Temples and robust roots, entwined

Coexisting, an old temple, a huge tree, and a happy trekker, the writer's husband, Alex. They were visiting Ta Prohm temple in Angkor, Cambodia.
Coexisting, an old temple, a huge tree, and a happy trekker, the writer's husband, Alex. They were visiting Ta Prohm temple in Angkor, Cambodia. (MAY WU)
Posted: September 09, 2012

We were nearly "templed" out. With the unrelenting noon sun beating down, broken stone pavements like the inside of an oven, and crumbling arches offering no shady relief, even the hardiest tourists had retreated. Ta Prohm, whose intricate bas-relief friezes, so mysterious and full of spiritual wonders in the gentle, soothing morning air, now looked barren and unwelcoming.

Angkor, Cambodia, had been like War and Peace to me. It was supposed to be one of those you-have-to-do-it-before-you-die experiences, but somehow it had failed to stir up any strong desires in me to actually go see it. Well, until now. As our tenure in Asia was drawing to a close, my husband and I had finally made it. And I could say with good conscience that it had been worth it. The temples justified all the accolades, and we had feasted our eyes to the fullest.

Alas, in that afternoon, a state of mind had been reached. No more folklore of gods fighting with other gods. Not another mind-numbing figure about how many stone blocks were used to build a gallery wall. All were nice and interesting in this monument to an old and dead civilization. But maybe it's time to . . . . Just then, I spotted some dark shadows inside an arched entrance. I stepped in gratefully. As soon as I entered, I felt a breeze coming from an opening several small chambers away. I followed the dim light through more dark and quiet passageways, an inner courtyard opened up, and I found myself in Indiana Jones country and snakes hanging everywhere.

OK, those were not snakes, but many tangled tree roots seemingly trying to suck the last juice out of the stone structures.

Their tenacity simply amazed me. Denied unimpeded access to sunlight and water, in other words, a chance to survive, those plants, silk cotton and a smaller kind, strangler fig, grabbed hold of any crack of an opening in rock or stone and never let go. Branches squeezed their way through mere slits between stone blocks and eventually pushed out the stones, or, in some cases, devoured them.

Silk cotton trees can grow to a height of 150 feet and diameters of about 10 feet. The wood is said to have coarse texture and be highly perishable.

They certainly don't make for fine heirloom furniture, but, are they pests or parasites?

I, who have left my carbon footprints all over the place, certainly am in no position to judge a fellow occupier of this earth for simply being here. In fact, I rather like being reminded of the truism that everything that existed leaves its mark, be it a once mighty and glorious kingdom or a humble indigenous plant. Maybe that's why earlier restoration workers decided to leave Ta Prohm alone and just maintain "this condition of apparent neglect."


May Wu writes from Ambler.

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