After bumping along narrow Cambodian roads into oncoming trucks and buffalo carts for what seemed like a very long time, our bus pulled to a stop on the shoulder in the middle of nowhere. Our Khmer guide assured us we were at the back entrance to Beng Mealea, one of the less-visited temples of Angkor.
We had to take his word for it: aside from a small dirt path leading into the overgrown jungle, we could see nothing. The air hummed with heat and mosquitos as we photo-tour participants and our leaders Karl Grobl, Gavin Gough and Marco Ryan tumbled out of the bus and onto the sun-baked earth. We applied industrial strength mosquito repellant – the kind that eats leather and melts nail polish – before following our guide along the stone and dirt track into another place and time.
Like Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea was built during the reign of Suryavarman II, that is: between 1112 and 1152. It followed a similar plan but was smaller – with only a single story. Today, the jungle has truly taken over: the central tower has collapsed, and many of the outer buildings are crumbling. Trees arch over the site, vines and aerial roots wend their way around and through what is left of the walls. The ensuing shade allows moss and fungus to coat the walls and rubble and with a patina of greens.
Some work is happening here, although I couldn’t tell whether the workers, who made themselves busy when they saw us coming, were engaged in restoration or simply keeping the site clean.
Many of my companions found the site boring because there were few people to photograph. I, however, loved the dappled light through the tree-tops, the textures of the mossy stones and old walls, and the serene quiet of the site.
We were told that this site was used to film scenes from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, as a “stand in” for the similar and better known Ta Prohm. I can find no corroboration for this, but it is easy to believe. I could imagine Lara Croft working her way through the long, dark chambers and emerging from behind the hanging vines. At one point, I thought I’d found her…
… but, alas, it was only members of my group.
As we left the grounds on the side where most people enter, afternoon storm clouds were gathering over the lotus-filled moat. Cows grazed and hawkers raced over to sell us scarves and drinks.
And there we were – back in “modern” rural Cambodia.
Until next, wishing you Happy Travels.
Visit and pictures: July 15th, 2011