Bandar Al Khayran Highlights!

Longitude: 23° 30’ 50” N Latitude: 58° 43’ 57” E
The coves, coastal waterways, sea cliffs and beaches of Bander Al Khayran are a paradise for those that love the sea and its shoreline (and marine life)

Bandar Al Khayran

Here are some highlights to get you started:
• During summer, in the cooler late afternoon temperatures, Bander Al Khayran is an excellent venue to drive to for a sunset picnic or barbeque. (You can take a short hike down to the water’s edge for a quick snorkel session or swim before you eat).
• The long, sandy beach at As Sifah, which is a few minutes south of Bander Al Khayran by car, is perfect for long beach walks and refreshing swims in the Sea of Oman. There is also a popular seafood restaurant at As Sifah’s main parking area.
• On a boat trip from Marina Al Bandar, you’ll travel past the famous Al Bustan Palace Hotel and Barr Al Jissah Spa, as well as the iconic sea-arch formation that has naturally been eroded into the sea cliffs here over thousands of years.
• The mangrove growth that is part of the ecosystem at Bander Al Khayran provides a habitat for many living creatures – including many bird species.
• For first-time visitors to Muscat and Oman, the 45 minute drive to Bander Al Khayran is a spectacular introduction to the Sultanate’s arid, mountainous terrain. The last few kilometres of road run right next to Bander Al Khayran’s inland waterways and mangroves.
• Dolphins are often encountered on boat trips to Bander Al Khayran. At certain times of the year, Whale Sharks are also sometimes seen.
• There is a variety of underwater terrain – from shallow, protected coral reef gardens; to deeper 30 metre drop offs further offshore. The area is home to a vast array of tropical marine life. The wreck of the 3 000 ton Al Munnassir (sunk in 2003) also lies off one of Bander Al Khayran’s headlands.
• The coral reef systems here make the area popular for scuba diving and snorkelling. Dive charters can be arranged through various tour operators located in and around Muscat.
• For non-boat owners, there are a handful of ‘marine safari’ style tour operators that offer boat charters to Bander Al Khayran. (Many of them launch from Marina Al Bandar, just south of Muscat).
• Bander Al Khayran is well-known as a boating venue. Throughout the year, luxury yachts and powerboats of all kinds make their way to explore the area’s fjords, inlets and bays – or spend the day anchored next to the spectacular sea-cliffs and islands that rise straight up out of the sea.

All in all Bander Al Khayran is a scenic, easy hour’s drive southeast from Muscat. It is most popular as a boating venue, but certain parts of the area can be accessed by road. By boat or by car, it is well worth a visit!

Swiss Land of Luxury

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It might have something to do with the fact that Zurich has around 1,500 world-class restaurants and a thriving nightlife scene; or that it has 15 cinemas, 150 or so museums and about 100 art galleries. It might be because of the city’s impressive list of high-end shopping boutiques and malls; or that it lies next to the much loved and picture-perfect Lake Zurich (the main source of drinking water for the city). It could also be due to its super-efficient public transport system; or even the Zurich Street Parade, which is arguably the largest techno-dance street party in the world, and which takes place in late summer. It might also have something to do with Zurich being one of the top financial centers of the world, and home to several global financial companies and banks including UBS and Credit Suisse. Or that a reported 43% of the city’s rubbish gets recycled. Whatever the reasons, Zurich offers some of the best quality of life in Europe and the world – not only for residents, but for travellers too.
The above are the big things that make the city a liveable and luxurious place to be in. There are some world-famous little things that also make Zurich a luxurious place to be, “Swiss Made’ watches, Swiss chocolate, Swiss Cheese, and Swiss Army knives? You won’t be travelling to Zurich just because of these, but as they say, the simple, little pleasures in life are very often the real luxuries, and in Zurich, the watches, chocolate, cheese and knives are luxuries that cannot be ignored!

Watches: ‘Swiss Made’ mark of quality
Swiss watchmakers have a reputation for absolute precision. The Swiss-made ‘Calibre 89’ Patek Philippe watch, which was made for the brand’s 150th anniversary in 1989, is a good example. It contains 1,728 parts, and four people spent nine years working on it from initial research and design to final assembly. In Zurich, most of the watch dealers are located on the Bahnhofsstrasse – the city’s exclusive downtown shopping street. At places like Türler, which is one of Switzerland’s oldest authorised watch dealers; and Les Ambassadeurs, which stocks the largest selection of timepieces and jewellery in Switzerland, you’ll find watches from brands like Patek Philippe, Piaget, and Omega. Swatch watches, with their popular, contemporary-styled designs, and more affordable pricing, are modern classics, and can be found in stores all around Zurich. The phrase ‘Swiss Made’ marked onto a watch face is a sign that whatever is around your wrist is a top class time instrument and a luxury piece of equipment. You’ll find hundreds of handsome and beautiful watches that you’ll dream of having around your wrist in Zurich.

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For the love of chocolate
‘If nine out of ten people love Swiss chocolate. Then the tenth person is lying!’ says a Swiss travel brochure. Swiss chocolate is as much a part of Zurich culture as, well, Swiss chocolate. Over the years, the Swiss have been responsible for several key advancements in chocolate making – like the invention of a special mixing device which combined sugar and cocoa powder; the invention of various techniques to create much smoother chocolate; and the creation of special flavouring combinations like hazelnut chocolate, milk chocolate and chocolate fillings. For Swiss chocolate to be officially referred to as Swiss chocolate, the actual production of the chocolate must take place in Switzerland (the ingredients can be sourced from other countries). And the ‘Swiss Chocolate’ reference is jealously (and legally) guarded by the Swiss. In Zurich, chocolate lovers can visit famous chocolatier factory shop outlets like Frey, who are responsible for the majority of Swiss chocolate being produced these days, and Lindt – the much-loved brand whose origins stretch back as far back as 1879.

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Swiss cheese: Zurich Foodie’s luxury
The most famous Swiss cheese is Emmental – the cheese with big, distinct holes in it, which are due to carbon dioxide gas bubbles that are given off by the bacteria in the cheese while it is being made. Different regions of Switzerland have their own regional cheese specialties and many of them are available in the delicatessens and food boutiques around Zurich (together with a delicious selection of freshly baked Swiss breads). Zurich is also famous for its cheese fondue, which is made from combinations of Vacherin and Gruyère melted cheeses, and used as a dip for small pieces of bread. You will be very disappointed if you don’t have some on your travels around the city!
Located in Stein, which is about 90 minutes by train and bus from Zurich, is the Appenzell cheese dairy – where you can witness age-old cheese making traditions being combined with modern technology to produce a range of top class cheeses. Appenzell also has a restaurant with a large terrace that serves regional specialties and hearty cheese dishes.

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Swiss Army Knives: Practical little luxuries
‘Swiss Army Knives’ – represented by the Victorinox and Wenger brands – are the ultimate in handy, practical luxury. These famous pocket knives have an infinite amount of uses – and have been saving the day (and even saving lives) for people since they first started being produced around 1891. They look good too – and all these attributes combine to make Swiss Army Knives one of life’s practical little luxuries. If you don’t already have one, many stores in Zurich stock a range of different kinds. Some have up to 80 functions, although the most popular model is the ‘Swiss Champ’ which has a very handy 33 functions.

Swiss-style street shopping
Normally, street shopping is equated with exciting bargain hunting and finding great deals on quirky consumer items, clothes, and street-style food. The complete opposite scenario presents itself in Zurich. The Bahnhofstrasse, for example, is where some of the most exclusive and expensive shopping streets in the world are located. Here, you can get anything from diamond rings to fur coats to luxury watches to high-end fashion accessories. Of course, Bahnhofstrasse is also just a popular promenade for locals and visitors to meander around – spending their time people watching from the numerous public benches, or exploring the parks and alleyways just off the main road. There are also restaurants, coffee shops and eateries in abundance here. During the day Niederdorf, in the Old Part of Zurich, is a pedestrian zone and a shopper’s paradise with lots of boutiques hidden away in the alleys. At night the many restaurants and entertainment venues turn the Niederdorf into an exciting centre for Zurich’s younger crowd. Lowenstrasse, which runs west of Bahnhofstrasse from the main train station, has a selection of department stores and shops, which are definitely worth a visit. Zurich really is a land of luxury.

Travel Token: Swiss Cow Bell?
Swiss cow bells have been used by Swiss farmers to locate their herds in the country’s open Alpine meadows for centuries. They are a symbol of Swiss culture and are often hung on walls inside homes as decoration. The cow bells that can be found around Zurich feature colourfully embroidered leather straps.

Oman Air flies four times a week between Muscat-Zurich.

Kuala Lumpur: Head East for Adventure!

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‘An established and emerging first world city with old world charm,’ is how one travel agent describes Kuala Lumpur. The description is just about spot on. Kuala Lumpur is a place where uber-modern high rise buildings, shopping malls, street markets, restaurants, and a constantly pulsating night life all combine with a beautiful ‘old world’ selection of historical and cultural relics.

But while many tourists see Kuala Lumpur as more of a city stopover for a few days – from which to explore the rest of Malaysia from – ‘KL’ should be considered a destination in its own right. It especially provides the chance for travellers to organise and be involved with some world-class outdoor adventure experiences – either in the city itself, or a short drive away. Here are a few of them. Malaysia is definitely worth doing – but don’t miss out on Kuala Lumpur. This is where the action is!

White Water Rafting
Just outside the city are some of Malaysia’s most exciting rivers for white water rafting and kayaking. Sungai Selangor, for example, contains sections of up to grade 4 whitewater rapids. It is just over an hour’s drive outside Kuala Lumpur, and the best sections of the river – with rapids, waterfalls, and rainforest scenery – can be rafted in a few hours, before you return to the city.
Also, a bit further away, but still within easy range of Kuala Lumpur, are the Sungai Telom River, which runs near the beautiful tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands; and the Jeram Besu River near Benta (where there are eco-tourism operators that also organise caving, trekking, and 4×4 off-road adventures).

Jungle Trekking
There are dozens of short and multiple-day treks in and around Kuala Lumpur. One of the highlights is the Bukit Tabur trek in Klang Valley, which is on the outskirts of the city. After three or four hours of strenuous (but not overly difficult) trekking and rock scrambling, you get a breathtaking view of the Klang Gates Dam and surrounding areas of jungle. Another top trek is the hour-long Broga Hill, which is also on the edge of the city, and a popular spot to hike up at dawn to watch the sunrise. Of course there are many outdoor adventure operators based in Kuala Lumpur that can advise where and how to trek in the region.

Paragliding
The hilly terrain surrounding Kuala Lumpur and the weather conditions associated with these lend themselves perfectly to the to the sport of paragliding – either for experienced pilots who want to fly by themselves, or visitors (with no previous flying experience) who can meet up with one of a handful of adventure operators based in Kuala Lumpur for a tandem paragliding flight. Flights from the hills at Bukit Sendayan, which are a few minute’s drive south of the city, are especially popular.

Kuala Lumpur Nature Trail Tour
Located along the Selayang-Kepong highway, about a 45 minute drive north from the city centre, the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) is a 600 hectare tropical rainforest filled with thousands of flora and fauna species. As much a recreational park as a forest reserve, its nature trails give visitors an excellent opportunity to learn more about the many plant species in this part of the world. Part of the tour includes the rather scary Canopy Walkway – a 200 metre long suspension bridge, raised 30 metres above the ground, that offers breathtaking views of the of surrounding forest flora and fauna.

Fireflies?
This might be more for the curious than the adventurous, but the best known attraction at Kuala Selangor (the coastal village an hour’s drive north from Kuala Lumpur) are fireflies. Locally known as ‘kelip-kelip’ these incandescent bugs are a truly beautiful sight as they glow and light up the night skies of Kuala Selangor Nature Park.

Skydiving
The simplest way to experience skydiving in Kuala Lumpur without the worry of training is by signing up to do a tandem skydive. After a short 20 to 30 minute briefing, first time skydivers hop in a small aeroplane with their jumpmaster, and head up to an altitude of 10 000 feet to do a tandem jump, which includes a long, 35 second freefall period and spectacular views during your canopy ride back to earth. There is more than one skydiving school that operates from Taman, just outside the city.

Rock Climbing
The 400 million year old Batu Caves, located 13 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur is a popular Hindu site and boasts a beautiful temple in a cave within the 150 metre high limestone hill. The site is popular with tourists, but it is also a top class rock climbing destination, with over 170 established routes on the crags and cliffs near the caves. There are also a few well maintained and popular indoor rock-climbing gyms in the city itself.

Scuba Diving
While there are plenty dive schools based in Kuala Lumpur, most divers use the city as a base from which to explore other parts of the country. Tioman Island is off the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia, and very easily accessible from Kuala Lumpur. As a dive destination, it is famous for its big schools of fish, turtles, rays and reef sharks – and occasionally, whale sharks.
Redang Island, which is also off the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia (and easy to get to from Kuala Lumpur), is well known for its white sand beaches and superb water visibility. The coral reefs here are home to a huge variety of smaller tropical fish species and marine life. At the slightly more out-of-the-way Perhentian Islands (they are still close to Tioman and Redang) there are plenty coral and fish, but also sea turtles and many species of sharks.

Kuala Lumpur: ‘Urban Adventures’
Some of the more popular ‘city adventures’ and experiences in KL…
Markets: For street-market style shopping, the Central Market, near Chinatown, is a must-visit, as is the Petaling Street market. The modern Pavilion Kuala Lumpur mall sets the golden standard for mall shopping in the city.

Petronas Towers: At a height of 451.9 metres, these twin stainless steel towers represent the best of what modern Kuala Lumpur is about. The 421 metre high Kuala Lumpur Tower is another landmark mega structure in the city (and the highest viewpoint in Kuala Lumpur that is open to the public).

Islamic Arts Museum: Home to collections of Islamic decorative arts – with prominent displays of textiles, carpets, jewellery and calligraphy-inscribed pottery. (The building itself features beautifully decorated domes and glazed tilework).

Merdeka Square: The huge open square where Malaysian independence was declared in 1957 is the usual venue for the annual Merdeka National Day Parade.

Kuala Lumpur Bird Park: The ‘World’s Largest Free-flight Walk-in Aviary’ offers a literal ‘theme park’ of birds – and is located on just over 29 acres of green, verdant valley terrain.

Bukit Bintang shopping and entertainment district: The area has long been Kuala Lumpur’s most prominent retail belt that is home to many retail outlets, cafés, night markets, and hawker-type eateries.

MAP galleries: The MAP art hub consists of the ‘White Box’ gallery and ‘Black Box’ new media space, and provides a place for artists from the region from multidisciplinary backgrounds to share their works.

Oman Air flies seven times a week between Muscat – Kuala Lumpur.

Global recognition puts Oman Air in the awards spotlight!

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Farnborough Air Show, in England, was the setting in July for a glittering ceremony which brought together 250 of the greatest names in aviation to recognise the very best that 21st Century air travel has to offer.
And to Oman Air’s delight, it won one category, was placed second and third in two others and achieved top ten positions in a further seven categories of the World Airline Awards.
The World Airline Awards are sometimes referred to as theOscars of the airline world and are organised by independent airline quality experts Skytrax. They are decided following a year-long global survey of nearly 19 million air travellers, drawn from more than 100 countries and covering more than 200 airlines.
So, with each category effectively decided by airlines’ most exacting judges, their customers, it was with a genuine sense of pride and gratitude that Oman Air’s General Manager Marketing, Mohammed Al Shikely, and its Acting Country Manager for the UK, Jamal Al Azki, took to the stage to receive the award for Best Staff Service Middle East from Skytrax CEO Edward Plaisted.
After collecting the award, Mohammed Al Shikely said, “It was a great honour to accept the award of Best Airline Staff Service Middle East on behalf of Oman Air especially since this award represents the most important element in our industry – the service that our staff give to our customers, on the ground and in the air – making this an award that belongs to every member of the Oman Air family.
“We are particularly proud to receive this award, as it confirms the bond that we have developed between our customers and our staff, both on the ground and in the air. The interaction between staff and customers lies at the heart of the high levels of service we offer and is an important reflection of the legendary culture of hospitality for which Oman, and Oman Air, is famed. We are delighted that, as this year’s World Airline Awards have shown, Oman Air’s hospitality has been recognised and valued so highly by the industry’s most exacting and demanding judges – air travellers themselves.”
In addition to the Best Staff Service Middle East award, Oman Air was placed second in the Best Onboard Catering Business Class category and third in the Best Airline Seat Business Class category. Top ten places we also achieved in the World’s Best Airline in Business Class, Best Airline in the Middle East, Best Airline Seat Economy Class, World’s Best Airline in Economy Class, Best First Class Airline Catering, Best Economy Class Airline Catering, and Best Airline Business Class Comfort Amenities categories.
This year’s success builds on previous recognitions at the World Airline Awards that includes winning World Best Business Class Airline Seat in 2011 and 2012, as well as gaining a range of top ten, top five and top three placings in other categories. And earlier this year, the World Travel Awards named the airline World’s Best Business Class Airline Middle East and World’s Best Economy Class Airline Middle East. Further acclaim has been received from American Express Executive Travel magazine, which in May named Oman Air as the second best airline in the world, from Business Insider, which listed Oman Air in the top ten of its World’s Best Airlines 2014 list. Travel trade publications TTG and BMI Selling Travel have also hailed Oman Air’s quality, with both titles shortlisting the airline for awards which will be announced later this year.
Oman Air’s Acting Chief Executive Officer, Salim Al Kindy, expressed his delight at the airline’s performance in so many award programmes, saying, “As Oman Air approaches its next phase of rapid expansion, which will start later this year with the arrival of the first of the 20 aircraft we have on order, it is immensely satisfying to know that air travellers feel that the service we offer is amongst the best in the world.”

Season of Plenty: Khareef!

During the annual ‘Khareef’ monsoon season, Dhofar’s mountains, valleys, coastlines and interior become rain soaked and shrouded in mist – presenting travellers with an enchanting world of natural greenery, water and blissfully cool temperatures…

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From June through to September every year, the monsoon winds that blow inland over Salalah and the Dhofar coastline cause cool, moisture-laden air from the sea to rise up, and condense into thick fog and constant, light drizzle. The result is an explosion of green as the plants, grasses, trees, shrubbery and natural vegetation in the hills and valleys around Dhofar come to life – so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in a tropical jungle in some parts. The streams and springs also come alive with the flow of water.
Khareef is the Arabic term used to describe this natural event. The word refers to the autumn season in which it occurs – but it also means ‘winds of plenty’. The blissfully cool temperatures in Dhofar during the summer months (they remain in the mid to low twenties during monsoon season) are a stark contrast to the rest of the country’s much warmer temperatures at this time of year. The overall sense of being part of a landscape that is bursting with life can have a profound effect on those experiencing it, and Dhofar and Salalah witness a massive influx of travellers over the Khareef season. But what adds even more allure to the idea of spending time in this region, are the fascinating array of cultural-historical and nature experiences on offer for the traveller.

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10 Salalah Highlights

1. Museum of the Frankincense Land: This museum provides a fascinating look at the history of Frankincense in Salalah.
2. Marneef Cave: Here, there are interesting cave formations and blowholes next to the sea.
3. Sumahram Old City: Legend has it that Sumharam was the fortress belonging to the Queen of Sheba.
4. The Frankincense Trail: The site includes frankincense trees, Khor Rori and the remains of a caravan oasis, which were all crucial to the medieval incense trade.
5. Nabi Ayoub’s Tomb: A small building encloses this important and revered tomb, which is set into the floor and draped with green silk cloth. (Also known as ‘Job’s Tomb’).
6. Salalah Museum: This small, well-kept museum documents Salalah’s history, as well as its maritime heritage.
7. Beaches: There are dozens of coves and bays to explore along the Dhofar coastline, and many kilometres of unspoilt beach.
8. Wadi Darbat: This is a natural park with majestic views of waterfalls, lakes, mountains, caves, wildlife and lush green vegetation.
9. Khor Rawri: Khor Rawri is one of the most scenic river valleys on the Arabian Peninsula.
10. Ain Homran: This natural spring is a paradise of beautiful greenery, water and rock formations. It is also an excellent spot for bird watching (several species of eagles have been identified here).

Ala Souq: Market Day
This much-loved souq is located in the middle of one of Salalah’s old neighbourhoods, and is famous for its high quality frankincense supplies, and traditional crafts like basketry, leatherwork, pottery, silverware etc. Photographers will love that it is also situated in an area that provides classic examples of Arabic architecture and design.

Frankincense and ‘The Perfume Capital’
Frankincense is a symbol of life for the Dhofari people. Dhofar was a major exporter of frankincense in ancient times, with some of it being traded as far away as China. To this day, Frankincense from Dhofar is prized for its quality. A bag of fine quality frankincense from ‘The Perfume Capital’ as Salalah is referred to, along with the set of paraphernalia used for burning it – Omani frankincense brazier, charcoals and tweezers – make a wonderful (and compact) travel souvenir to take home.

Reason to celebrate: The Salalah Tourism Festival
The Khareef Festival (officially the ‘Salalah Tourism Festival’) celebrates the fantastic, life-giving processes that this part of the world goes through every season. It also celebrates the people, customs, traditions and the remarkable, fascinating lifestyles that have been part of this great natural event since the earliest of times. The festival is held for around thirty days over July and August, and is a cultural extravaganza of folklore, dancing, music, crafts, art, photography, poetry, storytelling, theatre, and much more.

The Majesty of Northern India

It’s been said that the question about India travel is not when and why you do it (every serious traveller must visit some time!), but rather how you’re going to explore the place. And where do you possibly begin? Northern India is a truly majestic place, and a great region to begin…
Independence Day
And in Northern India, New Delhi (the county’s capital) is probably the best place to start. New Delhi as well as the much older and antiquated ‘Old Delhi’ (officially, ‘Delhi’) might be in close proximity to each other, but there is an immense contrast between the two. The narrow streets and outlying areas of Old Delhi are filled with history and fantastic relics of the past (forts, monuments, mosques and artworks) – all left behind by the Mughal rulers that once occupied the city. The much more modern New Delhi is a city of beautifully landscaped gardens, wide streets, and trendy cafes, restaurants and malls. Both are worth visiting, and the two provide a fitting introduction to the truly huge variety of life that defines this spectacular country.

‘Northern India’
For the first time traveller, the ‘northern parts of India’ could do well as a description of the area. But the official geographic definitions of Northern India are more technical.
The Government of India defines the North India Cultural Zone as including the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, as well as the Union Territory of Chandigarh.
Then there is an overlapping neighbouring region, called the North Central India Cultural Zone that includes Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar and Delhi. The state of Bihar is also included in the East India Cultural Zone; and Rajasthan in the West India Cultural Zone – both of which form part of Northern India.

After Delhi and New Delhi, many travellers complete the ‘Golden Triangle’ tourist circuit, which includes the best of what Agra (including the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur have to offer. Trips typically last about a week. But in Northern India, a literal lifetime of experiences and adventures await. Here are some of the more popular ones.

1. Golden Temple: Amritsar is one of the largest cities of the Punjab state in India, and home to the exquisite Golden Temple – the spiritual capital of the Sikhs.
2. Varanasi: Located on the banks of Ganga River in the Uttar Pradesh region, Varanasi is perhaps the oldest living city in the world and a famous Hindu pilgrimage centre.
3. Agra Red Fort: Originally built in 1565 as a military establishment, this massive fort is two-and-a-half kilometres long and entirely encompassed by a moat and 20 foot high wall.
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4. Qutub Minar: At just over 72 metres in height, this is the tallest stone tower in India, and one of the most visited spots in Delhi. It is reportedly the first Islamic structure built in India.
5. Trekking in Ladakh: Located in the Jammu and Kashmir state in the extreme north of India, Ladakh is one of the least populated districts in India. It is nestled high in the Himalayan Valley, and famed for its adventure trekking. This area also has ample opportunities for mountaineering, river rafting and skiing adventures.
6. Rajasthan Forts and Palaces: Rajasthan is famous for its numerous forts and palaces that are absolute masterpieces of Indian architecture and illustrations of the subliminal culture of Indian royalty and splendour.
7. Valley of flowers: This national park lies in the Zanskar range of the Himalayas, and is famous for its meadows of endemic alpine flowers and rare and endangered animals. Permits are required for entry, and no overnight visits are allowed.
8. Dharamshala: This fascinating place in the Kangra Valley (Himachal Pradesh State) is surrounded by dense coniferous forest. ‘Upper’ Dharamashala is an especially popular hang-out for foreigners and students of Buddhism (the Tibetan Buddhist roots of Dharamsala stretch back to the 8th century).
9. Jaipur: Jaipur is the largest city in Rajasthan and was built in the 18th century by Sawai Jai Singh as India’s first planned city. It is also called the Pink City in reference to its distinctly coloured buildings, which were originally painted this colour to imitate the red sandstone architecture of Mughal cities.
10. Ranthambore National Park: This Rajasthan park supports a diverse range of flora and fauna, including around 30 tigers. It is very popular (sometimes overcrowded) due to its proximity to Delhi and the fact that the tigers are easy to spot here.

Cultural Capital of the World
Northern India is a highly concentrated mixing pot of great cultures. The traveller to these lands comes face to face with a truly massive and glorious array of art, design, architecture, dress, cuisine, customs, languages, lifestyles and history. To call this place the cultural capital of world is no overstatement.
It is also a concentration point for the world’s great religious cultures. The region encompasses several of the holiest pilgrimage centres of Hinduism, the most sacred destinations of Buddhism, the most important pilgrimage points of Sikhism, and several highly regarded destinations in Sufi Islam. The largest Hindu temple in India, Akshardham Temple; the largest Buddhist temple in India, Mahabodhi; the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid; and the largest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple; are all located in Northern India.

Ganges Boat Tour
Varanasi and the Ganges River Boat Trip
The Ganges is the famous trans-boundary river which has its source in the western Himalayan region in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and which flows south and east through the eastern plains of Northern India, and eventually into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. It is considered the 15th longest river in Asia and a lifeline to millions of people who live along its course. The city of Varanasi has been a cultural centre of Northern India for thousands of years. For travellers, a river trip done on the Varanasi section of the Ganges at dawn or at sundown is an unforgettable experience – and a way to catch a fleeting glimpse of the profound, living spirituality of the people that have existed here for eons.

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The Crown of Palaces
In Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the Taj Mahal – the ‘crown of palaces’ – remains a much-loved site visited and photographed by thousands of travellers every week. The Taj was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. The building was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia and over 1 000 elephants were used to transport the materials needed to build it. The translucent white marble was brought from Makrana, Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, and the jade and crystal from China. The turquoise was imported from Tibet and the lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, while the sapphire came from Sri Lanka and the carnelian from Arabia. In all, twenty eight types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble. The Taj was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. To many, the Taj remains the most beautiful building in the world and ‘the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage,’ according to UNESCO.

Muscat’s Big Bus Tour

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(Image Courtesy: Big Bus Tour Facebook)

In the modern day world of transport where ‘faster, more powerful, and more efficient’ seem to be the ultimate ideal, it is reassuring to know that the good old trusty bus – especially the traditional double-decker bus – is still the most satisfying and enriching way to explore a city…
Muscat’s Big Bus Tour is a remarkable example of this. The Big Bus open-top tour puts its passengers in touch with Muscat like no other mode of transport could. For anyone that wants to explore the city, and wants a good overview of the city’s best features and landmarks, then a Big Bus Tour is absolutely essential. While buses are traditional modes of transport, the Big Bus experience is very modern. Passengers receive fun, informative commentary throughout the journey that details Muscat’s fascinating history, and highlights the city’s landmarks, noteworthy buildings, and all the attractions that travellers might find interesting. Passengers are also given an insight into the Sultanate of Oman’s rich culture and traditions. Earphones are provided for commentary in English, Arabic, French, German, Italian or Spanish.

The Big Bus fleet was designed with Muscat’s warm climate in mind. The front section of each bus has an enclosed sun canopy; and the rear end is completely open for those wishing to enjoy the weather and a traditional open top, wind-in-your-hair style journey. But the best part of the tour is that passengers can hop-on and hop-off at each stopover point at their leisure. There are ten stops or ‘stations’ – and you can spend as long or short as you like exploring each point, with no need to stick to a pre-determined schedule. Every passenger is also provided with a full-colour route map with details of what to see and do at each point.

The Route: What to See and Do

Mutrah Souq, Station 1: Mutrah Souq is one of the oldest markets in the Arabian World. It is easy to lose yourself here in the charm and ambiance of the little shops and market stores selling hundreds of Omani treasures – from the most practical household goods, to the most extravagant luxuries. This is the start of the route, and the place where you’ll eventually return at the end of the journey.

Churches and Temples, Station 2: Here, passengers can visit the Sri Krishna Temple, Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church, and the Protestant Church in Oman.

Hay As Saruj, Station 3: The Hay As Saruj stop is near the beautiful Royal Opera House Muscat – Oman’s premier venue for musical arts and culture. Hay As Saruj is a nice stop-off to relax, rest and ‘hang out’ for a while, as there are many shops and restaurants in the vicinity. The sandy beach of Al Shatti is also close by. It is excellent for long walks and safe swimming.

Shatti, Station 4: At the Shatti stopover, passengers disembark at the promenade along the Al Shatti beach. The sandy beach is the perfect place to swim in the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman, or relax in the shade of the palm trees and beach huts. Behind the beach are sections of the Al Qurum Mangrove Reserve. There are also some popular cafes and restaurants here.

Al Qurum National Park, Station 5: Al Qurum Natural Park is the largest park in Muscat. The park contains a boating lake and fountain, ‘Waterfall Hill’, the Sultan Qaboos Rose Garden, and meandering pathways that weave around the park’s floral gardens. There are lots of grassy areas here to sit down and relax on.

Central Business District, Station 6: Here passengers can explore parts of Ruwi, which is the bustling city centre of Muscat. The Muscat Clock Tower, which is the oldest monument in ‘modern Oman, is also here. It was created as a symbol of the Sultanate’s commitment to modernisation.

Parliament, Station 7: Oman’s new parliament buildings, locally known as Majlis Oman, house the council of Oman, the state council, the consultation council and common facilities. The gigantic 64 metre high clock tower is an icon of the buildings. The five-star Al Bustan Palace hotel is also just down the road.

Marina Views, Station 8: This stop is at an elevated lookout point on the coastal road. From here, there are spectacular views of the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Oman. Down below, there are the charter boats and yachts of the Marina Bandar Al Rowdha, and a small, rocky island about 500 metres off-shore that tourists often refer to as ‘Cat Island’. Viewed from a certain angle, it supposedly looks like a cat.

Al Alam Palace, Station 9: Al Alam Royal Palace is the grand ceremonial palace of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Visitors are not allowed inside the palace, but they can get a good view of the building’s beautiful, bold architecture from the entrance gates. The exquisite Al Khor Mosque is also here, as well as the sixteenth century Al Mirani and Al Jalali forts. This is a good viewpoint for the towering Al Jazirah Island, just off-shore.

Mutrah Corniche, Station 10: The Mutrah Corniche stretches three kilometres along the edge of Muscat’s harbour port. There are gardens, fountains and sculpture works dotted all along the cornice, and a fruit and vegetable market at the northern end. At the dhow port and fish market, Omani fishermen can be seen unloading their catches.

Even more of Muscat?
As an added bonus, from November to May, Big Bus Tour passengers can do a free Heritage Walk tour that leaves at 3pm daily from the Al Alam Royal Palace (Station 9). The tour explores the charm of old Muscat – and takes you to ancient forts, the Al Alam Royal Palace, a concealed harbour, museums, a Persian Style Mosque, and the Royal Court. Also, between November and May, there is a free shuttle service to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque from the Mutrah Souq (Station 1) or Hay As Saruj (Station 3). This is the largest mosque in Oman, which can accommodate up to 20 000 worshippers. It is an exquisite work of art and architecture, and absolutely worth seeing.

For more information about Big Bus Tours in Muscat visit http://www.bigbustours.com

Maldives: Indian Ocean Paradise

The tropical island paradise of the Maldives really does represent the most conventional of travel clichés: Powder white sands, palm trees swaying in the tradewind breeze, turquoise blue sea, coral reefs filled with colourful fish, and days spent lazing around the beach and island lodge sipping coconut juice cocktails – watching island life go by at its own, gentle pace

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Paging through picture-perfect travel guides and brochures of the place, you might even think it could all be too good to be true. This place really is a paradise!
The Maldives is an archipelago nation of 1,190 coral islands in the Indian Ocean’s Laccadive Sea. They begin around 400 kilometres south-west of India, and run in a north to south direction for about 750 kilometres. On average, of the 26 atolls that make up the Maldives, each one has approximately 5 to 10 inhabited islands; and about 20 to 60 uninhabited islands.

Interestingly, the Maldives is also the lowest country in the world, with the highest natural point in the entire archipelago being only 2.4 metres. Although in built up areas, of course, the height above sea level is several metres more than this. Tourism is the largest industry in the Maldives. And for a good reason… For first timers to the Maldives, the best way to experience the place is to travel to an inhabited island. As the Maldivian Tourism board points out, it is a typical island custom that everyone finishes their work by late afternoon, takes their daily showers, dresses their children in fresh clothes and goes for a stroll around their island, visiting friends and relatives, and delivering small bowls of fresh, homemade curry, or taking some time to relax at the beach, enjoying the late afternoon sun while the children play around at the shoreline.

It is all a very special part of the Maldives, and for the traveller, something heart-warmingly special to witness and be a part of. You’ll also be able to find locally made handicrafts at most of these islands. There are over 100 different island resorts to choose from in the Maldives, so the traveller is spoilt for choice as to where to stay. There is also a general ‘one island one resort’ rule adhered to by the archipelago’s hospitality establishments, which means that you can have complete privacy, and relax in the knowledge that you and your fellow resort guests will always have the island to yourselves. Although lounging around your island the whole day, or going for regular treatments at your resort spa are perfectly good things to do, there is a lot more to see and do in the Maldives…

Fishing is an essential part of Maldivian culture. Many say that another good way to get to grips with the Maldivian way of life is to head out on a night reef fishing trip. Typically, you and your party will hop in a boat just before sunset, and head off to a local fishing spot to catch what will end up being your delicious grilled fish dinner later that evening, when you return to your island. Most of the time, these fishing trips can be organised by the island resort you’re staying at.

Staying with the theme of water – the Maldives is an absolute paradise for divers. The whole chain of islands has excellent visibility throughout the year – sometimes up to 40 metres and more – as well as warm water. Divers can explore swim-throughs, caverns, shipwrecks, deep drop-offs and wall dives, and overhangs covered with all kinds of colourful marine life and sea creatures. This region of the Indian Ocean is also well known for Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, Dolphins, and Turtles. Add to this literally hundreds of different dives sites, and hundreds of species of fish and marine creatures – as well as the fact that many of the dive sites can be accessed almost effortlessly from your resort – and it is easy to see why many consider the Maldives to be the best dive destination in the world.

Most resorts are well equipped with snorkelling equipment, seakayaks, windsurfers and catamarans for days spent ‘at home’ – and they also often have parasailing, kite-surfing, water-skiing, and jet-skiing experiences available for guests. The Maldives is also a top-notch surf destination, with especially good quality surf to be found from May through to October. There are several well-known surf breaks just offshore from some of the atoll’s hotels, but more out-of-the-way spots can be accessed by specialised surf charter cruises that operate in and around the Maldives atolls.

Of course, Malé is the capital and most populous city in the Republic of Maldives. As a contrast to the hundreds of uninhabited islands in the archipelago, Malé is packed with high rise buildings, businesses, restaurants, tea rooms and coffee cafes – and shops selling home goods and travel artifacts like model Dhonis, which are the traditional wooden fishing vessels of the Maldives. Malé is a good place to base yourself for a short while before heading off into the rest of the archipelago. While you’re here, the fresh produce and food markets, as well as the many markets selling local souvenirs, can be a shopper’s dream, and provide an opportunity to experience more of the Maldivian culture. Malé’s small National Museum and National Art Gallery are both worth a visit. And the Hukuru Miskiiy Mosque, which is the oldest in the country, is also worth seeing (although prior permission needs to be obtained). The mosque dates from 1656 and is well known for its beautiful coral stone construction. The interior is exquisitely finished in fine lacquer work and elaborate woodcarvings. One long wall panel, reportedly carved in the 13th century, commemorates the introduction of Islam to the Maldives.

Oman Air flies five times a week between Muscat – Malé.

Unmistakably UAE

For many, the Middle East comes to focus when they hear the name ‘Dubai’ mentioned. Surprisingly what many do not know is Dubai is the modern face of the larger United Arab Emirates (UAE), fêted for many things ancient and modern
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Deep Roots
Despite its harsh climatic conditions and the vast seas of ubiquitous sand, the original roots of the UAE run deep – very deep, in fact – to centuries before oil stuck in the 1950s, to when they were first exported commercially in the year 1962. The earliest recorded settlements in the UAE date back to the Bronze Age. In the 3rd millennium BC, a culture known as Umm al-Nar arose near modern Abu Dhabi. Umm al-Nar’s influence extended well into the interior and right down the coast to today’s Oman. There were also settlements at Badiyah (near Fujairah) and at Rams (near Ras al-Khaimah) during the third millennium BC.

The Transformation
But it was the discovery of oil that proved to be the elixir for this desert nation, transforming this once unknown and reticent fishing village into one of the most prosperous countries in living memory. With Abu Dhabi becoming the first of the Emirates to start exporting oil, the country’s society and economy were transformed forever, for good. And it was the late, lamented Sheikh Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi and the President of the UAE during its inception, oversaw the development of all the Emirates and directed oil revenues into health care, education and the national infrastructure UAE is today a vivacious nation that is rich in history and steeped in culture, that is equally acknowledged as the preferred entry points for travels into the Middle East region, from any global destination.

The Location
To be found geographical on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, UAE has Saudi Arabia to the west and southwest and the Sultanate of Oman to the southeast and on the eastern tip of the Musandam Peninsula, as well as an Omani enclave within its borders. The UAE have coastlines on the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, sharing sea borders with Qatar and Iran.

The Seven Emirates
To put things in proper context, the United Arab Emirates, oft times known merely as the ‘Emirates’, is a federation of seven independent Emirates. A hereditary Emir governs each these constituent Emirates and all of them come together to choose one of their members to be the President of the UAE Federation. The seven Emirates that together form the UAE are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain. The largest Emirate is Abu Dhabi, which accounts for 87% of the UAE’s total area (67,340 square kilometers). The smallest Emirate is Ajman, which encompasses only 259 square kilometers. Intentionally the islands, man-made and natural, have been left out. The capital city of the UAE is the bustling Abu Dhabi, which also happens to be the state’s main center of political, industrial and cultural pursuits. Dubai is the most populated Emirate with 35.6% of the UAE population. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi has a further 31.2%, meaning that over two-thirds of the UAE population lives in either Abu Dhabi, or Dubai.

Cosmopolitan Crowds
The wealth discovered in the UAE acted as a powerful magnate to attract people from all over the world, who thronged to its shores to capitalise on the country’s massive growth and development opportunities that presented itself. Today, the population is incredibly varied and diverse. At the end of 2012, the population of UAE was recorded to be at 8.2 million, with 11.47% being the ‘real’ Emiratis (locals). Most of the rest come from the Indian Subcontinent of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or Bangladesh (about 60%); other parts of South-East Asia, particularly the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia (another perhaps 20%); and “Western” countries (Europe, Australia, North America, South Africa 5%), with the remainder from everywhere else.

A Land of Mesmerizing Contrasts
UAE is a mind-boggling study in contrasts. Besides the mega malls and skyscrapers can be found quaint little ‘souqs’, where even to this date trading takes place just as it did centuries ago. Besides the global brands and the fancy cars can be found people who still faithfully follow their traditional Bedouin customs and modest lifestyles. Undoubtedly, generous credit is due to those who had the vision and have successfully dared to convert their dreams into realities – retain the old-world charm of this country, yet convert it to make it one of the most modern of nations within the region, if not in the world.

Places to See and Things to Do
The United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, has all the right ingredients for an unforgettable holiday – sun, sand, sea, sports, unbeatable shopping, top-class hotels and restaurants, an intriguing traditional culture, and a safe and welcoming environment to name a few. For want of space we shall limit our scope to cover only the key attractions found in the two of the largest Emirates of the UAE, namely Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Dubai has rightfully earned its names as ‘The City of Superlatives’ for its coveted collection of the ‘biggest’, ‘largest’, ‘tallest’ presentations. Juxtaposed against these modern marvels are also some ancient wonders too.

Dubai Museum: A definite stop by, this museum retraces the social history of the Emirates. From ancient reed houses to pearl diving implements, rare collections of artifacts are kept for public display. The reconstructed centuries old ‘traditional souq’ replete with authentic sights and sounds adds to its aura.

Jumeirah Mosque: Built in the medieval Fatimid traditions, this is the largest mosque in the city showing stunning samples of Islamic architecture and Arabic calligraphy. This is one of the few mosques where non-Muslims are allowed entry.
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Burj Khalifa: Standing tall at 828 metres and 160 floors this is the world’s tallest structure by a long shot, over 300m taller than its closest contender is. The observation deck at the 124th floor is the second highest in the world after the Shanghai World Financial Center. Dominating the Dubai skyline, is the tower houses nine hotels and a Las Vegas-inspired fountain system. Advance booking is required to visit the observation deck.

The Dubai Fountain: At 270m (900ft) in length and sporting a jet that shoots water up to 150m (500ft), the Dubai Fountain is the world’s largest dancing fountain with classical, Arabic and world music. Daily shows start every evening at the Burj Dubai Lake.

The Palm Islands: These are arguably one of the world’s modern man-made marvels. The Palm Islands are an artificially created archipelago just off the coast of UAE in the Persian Gulf. The Palm Islands are made of the Palm Jumeirah, the Palm Jebel Ali and the Palm Deira. Besides these, there are also two other artificial archipelagos namely The World and The Universe, located between the Palm Islands.

Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo: Set right in the centre of Dubai Mall, this aquarium is one of the largest of its kind in the world with a record-breaking acrylic panel and 270-degree glass walk-through tunnel. Best of all, the bold can go for a dive in the aquarium amongst the sharks, stingrays and enormous groupers. Some other note worthies would have to be Dubai’s enviable shopping options, excellent golfing facilities, beach and desert safaris to name just a few.

Abu Dhabi has its fair share of places to see too.
Abu Dhabi Heritage Village: Take a trip back in time to discover what life was like for the town’s early inhabitants – the Al Bu Falah branch of the Bani Yas tribal group from Liwa who moved to Abu Dhabi in the 1790s. The town quickly evolved as an important pearling centre. Pearl divers and boatmen tended their date gardens and camels in the oasis and desert of the hinterland during the winter and trekked back to the coast in the summer months to dive for pearls.
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Sheikh Zayed Mosque: This is the world’s sixth largest mosque and of course the largest in the UAE. This mosque is truly a masterpiece of modern Islamic architecture. Entry into the mosque for non-Muslims is restricted. Khalifa Park. The best park by far, built at a cost of $50 million. It has its own aquarium, museum, train, play parks and manicured gardens. This marvellous place for leisure and entertainment built on an area of half a million square kilometres is the first of its kind in the region. With very distinctive architectural designs and landscaping unseen before in the region, the Khalifa Park is set to give the people all the stunning facilities for enjoyment, sports, leisure and enlightenment.

Corniche: Abu Dhabi’s spectacular waterfront stretches for miles from the Breakwater near Marina Shopping Mall almost up to the Mina Zayed port. It has a walkway for the entire length, and certain stretches have sandy beaches. There are also many activities like go-cart riding, playgrounds and even stages for shows.

Flagpole: At 123m, this is the world’s tallest flagpole, located on the Marina Island across the Marina Mall. The pole has an automatic mechanism for hoisting and lowering the gigantic UAE national flag measuring 20×40 metres. It has an Internet web camera installed at the top and a maintenance lift to carry two people that goes right up to the top.

Yas Island: Looking to unwind? Looking for adventure? Looking for recreation? Looking for entertainment? Yas Island is the place to be. The island is the site of a US$36 billion development project. The island holds the Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Other notable attractions here include the Ferrari World, Yas Island IKEA, Yas Marina, Southern Marina, Warner Bros. Theme Park, Yas Waterworld and the mega Yas Mall.
Abu Dhabi also has several large green swathes, many of which include play areas for children, and the city is interspersed with lovely fountains, bright neon lights, and sculptures.

Doors of Perception

The intricately carved, beautiful doors found across much of the Sultanate open the way to Oman’s rich cultural and historic legacy. One Omani photographer is keen to preserve the past for future generations.

One of the first things visitors notice when they take the time to walk around any Omani town are the amazing doors. As well as being an elegant way to enter someone’s home, these doors often have an old and colourful history. You can find them all over the Sultanate, and down the East African seaboard, most notably in Lamu, Mombasa and Zanzibar on the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts.

Research suggests that some were carved by skilled Omani and Indian carpenters, and each one tells a particular story in their design. An Omani businessman, Nasser al Kindi, wants to record these snapshots of time. He is a keen cameraman, although he has never received any formal training in photography. He says that intuition is the key to art. “I think you have to listen to the place you are photographing. If you are into nature photography, then you have to understand the symphony that is there and close your ears to everything else.” The thing that first grabbed his attention to the world of photography was the sound the camera shutter made. His initial enthusiasm has matured now into a growing appreciation of the value of the past to modernity. He says he has, “an affinity to beautiful things that are vanishing, such as the old doors, which people think of as being from the past, so I wanted to capture these beautiful details that in a couple of years might not be here anymore.”

Similarly, growing up by Fort Mirani in Muscat and later travelling across Oman and much of the world, Nasser found the landscape continuously shrinking as it makes way to development. He said he often finds himself at the crossroads between two worlds; “one with its trumpeting development, a jigsaw of cement and asphalt, and another with its serene and unobtrusive way of living. Sadly, the latter is forever making way for the former.” A few years back, on a visit to Al Aijah, a village in Sur that overlooks an arresting view of the marriage between land and sea, Nasser was dazzled by the inhabitants’ zealous interest in maintaining old doors in new houses. Over time, he captured on camera an astounding number of these ancient doors, with their shapes, wood, intricate carvings, colours, locks and the playfulness of light as it changes the hues of the wood and the shadows they absorbed.

Nasser says people are continuously “traversing between one world and another, as technology becomes more advanced, often leaving behind, sometimes sweeping away altogether, beautiful yet irreplaceable facets of a fast changing world.” These old Omani doors are often neglected objects of art. Some of the doors he photographed in Nizwa bear their maker’s inscriptions; they are over 1000 years old and still going strong! The photographic collection depicts the different art forms that prevail in various towns. Nasser says that when some of his Omani friends look at the collection, they instinctively know in which part of Oman the photograph was taken!

“The elegance of the blue door lent to it by its simplicity, so characteristic of Nizwa as an old stronghold of Ibadhi architecture (Ibadhi: the predominant sect in Oman, found also in East Africa and to a much lesser extent in parts of Algeria, Libya and Morocco).”

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