12,585 km so far.
The car rolls past a small opening in the trees, and I can see two naga, seven-headed snake sculptures, 100 feet back from the road. They form the ends of a stone walkway that leads into the jungle.
“We must be here,” I think to myself, moments before the car stops.
Building A World Heritage Site
Before building a city the size of Angkor Wat out of hand-cut stone slabs, carved by the best sculptors in the Kingdom, any good Project Manager would want to do a test run. Today, you’d probably just make a 3D-printed scale model.
In the 12th century, you built a scale model, too. From hand-cut stone slabs, way off in the jungle.
Enter Beng Mealea, which, one theory goes, was the test site for Angkor Wat.
As a good friend of our LA friend Moldofsky, Nang has offered to spend the day with us. He wants to show us around Beng Mealea (which means Lotus Pond), one of his favourite temples. Most tourists don’t make it out here, as it is a 90-minute drive from town. For us this would be a one-day bike ride, so we gladly accept.
While crossing the bridge into the temple, Nang tells us a bit of the history.
Over the course of its life, Beng Mealea has had its towers torn down by elephants, blown-up by explosives, and its facades stripped for private, and public collections.
The Khmer Rouge mined the land, currently a forest, around the temple, and they used it as a base camp during the war. All the while, the jungle has been growing in and around it, dismantling Beng Mealea stone by stone.
There are massive trees rooted in the walls, growing through what would have once been the temple roof, and knocking over entire towers.
Seeing Beng Mealea appear in the jungle as we walked made me feel like an explorer.
All of a sudden I was in great need of a bullwhip and a fedora.
As we wandered around, we carefully scrambled over ancient columns, and examined the hand-chiseled story of the Mahabarata, carved 1000 years ago, still “legible” in front of us today.
Like Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea’s walls are carved with detailed stories from the Mahabarata, Samudra Manthan, Vishnu Purana, and the story of heaven and hell. Lord Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Hanuman, Ganesha, Nataraja, Lakshmi, and the Asparas are all here.
Nang tells us about the Churning Of The Ocean Of Milk, the great Hindu tale Samudra Manthan. It must be a fun story to carve, with the two sides pulling on Vasuki, the serpent king, drilling a mountain down into the ocean, looking for immortality. We have seen different incarnations of the story all over Cambodia.
I don’t recommend having a great tug of war using a giant snake as your rope. It’s bound to end badly.
We were so fortunate to have Nang with us today, to entertain us, educate us, order delicious Khmer food for us, and remind us why we travel. The people we meet inspire us to see more, to understand more, and to be better. ♥