The tumbled ruins of Beng Mealea, on the verge of being reclaimed by the jungle, are remote, peaceful and very atmospheric. One of our favourite temples.
Beng Mealea was included in our itinerary by special request - we wanted to visit a really remote site, where few other people get to. Beng Mealea certainly satisfied all our criteria.
We started at 7 a.m. as it is a two hour drive to get there, but the drive is very interesting, through towns and villages. We passed many stilt houses with huge jars outside, especially in the countryside; these are used to collect rainwater for the dry season.
Beng Mealea is a chaotic ruin, though much also remains standing, probably built around the same time as Angkor Wat. It is also vast, covering 108 hectares and once surrounded by a 45m wide moat.1 The remains of the moat can still be seen, a grassy stretch which still fills with water in the wet season.
Though, as usual, the main entrance is on the east side, we approached from the south, along a broad road with naga balustrades.
The temple has three enclosures, two "libraries" north and south of the east entrance between the second and third enclosure walls, and, unusually, two annexes either side of the causeway linking the south gopuras of the second and third enclosures. Within the first enclosure are two smaller libraries
The attraction of Beng Mealea is not in identifying the component parts, however, or admiring fine carving (of which little remains) but in its atmosphere of jungle ruin.
From the sunny dappled entrance we ventured into the tree-shrouded ruins, a temple slowly crumbling under the forces of nature but still redolent with the grandeur of what once was here.
A wooden walkway has been constructed to help visitors navigate the more tumultuous areas of the ruins.
I don't know how many people visit here, we were the first of the day and had it pretty much to ourselves. A group of Cambodians, who our guide said were attending a local wedding, marched in convoy at some speed straight through the ruins, barely pausing for breath!
Our guide told us that 700-800 guests can be invited to a traditional wedding, so it is very expensive, but each guest will give money, typically $20. However, the drawback is that the invitation is reciprocated by all your guests to their family weddings, and you are expected to give a bit more back!
We made our way through the centre of the first enclosure, the most sacred area, and out into the wider space of the third enclosure, then west and south around the ruins, spotting beautiful carved decoration, some gripped by trees, graceful female figures, and passing multitudes of tumbled stone.