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Must-See Temples in Angkor

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Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

© Sam Garza

Hundreds of years ago, this temple complex in the middle of the jungle was the heart of a sprawling empire. Today, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ever since its re-discovery by European explorers in the mid-19th Century, Angkor Wat's sheer massiveness and breathtaking beauty have awed generations of tourists.

The complex was built between 1130 and 1150 AD by King Suryavarman II, and consists of an enormous temple pyramid covering an area measuring 4,250 by 5,000 feet, surrounded by a moat over 600 feet wide. "Enormous" doesn't do it justice: you only have to stand by the gates to be overwhelmed by the complex's massive scale.

Angkor Wat is intended to symbolize the universe, as the Hindu Khmer understood it: the moat stands for the oceans around the earth; the concentric galleries represent the mountain ranges surrounding the divine Mount Meru, the Hindu home of the gods, which is itself embodied by the five central towers. The walls are covered with carvings depicting the god Vishnu (to whom Angkor was principally dedicated), as well as other scenes from Hindu mythology.

"At the sight of this temple, one feels one's spirit crushed, one's imagination surpassed. You look, admire and respect. One is silent. For where are the words to praise a work of art that has no equal anywhere in the world?" wrote Henri Mouhot, the first European to set foot on Angkor Wat. We hear ya, buddy.

TRIVIA: Unusually for a Hindu religious structure, the whole complex is oriented to the west, the direction traditionally associated with death. The mystery may be solved if we believe the experts, that Angkor Wat was a funerary temple for its builder King Suryavarman II.

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