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Cambodia (Day 31) Tomb Raider Ta Prohm PLUS So Much More

We embraced our inner Indiana Jones as we scrambled through the temple that has been slowly overtaken by nature. Ta Prohm, built late 12th century is hauntingly beautiful - bound by massive roots of huge trees, reclaimed by the jungle. It's the Tomb Raider temple made famous by Angelina Jolie. 

Super popular and high on every tourist's must-see list, we had it entirely to ourselves by leaving our hotel at 7am to arrive at the 7:30am opening. I had actually wanted to leave earlier, but I was assured that we would be the first ones there. Okay, whatever, I begrudgingly acquiesced while thinking EVERYBODY is going to be there at the 7:30 opening in a LONG line. Ha! I was wrong. There must be some really good night life that we are missing - hahahaha.  

Library at Ta Prohm

We came upon the library and marveled at this lone structure. I began to think we ought to move it along to the main show, you know, before the MASS of CROWDS arrive on our tail.

We finally at a turtle's pace got to the entrance.  Ohmygawd, snap the pic already. Okay, I really needed to adjust my mental state. I took a moment. Said to myself, calm the eff down. There's nobody here. Deep breathes. Felt my presence among the ancient ruins. And, then really began to enjoy the vision before my eyes.

This was one of my favorites!! Cloaked in dappled shadows, crumbling towers, and walls locked tight in the arms of vast roots, Ta Prohm made my imagination run wild! Can you feel yourself step back in time looking at these ruins?

Jungle slowly devouring the temple of Ta Prohm. Incredible to witness this power of nature. Huge trees and massive roots spreading, probing walls and terraces apart. Loosening the stones of a temple built entirely without mortar or any binding material.

Great trees tower above Ta Prohm, their leaves filtering the sunlight, providing welcome shade and casting a greenish light over the otherworldly site. Delicately carved reliefs on the walls sprout lichen, moss and creeping plants. ~ Sacred Destinations 💚Wandering this very large (much larger than expected) temple in the still of early morning, I couldn't help but entertain myself an early explorer uncovering this hidden treasure. Can you imagine it yourself?

Ta Prohm is extensively ruined, but you can still explore numerous towers, enclosed courtyards and narrow corridors, discovering hidden gems of stone reliefs beneath the encroaching foliage. All alone here, we delighted with our decision to make it our first temple of Day 2. We even slept in an extra hour with a 5:30am wake-up AND had leisurely hotel breakfast! 

I was trying to find my "stegosaurus" pic, but all I can seem to find is the vicinity of it in the pic below, but it is missing the bottom half and also, my close-up shot is nowhere to be found either. But anyways, around here (you can Google it for better directions and the actual image) there is a carving that is on every Ta Prohm scavenger hunt list. For fun's sake, people like to say it is evidence that dinosaurs existed during human times since the technology did not exist at the time of Ta Prohm's construction to determine what a stegosaurus looked like from unearthed dinosaur bones. Common acceptance is that the carving is that of a rhinosaurus with leaves behind it. Anyways, happy hunting for it!

Strange things lurk in the nooks and crannies of these giant trees. You've been warned!

On the way out, we met this little girl. She is almost the same age as Caitlin, but is even smaller than Molly. Kids chatted for a bit and had some giggles. We actually met her after she scolded me. I was remarking to Rob that we are not supposed to buy things from the children because it supports them not being in school. Well, she overheard me and boy did she set me straight. Apparently, she goes to school in the afternoons. Regardless, she also speaks like 10+ languages. Her English alone is impressive. Cute kid with a big personality!

You didn't think we stopped after just one temple, did you?! There are more than 1000 temples, between the 9th and 13th centuries, and these remaining structures are the sacred skeleton of what was once the social, religious, and administrative center of the Khmer Empire. Today was even better because we had the guide for the whole day. We really enjoyed learning the fascinating history. He also showed us great spots for family pics!  My pre-planning went splendidly for avoiding the crowds (massive groups from large tour buses would arrive just as we were leaving each site - perfect timing!). 

So anyways, from the "Tomb Raider" temple, we continued to see Banteay Kdei (1st great Buddhist monastery in Cambodia), Pre-Rup (used for cremations), East Mebon (low pyramid with large guardian elephants), Ta Som (similar to Ta Prohm, large fig tree grows from the roof of the gate), Neak Pean (highlight of Khmer art with ornamental lakes surrounding a small temple), and Preah Khan (also similar to Ta Prohm, but better state of preservation, with immensely long corridors and delicate carvings). Let's go take a closer look at them! 

Banteay Kdei

Very near to Ta Prohm, we next went to Banteay Kdei ("A Citadel of Chambers").  It is also known as "Citadel of Monks Cells" and was occupied by monks over the centuries until the 1960s. We noted some similarities to Bayon, but also to Ta Prohm.

Like I warned you earlier, strange things in these jungles! Our guide insisted on putting the girls in the tree. The ground was muddy and I remember thinking at the time that these kids are going to be mad if they fall and land in it. Luckily, they dodged that fiasco and came down feeling like they had accomplished some feat.

So many passageways to be explored.

I spotted this corner and left my kids to scurry over to it. Mine. All mine. I felt like an early explorer as I clambered over the ruins making my way to it.

Doorways upon doorways upon doorways!

Banteay Kdei is in a heavily deteriorated state, which I thought added to its mysterious aura.  It packs a lot of personality in a small space and we really enjoyed wandering this smaller temple that was the first great Buddhist monastery in Cambodia. It appears to be one of the lesser known temples, so if you are pressed for time and encountering crowds, I hear that this one does not get nearly the number of visitors. We had it all to ourselves, but we are also early to rise :) and had a well-timed itinerary.

Pre Rup

It's a steep climb to the top of Pre Rup, an ancient Angkor mountain temple built in 961 out of a combination of sandstone, brick and laterite. Beautiful reddish coloring! Its name means "Turning of the "Body" referring to the tradition of cremation with the ashes of the body being ritually rotated in different directions as the service progresses. This Hindu temple is believed to have been used for cremations of Khmer royalty. 

Moving in a counterclockwise direction along the Grand Circuit, we next went to the Hindu temple Pre Rup. The first thing we noticed about Pre-Rup was its beautiful coloring!

Our guide waited for us at the bottom after imparting the history and architecture of the temple to us. Needless to say, we all made it to the top. I made it to the top and immediately turned around to take the snap. Down below, you can see the stone cistern - its commonly believed funeral purpose is debated as scholars believe it was a basement for a Nandi the Bull bronze statue rather than being used for cremation ceremonies.

Little explorer rocked her girl-power achievement scaling the steep climb to the top confirming with her big smile tells all our decision to bring the kids to Angkor. 

Sculpted guardian lions adorn the temple.

I found a quiet spot on a ledge to take in the ruins in solitude and soak in all my big feelings. Eventually, Rob found me :)

We made our way down the backside (FYI - there are wooden steps here in case you are unable to do the front ascent) and continued exploring the grounds. This is a small temple as it was the cremation site for Khmer royalty. The children really liked climbing the steps to the top and then walking around the upper level exploring. They also LOVED wandering the ledges. Pre Rup is apparently another popular sunset spot, so I would imagine it making a nice alternative to Phnom Bakheng for sunrise. It was our second choice and I would still choose Phnom Bakheng first, but hey if you are keen on back to back 4:45am wake-ups - hahahaha.

East Mebon

Very similar to Pre Rup and directly north of it is East Mebon, a 10th century temple that stands on what was once an artificial island at the center of the now dry East Baray reservoir.

Looking out at the surrounding grounds, I can't even imagine this whole temple being completely surrounded by water. It would have been reached by boat in times past.

What stands out most at East Mebon (though for some reason I don't have any pics - I must have been listening in rapt attention to the guide) are the guardian elephant statues that adorn the corners. You really do need a guide out here as I can't imagine appreciating what you are seeing without hearing the fascinating details. Our kids are young and even they enjoyed the stories as much as us.

Ta Som

Our guide next took us to Ta Som. This temple was not actually on my planned itinerary, but I guess as we were passing it, the guide made an executive decision. It was a good decision!

Very clear carvings still remain surviving the passing of time and the power of nature taking back.

Ta Som is a small temple built at the end of the 12th century. It is largely unrestored and we marveled at the numerous trees and vegetation growing out of the ruins.

I'm pretty sure we went in one entrance and out another. I remember some vendors asking me to buy, but I told them I wanted to see the temple first and would stop on my way out. They kept saying that they would not see me exit. No worries, there are vendors at both sides. Hahahaha, we ended up buying some t-shirts and more elephant pants.

Neak Pean

First of all, I don't even know how you could ever appreciate this temple site without a guide. I looked up as much as could from the Internet, but reading the information just doesn't convey it as well as hearing it real-time as the various artifacts are pointed out to you.  But, I'm getting ahead of myself. First, we had to wait while Rob purchased several historical books from a persuasive vendor.

Waiting patiently for daddy to finish shopping.

Alright, everybody ready? Let's go see Neak Pean!

Neak Pean ("Entwined Serpents" sculptures of snakes are found at the base of the temple structure) is an artificial island with a Buddhist temple on a circular island. To get there, you first walk through through the baray on a long wooden boardwalk across the flooded marshland.

Recent studies seem to suggest that the temple served a physical as well as symbolic purpose. It appears to have been a sort of hospital, with places for people to stay and receive treatment.

In the middle on all four terraced sides are four chapels bearing the statues of a lion, an elephant, a horse, and what appears to be a human.

By Bamse [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Our guide spent a bit of time explaining each to us and helping us to figure out our own matching element. It was great fun for the kids!

Human head: Symbol of Earth
Elephant head: Symbol of Water
Horse head: Symbol of Air
Lion head: Symbol of Fire

I knew that our final site of the day would be a large one, so it was the perfect time to break for lunch. Our guide directed us to an open air restaurant alongside the road. It was without a doubt the best food I had the entire time we were in Cambodia. I discovered a love for a traditional Khmer dish called lok lak, a peppered beef dish (sometimes topped with a fried egg) that tickles your taste buds with sweet, salty, spicy, and sour! The dipping sauce is crucial. I'm drooling. By the way, this dish actually has Vietnamese roots where it is named bo luc lac (“shaking beef” in Vietnamese) and was most likely brought to Cambodia by the French rather than the Vietnamese.

After lunch, we felt ourselves refueled with energy to tackle our last temple site. Good thing because this temple was amazing and meant to be savored slowly.

Preah Khan

Preah Khan, "the Sacred Sword" was not just a temple.  It was a temple city occupying a large area surrounded by a moat. The outermost enclosure was built up with wooden houses and huts where common people lived. The wooden structures are long gone, but the remaining ruins are spellbinding.

From ancient texts discovered in 1939 inscribed on a stone stele, it is known that close to 100,000 people were dedicated to serve the temple, including rice farmers, monks and dancers. It also listed the wealth of the temple, including silver, gold and gems.

How did they build this? And, how is it still standing? It's a little eerie looking up at these stones placed just right to form the still standing ceiling.

There are enclosures upon enclosures leading to an inner sanctuary. Preah Khan is so vast you could get lost exploring its 138 acres of carvings, enclosures and maze of corridors. This was definitely one of my favorites!

Shiva linga on a pedestal outside the inner sanctuary. It is thought to have been moved from its original location from inside. A linga is a symbol of divine generative energy, especially a phallus or phallic object worshiped as a symbol of Shiva. Our guide told us that the pedestal provides passageway for the water that is poured over the blessed linga thus purifying the water. This holy water is collected and of great value to the believers. Stick with us to Phnom Kulen and we will show you the river of 1000 lingas!

Be sure to look up! A little nervous walking under here. A couple beams holding it all together. Amazing!

That's a wrap for our perfect day templing so many incredible ruins and learning about Angkor history and architecture. Oh, I forgot to mention earlier, we passed through Angkor Thom during our day and our guide gave us great commentary as we were passing the sites from our previous day. 

We loved exploring all the nooks and crannies of these magnificent temples and marveled at our full day Indiana Jones adventure. Hope you enjoy the pics, but they really don't do these places justice at all. And, again - I can't say enough how meaningful it was to have a guide. Of course, we don't remember everything we were told, but in that moment while looking before our amazed eyes, our little brains comprehending the the history and meanings in the symbolism, getting goosebumps - THAT is what I'll never forget.

As for the infamous crowds, I don't know what route everybody else took, but you can absolutely avoid crowds. We pretty much had the temples entirely to ourselves other than a small scattering of folks at Pre Rup, East Mebon, and Neak Pean.

Itinerary Day 2: Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Preah Khan. These were some of the more popular temples off what is referred to as the Grand Circuit. Having a car on this day made sense and it was top-notch having a guide accompany us the whole time. Cost: I switched it up as we initially wanted a tuk-tuk with no guide at $15 to car $40. The guide (arranged by Sam) was paid directly $35 for the day. Wait until you see Day 3 - we are going to explore further out getting (slightly) off the beaten path.


  1. wow, we got templed out in 6 hours!

    1. Hahaha, this was a full day of temples! It wasn't that late when we finished though - I want to say back at the hotel no later than 2 or 3pm, so the kids knew that they would have all the rest of the afternoon at the pool. Early starts are key in Siem Reap!