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Angkor: Cambodia's jewel in the jungle

By Joe Havely

The massive Angkor Wat temple is just part of an ancient imperial city
The massive Angkor Wat temple is just part of an ancient imperial city

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(CNN) -- The ancient city of Angkor, the center of a bizarre modern day spat between Cambodia and Thailand, is the jewel of Cambodia's cultural heritage.

Even the radical Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia in the 1970s and butchered most of its culture, regarded Angkor with a sense of awe and held it up as the peak of Cambodian civilization.

Much of the city's fame focuses on the monumental temple of Angkor Wat, an image of which appears on Cambodia's flag as well as gracing countless postcards and guidebook covers.

Certainly the temple itself is an architectural marvel of the ancient world, built in a perfect square more than a kilometer on each side and listed by the United Nations as a world heritage monument.

The temple's five towers, representing the mythical Hindu holy mountain, Mount Meru, dominate the surrounding jungle giving it, for many visitors, an Indiana Jones-type appeal.

The temple is surrounded by a huge moat which, according to legend, was once stocked with particularly ferocious crocodiles.

Angkor Wat itself has over well over a kilometer of intricate carvings, depicting scenes from the Hindu epic tale the Ramayana in vivid detail.

Imperial capital

For centuries after its fall the city of Angkor was abandoned to the jungle
For centuries after its fall the city of Angkor was abandoned to the jungle

In fact the city of Angkor comprises well over 70 temples, in various states of repair, spread across more than 30 square kilometers.

The city was built between the ninth and 14th centuries at the height of Cambodia's Khmer empire, which once governed much of modern day Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos as well as parts of southern China and Myanmar, and, of course, Cambodia itself.

Only religious structures were permitted to be built from stone, the rest of the city was built from wood and has long since succumbed to the humidity of Cambodia's jungle.

Today it is only the temples that survive, the remnants of a metropolis that was the envy of the ancient Southeast Asian world.

However, other than what has been interpreted from a few inscriptions and the lavish carved panels that cover many of the temples, little is known about the Khmer way of life in the time of Angkor.

Archaeological excavations have revealed that the city's agricultural system was supplied by a highly sophisticated network of canals and reservoirs that kept the rice paddies irrigated.

City of gold

The ruins are a valuable tourist attraction for one of Asia's poorest countries
The ruins are a valuable tourist attraction for one of Asia's poorest countries

According to one of the only written accounts of Angkor in its heyday, written in the 13th century by visiting Chinese ambassador Zhou Daguan, the city itself was a truly spectacular place dripping with gold and the riches of empire.

"At the center of the Kingdom rises a Golden Tower flanked by more than twenty lesser towers and several hundred stone chambers," Zhou wrote.

"On the eastern side is a golden bridge guarded by two lions of gold, one on each side, with eight golden Buddhas spaced along the stone chambers."

Today, all the gold and jewels have long gone -- much of it looted by invading Thai armies in the 14th and 15th centuries as the Khmer empire, in the tradition of all once mighty empires, overstretched itself and fell into decline.

But the legends of Angkor's magnificence remain and have become an important part of contemporary Cambodian society.

Beyond its portrayal on the national flag, Angkor today is a focus of national pride and identity for a people still trying to come to terms with the turmoil and bloodshed inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime.

It is also valued as Cambodia's principal tourist draw-card -- a vital asset for one of the poorest countries in Asia.

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