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Getting off the beaten track in Cambodia, land of temples

By Laura Allsop for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cambodia's Hindu and Buddhist temples popular tourist destinations
  • Angkor most populous region for temples
  • Baphuon temple is latest to re-open to the public following restoration
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(CNN) -- Towering majestically over the jungle, and sometimes tangled up in its monstrous roots, the temples of Cambodia's ancient city of Angkor have inspired awe for centuries.

The jewel in Angkor's crown is the breathtaking Angkor Wat temple, built in the 12th century, and said to be a miniature replica of the universe in stone. It graces the Cambodian flag and countless postcards and posters and has become synonymous with the small country in Southeast Asia.

And though Cambodia's cultural heritage suffered terribly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, Angkor, now a UNESCO world heritage site, was thankfully neglected rather than destroyed.

Now Angkor is a thriving tourist venue, bustling with visitors. With the addition of the recently restored and reopened Baphuon temple, it is sure to attract ever more visitors.

CNN selects some of Cambodia's most breathtaking architectural treasures, within Angkor and beyond, for an itinerary that could give Indiana Jones or Lara Croft a case of wanderlust.

Renting a scooter or a motorbike -- or even riding on the back of an elephant -- are recommended ways of getting around the extensive ruins and will help counter any possible temple fatigue.

In Angkor:

Angkor Wat

It is the must-see temple in the Angkor archaeological park, built in 30 years by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the 12th century as a personal mausoleum and Hindu temple. It later became a Buddhist monastery and the result is a fascinating mix of two cultures.

With its ornate conical towers reminiscent of lotus buds, carvings, bas-reliefs, and statues, the temple complex is a feast for the eyes. Perhaps its most striking feature is the carving called "The Churning of the Ocean of Milk," which depicts the myth of creation according to Hinduism.

Baphuon

Recently re-opened following an arduous half-century of disturbed restoration projects, Baphuon is the second largest temple in Angkor after Angkor Wat but trumps it for being a century older.

The three-tiered mountain temple is composed of 300,000 sandstone blocks, all of which had to be numbered and painstakingly pieced back together in-between bouts of severe weather and regime changes.

Ta Prohm

Part of this particular temple's charm is its wildness. Jungle trees have forced their way into the stonework and up its walls in a powerful example of nature's mastery over man. Crumbling towers, strewn boulders and entranceways impeded by enormous roots make this one of the most picturesque temples in the region.

Angkor Thom

This huge walled city, whose entranceways are guarded by monumental statues of gods and demons, is the last great city of the Khmer empire, built between the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

Within, the carved towers and mazelike complex of the temple of Bayon, and the nearby Terrace of the Elephants -- a viewing platform for the Khmer King composed of carvings of elephants -- are some of Angkor Thom's most striking features.

Beyond Angkor

Though Angkor has Cambodia's greatest concentration of temples, there are others worth visiting dotted around the rest of the country, which boast fewer tourists.

The ruins of the Ek Phnom, located in beautifully lush countryside not far from the town of Battambang, are less grand than those in Angkor but more peaceful. A newly constructed working temple alongside the ruins, is a site of yearly festivities for locals.

To the north of the country, on the border with Thailand and lying atop a steep cliff, is the beautiful temple of Preah Vihear. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, Preah Vihear is composed of a series of carved sanctuaries linked by pavements and staircases.

The subject of a long-running and occasionally bloody dispute between the Thais and Cambodians over its ownership, Preah Vihear provides stunning views into each country. The steep ascent from the Cambodian side, coupled with its contested ownership, make this one a must for die-hard temple enthusiasts.

For a more urbane view into the treasures located at these fascinating temples, look no further than the collection at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, featuring bronze, stone, wood and ceramic works of art from the ancient Khmers.

 
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