Nestled deep in the lush jungles of northern Cambodia lies Beng Mealea, an enigmatic 12th century temple that remains remarkably untouched since its initial discovery over a century ago. Known as the “Jungle Temple” for the way the dense foliage has reclaimed the intricate stonework, Beng Mealea offers an adventure into the mysterious Khmer empire and a glimpse of Angkorian architecture surrendered to the elements.
Location and History
Beng Mealea temple sits about 40 miles east of Angkor Wat, just beyond the boundary of the UNESCO protected zone. The temple is located near the intersection of highways 64 and 66, on the way from Siem Reap to the northern province of Preah Vihear.
Built in the early 12th century under King Suryavarman II, Beng Mealea was constructed in the classical Angkor Wat style. The temple layout follows a symbolic plan representing Hindu cosmology, with galleries, libraries, pavilions and ponds enclosed within three concentric walls. The outer enclosure alone measures an impressive 152 by 181 meters.
Though originally Hindu, some of the bas reliefs incorporate Buddhist imagery, suggesting modifications were made after its initial construction. Beng Mealea was likely used for worship and rituals for several centuries. However, the temple was eventually abandoned and overtaken by jungle in the 16th century, when the fall of the Khmer empire led to the decline of Angkor. The temple ruins remained largely unknown until their rediscovery by French explorers Henri Mouhot and Louis Delaporte in the late 19th century.
Journey to the Jungle Temple
A visit to Beng Mealea takes some planning, as it sits far beyond the tourist circuit around Angkor. Those coming from Siem Reap can take one of two routes, either through Angkor Archaeological Park or via National Road 6.
The park route passes iconic temples like Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm before continuing east to Banteay Srei. This route along highway 66 is preferable for cyclists, as it offers a scenic and relatively flat bike ride. However, it does require purchasing an Angkor pass.
For those traveling by car or bus, taking Road 6 is a much faster and more direct option. The well-paved highway cuts straight past the park, reducing the total trip to just over 60 km. Travelers can stop in Dam Dek village about halfway to eat at local restaurants and take a short break.
The temple can be visited as an easy day trip from Siem Reap. However, the remote location also makes an ideal stopover for longer itineraries visiting Koh Ker, Preah Vihear, or the floating villages along the Tonle Sap lake. For those who want to extend their visit, rustic homestays and guesthouses can be found in the nearby villages.
Exploring the Mysteries of the Jungle Temple
Beng Mealea has a wild, mystical aura that sets it apart from even the grandest temples of Angkor. While the main architectural features – galleries, libraries, cruciform terraces – mirror the layout of Angkor Wat, the crumbling sandstone walls and jungle-choked courtyards create an entirely different experience.
Lush foliage bursts through cracked towers and silk-cotton trees grow atop collapsed walls. The jungle canopy filtered light creates a serene, hushed atmosphere as you navigate through intricate passageways. Contemplating the elaborate carved devatas and bas reliefs, it’s striking to see Angkorian masterworks being actively reclaimed by nature. Moss-laden ruins appear suddenly as you turn corners, rewarding exploration.
The open layout is perfect for adventures. Visitors can clamber over piles of rubble in the ruined halls, duck beneath grinning nagas weathered with age, and stumble upon hidden corners untouched for centuries. The photogenic ruins set against the verdant jungle backdrop are a treat for photographers. Dappled sunlight and crumbling walls covered in vines make for stunning images.
The well-preserved library buildings contain extensive carvings illustrating Hindu legends and tales, providing insight into the temple’s original purpose. The carved depictions of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and Vishnu’s heavenly abode showcase the skilled artistry of Angkorian craftsmen.
Wandering the grounds you’ll encounter shrines both Hindu and Buddhist, hinting at the religious transformations that took place across the empire during Beng Mealea’s active centuries. The temple provides a snapshot of a key transitional period in Khmer religious history.
The temple’s dilapidated state also offers lessons on the impermanence of even the mightiest structures. Seeing intricate carvings worn down by erosion and vines slowly breaking down walls inspires reflection on the passage of time. Beng Mealea is a poignant example of the inevitable return of human creations back to nature.
Visit the Jungle Temple
A morning spent roaming the mystical ruins of Beng Mealea is sure to be a highlight of any trip to Cambodia. The opportunity to explore Angkorian grandeur surrendered to the jungle is an experience unlike any other in the ancient temples around Siem Reap.
With isolation preserving its unspoiled atmosphere, Beng Mealea represents a gateway into the forgotten mysteries of Cambodia’s Khmer empire. The crumbling halls let the imagination run wild and conjure images of the temple’s former splendor. This off-the-beaten-path locale rewards travelers with a sense of discovery, where you can play amateur archaeologist for a day.
For those entranced by the ancient world, Beng Mealea offers much to fire the imagination. And for those seeking adventure, navigating the wild temple ruins guarantees an unforgettable jungle trek. Beng Mealea may have been forgotten for centuries, but a visit today uncovers the magic still emanating from its vine-covered walls.