Some of Angkor Archaeological Park’s temples are more far flung and require extra effort to visit. It took us around 45 minutes from Siem Reap to reach by tuk-tuk Banteay Srei, situated 21 kilometers northeast of Bayon.
Constructed in the 10th century of striking pink sandstone, this Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva is the only temple of ancient Angkor not built by a king, which could explain its small size. Most notable are the exquisite carvings that cover nearly every inch of the temple and are considered among the finest examples of Khmer art. Wonderfully preserved statues of mythical creatures stand guard over the central buildings (though the on-site statues are copies, the originals having been moved to the Angkor National Museum for safekeeping).
We thought this lovely little temple was definitely worth visiting, though might be easiest to reach during a tour of the Angkor outer circuit, as our driver originally recommended.
The other major temple we wanted to visit was Beng Mealea, which didn’t look too far away from Banteay Srei on our map. There even appeared to be a road linking the two areas. Our affable tuk-tuk driver, with us throughout the two previous days, said it was doable and that he even knew of a shortcut.
Initially, cruising along the highway, we expected an easy ride. But that paved expanse soon gave way to packed red dirt and we realized how greatly we had overestimated the Cambodian road network. Donning the face masks our driver thoughtfully provided, we tried to appreciate the pastoral scenery as we bounced along.
To our dismay, the dirt road eventually became no more than a sandy path through the jungle that was not created with tuk-tuks in mind. The villagers seemed as shocked as we were as they stopped to gape at our slow progress and children ran after us waving. I doubt many tuk-tuks have taken this route. Even the girl at the “gas station” seemed to be laughing as she filled up the tank with two Johnny Walker bottles of gasoline.
Two bumpy hours later, and after a serviceable lunch at a roadside restaurant, we arrived at Beng Mealea. Built in the 12th century, little is known about this Hindu temple, though many assume it was the work of King Suryavarman II who also built Angkor Wat around the same time. Today Beng Mealea is mostly collapsed, with the jungle slowly reclaiming what’s left.
A guide was on hand to help us pick our way through and over the rubble, sometimes holding my hand to keep me steady. Blessedly free of crowds, at times it felt like we had the impressive ruins all to ourselves and could imagine the feeling of those first French explorers to stumble upon the lost temple.
We spent hours climbing over the piles of stones, past ancient tree roots and through partially blocked doorways, grinning from ear to ear as we savored the experience. Of all the Angkor temples we visited, Beng Mealea was my favorite.
Beng Mealea is located 40 kilometers east of Bayon and about 65 kilometers northeast of Siem Reap, our return destination. Our intrepid tuk-tuk driver said he knew of yet another shortcut, though assured us this time of a smoother ride.
Off we went on another red dirt road, through fields and jungle and past villages with no electricity or running water. Stands were set up in front of homes selling bottles of gasoline and homemade palm sugar. I also noticed wells in some yards with signs displaying the name of the sponsor who paid for it. I was heartened to see the fruits of charitable contributions providing such a vital service for these communities.
Admission to Banteay Srei was included in our Angkor Archaeological Park pass. We opted for a three-day pass (40 USD); one-day (20 USD) and seven-day (60 USD) passes are also available. Visitors caught inside the park without a pass will be fined 100 USD on the spot. All of the temples in the park are open from 5:30am – 5:30pm. Beng Mealea requires a separate 5 USD entrance fee.