Monthly Archives: April 2013

The “Tomb Raider Temple” – Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat

What have you seen?

It’s a common question in Siem Reap, home to the many hostels and hotels that feed tourists to the Angkor Wat temple complex. Sunburnt tourists trade stories while cooling off in the bar with a can of cold, cheap Angkor beer–the famous temple on the label collecting beads of condensation. A list generally follows the question. Oh, I’ve seen Bayon, Angkor, Banteay Srey, the waterfall and the Tomb Raider temple. 

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Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft at Ta Prohm.

In his 2002 article for the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Tim Winter  outlines the history of Angkor, as UNESCO terms it, “a geographical region, an archaeological site and a cultural concept”. Angkor “emerged as a major seat of power early in the 9th century AD and lasted until the capital’s abandonment in the middle decades of the 15th century” wherein god-kings would construct an irrigation network followed by statues of deceased parents and then a mountain temple dedicated to the king himself. This culminated in Angkor Thom, an extravagant city complex built in the 13th century, the demands of which are cited as contributing to the empire’s eventual decline.

Angkor was “discovered” by French botanist Henri Mouhot in 1862; the overgrown aesthetics leading him to claim that Angkor was a lost civilization, though the local Khmer (Cambodians) would surely disagree. The French colonial administration constructed Angkor as the apogee of Khmer civilization, the abandoned state of which showed Khmer in decline, their culture lost. It was up to the French, of course, to restore this culture, therefore legitimizing their rule. Even after French rule and the totalitarian regime of Pol Pot, Winter notes that “the deeply symbolic national significance of Angkor within contemporary Cambodia” still remains.

When scenes from the movie Tomb Raider were filmed at Angkor Wat in 2000, tourism was already on the rise. Winter establishes the heritage simulacra used by the film producers, who were mimicking the video game world in the real world, dissolving the boundaries between physical and virtual. Sets were built around Angkor Wat, further Orientalizing the Khmer–Angkor was now in the middle of an exotic, chaotic village on stilts in the water. A woman is cooking in a shack as Lara Croft paddles up the the shore amidst the cacophony of a “fallen” society–echoes of the French colonial interpretation of Angkor remaining intact nearly 150 years later.

Ta Prohm, a temple about 3km NE of the main Angkor Wat complex, has been left largely unreconstructed and is being conserved as a partial ruin. This has been intentional, to preserve the photogenic and atmospheric experience so that the tourist may imagine themselves as an early (white, western) explorer, perhaps Mouhot himself. Tim Winter documents “the tourist encounter” at a similar temple, Preah Khan, also being conserved as a partial ruin. The World Monument Fund director who was responsible for preparing Preah Khan for tourism wanted to create specific routes for tourists so that they may “experience Preah Khan the way it should be experienced” and thus create a “more authentic spatial narrative across the site”.

Tomb Raider has reinforced a site narrative at Angkor Wat of discovery, adventure and exploration that has not always been beneficial to the preservation of the site. Winter quotes a Canadian tourist who explained why she climbed over the temple’s delicate rooftops by stating that it made her “feel like Lara Croft exploring the jungled ruins of Angkor.” Ta Prohm is now called the “Tomb Raider Temple” in both guide books and buy the local tuk tuk drivers, which, as Winter writes, blurs the “boundaries across authenticities, realities and fiction” until Angkor is reduced to “a culturally and historically disembedded visual spectacle.”

Ten years after Winter’s article was written, I was not sure what to expect from the “Tomb Raider Temple.” Indiana Jones and Lara Croft have no little notoriety in the archaeological world (Cornelius Holtorf has a nice piece written here about Indiana Jones:
http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/archaeolog/2008/03/hero_real_archaeology_and_indi.html
that is further elaborated in his Archaeology is a Brand!) and I briefly wrote about Lara Croft as an “unavoidable cultural figure for women in archaeology” in 2007: https://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2007/05/15/toward-an-embodied-virtual-archaeology/

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What I found at Ta Prohm was extraordinary beyond my expectations. A large section of the temple was closed, as it was being conserved. It turns out that preservation-as-ruins was not working out so well for the site as the giant Banyan trees were making the temple perhaps a bit too ruinous and atmospheric. It was a large construction site, yet not a single tourist mentioned this in their description of the site. They were still lining up to take their photographs in the same spots that featured in the film. The process was fascinating. The subject of the photograph and the photographer would wait in a crowd, then the subject would run up to the spot and the photographer would carefully frame the photograph so that the subject would look all alone at the abandoned/forbidding ruin, an early discoverer/adventurer. Sometimes the subject would pose as if they were climbing up the ruins.

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This is not all that uncommon; many photographs of heritage are composed by editing out the hoards of fellow discoverer/adventurers, thereby creating the experience of the site as singular. This was especially fascinating at Ta Prohm, as the tourists self-consciously performed the explorer/discoverer/video game narrative. Remarkably, a girl came up to us and said, “did you notice that the layout of this temple (we were at Angkor Thom) is just like Temple Run?” I did not know what Temple Run was, but Dan did–it’s a popular game for the iPad wherein the adventurer (a female, incidentally) moves through exotic locations looking for treasure. Go figure.

How Tomb Raider and other popular depictions have acted on our imagination of cultural heritage and how we in turn reenact these tropes while building our identity through digital media and online presence is pretty fascinating stuff. The question of what have you seen becomes what are you actually seeing and what are you intentionally editing out of your heritage experience?
ResearchBlogging.org
Winter, T. (2002). Angkor Meets Tomb Raider : setting the scene International Journal of Heritage Studies, 8 (4), 323-336 DOI: 10.1080/1352725022000037218

Sunrise in Bangkok

Sunrise in Bangkok and a woman is dumping a large sack of charcoal into a square metal box on wheels. She carefully arranges the charcoal into two stacks, stashes the half-empty sack next to a light post, and lights one of the stacks with a neon green lighter. A great plume of gray-blue smoke puffs into the pink sky.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there are dogs, three, four dogs trotting along the side of the road, breathing heavily. One sees another dog under a car, runs over to shove its nose into the sleeping dog’s pink, exposed paw. The paw withdraws into the shade under the car.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there are marigold monks holding silver bowls like bells. They stride between the food carts, parting the crowds like orange blooms, like small and friendly fires. Their shoulders are relaxed, they move with precision but without intent. The eldest moves to one side, into a patch of concrete in front of a closed beauty salon and two food-cart women bow in front of him, press their heads to the pavement.

Sunrise in Bangkok and a woman in a short red skirt with a tattered flag of amber-tinted hair frowns at a man on a scooter. He’s a taxi, you can tell by his orange safety vest with the number, and she suddenly swings up and sits side-saddle behind him, holding her purse in her lap and not holding on to the scooter at all. He zooms off and her balance is amazing, hair in the wind, it’s like she does this every day and of course she does.

Sunrise in Bangkok and it’s already hot.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there are hundreds of sweet stubby bananas roasting on a grill. There are squid pig fish meatball sausages on a stick and all of it is delicious. Even better with peanut sauce. Giant pots of boiling everything, walking by them makes you even hotter, but the smells are so worth it. Everywhere there are people chopping food, cooking food, serving and eating food. Spoons and forks and soup spoons and chopsticks clunk against plastic bowls and it is a joy to know that there is so much good food being made and being eaten. It is in the gestures, a hand sorting through frothy green fresh dill, ladling the correct meatball-to-broth ratio over fat bean sprouts, a child with a mouthful of fish.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there’s another farang, tall and fair skinned and our eyes meet and there’s a twinge of recognition what are you doing out at this early hour but in the end it means nothing, because we’re just two white people in Bangkok and it’s not that special and there is no connective tissue or shared identity, really.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there is a girl with french-braided pigtails, starch-white shirt, blue skirt and clunky black shoes. She is headed to school, and sees and meets another girl on the corner and they walk together to the bus stop where a windowless short red bus will stop and they will pay seven baht to the driver’s assistant.

Sunrise in Bangkok and watch where you are going, there’s a scooter coming up the sidewalk, there’s a broom salesman on a bicycle, there’s a Lexus trying to find parking, there’s a gate swinging out at you, revealing a brief glimpse of an emerald-succulent courtyard and careful! the sidewalk is wet and slippery and opens suddenly into a canal.

Sunrise in Bangkok and it speaks the city-language of fares and transport and so many skyscrapers and 7-11s that after two days you feel fluent. At home. But then I give the satay lady in the pink cart 30 baht for five sticks of flattened meat and she hands me back three sticks and a handful of the smallest silver and copper coins I have ever seen in my life. I look at the coins and try to give them back and she doesn’t want them and neither do I. We look at each other and city-language is not useful for people-language so I concede and head back to my flat.