May 5th, 2010
Beng Mealea is supposed to be so offbeat that we were afraid it would be cognoscenti crowded. We started two hours before a normal tourist tour would start, a practice we religiously followed everyday. It was after a decade that I was riding a motor bike over a serious distance and I was driving the biggest bike I ever have. So after a few uncertain moments with the surprisingly disciplined traffic on the inner roads of Siem Reap, the 700cc Yamaha was hungrily eating Route 6 at over 80mph. We rode about 40KMs east of Siem Reap through many hamlets, fishing villages, paddy fields, groves and the wonderful Roluos ruins. I finally enjoyed a sweat free hour in Cambodia with the heat and humidity being compensated by the movement wind.
By 9:00 AM, we had pulled outside the entrance to the jungle temple of Beng Mealea. To much dismay, the parking lot had a couple of coaches which meant there were 100+ Japanese-Chinese-Korean-French milling around the ruins. Nathan read my furrowed brow and gave me a do-not-worry wink. I would soon know why.
One of the many ‘entrances’ you ‘can’ take …
While the crowd lined up for an entrance, I saw Nathan slip through what looked like a crack in the wall. I enthusiastically followed. We took took a sharp left, a sharp right, climbed over a gigantic piles of 800 year old rubble, ducked through an ancient window and emerged over an exotic courtyard.
That’s Beng Mealea!
An exotic courtyard
Very little is known about Beng Mealea. They don’t know who built it, or when or why, how it was used and why it collapsed. The style makes it a contemporary of Angkor Wat and hence can be comfortably dated mid to end 12th century. The temple has been extensively cleaned. It was only in late 2007 that the last of the landmines was defused.
Blind windows in the south passage. The temples were ‘palaces of the god” not a central meeting place for the faithful. The many blind doors and windows in Khmer temples, hence, were a requirement of form not the function.
A temple with very intricate carvings on the lintels. The monkey army depicted is probably Hanuman’s. Nothing else about this temple is known.
Time and again, you come across such a exquisitely carved piece lying amidst the rubble. My impulse tells me to bury it back lest it finds its way to the antique black market.
The remains of the central tower
Besides the eighty decades of extreme tropical wear and tear, the most popular theory for the destruction of the temple is the use of corbelling. Ancient Khmer architects did not know how to construct an arch. Hence they uses the structurally inferior and manpower intensive technique of stacking stones or bricks each layer jutting out a bit more to vault the ceiling. If one layer comes loose, the entire structure can collapse. Frighteningly, Angkor Wat has been built using the same corbelling.
We discussed snakes in Cambodia while crossing this delightfully under-lit intra-courtyard passage
If this dappled courtyard look familiar then you have seen the wonderful “Two Brothers”
A few spots had extensively built wooden ramps and steps. I thought these were to prevent the wear and tear caused by enthusiastic Indiana Jones wannabes. Only later did I realize that they were built for the staff of the movie Two Brothers.
Beng Mealea probably won’t see extensive restoration in the next few years, though it is a matter of a couple before it gets on the main tourist route. This presents a wonderful window of time to enjoy a fantastic cross between the Angkor plan and the Ta Prohm atmosphere. Already, another mysterious temple called Con Phluck has been discovered. Con Phluck will soon become the new Beng Mealea while Beng Mealea will become the new Ta Prohm.
Before new becomes the new old or vice versa, Beng Mealea is highly recommended.