Frozen Portraits at The Bayon
Don’t laugh. I have an admission to make: we followed Angelina Jolie to Cambodia. She beat us to Angkor by a dozen years, filming scenes for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2000 among the picturesque ruins of the Khmer Empire, and as round the world travelers with a stop in Siem Reap, it was too hard to resist the cheesiness of a little star-stalking during our visit to the ruins.
The Lara Croft: Tomb Raider route includes a visit to the many-faced Bayon Temple within the bounds of the ancient city of Angkor Thom and a trip through the tree-entwined bones of the similarly aged 12th and 13th century Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university of Ta Prohm.
Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in the Temples of Angkor
To our credit (I’d like to count it as credit, anyway) we didn’t actually watch the movie until after our trip to the temples, (let’s just forget about Ted’s and my 2003 theater visit for a comical viewing of Lara Croft: Cradle of Civilization with my brother Joel…), but we unashamedly included the main filming locations in our single-day circuit of Angkor Archaeological Park.
The truth, though? The temples’ beauty far exceeds the merits of the movie, and even if a little Hollywood trail following hadn’t been on the itinerary, we would’ve certainly included these stops on our route through Angkor because they’re genuinely impressive all on their own.
[Lara] tools up and scoots off in her Land Rover in front of the sacred Bayon temple, in Angkor Thom, its 54 towers, each bearing four enigmatic smiling faces. The most spectacular temple of all, entwined with enormous trees, where Croft encounters the mysterious girl, is Ta Prohm. -Movie-Locations.com
Approaching the South Gate entrance to the city of Angkor Thom, past the flanking stone sculptures of 54 gods and 54 demons spanning the causeway. Jolie may have sported a Land Rover, but we entered on foot while tuk tuks and bicycles crissed and crossed in the cool of the morning.
At Bayon, the official state temple of Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII built around the 12th and 13th centuries, upwards of 200 stone faces of the Lokesvara look down from towers on the visitors below.
Honestly, I could’ve wandered here for hours. We probably spent at least an hour and a half here hunting for faces, taking photos, and sitting in the cool shade on the western side as the hot Cambodian sun rose higher and higher.
Our final stop of the day: Ta Prohm, where intentional conservation and restoration projects by the Archaeological Survey of India and APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) have sought to preserve the half-eaten-by-the-jungle state in which the ruins were rediscovered in 1860 by French botanist Henri Mahout.
The silk-cotton trees (Ceiba pentandra), thitpok (Tetrameles nudiflora), strangler fig (Ficus gibbosa) and gold apple (Diospyros decandra) eat away at once-strong structures.*
(*Plant nerd alert. Enjoy or disregard the Latin names, your choice.)
It’s just as surreal and strange as in the film…
These photos – and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – only give a narrow window into this fantastical and mysterious sliver of the ancient world. Yes, there’s a little extra candy-gloss in the final film edits (the shot of Angkor Wat, for example, at 0:30 in the clip below, bursting with waterlilies and boating villagers), but it’s not all Hollywood smoke and mirrors.
This time, a little star-stalking paid off.
Real life really is as beautiful as the movies.
(Which leads me to think of some other soon-coming tales of star-stalking in New Zealand. Red carpets, Peter Jackson, Martin Freeman, gorgeous countryside fit for epic tales. Nevermind the less-than-epic Hobbit. Maybe we can convince Martin to lead Benedict and the film crew to Christchurch for a little Sherlock-overseas? But I digress…)
Also in the Adventures at the Temples of Angkor Series:
Six Hundred Years After Sunrise, Or, Angkor in a Day
Project Preah Khan: Workforce Training Among the Ruins
Gotta say, after all the hype and after 10 months on the road, we loved visiting Angkor. It lived up to its reputation and made a mark on our psyches. If you have photos from your own visit or similar one-day-wonder stories, please leave a link in the comments. As always, thanks for traveling memory lane with us. Hopefully it’s slightly more fun than hanging a sheet and projecting old slides?