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.
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.
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.
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.
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.