|Huy and Thom, my young guides, showed me the hidden treasures|
Beng Mealea is the Angkor people dream of. Unlike the central temples that are disappointingly crawling with tourists, these mysterious 12th century temple ruins, located less than two hours away from Siem Reap, remain wild, uncrowded and explorable – the way they were first discovered.
This temple was opened to visitors only five years ago, when the area was completely demined. Beng Mealea has a similar plan to Angkor Wat, and believed to have been built during the same period. For the most part not much is known about its history, even which Khmer royalty had it built. So there’s a wealth of things yet to be uncovered by archaeologists and visitors alike.
Moreover, it’s also an easy escape from touristy Siem Reap to see the laid-back Cambodian countryside, passing by broad stretches of farmland, rolling ox carts and waving villagers. On our way back, the incredible sunset was a perfectly shaped disc that lit up the countryside, rivaling the one we witnessed on the hilltop temple of Bakheng the day before.
|Strangled by the jungle and dappled in golden light, Beng Mealea is the Angkor we dream of.|
Two young boys from the village named Huy and Thom offered to show me the hidden treasures of the site. The causeway leading to the central galleries are guarded by beautiful sculptures of five and seven-headed nagas (mythological serpents), symbols of water, fertility and creation. Strewn amidst the rubble under the dappled light from the tree canopy, one can discover fallen lintels with bas-reliefs of scenes from Hindu mythology, decorative friezes, false doors, balustered windows, broken sarcophagi and unusual carvings of sultry apsaras (celestial dancers) cupping their breasts.
|A tree frog rests on the balustrade of the wooden walkway|
Unlike the trimmed down – almost landscaped – vegetation of Ta Prohm, made famous by the Angelina Jolie action flick, Tomb Raider, nature runs riot in these temples ruins. And this includes some wildlife. I spotted a tree frog resting on a balustrade, while my companion spotted a snake. I couldn’t agree more, as my travel companion later on mused, “This is the Angkor we came for.”
|Wooden walkways and platforms take visitors through some sections of the ruins|
HOW TO GET THERE: Located some 40 km from central Angkor, Beng Mealea is 1.5 to 2 hours away from Siem Reap town. We haggled for a tuk-tuk to take us there and back for USD 24 (i.e. USD 8 per head).
You don’t need the pricey tourist pass to visit Beng Mealea. Pay the separate entrance fee of only USD 5 at the entrance. To help you find your way through the ruins and spot the hidden attractions, I highly recommend hiring a local villager to show you around for USD 1.
WHERE TO STAY: Lots of budget options in Siem Reap town. See my previous post on the central temples of Angkor.