Cambodia's hidden jungle temple
Maybe you've heard of Angkor Wat. But do you know about Beng Mealea?
Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Beng Mealea, Cambodia.
Beng Mealea "gives plenty of hope to the Indiana Jones in all of us," said Dave Stamboulis at BBC. A half-hidden 12th-century temple located just 25 miles from Angkor Wat, it attracts none of the traffic jams, tourist buses, or trinket sellers associated with the more famous religious site, and it has a "forgotten, haunted look" that can make any visitor feel as if no one has wandered its grounds in generations. Until recently, Beng Mealea could only be reached by way of a dusty, potholed jungle road. Though the road has now been paved, the temple's out-of-the-way location still acts as "a wonderful deterrent to all but the most adventurous."
On the one-hour drive from Siem Reap, my taxi passes farmers on oxcarts, children playing by the roadside, and men on bicycles wearing krama, the traditional Khmer scarf. Like Angkor, which was built in the same style at roughly the same time, Beng Mealea is surrounded by a large moat. This place, however, "looks as though an earthquake has struck it." Some large structures still stand, but many have collapsed into piles of large stone blocks, and "nature has run riot." A recently built raised walkway lets visitors circle the site at a slight remove, but that approach "misses much of what makes Beng Mealea special."
To really explore, ask to be guided by a member of the entry staff, who for a tip will lead you into the heart of the ruins. "You'll spend the next few hours clambering over verdant blocks and columns — through seemingly dead-end passages — and emerging from stone chimneys to find temple areas smothered in tree roots." During my last such excursion, I watched an Indian couple crawl hand in hand through a tunnel of fallen blocks, "agape when they emerged to find a towering temple wall crawling with vines above them." They were honeymooners, and though they were covered in sweat and dust, "they were glowing as if they'd just walked down the aisle."