Friday, September 13, 2013

My first look at Beng Mealea

Today, the temple of Beng Mealea, outside of the main Angkor Park, welcomes coaches of tourists walking on wooden platforms to see the temple in the jungle. Back in 1999, on my fifth visit to Cambodia, it was virtually unknown and ripe for my kind of adventure. So, here are my recollections from my first-ever visit to Beng Mealea.
Beng Mealea - almost completely overgrown
Discovering Beng Mealea
Its not often you get an opportunity to seek out and discover a new temple, still very much in its natural state. The renowned Ta Prohm at Angkor gives the visitor a glimpse of what to expect, but in reality it bears little resemblance to the real thing. For my last day in Siem Reap, Sok Thea, a Khmer friend and fellow adventurer, eagerly suggested breaking new ground by visiting Beng Mealea, more than forty kilometres east of the main Angkor complex. Abandoned for years due to the civil war and the presence of the Khmer Rouge, and left to the mercy of Mother Nature, the temple is a contemporary of Angkor Wat in its age and floor plan but sees almost no visitors whatsoever. It proved to be one of the highlights of my whole trip.

The day's adventures began at 7am when Thea and our two moto-drivers, In Sokea and Pov Lom collected me from the Freedom Hotel. We stopped at the market to buy some bread and water to complement our fried rice and chicken and then we were on our way, east along Route 6 towards Roluos and beyond. The highway was busy with pick-up trucks full to overflowing with goods and passengers kicking up blinding dust until we came to a traffic jam at a broken bridge. Resourceful as ever, Thea motioned us to the front and we quickly sneaked our Honda Dream bikes over a hastily-arranged but shaky plank of wood across the gaping ravine. After an hour, we stopped at Damdek market to buy a few more provisions - cigarettes and sugar - and left the main highway. Our new route was of the red clay variety but in reasonable condition and we made good time along the palm tree-lined and heavily populated track. As the houses thinned out the road became progressively worse until we were forced to either dismount to ford flooded parts of the track or balance precariously on recently-erected plank bridges, where small boys requested a few hundred riel to cross. It was just passable by moto but the recent rains had made it impossible for anything other than a durable four-wheel drive vehicle to make the same trip.

The valuable work of the British de-mining charity HALO Trust was evident as we finally reached the village of Beng Mealea at ten. A broken naga head and a small ruined bridge signalled we were close to the temple complex, so we stopped to ask the whereabouts of the temple's conservator, Chheng Chhun, who quickly appeared and was obviously pleased that we'd followed the correct protocol and requested his guidance. We were also joined by a scruffy-looking group of five soldiers, one of which, the youngest, was carrying an AK-47. Chhun suggested they tag along to ensure our safety. We'd arrived at the southern causeway of the massive temple complex, a rival to the monumental scale of its sister temple Angkor Wat but on a single rather than pyramidal level. Built in the late-11th and mid-12th century under the rule of King Suryavarman II, Beng Mealea has been out of bounds to all but the most adventurous traveller until very recently, so our excitement was mounting as we crossed the 45 metre-wide moat and walked along the overgrown southern causeway towards the temple, flanked by decorated naga heads in good condition and a broken balustrade, although our goal was hidden from view by the dense vegetation. 

The bridge and cruciform terrace in front of the blocked southern entrance was in ruins and gave us a foretaste of what the remainder of the temple would be like. We walked fifty metres to a gap in the eastern enclosure wall and following the sprightly 70 year-old Chhun, we climbed over the broken outer wall, hopping across fallen sandstone blocks, scrambling along ledges and clambering through small passageways to take a breather on the top of an inner gallery. All around us, the vegetation had taken a firm stranglehold on the walls and buildings and it was almost impossible to make out the formal structure of the temple. What we do know is that Beng Mealea is composed of three large enclosing walls, each with four gopuras (or entry towers), as well as cloisters, corner pavilions, courtyards, galleries and library buildings.

I was expecting to see little more than ruins but substantial areas remain intact, whilst others are little more than a clutter of fallen debris overgrown with vines, roots and greenery. Chhun led us, and our five army guardians, on a circuitous route, our path often blocked by fallen masonry, but there was plenty to see with decorated lintels, frontons, cornices and apsara carvings in abundance and galleries, supported on one side by a sturdy back wall and on the other by a row of pillars as can be found at Angkor Wat and the Bayon, although the bas-reliefs much in evidence at these temples, are absent at Beng Mealea. Skirting around the collapsed main sanctuary, we exited the temple by the overgrown eastern causeway so we could visit the three royal pools, full of water but covered with lotus and water-lillies, at Srah Keo, Srah Baykriem and Srah Svay Kong. As we were inspecting one pool, allegedly the home of a crocodile, two ox-carts appeared out of the forest and Thea excitedly jumped onto the last one for a ride back to the southern entrance, where we rested and shared our bread, sugar and cigarettes with Chhun and the others to thank them for their company.

Our temple tour had lasted just under two hours and I was exhausted. The heat inside the temple complex was stifling and the ever-present red ants had feasted on my ankles but the experience was memorable and not to be missed for anything. The dense vegetation had made it almost impossible to take any meaningful photographs but the feeling of discovery was quite overwhelming and perhaps akin to what Henri Mouhot must've experienced in the middle of the 19th century on seeing Angkor for the first time. We weren't the first to visit Beng Mealea, but it certainly felt like it.
The library at Beng Mealea
We left a little before mid-day and retraced our steps back towards Route 6 and Siem Reap. Before we reached the populated stretch of track and after negotiating the flooded parts of the route, we stopped to devour our fried rice and chicken at a village meeting house erected by the NGO, Carere. For dessert we played a game of foot shuttlecock with our drivers, before continuing on our way, acknowledging the waves and shouts of the adults and children, still unused to seeing a foreigner in their neck of the woods. At the Roluos turn-off, we took a right fork along a new road for at least five kilometres and as Phnom Bok loomed large in the foreground, veered onto an unmarked track towards our second destination of the day, the 11th century temple ruin of Chau Srei Vibol.

Again, the route was bumpy and pot-holed and at times, the track had been washed away by the rains. We negotiated the flooded parts, passed through tiny hamlets and groups of waving villagers and across a broken sandstone naga bridge at Spean Thmor, before arriving at an active pagoda, Wat Trach, and the laterite outer wall of the temple. Thea and myself walked up the hill, similar to Phnom Bakheng but not nearly as steep, to the ruined temple buildings at the top, housed alongside the shell of a modern temple, where orange-robed monks from the wat below were constructing a roof. At least three major sandstone structures, a sanctuary and two libraries, are easily identifiable with decorative carvings on the doorways and cornices and a couple of broken lions flank the steep eastern entrance gate. We walked around the outer wall to the southern and western gopuras and outbuildings with some damaged lintels and frontons before returning to our motos where the wat's head monk was waiting to offer us fresh coconut milk. I couldn't resist a photo as we thanked him for his generosity and continued our journey back to Siem Reap, stopping briefly at Chbar Chin, where the laterite foundations of an Angkorean temple form the base of a small Buddhist wat, arriving back at the hotel at 5pm. Ten hours on the back of a moto and I was in desperate need of a hot bath, but the day had been a major success and one to remember for a very long time to come.
A welcome committee at one of the hamlets en route to Chau Srei Vibol

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