskrit inscription also provides colorful details about how impressive Ta Prohm must have been during its time. From it the archaeologists learned that the temple housed the following:

  • 500kg of Golden Dishes
  • 35 Diamonds
  • 4,540 Precious Stones
  • 40,620 Pearls
  • 867 Veils from China
  • 523 Parasols
  • 512 Silk Beds

Whether these numbers truly reflected the content of the temple grounds or were vastly exaggerated to make king Jayavarman VII larger than life is left for speculations. As for the population in and around Ta Prohm, the inscription tells us that the temple was home to the following:

  • 18 High Priests
  • 615 Apsara Dancers
  • 2,740 Officials
  • 2,202 Assistants
  • 79,365 Total Maintenance Staff
Photo: This Platform was Built so People Can Take Photographs Before the Scenic Tree Wall
Photo: This Platform was Built so People Can Take Photographs Before the Scenic Tree Wall

Prajnaparamita (the perfection of wisdom) was the principal deity of Ta Prohm and Jayavarman VII had her carved in the likeness of his mother. The statue of Prajnaparamita was housed in the central sanctuary while 260 lesser divinities that surrounded her were housed in additional sanctuaries of the temple complex.

I visited Ta Prohm in September 2009 and while at that time the temple was said to have been in the same state as when it was taken over by the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient at the beginning of the 20th century, the presence of manmade structure supports and off-limit areas due to on-going restoration suggested that Ta Prohm is under ongoing maintenance efforts and may end up looking entirely different a year from when I paid the visit.

Photo: This Area of Ta Prohm was Off Limits for Restoration
Photo: This Area of Ta Prohm was Off Limits for Restoration

Unlike Angkor Wat or Bayon, Ta Prohm is not a temple mountain, meaning it doesn’t contain a multiple level pyramid but rather has all of its galleries at the ground level. Like most Buddhist temples, Ta Prohm was built to face the east with the temple proper set closer to the west wall. Each of the walls of the rectangular outer enclosure contains a gopura (entrance gate), but south and north gopuras were purposefully left overgrown with jungle so access can only be made via the east or the west gopura (where touts concentrate in large numbers).

Central sanctuary is surrounded by five enclosing walls of various state of collapse, but each containing impressive looking trees growing on top of them. The ruinous state of enclosing walls as well as the presence of randomly placed buildings (libraries and halls) many of which were added at a later date make navigating through the temple a bit confusing. Hills of piled up stones that once formed Ta Prohm can be seen scattered throughout the temple grounds standing witness to the ruinous state of what must have been an epic structure back in the day.

Ta Prohm Bas Reliefs

The reign of great builder Jayavarman VII was followed by the reign of his successor, the great destroyer Jayavarman VIII who made it his mission to destroy Buddhist relics created during the reign of his famous predecessor. Ta Prohm was not spared of this destructive onslaught so many of the carvings and bas reliefs were either removed or defaced. Still, some original carvings of Apsara dancers and bas reliefs of scenes from Buddhist mythology did survive and can still be found on temple walls. I personally was more interested in the jungle growing on top of the temple structure than the bas reliefs so I didn’t spend much time admiring what’s still left after the reign of Jayavarman VIII.

Photo: Apsara Carvings Among Bas Reliefs of Ta Prohm Temple
Photo: Apsara Carvings Among Bas Reliefs of Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Trees

That’s exactly why I was there. That’s actually exactly why I went to Cambodia in the first place. The sight of monstrous trees growing out of the centuries old ruins intertwined together to the point that you cannot remove one without destroying the other. Large Silk-Cotton Trees and Thitpoks dominate the overgrowth with smaller Strangler Figs and Golden Apple Trees coupling together for a perfect full picture. Endless roots of the trees engulf the stones in an impenetrable maze that on one hand broke the structures out of form, to keep it tightly together on another.

Photo: Ta Prohm Stone Structure Engulfed by a Tree
Photo: Ta Prohm Stone Structure Engulfed by a Tree

Ta Prohm was without doubt the highlight of my stay in Cambodia. The most impressive of all the ancient Angkor temples (in my eyes), Ta Prohm delivered the awe just the way I expected. This was the one place I really wanted to visit ever since I first saw the pictures of those trees growing over the walls and other structures built almost a millennium ago and completely abandoned a few centuries later. It’s only saddening that such impressive piece of ancient history is under control of such ungrateful country as Cambodia.

More photos of the temple are on the Ta Prohm Photo Gallery page.

Ta Prohm Photo Gallery

Ta Prohm Temple is an eye candy for a photographer. To King Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm was a centerpiece of his masterplan to restore Khmer empire to a never before seen splendour after it was reclaimed from Cham invaders; to me, Ta Prohm was a centerpiece of my photography adventures at Angkor Archaeological Park. Even though Ta Prohm was my favourite Angkorian era temple, I have only visited it once and all I could capture in rather tricky lighting conditions I had available during my visit is in this photo gallery.

Just as any other day in Cambodia, it was extremely hot and humid on the day I got to Ta Prohm so excessive sweating and subsequent heat exhaustion were inevitable. I was looking forward to taking pictures of Ta Prohm but much of the time spent at the temple was spent hiding in a shade of large trees in an effort to escape the frying power of the intense Cambodian sun. There is no such thing as catching a cooling breeze anywhere at Angkor so all you are left with is inescapable heat. High on natural energy from uplifting coconut water I got from the girls at the Banteay Kdei temple, but unceasingly dripping sweat out of every single pore on my skin, I crisscrossed the temple grounds back and forth to not miss a single opportunity for a perfect picture.

It was early afternoon when I got to Ta Prohm so the sun was right above our heads not causing any backlight no matter which way I turned to take a picture (unlike when I first got to Angkor Wat), however because the sun was super intense and because there’s a pretty elaborate maze of tree branches above Ta Prohm, many cool spots of the temple were subjected to severe contrasts caused by parts being in the sun, while other parts were in the shade. It was rather difficult trying to balance it out so neither highlights are too bright nor shadows too dark but I tried my best.

The Ta Prohm photo gallery below: