The Most Interesting Person I’ve Met While Traveling: An Ode to Giacomo

It was at the weekly school dinner at the Trattoria di Benvenuto in Florence that I first met James.

He was 22, from the UK, and beyond British. I was delighted – he spoke of “glorious serendipity” and “travelling Hesperia,” and already seemed to know everything there was about the city.

Duomo - Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy - YourLocalKatAs luck would have it, James was a Roman Historian by education, and a teacher, tour guide, and travel writer by trade. I was intrigued, but also wary – he spewed knowledge while I hated museums – how was I to hang out with someone that insisted I go to the Palazzo Pitti ‘if it’s the one thing I do’?  I smiled politely when he asserted I would have a “renaissance of the mind,” but told him: it just wasn’t me.

I was wrong.

I stepped into the Palazzo Pitti and hung onto his every word. For the first time in my life, history, culture, politics, architecturethey were things that I actually cared about, things that made sense. It was all right there in front of me, and for the remainder of the week, from museums to galleries, I inhaled it all.

James taught me about Greek mythology, Florentine history, Christian theology, and Italian art. He turned me into a museum geek, an art snob, and a history buff on the microuniverse of the renaissance.

And the inherent teacher that he was, he was always supportive, patient, and willing to correct me when I needed it:

Me: Was that the same Austrian dude on the ceiling?

Him: Austrian duke.

Me: …That’s what I meant…

Piazza della Repubblica, Florence, Italy - YourLocalKatI hold James in my highest regard. Not only because he articulates with eloquence and potency that rivals French romanticism, or because my unexpected transformation in Florence is attributed directly to him. No.

James, because of who he is and who he strives to be, is simply a great person, in the grandest meaning of the word – moral, just, and seemingly unafflicted by the daily woes of mortals, like weather, exhaustion, or uncomfortable shoes.

I’m not sure what he actually meant by “renaissance of the mind” but in the end, that’s what I know happened. By teaching me in context, about Italy in Florence, James woke something in me that reveled in learning and in understanding, and by doing so, he effectively changed the way I travel forever.

This post is an entry in the “Win a Trip to TBEX Contest” sponsored by WeHostelsWebjet, and TBEX.

The Faces of Bayon, The Smile of Angkor

Arriving at the gates of Angkor Thom, one of the city temples in the Angkor Archaeological complex, was like something out of a movie, or better yet, something out of an adventure book I’d read as a child.

Entrance to Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatTo be completely honest, I had been sorely underwhelmed by my visit to Angkor Wat the day before; maybe it was my expectations for it, all the guidebooks swearing it’d be breathtaking, or its size, too large for me to grasp completely, but it just didn’t wow me the way everyone else seemed to be wowed. I knew I was looking at something special, big, important…it just wasn’t that special, big or important to me.

So I was stunned when I arrived at Bayon.

Bayon Temple

From far away, Bayon actually looks like a glorified heap of rubble; besides a few stone peaks reaching for the sky, the whole temple looks more disorderly than sacred, and the stone blocks scattered around the premises only add to its ‘accidentally left behind’ atmosphere.  The rubble of Bayon. Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatBut upon getting closer, something that resembles a face begins to peer from one of the towers. Soon, there is another, and then another, and all of a sudden the realization hits that there is much more to this temple than meets the eye.

History of Bayon

Bayon was built in the late 12th century for King Jayavarman VII as the official state temple of Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer Empire at the time. Situated smack in the middle of the “great walled city,” the Buddhist temple is said to be one of his greatest achievements.

Bas-relief at Bayon. Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatFollowing the architectural style of the temple-mountain, a representation of the sacred center of the universe Mount Meru, Bayon reaches over 40 meters high and expands its grandiosity over 10km2, its walls covered in a gallery of detailed bas-reliefs (shallow sculpted stone) that stretch for almost a kilometer, and depict historical battles, mythological events, and everyday life.

The Faces Of Bayon

A smile of Bayon

But it is perhaps the greatest attribution to Jayavarman VII that holds me where I stand in awe: from the 54 towers that look out onto the city materialize 216 smiling faces, watchful and reserved. It is breathtaking, bizarre, and almost otherworldly.

Rumored by many to be more than just a coincidental resemblance to the king himself, they stand almost four meters tall, carefully observing as they blend in and out of the slabs of stone from which they themselves are assembled.

It is fitting: generally accepted as the embodiment of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the faces exude compassion for their audience; as a representation of the king, they retain a sense of distance from it –

the wide forehead, broad nose, deep nostrils, almond eyes, and that smile, almost clown-like, upturned at the ends, is a graceful union between serenity and control.

The Smile of Angkor

Bayon is considered one of the most beautiful temples of Angkor, and I can see why – there is a magic in walking among the faces, as if each holds the secrets to a hidden past. But the temple itself is still shrouded in mystery, and that’s the most beautiful experience of them all: standing face to face with the enigmatic smile of Angkor, and letting Bayon slowly reveal itself.

Three in a row. Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

Photo of the Week: Battambang Bats

The dark gaping slit in the middle of the cliff that was supposed to be the bat cave didn’t look too promising.

And then dusk started approaching, and something inside the darkness began to stir.

Like clockwork, at 5:45, the fruit bats fluttering within shot out, quietly and daintily and soon you could see the dotted line snaking away into the sky for miles.  It was almost comprehensible, the sheer amount of bats overhead.

Bats flying off, Battambang, Cambodia - YourLocalKatEvery evening, the bats make their way towards the floating markets nearby where they feast on a banquet of mosquitoes, and there are so many of them that it takes about two hours for them all to fly out.

How many, you ask? Oh, about EIGHT MILLION :D.

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The bat cave is at Phnom Sampeu, about 17 kilometers from the city center of Battambang, Cambodia, and the bats fly out everyday around dusk.