Siem Reap has become one of the world’s tourism darlings over the past years, ranked in 2015 as the second best spot on the planet to visit according to Trip Advisor, outmuscling luminaries like Prague, London, and Istanbul.
Travellers flock here to see the historical Khmer jungle temples of Angkor Wat, but the busloads of foreigners arriving each day has not been entirely positive, with lack of infrastructure to cope with the crowds, traffic jams and damage to temples.
Fortunately, Beng Mealea, a hidden-away jungle temple that invokes the earlier, less-discovered days of Angkor, gives plenty of hope to the Indiana Jones in all of us.
Beng Mealea, which lies about 40km east of the main group of Angkor temples, is administered by the Apsara Authority, the governmental agency that oversees Angkor. But it is not considered part of the Angkor complex, and a separate admission ticket is needed – though the US$5 entry fee is a bargain compared to the US$37 presently asked for a one-day entrance to Angkor.
Coming out here feels miles removed from the trinket-lined roads leading into the more famous temple complex, where long lines form for buses, taxis and tuk tuks to enter under the bas-relief–covered gates. Until recently, Beng Mealea could only be accessed via a potholed, dusty road that was all but impassable during the rainy season. The road has been sealed over the past few years – although it’s still preferable to travel via private car than tuk tuk, as the journey can be bumpy.
The route passes men in krama (the traditional Khmer scarf) pedalling their bicycles, farmers on their oxcarts heading into the fields and children playing by the roadside. Although tour agencies have started to add Beng Mealea to some of their itineraries, the one-hour journey from Siem Reap deters many visitors – not to mention that most tourists barely have enough time during their visit to cover the temples at Angkor.
Built in the same architectural style as Angkor, Beng Mealea is presumed to have also been constructed during the reign of King Suryavaraman in the 12th Century, which makes it more than 900 years old. But although historians presume it to be related to the famous temples, little is known about the origins of the eerie, crumbling site. Hindu and a few Buddhist motif carvings have been uncovered, but few other indications of religion – or any inscriptions that might give away who built it – have been discovered.
Despite all this, Beng Mealea is an incredibly special place to visit. Composed of a series of galleries and libraries built around a central sanctuary and surrounded by a massive moat, the site looks as though an earthquake has struck it. Large stone bricks are all that remain of the tall buildings that once stood here, and nature has run riot. Strangler figs wrap around walls, moss grows out of every pore and crumbling blocks covered in lush, ultra-verdant vegetation have tumbled into one another.
But this forgotten, haunted look is precisely part of its appeal. On my last visit to Beng Mealea, I encountered an Indian couple crawling hand in hand through a tunnel of fallen blocks, agape when they emerged to find a towering temple wall crawling with vines above them. They told me it was their honeymoon, and covered in sweat and dust, they were glowing as if they’d just walked down the aisle.
Come in the early morning (before 9 am) to have Beng Mealea to yourself. A raised walkway, which mostly traverses areas around the outer moat, has been constructed recently for visitors to walk around the temple. But this route misses much of what makes Beng Mealea special, as the most impressive spots are hidden in the jungle.
Instead, ask to be guided by one of the entry staff, who, for a small tip, will lead you into the centre of the ruins. You’ll spend the next few hours clambering over verdant blocks and columns – through seemingly dead-end passages – and emerging out from stone chimneys to find temple areas smothered in tree roots and Ramayana carvings completely entwined by branches.
Inside the main sanctuary, where the most intact structures are found, large columned windows are taken over by vegetation. When I was there, a couple of kids tiptoed along the tottering blocks with their parents gingerly following, watching every step. It would be easy to twist an ankle or far worse here.
Ta Prohm, the famed jungle temple at Angkor, used to be like this. If you got there at sunrise, you were pretty much guaranteed to have the place to yourself. These days, however, Ta Prohm is an endless sea of tour bus passengers, with long queues forming at the most photogenic spots where the roots intertwine around temple columns. Due to both nature and human impact, many of the temples now have metal braces and supports on them, and access to some areas is forbidden.
Invariably, the same pitfalls may eventually change Beng Mealea; but for now, its location and access act as a wonderful deterrent to all but the most adventurous. Even better yet, the forces of nature will likely win out in the end, as the jungle consumes the temple, wrapping it up and keeping Beng Melea as mysterious as ever.
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