It used to be a joy to visit the jungle temple of Ta Prohm in Siem Reap, with its famed Angkorian columns suffocated by twisting and turning tree roots that had taken over the temple. In the early morning light, it was a photographer’s dream and a playground for In-diana Jones wannabe’s. But a year spent as the #2 destination in the world on Trip Advi-sor, mega busloads of Chinese wealth on a daily basis, and a UNESCO decision to chainsaw the trees which were crushing the temple, not to mention the erection of steel braces to support the ancient ruins, has basically left those who remember the good old days with only memories. And then there is Beng Mealea.
Beng Mealea is a temple complex that only recently started getting a lot of press. Lying over an hour’s drive from Angkor, on what until recently was an old-school Cambodia road, full of red dust, giant potholes, and all but impassable during the rains, this was ac-tually the site where they filmed Tomb Raiders, and makes Ta Prohm look like overdevel-oped civilisation. While the road to Beng Melea has been upgraded and the busloads of Chinese have added it to their touring itineraries, it still remains like the Angkor of old, and if you get in early and are willing to get a bit dirty, you’re in for a massive treat.
Photographers are early risers, and my companion Rajesh nudged me awake at 6am, dusting off his lenses and giving last minute instructions to Mr. Khun, our driver for the day. We were soon on the road to Beng Mealea, figuring we’d have about an hour and a half before the groups started to filter in. Khun had advised us that if we got there early, the security guards who checked tickets were actually keen to make a bit of pocket mon-ey, and were willing to abandon their posts in favor of taking us through the ruins via the routes well less travelled, which sounded exactly like what we had in mind.
Travelling through the countryside, there are fantastic rural scenes that make it worth-while to stop a few minutes to grab some shots. Farmers working in their fields, kids with large smiles riding ox-carts, and men wrapped in krama scarfs for protection against the hot sun, all make for a great lens warmup, not to mention the tuk tuks or motorbikes glow-ing in the dust rays sprayed up by passing cars, certainly unpleasant for their riders, and yet incredibly picturesque.
Beng Mealea is presumably related to Angkor, as it was built in the same architectural style, but other than this, little is known about the jungle temple. Scholars say it was built during the king Suryavarman reign in the 12th century, making it over 900 years old. Covered with mainly Hindu with a smattering of Buddhist carvings, It’s composed of a se-ries of libraries and galleries that surround a central sanctuary, but as opposed to the re-stored and preserved temples of Angkor, Beng Mealea is a diamond in the rough. Col-lapsed building blocks sit covered with green moss, and trees and branches wrap them-selves around walls and doors, and while the Apsara Authority has recently put a raised boardwalk around the sanctuaries for tourists to walk through, the place still feels like the perfect spot for an epic ghost story.
The early bird does get the worm, and we are the first ones to arrive. Heading down a path of uneven stones guarded by a pair of broken Naga serpents, a skinny man with a badge and official looking shirt jumps out of the bushes and checks our tickets. While he makes no offer to guide us, he looks at our cameras and points towards a gap in the stone wall above us, and quietly says, “you can go temple from there.” I clamber up, with Rajesh in tow, and we are soon on what appears to be the top of a moat. Our guide to be has silent-ly come up behind us, and he points off to the right, towards what looks like a dead end, and says, “you can go through there.”
Soon he has us clambering over moss covered building blocks and through seemingly dead end passages, and I’m wondering if we won’t be needing helmets and protective gear for our cameras as well, as the terrain gets sketchier by the minute. On the uneven (and often vertical) terrain, it would be easy to twist an ankle or far worse, and Cambodia isn’t exactly renowned for its medical services.
At Beng Mealea, much of the inner sanctuary is composed of crumbled stone, lichen, and dark slippery passages to crawl through, rendering it a living version of Indiana Jones. It gets even more Hollywood-esque when one emerges out of seemingly dead ends to find completely intact temple areas still standing, smothered in tree roots, with Ramayana fig-ures entwined by branches. Emerging into the amazing courtyards feeling like discover-ers of old, our ticket-taker guide just stands there with a wry smile on his face as if to say, “I told you so.”
After a few hours of full body exploration, we are soaked, dehydrated, and well exhaust-ed, and we start to hear lots of loud bickering in the nearby forest. Leading us down a nar-row ledge, our guide puts a finger to his lips, and we look down to see that we’ve emerged above the wooden walkway that leads around the temple complex. Below are the first waves of Chinese tour busloads that have now added Beng Mealea to their morning circuits.
With the stillness broken and our memory cards almost depleted, our guide whispers that he has go back to the entrance, a subdued way of telling us that the show is over. We slip him a few notes in appreciation, to which he beams a large smile at, and he points at a seemingly impossible to descend narrow column which he says we should take to get back on the main route. We clamber down through a chimney of stone, and sure enough, at the bottom, a small passage leads out into the sun, where there is one of the best pre-served temple columns to be found in the complex. As the hordes start to descend, we figure it’s time to go find Mr. Khun and head to Koh Ker, another reputedly untrammelled Angkorian gem that is off the beaten track.
Getting to Beng Mealea is quite easy these days, but it’s best to have a driver who knows the backroads well.
Contact Mr. Khun at 012 60 97 65 or else arrange a driver from the Rambutan Resort in Siem Reap, which besides being one of Siem Reap’s best stays, has an excellent tour program with top notch drivers.