The Giant Strangler Trees at Cambodian Temples

It is amazing how few centuries of neglect has completely changed the profile of Angkor Temples in Siem Reap! Bizarre is the word! Huge thick roots, gripping and crushing the temples, the stones scattered around like toys, the sights can be intimidating. I always imagined the movie scenes to be animated kind and lots of camera tricks. But NO. These are real roots. Photogenic yes, but definitely not beautiful. The dimensions of fingers of the roots exceed that human size, now try and imagine the size of the trees.

Giant trees at Cambodian Temples

Giant Trees at Cambodian temples

Forgotten Angkor Temples

Cambodian temples were built during Khmer regime much before 15th century. However after the fall of this dynasty the temples remained neglected for 5 long centuries, that is till 20th century. Slowly memories of these temples faded away from the minds of Cambodians until they were completely forgotten. However it is believed that the main temple Angkor Wat was never forgotten. People always worshiped here. A French naturalist published papers on Angkor Wat in 1863, which aroused western interest in this temple. One thing led to another, and several groups of historians started trickling in. And by early 20th century many Angkor temples were discovered one after another.

Of course the temples were in a terrible ruinous condition. During this period of neglect Strangler Fig, a member of Banyan tree family started spreading their roots here.

Ruins of Ta Phrom Temple

Banteay Kdei temple in ruins

Trees at Angkor Temples

Nobody realised how and when these trees completely captured several of the temples here. The roots have grown over, through and then under these temple foundations crushing them completely. The trees at Cambodian temples are nicknamed as strangler trees of Angkor, as their growth results in death of host trees.

Two other varieties of trees too took firm root here, the Silk Cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) and Thitpok tree (Tetrameles nudiflora). They are common in tropical forests throughout the world. Birds and bats propagate these seeds which are sticky in nature. Young strangler lives on the tree’s surface, grows long roots, and descends along the trunk of the host tree. Eventually they reach the ground, enter the soil and get a firm hold. As several roots go through this process they get grafted together, enclosing their host’s trunk in a strangling latticework. Ultimately they create a complete sheath around the trunk. At many places we saw this network of roots, and they have fiercely strong grip.

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Growth and Spread of Trees at Angkor

One factor that has enhanced the growth of the trees here is the unique property of the stones used for building the temples. Angkor temples are made of sandstone/laterite which is porous in nature. This enables the roots to extract water from the stones. The roots play the role of crushing the structure and sometimes holding the structure up too.  the contrasts scared the wits out of me.  In spite of it all lying scattered right in front of me I found it so hard to believe that Mother Nature has caused all this havoc. She is the creator, destroyer and comforter, all in one!

Even today, even now, at this moment the damage is taking place – little by little. Humans can only be a mute spectator to the process which is slow but definite. A new root finds a small gap between two blocks, wedges in between them, starts growing and enlarging. The size becomes big until one day, at some moment the stones fall apart.

Trees at Cambodian Temples

Stones start cracking in the grip of giant roots of Strangler Fig trees

Roots wedge between stones

New roots wedge through the gaps of the building blocks

Tourists Pose with Giant Trees at Angkor Temples

Most obvious thing to do in Angkor temples would be to explore the giant roots. The authorities there have made special enclosures away from the roots for tourists to stand and pose. Many tourists were busy posing with these gigantic trees. Some spent studying them closely.

Having read and about these trees at Cambodian temples and seen several pictures I was expecting the sights, yet they hit my mind hard. It is a proof how insignificant we are! The excitement with which I explored the temples, especially Ta Phrom and Banteay Kdei, had died down completely as I left the ruins. All that remained was a feeling of regret, sorrow and a fear of Nature’s might.

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Buddha at Ta Phrom

Human efforts to save the Temple

Strangler Trees at Cambodian Temples

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45 Responses

  1. Great post Indrani..i have never been to Cambodia…seen so many pictures from friends’travel diaries and since then wanting to visit it. However never heard of the giant trees..they are indeed massive! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. I love that nature always overcomes! And such a lovely blend of history, culture and nature. Thanks for sharing. It has just reminded me I need to get to Cambodia one day. Mel

  3. I didn’t know about how these strangler trees formed. That’s pretty cool how they start and then take over their host…if not a little evil!
    I remember hunting for Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat back in 2011. Everyone wanted a perfect shot with the trees there!

  4. Rachelle says:

    I might have to disagree with you a little bit. I think the trees are beautiful, even though they are destructive…kind of like the way that fire is beautiful and destructive too. It’s amazing how trees can do so much damage to structures, and it’s a great reminder of how small we are. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Natasha says:

    I looooves the look of these trees. Always have me mesmerised. I am the same as you, nature can actually haunt me a little with its power

  6. I love these trees, I think they’re one of the main drives for to go see Cambodia, and the temples. It is amazing to see the power and persistence of nature and how it will manage to thrive anywhere it can.

  7. Mel Butler says:

    I have always heard about the temples at Angkor Wat but never nothing really about the amazing trips that surround it. What an interesting read, I never knew about the strangler trees let alone how they are formed. However, I understand your point about it being damaging to the site but I still think they looks surreal and beautiful

  8. Carol Colborn says:

    Great post. Truly a time to pause and to care. I was amazed at pictures I saw of these trees. I wonder if I will feel the same when I see them in person?

  9. Amazing temple . Thanks for the post and pics.

  10. Veidehi says:

    Wow! After all, nature does find its way around everything 🙂 I have heard a lot about these ancient temples, although I am yet to explore them…your post has got me all intrigued Indrani and those roots are indeed fascinating 🙂

  11. Trees are so amazing, and these pictures are fantastic. I’m planning to visit Cambodia next year and can’t wait to see these in person. Nature is truly awesome!

  12. magiceye says:

    These are indeed a fascinating sight! Reminded me of Ross island in Andamans.

  13. I have to disagree with you, I think the roots are beautiful! It is a shame that they’re so destructive and break the stones of the temples but they add such an otherworldly feel to the sites! they make it look like a real lost world!

  14. Niranjan R says:

    Glad to know more about these intriguing trees.

  15. dNambiar says:

    Whoa! those trees are really taking over the scene, eh! So sad to see what’s happening to all that work–in-stone. I’d seen so many pictures of these trees in Cambodia but it is NOW that it all makes sense to me. I can see why humans can only sit and watch.
    A very informative and a very interesting post, Indrani. Thank you so much. 🙂

  16. Really sad to see the ruins of the temple. It looks like nature has taken control of the temple. Lovely photos

  17. Wonderful pictures, Indrani. The trees along with the architecture have given a distinct look to the Angkor temples…

  18. MS Mahawar says:

    Lovely Picture!
    I love trees more than anything in this world! 🙂

  19. Henry says:

    Very unique take on an area of the world that’s almost become a cliche for writers! Thanks for spotting something unique about Ankor Wat and bringing a fresh voice to it! I really enjoyed reading this.

  20. First of all I want to thank you for sharing this. I have seen lots of pics from Angkor temples but didn’t know about these trees. I honestly don’t understand why they are allowed to break everything there. So that our generation may still see the temples, but 100 years from today nothing is left, but the trees were more important? I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I live in a country which is mostly forest, Finland.

  21. lloyd says:

    awesome post! have lived in cambodia for the past year and these temples are the heart of this country. was nice to read about the trees instead of just the temples, nice to have a different insight from another eye. Great read

  22. Wonderful pics… the trees and architecture looks mesmerizing!

  23. Swati says:

    I find the trees growing out and reclaiming their space oddly interesting. It shows the power of nature and reminds me never to mess with her. We humans have little regard for nature and places like these show what she is capable of. I am yet to visit Cambodia , so thanks for the post. Great pictures, as always

  24. Sarah says:

    Wow, these are some amazing photos you have! The roots are somehow not beautiful but as you say, still magnificent to see the power of what nature can do. We will visit Cambodia in November/December this year and so excited to see the wonders of Angkor. Thanks for firing us up more with the post!

  25. Penny West says:

    Such gorgeous pics! I was totally enchanted by the trees growing through the temples when I visited Angkor Wat . I like your idea of just focusing on that aspect, it works for me.

  26. Love how you write about Cambodian temples in a very interesting perspective! I really thought those roots were pretty but if you think deeper, those roots are not doing good to the temples really. And these pics made me wanna go back to Siem Reap!

  27. Karla says:

    It’s really amazing how Cambodia was able to keep its architecture. It really does feel like an indiana jones movie.

  28. They are an amazing tree, in Australian rainforest we often see them clamped around other trees or giant boulders thrown from volcanos 1000’s of years ago. I’ve not been to Cambodia but would love to see these temple ruins, the way nature reclaims an area when given a chance is inspiring.

  29. Great write-up Indrani. for me, it sparked a new thought process about the ruined temples. I have always been fascinated by the beautiful pictures of the temples and thought that the roots are just growing around the rocks. But it is scary to learn that they are doing much more than that and most of it is actually damaging the structures. Nature’s ways are truly mysterious. I hope to visit the temples soon and explore the m before the roots cause any harm.

  30. Cambodia is included in my bucketlist and for sure, I need to see this sights too. Thankyou for this information. Will definitely review this one’s I go there.

  31. Isn’t it true that the Indian archaeological department has taken care of these temples by, kind of, relocating some of them? It is indeed a very complex process but that is what I listened to during an AV presentation at the National Museum, Delhi.

  32. Erica says:

    Ive always seen the trees in siem reap as both enchanted and enchanting. They are gorgeous and at the same time bewildering to me. It’s as if they want to take back the temples or they want to be one with them.

  33. Megan Jerrard says:

    This is quite incredible, and plays an eerie warning to what the earth would look like if we let mother nature take control of our cities without any maintenance. It’s amazing how these trees have just completely taken over the temples, and claimed them as their own. And even more fascinating that now, even though they are the sole reason for crushing the structures, they also hold them up. Really does seem like something from an apocolpyse, after the world has ended type of film!

  34. This is gorgeous. We saw a temple a lot like this in Indonesia and it took my breath away. The power of mother nature is beautiful to behold.

  35. Ohh Cambodia, especially Siem Reap have a special place in my heart. Its the first country that I visited outside the Philippines. And I was really amazed seeing the temples and these gigantic trees. Thanks for sharing history about this place 🙂

  36. The iconic trees of Cambodia are darling of every traveler. Especially of the large groups. I had to wait for like half an hour to get one picture of the tree without people. It’s really wonderful to know the incredible growth of the trees because of the stones used for building the temples.

  37. The trees showed how powerful nature is. I find it really amusing how it was able to destroy temples. Now, the roots add to the exotic beauty of the place!

  38. Lisa says:

    These magnificent trees are a great example of the power of nature. Their names, being strangler, says it all! I love the way they wrap around the old temples, it almost seems they’re protecting them from us humans!

  39. Those trees make the setting of the temple more enchanting! If only they could talk, I believe they will tell us stories far more interesting than what we can see.

  40. Ami says:

    While I am in awe of these trees – the mysterious look it gives to these temples, I can so well understand the damage it must be causing there. Like you correctly said, Mother nature is the creator and destroyer in one. I would love to see these for myself and possibly explore around them to see what other secrets they are hiding.

  41. Those trees are actually amazing. I love the shots, especially the temple ones. After reading this, I’m more intrigued and wanting to visit to explore the area myself! Cambodian Temples are amazing. Thank you for sharing

  42. neha says:

    Although it’s a site in itself to see how the trees have entangled and made their way around and through the ancient temples. But it’s sad that slowly , they are weakening the temple structure. I hope something is done about it so that the ancient temples of Combodia can be preserved

  43. Wow, this is just really a wow. i actually have been dreaming to visit this place and until now, I haven’t been here. I love that you showcase another unique and stunning gem in Cambodia. The temple really speaks about the strength and resiliency of Cambodian people. Thank you so much for sharing this awesome destination with us.

  44. Jerny says:

    These trees and temples have been a part of Cambodia’s great history. This country will be our next conquest. Nature at its best with temples around <3

  45. Suruchi says:

    Great post Indrani. Your this post has fascinated me in every way to visit this place, temple and see these stranglers trees in real. As you said Mother nature itself is creator, destroyer, and comforter, so we humans can just see the havoc.

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