Angkor Thom is a large moated royal city, measuring three kilometers on a side. The complex was actually the last capital of the ancient Khmer kingdom, built by the great King Jayavarman VII around the turn of the 13th century. Within its walls were the royal palace and residences for all the king's family, generals and priests. At the very center is the state temple, the enigmatic Bayon. You enter this city through one of five large gates. Each gate is topped with four heads, facing each cardinal direction.
Most visitors enter through the south gate. You reach the gate by crossing a bridge over the moat, lined with a Naga serpent balustrade. If you want to enter the city in style, you can rent an elephant to take you all the way to the Bayon.
Built in its present form about 100 years after Angkor, the Buddhist Bayon temple is strikingly different than just about any other temple around Angkor. Its mountain-like structure is topped by 54 towers, each sporting four faces like the city's entrance gates. Although it might sound repetitive, each of the faces is slightly different.
Zhou Daguan, a Chinese emissary, describes the central tower of the Bayon as being gilt. The temple was reached on the eastern side by a golden bridge guarded by lions of gold. Eight golden Buddhas were housed in chambers around the central tower. Zhou Daguan was not actually allowed to enter the royal city, so his accounts are not always to be believed.
The meaning of the Bayon remains something of a mystery to this day. It is known that the temple was built on the remains of an older structure, and that it underwent many changes in the years after it was built.
The Baphuon temple was built around 1060, before the royal city of Angkor Thom was built around it, and only recently has restoration work resumed. The Baphuon was a man-made mountain or pyramid made of stone. Originally the temple was topped by a bronze shrine according to Zhou Daguan.
The Terrace of the Elephants stands in front of the platform where the royal palace once stood. The palace was made of wood, so nothing of it remains except the Phimeanakas. The terrace extends for 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) from the Baphuon to the Terrace of the Leper King. The terrace is decorated with a row of elephants along its facade.
The Terrace of the Leper King lies immediately north of the Elephant Terrace. The name of the terrace comes from a striking statue found on the platform of the terrace. Exactly who the statue represents is something of a mystery. It may be a king, or one of the gods.
Other, lesser known but no less interesting temples in Angkor Thom include Preah Paililay, the Preah Pithu Group, the Prasats Sour Prat and their Kleangs.