Beng Mealea is a temple quietly surrendering into the surrounding jungle about 75 km from Siem Reap. If you happen to be anywhere nearby, it’s worth the effort and expense (about $40 RT by taxi from SR) to see, though I would advise going either very early or late in the day. I arrived about 8:30 am and had only about 20 minutes on the narrow wooden scaffolding winding through the complex before the parking area was overrun by a seemingly never-ending stream of tour busses bearing Chinese groups.
Even so, this complex, shaded and settling into the deep forest, is as compelling as any of the other larger temples of the Angkor complex. Its artistry is familiar, but the setting is breathtaking as light and shadow play through the trees upon the sandstone walls and carved lintels. The way the walls have fallen away from plumb, the huge piles of stones lying dormant, the giant roots rising through everything in their path all lend an eerie silence to the place. It’s hard to imagine all this occurred solely by the hand of nature.
It was built mostly of sandstone: Beng Mealea is only 7 km from the angkorian sandstone quarries of Phnom Kulen, as the crow flies. Presumably sandstone blocks used for Angkor were transported along artificial water canals and passed from here.
If Phnom (Mt) Kulen was the source of all the sandstone that built Angkor, we’re talking about 5-10 million stones cut into blocks about 2x1x1 meters each (or larger), weighing up to 1000kg. They were most likely transported some 20 miles by a series of canals to the Angkor complex.
At its height, the Khmar kingdom spread across Cambodia, parts of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and all the way to Malaysia. For periods of time it was one of the more enlightened monarchies of Asia. But like the rest of history, ecological failure and war decimated its descendants in murderous conflicts all the way into the 18th C. This was followed, of course, by the genocidal Khmer rouge of the 20th C. Some Cambodians today will tell you that the reason the population of Cambodia is relatively small (15M) is because of its bloody history. For all I know, they are exactly right.