Beng Mealea temple, Cambodia
The crowds who come to Cambodia’s Angkor region are spoiled for choice when it comes to temples to visit. Within kilometres of the tourist town of Siem Reap are dozens of sites which can take days to explore. It’s no great surprise that visitors feel there’s enough to see without venturing too far – and fair enough, a lot of these people don’t have much time to spare.
But the Angkor region is by far the biggest tourist drawcard in Cambodia and now attracts about two million people a year. So it’s hard to escape the tourist masses and find a site less trodden. That’s why the trip to Beng Mealea is so worthwhile.
An hour in the car from Siem Reap Is all it takes to discover a temple far from the crowds and in such a state that you can believe you are the first to find it, hidden and lost in the Cambodian jungle.
I arrive in the late afternoon with a guide and two other tourists. We are literally the only people here. The sun at this time of the day is low in the sky and is casting an orange hue across the land. But the colour is struggling to break through the trees. In the years Beng Mealea was abandoned, nature took its course and the whole site has been overrun by plants. Trees grow out of stone, vines are wrapped around gateways, and roots have stretched through walls. Combined with the parts of the temple which have collapsed from neglect, it creates a sense of romantic rustic ruins.
Exploring the site is an adventure in itself. To access the best parts, you need to climb over piles or stones, scramble up walls and swing around trees. This is not Tombraider – this is the real deal. As my guide, San Park, puts it – you need to “rock and roll”.
Each new challenge – whether it be clambering up an over a collapsed wall or edging your way along a ledge – reveals a new section of the temple. Beng Mealea is as large as the central part of Angkor Wat and is about 200 metres on each side. It’s a large site which seems even bigger when each step needs to be carefully negotiated to prevent a fall.
The beauty of dilapidation is the charm of the time spent amongst the trees and the piles of standstone. It was not long ago that a new road made Beng Mealea more accessible but it’s still not on the short-term visitor’s radar. Tour buses do come out here in the morning but there is certainly not a regular stream of travellers.
It’s without a doubt worth the trip out here, though. The road will almost certainly become more travelled as the temples around Angkor get more and more crowded and the discerning tourist looks for more peaceful alternatives.
Where should you stay in Siem Reap?
If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the Onederz Hostel which is clean and modern.
For something affordable but comfortable, Central Privilege Hotel is a great place.
For good value luxury, you should try the Moon Residence and Spa with a pool and large rooms.
And if you want to really splurge for somewhere incredible, have a look at Phum Baitang.