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Beng Melea, Cambodia

The victory of chaos

Giant gnarled trees rise from huge piles of sandstone blocks; spreading roots and sprawling vines cloak massive walls, dense foliage obscures crumbling towers and moss and lichen conceal intricate carvings. Cambodia’s Beng Melea; chaotic, decaying ancient ruins and rampant tropical vegetation is a perfect synthesis of man’s handiwork and untamed nature yet, ultimate[y, a complete antithesis of what it was originally intended to be.

Cambodia, Beng Melea
Cambodia, Beng Melea

King Suryavarman II would certainly be turning in his grave if he could see the current state of his great temple complex at Beng Melea. (Well proverbially speaking at least since he is thought to have been cremated with his ashes being interred under the main tower of his masterwork mausoleum Angkor Wat.)

Cambodia, central enclosure
Cambodia, detail from the central enclosure

And that is if it was indeed him who was actually responsible for the construction of Beng Melea since no inscriptions confirming the founder have ever been found at the site and some historians point to his predecessor and uncle Dharanindravarman I as a possible suspect with others even suggesting the temple was begun by Jayavarman VI back in the late 11th-century. (Jayavarman VI is much better-known for his temple works north of the Dandreks in today’s Thailand, such as Phnom Wan, Pimai etc while Dharanindravarman ruled only a short time before being bumped off by his ambitious nephew Suryavarman II.)

Cambodia, Beng Melea, south entrance
Beng Melea, south entrance

Whoever began construction it is stylistically typical of the early 12th-century Angkor Wat period and some authors have suggested it may actually have been a prototype for the very similar, albeit larger, Angkor Wat itself. Beng Melea is a similarly massive temple (though flat and lacking Angkor Wat’s central pyramid), and size apart, one of the obvious difference today lies in their state of repair. Whilst Angkor Wat was never completely abandoned and some form of minimal maintenance prevented the tropical forest from ever completely taking over, Beng Melea today is in a totally ruined and jungle-clad state.

Cambodia, Beng Melea, library
Beng Melea, library

Even if it might have been partly subconscious, one of the salient motivations of ancient Khmer temple building was the imposition of structure and order on the anarchy and chaos of untamed nature. The near obsessiveness of these temples’ architects and designers; the symmetry, precise angles, accurate measurements and formal, rigid layouts confirmed the hand of man’s dominance over the vast, and at times hostile, jungles of the Cambodia of 1,000 years ago. Nothing in temple design was left to chance; the neat geometric pools and moats, the false doors and windows and lintel carvings – there’s not an apsara out of place and certainly no room for curved walls, obtuse angles or an uneven staircase.

Hidden figures
Beng Melea, hidden figures

So the majestic chaos of the ruined Beng Melea we can see today is indeed the exact opposite of the original intention yet, in our modern, over-structured and obsessively ordered society with our largely well-tamed nature, it’s exactly this type of Angkor temple that consistently proves to be the most popular. Indiana Jones-style, Lara Croft-esque roots, giant trees and jungle-covered ruins are the stuff of postcards and holiday photos, (any apsara looks better for a bit of moss or entwining root!), and for many the relatively good condition and state of preservation of say Angkor Wat serves merely as an iconic sunrise location. Yes, the famous and picturesque ‘jungle temples’ of Ta Prom and Preah Khan are starting to become crowded but Angkor temples are a bit like Thai islands – once one becomes too popular there’s always another remoter one further on that the crowds or Lonely Planet haven’t ruined yet.

Overview of central enclosure
Cambodia, Beng Melea, overview of central enclosure

Anyway, Beng Melea’s still one of the lesser-visited sites, (if you get the timing right) so Koh Ker and Banteay Chmar can wait in the wings for now. You can visit the temple on an All Points East ‘Cambodia Overland‘ or ‘Highlights of Cambodia‘ tour while it is also included in our Laos and Cambodia tour Indochina Adventure and Vietnam and Cambodia Overland tour.