With a similar overgrown feel to Ta Phrom, the atmosphere at Beng Mealea (which means Lotus Pond) is like no other — don’t be surprised to see Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones on site. Badly ruined in places, an elevated wooden walkway has been built throughout the crumbled central sanctuary which makes it more accessible and also allows for some rather unusual elevated views you wouldn’t otherwise be able to enjoy.
Sadly looters did a fair degree of damage here. Similar in scale to Angkor Wat, the temple has largely collapsed in on itself. We were told the central tower was dynamited in order to get at certain pieces for private collectors. Many pieces lay atop one another in chaotic piles of moss and lichen covered stone, but upon closer inspection you’ll see many a decorative piece among the bare building blocks. The naga balustrade is well preserved thanks to the fact it lay underground — unharmed — until 2009.
The dates of the temple’s construction and which king it is attributed to is unknown. Some have described it as a blueprint for Angkor Wat or a ‘flat’ version of Angkor Wat; others suggest it was built after. This simple adds to its air of mystery.
With ever-increasing tourist numbers to Cambodia, Beng Mealea is no longer the same deserted, jungle-clad ruin it once was — despite only being re-opened to tourists in the early 2000s following years of mine clearance. Nonetheless, its twisting tree roots and eerie crumbling stones still retain a feeling of adventure. The tour bus groups tend to stick to the wooden walkways, all following the same route. You don’t need to. Clamber over ruins and you’ll be sure to find quiet, tucked-away corners you can enjoy to yourself. If you arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon – out of sync with the main tour groups – the place is simply serene and great fun for keen photographers.
Beng Mealea is not covered by the Angkor Pass and there’s an admission fee of $5 to enter, though unlike Phnom Kulen it is undoubtedly worth it. There is a ticket office before Beng Mealea which provides Western-style bathroom facilities. There are also a handful of local restaurants in front on Beng Mealea with slightly inflated prices for tourists.
To get to Beng Mealea it is possible to travel by tuk tuk and take the backroads through the countryside (though that can get dusty!) for the some 80 kilometre journey. We’ve tried it out by bike (there and back) and stayed in the one homestay in the village – but it’s signless, nobody speaks English and the restaurants all close around 18:00. So if you want to get active we recommend using a locally based operator like Grasshopper Adventures which offers the trip as a one-day tour – they drive you back.
The best option is by car, required if combined with more remote temple Koh Ker for a one-day trip from Siem Reap. Alternatively Beng Mealea combines well with Banteay Srei and/or Phnom Kulen due to the location of these sites, which lay outside the central Angkor Park.