A visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park will afford you one stunning view after another. You could hire a tuk-tuk every day for a week and still not get around to seeing all the hidden temples surrounding Angkor Wat. For some of us, however, simply looking and seeing is not enough.
If you are able-bodied, an excursion to Beng Mealea will afford you the opportunity to delve deeper and really scramble around a very, very old temple largely devoid of obtrusive signs of restoration. Simply put, visiting Beng Mealea [lotus pond in Khmer] is more of an activity than just a pretty sight to see.
Beng Mealea temple stands alone about 40 kilometers east of the main group of Angkor temples. Almost twice as far from town center and most Siem Reap hotels, this hidden gem lies along the ancient royal highway to Preah Khan Kompong Svay. The road was largely impassable until recent renovations. Now the hour-long trek is primarily paved road and well worth the journey. Beng Mealea was only added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 1992, and its relative obscurity coupled with the distance from town and the bad roads kept the crowds at bay.
“If you want a blank spot on the map, you gotta leave the map behind.”
― Jon Krakauer
Beng Mealea is not only the most interactive temple, with crumbling stone blocks acting as stairs to the temple’s many subterranean chambers, but it is also the most fun temple to explore. This nearly thousand-year-old temple covers several acres of jungle terrain and is made up of a handful of libraries and courtyards.
The ancient entrance is the first thing you see when you leave the road and is the most visually arresting view of the temple. What’s left is a heap of enormous mossy stone blocks very loosely retaining the shape of the original entrance – and it makes for a stunning walk up.
How’s Beng Mealea different?
Unlike many other Angkor temples, Beng Mealea has not been fortified or rehabilitated. This means getting in and around the temple is a hands-on activity. Piles of stone rubble litter the courtyard and lie haphazardly throughout the site. Vegetation runs amok. Gorgeous mosses cover large swaths of stone, and tiny saplings popping up from minuscule cracks have turned into full-grown trees wending their way around and through the ancient ruins.
How do I get in?
The temple’s crumbling structure makes traversing the site a bit tricky if you don’t know how to get around. Lucky for you the temple’s increasing popularity has created jobs for a handful of locals in the form of temple guides. They hang around the entrance to the temples and, although they don’t speak much English, they can show you exactly where to step and exactly where not to step. They know how to get into the darkest corners of the temple and they know where to stand to get the best views of the interior.
How much time do I need?
Be prepared to spend an hour in transit on the way there and back. You could easily spend a few hours exploring the temple and surrounding fields, so visiting Beng Mealea makes for an excellent day trip. You can be back in Siem Reap for a late lunch and a quick cat nap before heading back out to see an evening show like Phare, the Cambodian Circus or a Beatocello concert. Held every Saturday night at 7pm. Dr. Beat performs on his beloved cello in addition to showing a film about his work in Cambodia and speaking on the medical issues affecting children in Cambodia. The show is free but of course, very entertaining and educational.
A word for the wise: Although Beng Mealea isn’t in great shape the main walls of the temple still do a pretty good job keeping any breezes at bay. Exploring the site gets very warm – especially in the dry season and especially in the middle of the day. If you can, visit Beng Mealea in the low season and whenever you go, be sure to visit as early in the day as your schedule permits. Scrambling around under the midday sun can be punishing. Bring a water bottle and buy a coconut at the shops across from the temple entrance. Coconut water is both hydrating and delicious.