If the main Angkor Wat temple complex is all you see, you’d be missing out.
The Angkor Wat temples are what everyone in Siem Reap has traveled for, and there’s a reason. But if the main temple complex is all you see, you’d be missing out. When I traveled to Cambodia, I had an extra day in Siem Reap – too little time to add another spot on the itinerary, but enough that I wanted something different from another tour of the main temples, spectacular as they were. I settled on a tour of Beng Melea, one of the outer temples billed as the “true” jungle temple. Tour company websites promised my very own “Indiana Jones” experience.
At just an hour and a half outside Siem Reap, it’s hardly off the beaten path, but still a world away. Beng Melea – its name means “lotus pond” – is a Hindu temple along the ancient royal highway that was relatively inaccessible until the road to the Koh Ker temple complex was recently constructed. This is what the Angkor temples would look like if left to nature, and while permitting the jungle to slowly overtake Beng Melea may seem like an odd tourism strategy, there’s something strangely beautiful about it. The only restoration that’s gone on was the installation of a few walkways over the most treacherous parts of the temple ruins, and removal of the landmines (though you can still see the markers of where they once were.)
Much of the temple now lies in mountains of rubble around the outer and middle corridors, and the main shrine, now a towering mound of rock, leaves much to the imagination. Still, the fragments that emerge, preserved, from the rubble, mingled with ruinous roots slowly reclaiming the temple and returning the forest to its natural state, make you feel as if you’re discovering it for the first time in centuries, particularly as you clamber over the loose rocks, free to explore the site as you choose. It’s almost unimaginable for someone from a country where your morning coffee cautions you not to burn your fingers or tongue, and certainly wouldn’t risk letting a tourist slip off a ruin roof (or risk a lawsuit over their misstep,) but getting up close and personal with the temples lets you connect with them in a way that’s almost impossible when a third party protects you from them, and vice versa.
Not only are visitors allowed to scramble up the ruins to tour the temple from its former roof, you’d have to if you wanted to see the real treasures, whether a lonely preserved Apsara carving or a particularly graceful stretch of intertwined rock and root. And yes, it will feel a little like stepping into the shoes of a certain famous archaeologist, the first to set eyes on long-hidden relics of empires past. It feels exactly like the adventure you were hoping to find here.
Written by Lauren Zumbach.