Cambodia, Destinations, Landscape Architecture

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – Scenes from Angkor Thom, Bayon, and Ta Prohm

February 27, 2013

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.

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

And nearby in Siem Reap:
Tonlé Sap Tour: Visiting the Floating Villages of Cambodia
Frogs and Eels and Pig Heads: Up Close at a Cambodian Market

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?

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  • Reply Ursula February 27, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Great photos! It looks amazing. We’re looking forward to hearing more about your adventures over breakfast this Sunday :)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 9, 2013 at 12:55 pm

      Thanks so much, Ursula! Brunch with you and the gang was so much fun – another reminder of why Oregon is so wonderful. Great friends, good food, and long brunch lines completely worth the wait ; )

  • Reply Joel February 27, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Ah….. Lara.

    Love the pictures (and the video ;) ) Makes me want to visit and to go back and do a little rewatching myself.

    Also, I’m on board with this dream of a NZ bound Sherlock.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      You would. You would…


  • Reply Albena February 27, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    I was there literally one week ago, and loved it as well!! Great photos! You have really captured the enchantment of the details :)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 9, 2013 at 12:56 pm

      Fantastic! It’s fun to think of the people who must be wandering through those very same ruins each new day… So glad you loved your time there, and thanks for the kind words about the photos xx

  • Reply TammyOnTheMove February 27, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    Love love love Angkor and I have to admit I watched the film before I went and secretely wanted to be a treasure hunter like her. ;-)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 9, 2013 at 1:03 pm

      Tammy, you’re so funny! I love it. For a while when I was really young, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I can definitely see the appeal. : )

  • Reply Erin February 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Have been enjoying poking through your posts from the past year–I just stumbled across your blog last week (thanks to FB and Heather Espana). My husband and I had an RTW adventure four years ago, which also included a one day whirlwind through Angkor. Loved it! Pics at this link (scroll to the bottom of the post)
    Thanks for reminding me of the beauty of Cambodia!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 9, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      Hey Erin, thanks so much for saying hi! How cool that you guys were able to go on a RTW journey and visit Angkor, and what a small world that we both know Heather! She’s so great : ) Thanks for sharing the link – I love that picture of yours with the pink cloud streaking down through the sky above the ruins. I enjoyed reading through your itinerary – looks like we hit some of the same beautiful spots – South Africa, New Zealand, Southeast Asia… Wonderful memories : )

  • Reply Kim Olson March 1, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    I’ve never actually seen a Lara Croft movie, but I’ve wanted to visit Angkor sites for ages. Like you, I bet I could spend a lot of time there just wandering and taking it all in. It looks unlike any place I’ve ever visited and the photo opportunities look great.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 9, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      Yes, it’s such a beautiful spot for wandering and snapping photos… I’m so glad we were able to visit. Haha – I’m not sure that you’re missing anything by not having seen Lara Croft. I say, just enjoy the pictures and then someday when you get there yourself, you can take it all in firsthand and not think twice about Angelina Jolie ; )

  • Reply Tricia March 4, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Bethany, enjoyed your images from this intriguing corner of the world! Each time I’ve been to Cambodia, I’ve visited the Angkorian sites in a similar whirlwind, one-day fashion. Someday, I would love to explore Banteay Srei, which I’ve read is quite delicately carved. Here’s one of our posts:

    On a side note, we appreciated your pointers for Croatia several weeks ago. We’re now in lovely Trogir; what a beautiful part of the world!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 9, 2013 at 1:15 pm

      Hey Tricia! I’m so happy to hear that you’re in Trogir and loving your time there. Oh, I can just see the sea and imagine the sunshine… How’s the food treating you? Any delicious meals to rave about? : )

      Thanks so much for sharing your pictures from Bayon! I love the one of the statue feet covered in those lichen patterns…

      Banteay Srei sounds lovely, too…someday, someday… The world is so big and full of wonderful things to see and people to meet! Happy travels to you guys in Croatia xx

      • Reply Tricia March 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm

        Bethany, your comment notification was swept up into my spam mail, thus this escargot-paced reply.

        We’re leaving Trogir in about a week (so sad!) but have had an incredible time. It doesn’t come as a surprise (because I sense you travel much in the same way), but the people here are what have made our trip very special. Just last weekend, we did a sailing trip with humble, champion sailors, and then went wild asparagus hunting the next day.

        My fave meals so far have included Zinfandel Risotto, Wild Asparagus & Eggs, and Peka (the slow-cooked veggies/poultry, under a tajine-like lid, smothered with hot coals). Divine!

        I’m off to check out your latest adventures. :)

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    Wow – amazing pictures! Did you manage to make it to Kbal Spean outsode of Angkor Wat hwere there are carvings of Buddha and Buddhist images in river rocks? We had a guide who took us there on our second day in Angkor Wat and it was great to see other sacred sites in the area.

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