Beng Mealea, as we call it today, remains shrouded in mystery. Despite its large size, it’s not mentioned in any of the Khmer Empire’s inscriptions. Therefore, we don’t know when it was built, or by whom. The temple has been left unrestored, with parts of it having merged with the jungle. All of these enigmatic factors combined make this one of Cambodia’s most intriguing temples.
Despite the lack of inscriptions, experts generally agree that Beng Mealea was built in the 12th century, around the same time as Angkor Wat. In fact, the layouts of the two temples are almost identical! Beng Mealea, however, is not pyramidal but flat. Scholars, therefore, think that it was either an earlier inspiration for, or a later tribute to, Angkor Wat.
Beng Mealea, and the city surrounding its central temple, would’ve been quite prosperous in its day. Located roughly 40 kilometers from Siem Reap/Angkor, the temple-city was once situated on an ancient road connecting it with the major eastern outpost of Preah Khan of Kampong Svay. It was also located nearby the stone quarries of Mt. Kulen. Hardly any sculptures remain, however, and to this day we don’t even know which deity the temple’s main idol represented. Beng Mealea’s isolated location, unfortunately, has made it especially susceptible to looters.
If you enjoy unrestored temples such as Ta Prohm, but are looking for somewhere a little less crowded, Beng Mealea may be worth the day trip from Siem Reap. Though free exploration is prohibited for safety reasons, the recently installed elevated walkway offers a unique overhead perspective of the temple – or at least what’s left of it.
Visiting the temple
Though the temple was built facing east like most Khmer temples, visitors today must enter from the south. Approaching the temple, you’ll encounter a long naga balustrade. As with many Khmer temples, there were four of these coming out of each side of the temple. Around 500 meters east of the temple was a baray, or artificial reservoir, that has long since dried up.
Along the balustrade, you’ll find some seven-headed naga statues, one of which is in especially pristine condition. It’s so detailed and well-preserved, in fact, that it even looks like a modern replica. But it’s just as old as the temple, having long been buried underground until it was discovered in 2009. That kept it safe from the elements, as well as looters.
Approaching the temple, visitors are first greeted with a large pile of bricks in front of an ancient entrance gate. While these gates were typically built to connect walls, no traces of the outermost enclosure exists, leading experts to conclude that it was probably made of wood.
Obviously, this gate can’t be entered, so you’ll want to make your way to the southeastern portion of the temple where you’ll find the beginning of the elevated walkway.
As with all Khmer temples, Beng Mealea features a plenty of lintel and pediment carvings, though there are likely a lot more waiting to be discovered beneath the rubble. You’ll find common scenes from Hindu mythology, such as the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk‘ and Krishna lifting up Mt. Govardhana. There’s even a rare depiction of Yama, the god of death, on his rhinoceros. And some of the more elaborate scenes depict the ordeals of Sita, Rama’s wife in the Ramayana epic.
While it’s not exactly clear which, some scholars believe that certain carvings at Beng Mealea are Buddhist in nature. Could these have been added later, or were they part of the original temple? The case of the latter may indicate that Beng Mealea was built sometime after Angkor Wat. It could’ve been one of the few temples commissioned by Dharanindravarman II, father of the legendary ruler, and staunch Buddhist, Jayavarman VII. Dharanindravarman II himself was Buddhist but didn’t attempt to radically change the very core of Angkorian religion (and architecture) as his son would.
As you walk down the wooden walkway, take a few moments to take in the serenity of the atmosphere. That is, if you’re lucky enough to get there in between tour groups. While Beng Mealea has long been touted for its “romanticism” and isolation, the temple is far from secret nowadays.
Of the major temples outside of Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park, this one is the closest. Its proximity to Angkor, unfortunately, has led it to become a regular stop for large and noisy tour groups. While the pictures don’t show it, I had to contend for space along the narrow walkways with two large groups during my visit. On the bright side, there were plenty of things to look at as I waited patiently for people to finish up their selfies.
While much of it’s in total ruin, Beng Mealea shares a few noticeable features in common with the Angkor Wat style of architecture. As mentioned above, the floor plans were strikingly similar. But you’ll also notice things like the baluster windows which greatly resemble those of Angkor Wat’s galleries and hallways.
The pre-determined path also allows visitors to walk through one the temples darkened hallways. There are no detailed bas-relief carvings here or at any other part of the temple, however.
Just like at Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea also had a couple of ‘libraries.’ These were free-standing structures within temple complexes whose true function are up for debate. They may have housed old manuscripts, similar to the ho trai of Buddhist temples in Thailand, for example. Or, they may have been used to house special rituals distinct from those held in the prasat sanctuaries, such as worship of the planetary deities or of Agni, the fire god.
Speaking of Beng Mealea’s central sanctuary, it’s currently nothing but a big pile of stone. It was likely destroyed deliberately by looters. One wonders, then, what prestigious museums around the world might be in possession of those sculptures? Maybe one day we’ll learn more about this temple after its central idol gets identified. Or perhaps not.
Heading back through the dark hallway, you’ll likely come across some other vantage points that you haven’t seen yet. While the wooden walkway may limit your ability for free exploration, it does have a plus side (aside from keeping you safe, of course). At some points, the walkway’s height gives visitors an overhead view that simply isn’t available at other temples in Angkor. It’s almost like getting to see the temple ruins through the eyes of a drone, which makes visiting Beng Mealea a completely unique experience.
Exiting the temple, you can discover a few more things by walking around the perimeter. The southeast corner of the temple contains a prasat, seemingly the only one still remaining. According to the old sketches by 19th-century explorer Louis Delaporte, Beng Mealea once contained up to 11 prasats.
Though it stands atop a pile of rubble, you can still clearly see its intricate apsara decorations which adorn each corner. As they’re similar in style to those of Angkor Wat, the apsara carvings are another feature that have led archaeologists to link the two temples. Unfortunately, though, some of the apsaras have been damaged by looters just recently.
Walking a little further, you’ll see yet another naga balustrade and even a small part of the original moat that once surrounded the temple. Originally, Beng Mealea would’ve had a functioning city based around the central temple. The area within the moat, then, would’ve once been a lively scene of outdoor markets and residents going about their daily lives.
The old wooden houses of these former residents, of course, are no longer with us. And their chatter has since been replaced by the shouting of tour group leaders. But in those occasional moments of relative silence, at least, Beng Mealea is the perfect place to listen to the sounds of the jungle as you let your imagination wander.
Is Beng Mealea Worth Visiting?
Beng Mealea’s seclusion has long been one of its main selling points. Now that the temple is just another stop on the tour group circuit, is still worth visiting? Yes and no. A lot depends on your schedule, budget, and what else you’ve already seen – either in Angkor itself or among Cambodia’s other outlying temples.
If, for instance, you’re debating whether to use a remaining day on your Angkor Archaeological Park pass or to make a day trip to Beng Mealea instead, there are a few things you should consider. While the other popular ‘romantic’ temple of Ta Prohm is overrun with tourists at all hours of the day, you can still visit nearby Preah Khan to get a similar ‘jungly’ atmosphere with fewer people.
And if you’re mainly interested in seeing more temples in the ‘Angkor Wat style’ of architecture (aside, of course, from Angkor Wat itself) there’s Banteay Samre. It’s a little far away from the central Angkor temples but still accessible with your park pass. It’s also in a much better state of preservation than Beng Mealea and gets fewer tourists. It lacks the jungle atmosphere, however.
If you’ve already seen most of the temples of Angkor Archaeological Park and want a taste of something more, then you’ll surely enjoy Beng Mealea. It’s not as fascinating (in my opinion) as other outlying temples like Koh Ker, Preah Vihear or even Banteay Chhmar, but its proximity to Siem Reap still makes it a fun and relatively cheap day trip.
I saw Beng Mealea on my way back from Koh Ker as part of a three-day outlying temple tour that I highly recommend trying if you have the time (see more below).
Beng Mealea is not part of your Angkor Archaeological Pass and requires a separate admission fee of $10.
Like all other outlying temples, no public transportation goes there. Your best bet is to hire a private taxi or tuk tuk from Siem Reap and return the same day. From the city, it takes a little under 2 hours each way. You should be able to arrange round-trip transportation for roughly $40.
Or, if you have a few days to spare, try seeing nearly all of the spectacular outlying temples for around $300 (see below).
As amazing as the Angkor Archaeological Park is, Cambodia as a whole contains several other significant temple ruins that are absolutely worth the visit.
These include Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Beng Mealea and Banteay Chmar.
The problem is, though, that these temples are far from easy or cheap to get to. Furthermore, some of them are just a little too far for a single day trip from Siem Reap. And while you may be able to find a private bus or shared minivan from Siem Reap to the town closest to a particular temple, you’ll then have to negotiate with local taxi drivers each time.
To save yourself time, money and uncertainty, I’d highly recommend you hire a private driver from Siem Reap to take you on a 3 day, 2 night temple tour.
The itinerary goes something like this: Depart from Siem Reap in the morning and begin at Sambor Prei Kuk. If time allows, also stop at the nearby Phnom Santuk, which is not a Khmer ruin but still worth a visit.
Spend the night in the city of Kampong Thom. Depart early the next morning to visit Preah Khan of Kampong Svay (not to be confused with Angkor’s Preah Khan) and its outlying temples. Head north, and if time allows, visit Preah Vihear before it closes in the evening. Then spend the night in the town of Sra’aem.
Next morning, head to Koh Ker (or Preah Vihear first if you couldn’t make it the previous day). Finally, on your way back, stop at Beng Mealea.
You should be able to arrange a driver, with the help of your hotel, for the above route for around $300 USD. It sounds expensive, and it is, but it’s actually cheaper and much more viable than visiting all these temples separately from Siem Reap. None of the temples listed above are directly accessible via public transport, and group tours from the city don’t go to them, except for maybe Beng Mealea.
A hotel in these towns should cost $10-15, while the temples themselves cost around $5-10 each.
Because of its location, you wouldn’t be able to include Banteay Chmar on this three-day trip. You’d have to make that a separate excursion, but luckily it’s fairly easy and cheap to reach with public and private transport.
You can check this web site for more in depth articles on each of the temples listed above.