This was one of the temples that I knew was a day starter because of its popularity. Ta Prohm, also known as "The Tomb Raider Temple" because parts of the film were filmed here, is the most well known jungle temple. We arrived a little after 7:00 am (my goal of leaving by 6:00 was smashed by our desire to sleep and actually get a real breakfast) and there were only a few people around. Ta Prohm was cool, because even though there were signs to help guide you through, we still managed to feel a bit lost, which is a good thing; it feels more adventurous that way. There are lots of trees overtaking the temple, with one famous tree in particular that is on all of the postcards. At Ta Prohm, there are actually two entrances. Rosie and Laura left after going from front to back, but as Brad and I wandered back to our driver on the other side, we realized that there was a lot that we had missed. We also got to see how the restoration is done; the workers actually carve out the stone instead of just outright replacing it. By the time we got back to the driver, hoards of people were entering and causing foot traffic jams. Definitely go to this temple first and early! This ended up being Brad's favorite temple and one of my favorites. I thought it might be underwhelming considering that it's the second most talked about temple (after Angkor Wat of course) and it can get crazy busy, but the trees and the multiple paths really make it a winner.
We drove 45min to an hour to Banteay Srei, which means the "citadel of women". For being so far, it was crazy crowded, mostly with Chinese tourists for some reason. This temple is known for its incredibly intricate carvings, and the temple buildings are small enough that you can easily see everything. The temple is also unique because it's the only one carved out of red sandstone, giving it a super different color than the rest of the temples. After seeing a lot of temples, they can all start to blend together, but not this one. Worth driving to, but if you have the time, try to arrive early before the busloads of Asian tourists and their selfie sticks arrive.
After Angkor Wat, Beng Melea was the temple I was looking forwards to the most. From my research I had read that it is the only temple that has really been left to complete ruin and no restoration. I had read that you have to literally climb over huge piles of stones at your own risk to even get around. And I had read that next to no one visits, especially since it's so far away. I don't know what happened in the time since all these other people visited, but none of that was really true and it super bummed me out.
For one, there is a sign before you enter that specifically says 'do not climb on the stones'. Then there is a wooden walkway that was built throughout much of the temple. And there were a bunch of people, mostly Chinese again (apparently only the Chinese got the memo that the far away temples are worth visiting). Luckily it was lunchtime, so we saw a ton of people leaving the temple, but far less were actually in it. No one was climbing on anything, except for one person at the end who wanted to take a picture on the giant pile of stones in the middle of the front part of the temple. We actually got scolded for trying to walk down a set of stairs that went down to a boarded up area (I just wanted to take a peak).
Beng Melea still ended up being my favorite temple. It is a complete ruin, with only a couple of areas with added boards for support, probably for the safety of the tourists. Once you get past the walkway , there's a lot more freedom to explore. And there are a few areas where you can climb around a bit. It is truly a temple where the jungle has taken over, and it just looks really cool because of that. It's also interesting that Beng Melea was built in the same style as Angkor Wat, so it basically is what Angkor Wat would look like if it had never been restored, pretty crazy to think about. I think it's definitely worth it to drive the extra 1-2 hours to get here, but I slightly regret not listening to all the bloggers who said they climbed all over. But, especially after getting scolded once, I was not feelin getting trapped in a Cambodian jail.