Towering trees perched from temples ruins; their roots spilling over like tentacles over the crumbling walls. A maze of secret paths led to doorways hidden in the rubble. Faded carvings in concrete seemed to hide secret codes just waiting to be deciphered.
Exploring the jungle temple ruins of Beng Melea in Siem Reap felt like being thrown into a real life version of Tomb Raider or Uncharted. While temple-hopping around Cambodia, I could imagine the wonder video game adventurers like Lara Croft or Nathan Drake felt while searching for buried treasure and eventually stumbling upon a legendary lost city hidden from the world.
Of course, the temples in Siem Reap are hardly hidden. These have been the top tourist attractions in Cambodia for years. In the most popular temples like Angkor Wat, you’ll encounter hordes of other tourists that’ll make you feel like a noob entering a massively multiplayer online game. I think places like ancient temples and ruins are best appreciated without the crowds to really soak in the vibe. I don’t know about you but I’ve never liked multiplayer mode. My preference for single or coop 2-player mode goes for real life adventures as well.
According to tour guides, Beng Melea is one of the least visited Angkor temples, but it probably offers one of the most authentic experiences. Since its off the main temple circuit, gets less tourists and hasn’t undergone massive reconstruction, it still has that adventurous “lost temple” feel. While walking around there, Art and I felt like we had most of the place pretty much to ourselves.
Beng Melea is located 63 km east of Siem Reap and it takes about 1 to 2 hours to get here through graded dirt roads. Along the way, you can get a view of the rural side of Cambodia complete with rice paddies, countryside pagodas and secluded villages with traditional houses on stilts. Because of the distance and road conditions, we ended up hiring a tuktuk from our inn to take us there and back. I originally wanted to rent motorcycles to drive there ourselves, but apparently tourists are no longer allowed to rent motorcycles in Siem Reap unless they opt for (expensive) guided motorbike tours. The tuktuks here are motorcycles with a cabin attached to the back kalesa-style, which I found pretty cool.
Beng Melea (which means “lotus pond”) is a sprawling jungle temple made up of a maze of wooden walkways and bridges covering over one square kilometer. From the entrance, a long paved path flanked with with statues of snakes leads to a structure that appears to be a huge pile of rubble partially hidden in the trees. Once you get closer the high walls, the ancient Khmer Architecture reveals itself.
According to the handy temple guide handed out at our guesthouse, Beng Melea was constructed in the early 11th century under the same king that built Angkor Wat, which explains their similar style. In fact, this temple preceded and may have served as a prototype of sorts for Angkor Wat. However, it was one of the last major temples to be rediscovered. Unlike major temples which have been reconstructed to accommodate the influx of tourists, Beng Melea remains serenely nestled in its jungle surroundings and has been left mostly as it was found.
When the temple was active, the walls were said to have been covered, painted or had frescos. In its time, Beng Melea was the crossroads of several major highways that ran to Angkor, Koh Ker, Preah Vihear (in northern Cambodia) and northern Vietnam. Now, most of it lies in ruins and is largely overrun by vegetation. Though there are some moss-covered lintel and doorway carvings, Beng Melea is not known for bas reliefs and the carvings are comparatively sparse.
It does, however, have many trees growing out from broken towers and galleries and some pretty dramatic looking doorways and windows, which offer awesome photo opportunities.
In the next few days, we would be exploring the main temples of Angkor Archaeological Park by bikes and encountering smaller ruins with RPG-worthy names like “Terrace of the Leper King,” “Gate of the Dead” and “The Mountain with Golden Peaks.” But of all the places we visited, this spectacular jungle temple was definitely one of my favorites.
TRAVEL TIPS AND USEFUL INFO:
- Dress for a tropical environment. It’s very warm, humid and sunny there. Good walking shoes are a must.
- Things to bring: drinking water, a hat, shades & headware you can use as a facemask for the ride because the road is very dusty.
- Admission fee to to Beng Melea costs $5/person. The Angkor Pass (used to visit the main temples) does not cover Beng Melea.
- Most people combine visits to Beng Melea with Koh Ker (entrance fee: $10), another remote archaeological site in Cambodia dominated by a seven-tiered pyramid.
- Tutktuks charge an average of $35-40 (depending on the season) to bring you to Beng Melea and back, which includes the cost of gas/petrol.
- Because of the travel time, you’ll need to allot a whole day to reach this temple, spend adequate time to look around and return to Siem Reap.
- After you visit this temple, you can use the time in the late afternoon to buy your passes/tickets for the main temples in Angkor Park. Tickets for the next day are sold at 5:45 pm. Sunset viewing in Angkor Wat is free to the public.