I arrived in the small township of Beng Mealea around 5.30pm, fresh from experiencing the temple complex of Koh Ker. First step was finding somewhere to sleep. Some online research turned up exactly one option - Sreymom Beng Mealea Homestay, around 800m east of the temple. 10 calls had gone unanswered over the previous two days so I was a little concerned. We were in the midst of the Pchum Ben holiday, where Cambodians paid respects to their ancestors. What if they had closed so they could head to another village? No one seemed to know of the homestay but I kept walking, conscious it was my only option. Finally, the guesthouse name evoked some recognition with a passer-by - “Jump on my bike, I'll take you.” Promising! A few minutes later we were there and my worries subsided. Sreymom herself was in Siem Reap but her affable brother was running the show in her absence. As it turned out, I was the only guest (maybe something to do with there being zero options to book, other than just turning up?) and what I experienced was the most amazing hospitality. Four generations of the family were gathered around the guesthouse, talking and laughing, cooking, children playing. 11-year-old Soteata was most interested in the foreigner – she was learning English and now she had a native speaker to practice it with! A delicious meal of beef and vegetable soup, with plenty of bread to soak it up with, and my drained batteries began to replenish.
By 8pm I was exhausted so I collapsed into my bed, which I should mention was the most comfortable bed I'd been in for a long time.
I rose early at 6.30pm, conscious of the importance of getting to Beng Mealea before the tour-bus rush. I arrived at 8am, and soon discovered I had the temple almost to myself, with just a few locals gathered around the entrance. Curiously, one local not to be found was the one who was supposed to check my ticket.
Beng Mealea (meaning “lotus pond”) dates from the early 12th century. It is thought to have been built during the reign of Suryavarman II, he of Angkor Wat fame. Because of this, much of the imagery that remains is Hindu. It is a huge structure, with the outer wall measuring 181m x 152m, making it one of the largest temples in this part of Cambodia. Most of the structures are built from sandstone, quarried from nearby Phnom Kulen, and laterite.
What I found over the next 4 hours amazed me. The temple is almost completely unrestored. Walls and buildings have collapsed over the centuries through the sheer power of nature. But what makes it truly special is that it is still almost entirely surrounded by jungle. Some of the trees have been cleared to allow restoration efforts but the overwhelming imagery is one of green. What once would have been a largely featureless landscape dominated by this magnificent temple complex has, over the centuries, seen the jungle claim back what once would have been it’s own. Tiny seeds fell between cracks in the stones; within decades, the growing tree slowly forced the stones apart, eventually toppling them. Nowhere is this more evident than the central tower – what would have once towered over the rest of the temple now lies in a giant pile of rubble.
A wooden walkway has been built over part of the temple, giving a unique view not found at other temples in the area. The outer courtyards are free to explore at ground level though; several small buildings still remain, the most notable being the library in the northeast corner. As it was the nearing the end of the rainy session, several pools provided reflections of these ancient buildings.
Most tours spend little more than an hour here. One of the reasons I decided to visit Beng Mealea and Koh Ker independently was the need for more time – this is the kind of place I don't like to be rushed. My lengthy stay was rewarded in another way - as the hours passed, the sunlight filtered through the trees in everchanging hues. What was in shade when I arrived was soon bathed in sunlight. The lichen-covered stones strewn everywhere changed from a dull green to a lustrous shade the colour of a pool table baize.
A little after 9am, the crowds started to arrive. But being Cambodia in the rainy season, crowds meant 3-4 tour groups plus a few private tours. Nonetheless, I was grateful for my hour of solitude in such a special place. Although the crowds were small, the tranquil atmosphere was gone, replaced by selfie sticks, umbrellas and guides brandishing microphones and speakers.
As 11am approached, the crowds started to dissipate. This vindicated my decision to visit Beng Mealea independently; little more than an hour is not enough time to do Beng Mealea justice.
At this point, it was time to grab lunch and head back to Siem Reap. But this isn't the end of the story. Getting back from Beng Mealea was always going to be the tight spot in my itinerary. I knew I could wait for the AVT bus but that was still a distant 6 hours away.
This is where the legendary Khmer hospitality comes into play. I'd eaten a tasty lok lak at a restaurant on the main road near the west entrance. I asked the staff about transport options; the restaurant owner then gestured me outside and then grabbed a couple of chairs, one for her and one for me, and a large basket of pears. She then multi-tasked for the next hour, selling pears to passers by, while waving at every car and van that passed. For over an hour, no one stopped. Finally a car slowed and stopped. He was only heading as far as Damdek but that was enough for me, Damdek is on a major junction and it proved easy to find a local bus. I was back in Siem Reap by 5pm, enough time for a swim in my hostel pool and a cold beer over which I could reflect on my trip to two of Cambodia's historical masterpieces.