“Hey! Mistah!” the high-pitched voice called out, echoing dramatically through the stone chamber.
“Ex-cooose mee!” it called out again. Suddenly a skinny little boy, probably not more than ten years old, popped out from around a crumbling stone pillar. “I help you,” he said insistently, pointing to Justin.
“You help me?” Justin questioned. “How?”
“Yes, I help you.” he repeated. “Come.” He motioned emphatically with his hand and scampered off further down the pathway, stopping at the entrance to a stone tunnel. Justin turned to me, seeking my opinion as to if we should follow.
“You go ahead, please.” I said. “I don’t want to spoil your fun, but I think I’ll stick to the main path. Fewer spiders this way.” As Justin trotted to catch up with the young boy, I hurried ahead, attempting to get a head start on the two bus fulls of Chinese tourists who had just arrived in the tiny gravel parking lot of the Prasat Bang Mealea.
We had never planned to visit Beng Mealea. In fact, we’d never even heard of it. But that morning, as we were climbing the sandstone blocks of the beautiful and under-rated Preah Khan, we ran into a fellow blogger, Steve McDonald. Steve is a much more adventurous traveler than we are (and a phenomenal storyteller), so it didn’t take much between his verbal description and his photos to convince us to scrap our plans for that afternoon and head two hours by tuk-tuk outside of Angkor Archaeological Park in search of Beng Mealea. Steve had described the site as virtually untouched, with nary a tourist in sight. So I was rather disappointed to see the two buses full of the Chinese tourists show up.
But tourists or not, Beng Mealea, a temple just outside of Angkor in Cambodia, is not to be missed when you visit the temples of Angkor. It is simply spectacular. It is similar to Ta Prohm in that it has been left relatively untouched (except for the boardwalks that lead you through the main sections of the complex) as the jungle has grown its way up and all around the ancient sandstone structures. Beautiful temples lay in ruins as tree vines wind their way around the structures left standing. There is a certain mysterious, almost eerie feeling about Beng Mealea that is not present at the other temples; the feeling as if you, too, might soon be swallowed up by the jungle that envelopes Beng Mealea.
Like the other temples of Angkor, Beng Mealea was originally built as a Hindu temple, but it is apparent it held a purpose for Buddhists as well, as Buddhist symbols are also carved into the walls of the structure.
Beng Mealea is the adventurous tourists dream, as the rubble of the temple is able to be climbed and crawled through. The children serve as tour guides to take visitors through the chambers that cannot be reached by footpath. Although I do not condone the practice of using children as tour guides and I almost always avoid even purchasing things from children when I travel, we had difficulty finding a way to tell the children of Beng Mealea that we did not want their services. They spent all their time following us around anyway.
I have since read that if you do plan to explore off the beaten path at Beng Mealea, you should hire a guide to take you to the areas that are deemed safe to explore. I did not see any other guides available other than the children. So, if you do go, be prepared to face this situation and consider in advance how you might respond.
Justin reflected that if he could have designed the perfect playground for himself as a young boy, it would have been Beng Mealea. I think he had fun exploring, don’t you?
About twenty minutes after we began exploring, Justin and I met up again, and he tried to explain to the little boy that he needed to go now. Neither of us was comfortable using the boy as a tour guide.
“I have to go now,” Justin explained.
“Eh?” the boy replied, scratching his head in confusion.
Justin pointed at me, waiting for him on the pathway.
“Ah, girlfriend?” the boy asked.
“No — wife!” Justin said, pointing to his ring finger. He handed the boy a few dollars for his time and the boy thanked him before running off, trying his hand at the plethora of Chinese tourists who now swarmed the temple complex.
“This way!” Justin said with excitement. “I want to show you some of the places he took me!”
As we climbed and crawled our way through the vines and over the ruins, we continued to be mesmerized by the view. It was as if we were stepping through the pages of a National Geographic magazine everywhere we turned as vines snaked their way through the windows and carvings of the temple walls.
Along the way, more children tried to market themselves. We declined. They continued to follow.
Saffron-clad monks gracefully make their way through the temple courtyards and chambers.
Beng Mealea was a breath-taking site and a great fit for those who are wanting just a bit more adventure than the temples of Angkor tend to offer. In particular, if you enjoyed the temple Ta Prohm, you will no doubt appreciate Beng Mealea even more.
To get there, simply hire a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap and plan on a minimum half-day trip, as it will take nearly two hours to reach the ruins. Admission to Beng Mealea is not included in your Angkor pass and costs an additional $5.00 USD.
Bang Mealea is one of the best things to do in Cambodia. You won’t want to miss it!