The local guide points to a pile of large grey stones-once the roof of a majestic gallery, now rubble. That one, he says, collapsed a few months ago.
You climb through centuries-old doorways, adorned with intricate carvings, over pile after pile of such stones. He points to another one-that one collapsed just last month.
Beng Melea, a breathtakingly beautiful temple 60 km from Angkor, is falling apart.
And if it continues to do so, one of the Angkor era’s most significant monuments could be lost.
“Far from traditional circuits, the site of Beng Melea remains nevertheless a jewel of Khmer art,” states a report written in August by a team from the government’s Apsara Authority. “One can experience the emotion of the first discoverers of the Khmer monuments, faced with this sandstone temple from the beginning of the 12th century, still surrounded by the mystery of the jungle that encircles it.
“This same jungle brings, as in many other magical sites in Cambodia, at once its protective, encasing force but also its natural excess, shattering sometimes in its wake centuries of Khmer art.”
Beng Melea is not on the verge of complete collapse, Apsara Deputy Director Ros Borath says. But measures do need to be taken to shore it up and “make it more visitable.” As it is, this fragile jewel is not totally safe for tourists.
The tourists are coming to Beng Melea anyway-a steady trickle of those who insist on straying from the beaten path.
A car ride of at least three hours down a bumpy dirt road from Siem Reap town, Beng Melea is more accessible than some other remote jewels, such as Preah Vihear, on the Thai border, or Banteay Chhmar, in Banteay Meanchey province. But it is not part of the 450-sq-km Angkor World Heritage Site and merits, if anything, only a few lines in most guidebooks.
“I call it the ‘Lost Temple in the Jungle,'” says Laurent Holdener, whose Terre Cambodge tour company leads groups to the site.
The 45-meter-wide moat surrounding Beng Melea is filled with thriving vegetation, giving it a wild, brambly look. Huge trees grow from the temple’s walls, roots dribbling languidly down the stone.
Local folklore adds a touch of mystery: In one gallery, one of the few with an intact roof, tigers are said to have lived not long ago. And local villagers say they hear ghostly classical music from the direction of the temple at night.
For scholars it looms larger. Built at the end of the 11th century or the beginning of the 12th century, Beng Melea “was in many ways the forerunner of Angkor Wat,” scholar Lawrence Palmer Briggs writes.
Many believe Beng Melea was the direct model for Cambodia’s most famous temple. Beng Melea’s architects pioneered the use of covered galleries, vaulted and held up by stone pillars, to connect inner enclosures. The temple is one of the first examples of the cruciform terrace-thought to be a place where the empire’s king would hold public audiences-that would be a hallmark of the Angkorian style.
Most of its pillars and walls are undecorated-they may have once featured painted frescoes-but its lintels and doorframes are elaborately ornamented. There are apsaras foreshadowing the famous dancers of Angkor Wat and a crude version of the “Churning of the Sea of Milk,” Angkor Wat’s most famous bas-relief.
Beng Melea’s geographical position is significant, too. “Beng Melea was a crossroads-the center of a communication network,” says Im Sokrithy, an archaeologist with Apsara.
Ancient highways, visible today only in satellite photographs, connected Angkor to Beng Melea and Beng Melea to Koh Ker (the 10th-century capital and temple in central Preah Vihear province), Preah Vihear and northern Vietnam. Another road from Beng Melea led southeast to Preah Khan Kompong Svay, in what is now Kompong Svay district, Kompong Thom province.
More than any particular feature, though, it is Beng Melea’s awesome unity that impresses scholars and tourists alike. It is an enormous site, more than 1 square km in area; because of its overgrown state, the whole is impossible to comprehend, but even so it exudes a deep tranquility—a sense of being frozen comfortably in time.
“There emanates from Beng Melea a harmony, powerful and sober, which permits to place this temple first among the first and to consider it the prototype, the classic and purified specimen of Khmer art,” French scholar Georges Groslier writes.
Groslier’s impression is recorded in his 1916 “A l’Ombre d’Angkor (In the Shadow of Angkor).” Beng Melea is much the same today.
Cultural officials have decided that Beng Melea should stay that way forever-and that means making sure it doesn’t deteriorate further.
Even the longest-term plans for the site do not include full restoration, Ros Borath says. Instead, the idea is to “restore it partially, but not completely like Angkor Wat-that would be impossible.” Beng Melea will be left in its appealingly “wild, romantic” state, similar to Angkor’s popular Ta Prohm-but still more untamed.
Right now, the temple’s condition “has many problems, especially falling trees,” says Tamara Teneishvili of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “Many of the trees are at the end of their lives.”
In some cases, the best way to stabilize the temple may be to figure out how to keep in place trees that have already died, she said.
One thing that is no longer a danger to temple-goers is land mines. Contrary to the picturesque signs at the temple’s entrance (“Visitors Beware This Area Is Mined”), Halo Trust finished demining the temple and its immediate surrounding area earlier this year.
Ironically, the less dangerous Beng Melea is, the more vulnerable it is to looters-who have already caused plenty of damage not only to the temple’s cultural value but also to its stability.
“Demining can allow traffickers [of artifacts] to operate if it’s done before a permanent presence arrives,” Unesco country representative Etienne Clement said in September. “Beng Melea was not accessible, and then [when it became more accessible] the robbers came.”
Guards are now posted at the site; the military-uniformed guard at the entrance demands $2 or $3 from foreign tourists, money that surely never makes it into preservation coffers. Ros Borath says Apsara is moving to establish more control over the site.
Apsara is also studying Beng Melea in order to plan for its future-from propping up precarious galleries to building a parking area. Especially needed is a walkway to take tourists through the structure.
But these plans are in their infancy, and they will have to be carried out on a relative shoestring: Since Beng Melea isn’t part of the Angkor World Heritage Site, it is unlikely to attract international funding.
Beng Melea is not currently a candidate for World Heritage inscription, Teneishvili says, but it is possible that, after further study, the Angkor site could eventually be extended to include it. Until then, Apsara is responsible for Beng Melea.
“We are paying a lot of attention to this monument, where nothing has been done for a long time,” Ros Borath says. “But it is very far.”
As the Angkor temples get more and more crowded, Beng Melea’s isolated serenity is increasingly sought after. You-or your tour group-are likely to be alone as you clamber through Beng Melea’s stone chambers.
“I have been visiting Angkor for 10 years,” Azedine Beschaouch, a Unesco official based in Paris, said in July at the meeting of the international committee that oversees Angkor. “At Beng Melea I got the same feeling as the first time I visited Angkor.” It is a feeling, he implied, that one can no longer get at Angkor.
It is a feeling of awe and discovery for which many are willing to spend the time and money required. Locals say 10 to 15 foreigners visit on an average day.
Frenchman Jean-Paul Orth and his three traveling companions came to Cambodia chiefly to see Angkor, he says. But then they noticed a sentence about Beng Melea in their guidebook.
“How could one not feel like an explorer?” it said.
Orth and his friends promptly booked a tour to Beng Melea. (The going rate for a guided day-trip to Beng Melea starts around $50.)
Many cultural officials and tour operators see potential in the temple-especially if the road, which currently threatens to collapse in several places, improves.
“We get very good feedback from people” who visit Beng Melea, says Wolf Kennel, marketing manager for Asian Trails. In the three years his company has offered tours to Beng Melea, the number of customers has steadily increased, he says. “It has excellent potential. But it is not for everyone.”
Beng Melea’s niche is “adventure tourism”-bold, usually young travelers looking for a unique, preferably rugged experience.
“The temple visit is pretty hard. You are climbing stones, and it is pretty physical,” Holdener says. “Old people cannot do it, it is not for people who want comfort.”
For many, that’s just the point. Asked why she and her companion-outfitted in shorts, athletic sandals and backpacks-came all the way to Beng Melea, Japanese tourist Tomomi Fujinami, 28, says, “I feel it’s an adventure.”
Beng Melea “is beautiful, but undiscovered,” she says. And that’s the perfect reason to go and discover it