Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ta Prohm: the lost temple that nature took back

Our guide, who calls himself Robin Hood, leads us off the main road through dirt paths until we find ourselves hiking through the jungle, ducking beautiful poisonous spiders as big as your hand, carefully weaving huge spiderwebs that stretch across the path exactly at mouth level. This forces me to develop a newfound fear of getting a poisonous spider in the mouth.

Robin Hood warns us to watch where we step in the jungle. "There are snakes here," he says.

"What kind?" I ask.

"Mostly pythons." I'm not sure if he's joking.

There are so many ancient temples still bured deep in these jungles; not all of them have been carefully cleared and preserved like Angkor Wat. It must have been startling for the explorers who weren't aware of the temples' existence, to walk and walk through the wilderness of the jungle, only to stumble upon a giant stone Buddha's face gazing back at you.

"Twenty years ago, my grandfather predicted that soon these stones will turn into gold," Robin Hood told us. "Nobody understood what he meant. Now, with $20 entrance fee into the park, the stones have turned to gold."

Tourism has really changed this place. Ten years ago, my friend Jesse visited Siem Reap and he tells me at the time there was only one paved road and the only place he could find beer was the Khmer KTV lounge. Now, with tourists coming in (often from Korea), the town has all sorts of bars, and restaurants, a lot of Korean restaurants actually, but also restaurants serving yummy Cambodian dishes like amok fish. There are also fish spas where you stick your feet in tanks as small fish eat away at your dead skin, and there's a shooting range nearby where the drinks are free, as long as you keep paying for the ammunition. But the main attraction, of course, are the temples.

We make our way from Ta Keo to Angkhor Thom to Victory Gate, where we climb up the steps carved into the side of the enormous wall to look down at the view that all the trees in the jungles must have. The temple steps are often quite steep, intended for you to crawl up on your knees in a respectful grovelling manner.

My favourite temple, however, was Ta Prohm.

This is the temple where scenes from the movie Tomb Raider was shot. It's a crazy sight: the trees have moved in and taken over the temple. The jungle is literally part of the temple.

This was an amazing trip to Cambodia. I have wanted to visit Cambodia for years. When I was a law student, I took on a side job in the Netherlands assisting some law professors at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. They were writing a book about international criminal law, and as part of the process, they interviewed a number of lawyers at various international criminal court systems around the world, including the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. In particular, my professors interviewed a criminal defence lawyer for one of the accused facing charges related to the Cambodian genocide. They ask him why he decided to defend the accused.

The lawyer explained that, like everyone else, he had lost many family members during the genocide, including aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces.  He was baffled at the atrocities that he saw committed, and decided that he had to find out for himself the truth of why it had all happened, and became involved by defending the very people accused to engineering the massacres.  I found this response to be surprising but at the same time profound; normally many of us don't see defence lawyers as truth-seekers, but in their own way, they are part of the guardians leading the way to justice.  I found myself intrigued and wanting to learn more about Cambodian culture, because their people did, in fact, have a rich history before any of these tragedies occurred, a rich history that still remains in form of the temple ruins.