Dark passages, hidden courtyards, and buildings trapped in the grip of giant trees – Ta Phrom is Tomb Raider come to life. And, in fact, Lara Croft herself came here to film the temple scenes for the movie. Feel like climbing out of your tuk tuk and right into the movie? Then this is the temple you should visit in Angkor.
Yet another temple built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th & early 13th centuries, this one was a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. It was home to 12,500 people, including 18 high priests and over 600 Apsara dancers. An additional 800,000 people lived in the surrounding area and helped to support this place. It stayed in use until well into the 15th century, merely changing the religious icons as the Khmer shifted back to Hinduism following Jayavarman VII’s death and then returned to Buddhism later on. In the 17th century, the Khmer empire fell, and Ta Phrom was abandoned to the jungle. Trees and vines took over.
Ta Phrom was left untouched until very recently. When the French started doing restoration work on temples here in the early 20th century, they decided to leave Ta Phrom the way it was, citing that it was more romantic that way. The trees here are sublime and a huge tourist attraction. But they are also destroying the temple. Currently, there is a huge debate raging about what to do with Ta Phrom and nobody can agree on whether or not the trees should stay. Much of the temple has been restored in a way that makes it more stable and accessible while also keeping the feeling that this place has been untouched. When we were there, huge portions of the temple were covered with scaffolding and several dead trees had been trimmed. Restoration work continues, but the mystique of this place remains.