Siem Reap, Cambodia – Beng Mealea

[ 0 ] July 20, 2012 |

Our third and final day in Siem Reap was an incredibly full one.  Alison decided to attend a cooking class at Soujorn while JB and I joined up with Sokhom once again for another day of templing. First up on our agenda that day was an ancient quarry and the temple of Beng Mealea. Beng Mealea is a good 50 miles from Siem Reap and thus takes a dedicated trip to get to.

In a nutshell, Beng Mealea is an archeological jungle gym, completely untethered from any other temple experience you can imagine. Thoughts of Indian Jones pulse through your veins as you tumble through its rubble, over precariously placed stones, and under stone galleries that feel like they could collapse at any minute.  It’s a real-life chose your own adventure novel and my favorite Cambodian temple by far.

Archeological Jungle Gym

The site has been largely obscured from the traditional tourist route over the recent decades mainly because it is so darn hard to get to. However, in 2003 Beng Mealea was completely cleared of all land mines (that fact continues to blow me away!) and the circuitous red dirt road linking the temple with the rest of the Angkorian Region was finally beginning to be paved. Since this time traffic to Beng Mealea has certainly increase but is still nothing in comparison to the rest of the region. In fact we only saw two other people the entire morning (approx. 3 hours) we were there.

Taking Photos at Beng Mealea

Entrance to Beng Mealea

On the way to Beng Mealea, Sokhom asked us if we would like to stop at an ancient quarry. Bonus, we’re in. Half way to Beng Mealea we pulled off the road just before what seemed to be a tiny bridge covering a gentle creek below. Hiking down the embankment, the quarry came into focus. Water trickled over the sandstone below. Like the entire operation just closed down mid-shift yesterday, you could actually see large perpendicular gouges in the sandstone creek bead. Sokhom told us that there is no conclusive answer as to why they stopped using this quarry site but what is known is that it was in active use during the construction of Angkor Wat, making these cuts in the stone nearly a millennia old. Amazing!

Closeup of Gouges Made in the Sandstone Creek Bed at the Ancient Quarry

Girl Playing in the Quarry

Stone Cutting Stopped Mid-Progress

On the way back to the car we noticed that Sokhom was acting a little more somber than usual (or at least what we had become used to over the past couple days). Inquiring if anything was wrong, he simply said he is reminded of his late brother whenever he comes here. Sensing more to the story we gently prodded him for detail. During the rest of the car ride to Beng Mealea Sokhom told us about his brother.

His brother was a commanding officer of over a dozen soldiers fighting the Khmer Rouge in the late 70s. One day his brother’s squad was pinned down in the area a kilometer east of the quarry. After days of guerilla tactics and direct conflict, Sokhom’s brother was the last remaining soldier in his squad. Running for his life from Khmer Rouge soldiers he hid out in the quarry for one night before fleeing to the nearby temple of Beng Mealea. Narrowly escaping capture by the Khmer Rouge he camped out in Beng Mealea for the next week living on insects and anything else he could find.

Unique Insect Found at Beng Mealea

With that intense story setting the backdrop for our visit, we finally arrived at Beng Mealea. Looking around, we instantly realized why Sokhom’s brother had chosen this place as his safe haven. Truly the ultimate hiding spot, Beng Mealea is one of the largest temple complexes in all of Cambodia, second only to Angkor Wat in terms of size.

Graphic Depicting the Temple in its Original Design

Positioned deep in the heart of the Cambodian jungle without a protective moat surrounding it, the jungle quickly took over covering the entire site with layer upon layer of tree, vine, root and shrubbery until the existence of this temple’s sarcophagus was obscured from memory, even to the locals.

Tree That Has Grown Through the Wall

Interior of Beng Mealea

Interior Rubble

Tree Growing Atop Gallery

Vines Holding the Walls Together

After years of clearing land mines and vegetation alike, the site is now relatively visible while still in complete structural disarray. Stepping foot inside this place you truly understand why people call Beng Mealea the best kept secret in Cambodia. It is uncompromisingly raw. Despite the few walkways that have popped up in the past few years, 99% of the site is completely unfettered. Taking full advantage of this freedom, over the next few hours JB and I climbed over and under stone rubble, darted through collapsed buildings, scampered across rooftops, and crawled through dimly lit passageways. It was terrifying and magical in the same moment.

Walking the Roof Tops of Beng Mealea

Crawling Through the Rubble

Local Village Children Using the Temple as a Cut Through

Broken Gallery

More Rubble

More Rubble

Lotus Pond Outside Beng Mealea

Young Village Girls Playing around Beng Mealea

Window Covered With Vines

But like any Christmas morning, the giddiness eventually wanes once all the presents have been unwrapped. It was almost one in the afternoon and we decided we needed to press on if we wanted to catch the second faze of our day’s journey, the floating village of Kompong Phluk.



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Category: Blog, Cambodia, Destinations, Featured Posts, Pat's Blog

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