Mention Southeast Asia and most likely the names that will pop-up into most people’s minds are Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. But vying for equal attention are two other megapolises: Manila, of the Philippines, and Jakarta, of Indonesia. These are true hidden gems of Southeast Asia – and predicted to be the most likely cities to overtake Singapore and Hong Kong within just a decade or two.
Manila has around 21 million residents living in its metro area alone. Jakarta’s metro area is the 2nd largest in the world with 28 million people. A whopping 10 million of these live within its city limits. Not surprisingly, both these capital cities are the bustling epicentres of political, social, economic, entertainment and educational enterprises and endeavours. Amidst their many superficial similarities each city carries a very unique flavour true to its own. One has to feel and experience this to really enjoy the distinctiveness and diversity of Manila and Jakarta.
Manila is a rapidly developing city with a colourful multi-cultural heritage, a vibrant day and night life, an exciting mall and shopping culture, a fetish for food and lots more – which all make it a powerful magnet for visitors seeking good times Jakarta is a shining example of modern multiculturalism in its truest form. It has an excellent tourism infrastructure, a burgeoning economy, a vibrant art scene, a splendid selection of ancient cultural relics, an advanced education system and superior medical services. The character of both Manila and Jakarta has been largely shaped by their strong colonial influences, given the fact that both have been long-time colonies of Spain (Philippines) and Portugal (Indonesia). And to date, the local customs and traditions of these lively cities, their festivities, cuisines, arts and culture carry a very distinct and special individuality about them.
Colonial Creations vs. Modern Skyscrapers
Both Manila and Jakarta abound with an array of modern and massive skyscrapers which share space with quaint colonial buildings. Each of these colonial masterpieces speaks volumes about the signature architectural marvels of their creators. Historical areas like the Spanish fortified town of Intramuros, in Manila, and Jakarta’s Dutch quarter in Fatahillah Square are two examples of this. Manila’s claim to colonial fame is the erstwhile Spanish city of ‘Intramuros’, which was officially declared a historical monument way back in 1951. Intramuros was originally a fortress city, and the fort, now, has been converted into a museum. The soul of Jakarta’s architectural marvels can be found concentrated in the areas surrounding Monas Square, which was originally known as ‘Koningsplein’ (King’s Square).
Visitors to both these cities will be spoilt for choice when it comes to touristic attractions. In Manila, touristic interests abound. Located adjacent to the famous Rizal Park Square and close to the earlier mentioned Intramuros, is the National Museum of the Philippines complex. Within this complex are stocked a wealth of arts, crafts, artefacts and information tracing the evolution of its diverse people, and of the country. The National Arts Gallery, Museum of the Filipino People, National Museum of Natural History and National Planetarium are the assigned guardians of the country’s cultural and traditional heritage. The Baroque Churches (a collection of four Spanish built churches) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Some of the other attractions include the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, The Agrifina Circle, the Manila City Hall, the Malacca Sultanate Palace and the National Library. In Jakarta, located in the Old Batavia of the Kota area and built way back in the year 1710 is the famous Jakarta History Museum, also known as the Fatahillah Jakarta Museum. First used as the administrative headquarters of the Dutch East India Company and later the Dutch Government, the Jakarta History Museum today displays the history of Jakarta from ancient days to the founding of the town of Jayakarta in 1527; and showcases the history of its Dutch colonisation from the 16th century onwards until Indonesia’s Independence in 1945. After this informative tour visitors can explore the other attractions such as the ‘Dunia Fantasi’ – a huge theme park, which is divided into eight global geographies, and has over forty main rides and attractions. For the culturally and artistically inclined, the Dutch-built concert hall ‘Gedung Kesenian Jakarta’ or simply ‘The Jakarta Art Building’ is a great place of interest.
For all bird lovers a visit to the ‘Bird Island’ should be a must see on their itinerary. Located in the Jakarta Bay area and a part of the ‘Thousand Islands’, a short ferry ride from the town of Banten is the Bird Island. Playing host to over 60 different species of migratory birds, this is a real haven for birdwatchers and serious ornithologists.
Oman Air flies three times a week between Muscat – Manila. (As from 2 December 2014)
Oman Air flies four times a week between Muscat – Jakarta. (As from 12 December 2014)
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Home to over 14 million residents, Tehran, the bustling capital and the largest city of Iran is also the most populated in the country where tradition and modernity coexist peacefully.
Situated 1200 meters above sea level in the north-central part of Iran at the foot of the towering Alborz mountain range is Tehran. Within its 1500 sq. kms, the city packs an amazing variety of attractions catering to the fancy of every kind of traveller. Breathtaking museums which showcase the ancient and rich heritage of the country, well-maintained parks (over 800) to unwind and relax, world-class stadiums hosting sports and games, theatres staging plays, an amazing selection of culinary outlets to tickle the taste buds, are but a few of the attractions.
To witness firsthand how antiquity is coexisting peacefully with modernity, Tehran is perhaps one of the best examples in the modern world. Being the heart of Iran’s vibrant culture, burgeoning economy, dynamic politics and rich social life makes Tehran a destination not to be missed by any discerning traveller.
History: Tehran’s history dates back centuries, but is today a cosmopolitan metropolis. Possibly the first mention of the name Tehran can be traced back to the 10th century as some excavated manuscripts have revealed. In the distant past it seems to have been nothing bigger than a small hamlet with gardens. The city began growing in size and stature between the years 1501-1736, during the Safavid period. Ruled by different Kings, from Shah Tehmasp (1524-1576), Agha Mohammad Khan who founded the Qajar dynasty which flourished from 1776-1925, Naser od-Din who was the Shah of Iran from 1848-1896, Tehran was converted into a walled city to repel attacks from ambitious invaders who were drawn towards the city’s riches. Blessed with year-round holiday activities, Tehran can be enjoyed almost equally during any part of the year.
Golestan Palace: This must-visit complex is the oldest of the historic monuments in this city. The complex is in fact a strange combination many different things including 17 palaces, museums, and halls. The Qajars’ royal residences with its accompanying gardens and the Golestan (Rose Garden) citadel are one of mainly visited places in Tehran. An unpretentious building houses objects d’art from the Qajar period. In the Golestan garden, a one-story pavilion shelters one of the best organized museums in Tehran. It encloses about thirty showcases presenting almost everything related to Iran, which makes up the critical originality of Iranian life across the variety of provinces of the country.
Treasury of National Jewels: Check out the amazing collection of some of the world’s most expensive and exclusive jewels kept here for public display. Not to be missed items include the world’s largest uncut ruby, the ‘Sea of Light’ which happens to be the world’s largest pink diamond and an astounding free standing globe made from some 34 kilos of gold and studded with 51,366 precious stones!
National Museum of Iran: This is actually two buildings connected as one. The old building serves as a store house of excavated artefacts including stoneetched figurines, ceramic pieces and carvings dating from the pre-Islamic, Neolithic period of 5th millennium BC up to the Sassanid period, while the new building house more recent 1,400-year old Islamic history.
Azadi Tower: This most iconic symbol of Tehran was built in a unique style which combines the Sassanid and Islamic architectures. This monument was constructed to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. Directly beneath the entrance of the tower are the main vaults which lead visitors into the Azadi museum down in its basement.
Milad Tower: Claim to fame is this tower happens to be the world’s 12th tallest freestanding structure in the world and the 4th tallest tower in the world. Needless to add, one can spot this landmark from almost any corner of Tehran.
Jamshidieh Park: No mention of Tehran will be complete without talking about the absolutely picturesque Jamshidieh Park, situated at the foot of the Kolakchal mountains. Besides this star attraction, Tehran is also home to some of the world’s most beautiful natural parks like the Mellat Park, which also happens to be one of the largest recreation centres in the entire Middle East, the Niavaran Park, next to the Niavaram Palace, which is very popular with the locals as well as the tourists, besides certain areas colloquially known as the ‘parke-jangali’, meaning ‘forest parks’, a favourite haunt of the locals for day outings and family picnics.
Ski attractions: The mountain slopes on which this city stands provide for some excellent skiing during winters. Particularly famous are the ski resorts situated in the Alborz range of north Tehran, hosting the tallest peak. Shemshak and Dizine are the other noteworthy ski destinations, where ski experts claim the snow quality is one of the finest in the entire world!
Jordan’s cultural, historical and natural treasures play a huge part of what the country is about. Any story on Jordan would be very incomplete without them…
The ancient city of Petra has traditionally been what Jordan is most famous for. The design and construction of Petra represents the engineering genius of the Nabataean tribe – an industrious Arab people that settled here over 2,000 years ago, when the area was an important junction for the silk and spice routes. Access to the entrance of Petra is through a deep, narrow gorge. From here, visitors get their first glimpse of the city’s massive, 50 metre high façade of the main entrance. Petra today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’.
The Dead Sea, resting over 420 metres below sea level, is another Jordanian icon. Since ancient times, people have made their way to the sea’s warm, buoyant and mineral rich waters. Wellness treatments combining Dead Sea water and the rich black mud found along its shore can increase circulation, ease arthritis, revitalise the skin – and provide many other health benefits. It is hard not to be deeply affected by the surreal quality of Wadi Rum – the famous desert valley in southern Jordan, which is home to a maze of monolithic rock formations that rise up from the desert floor to heights of 1,750 metres. It is possible to schedule a trip of several days in Wadi Rum – done on camel back or by four-wheel drive.
A close second to Petra on the list of historical destinations in Jordan is the ancient city of Jerash. Located 48 kilometres north of Amman, Jerash is one of the largest and most well preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world, outside Italy.
Modern Jordan – the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordon – was founded by King Abdullah I after World War I. It was ruled by his grandson, the late King Hussein, for 46 years until his death in 1999, when his son, King Abdullah II, assumed the throne. Since then, Jordan has grown into a modern nation that has enjoyed remarkable measures of peace, stability and economic growth. With warm, dry summers and cool winters, Jordan has a Mediterranean-style climate. This makes it an attractive year-round destination for visitors. Major cities are the capital Amman and Salt in the west; Irbid, Jerash and Zarqa in the north west; and Madaba, Karak and Aqaba in the south west. Major towns in the eastern part of the country are the oasis town of Azraq and Ruwaished.
The highest point in the country is the 1,854 metre high Jabal Umm al Dami, which experiences seasonal snowfall at its peak. The lowest point is the Dead Sea, which is at 420 metres below sea level in the Jordan Rift Valley. The waters off Aqaba, on Jordan’s section of Red Sea coastline, contain a vast array of tropical marine life. Here, there is the chance to dive and snorkel with schools of colourful fish – and possibility encounter sea turtles, dolphins and whale sharks. It has been said that Aqaba also represents a microcosm of all the good things Jordan has to offer: excellent hotels, superb visitor facilities, good shopping and friendly people.
Jordan’s Natural Wonders
One of Jordan’s greatest assets are its nature reserves – most of which are ‘undiscovered’ by mainstream tourism. For instance, the Ajlun Nature Reserve in the Ajlun highlands consists of beautiful Mediterranean-like hill country, dominated by open woodlands of Oak and Pistachio trees. The spectacularly scenic Mujib Reserve is called the ‘lowest nature reserve in the world’ due to it’s proximity to the Dead Sea. And the Dana Biosphere is interesting as it is the only reserve in Jordan that encompasses all four of the country’s bio-geographical zones. There are other nature reserves too. The Shawmari Reserve was created in 1975 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, and is today a thriving environment for the protection of rare animals from the Middle East. The newest addition to Jordan’s network of nature reserves is Dibeen. Located north of Amman, it offers nature walks, wonderful views of the countryside, and an exceptionally large variety of tree species.
Amman: Jordan’s Centre Stage
If much of Jordan’s attractiveness lies in its history, culture, and natural resources, then the capital, Amman, represents something completely different. The city still retains much of its old-world charm, and if one is willing to look for it, they’ll be fascinated by the history and heritage of what is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. However, there’s a good reason why Amman is often referred to as the most sophisticated city in the Middle East, and a bustling metropolis. Amman is the modern, trendy, commercial centre of the region, and it hums with the energy of trendy cafes, start-up businesses, galleries, boutiques, classy shopping malls and entertainment venues – all of which are filled with Jordan’s fashionable, fun-loving crowd that are serious about ‘living the good life’. The city consists of an older, more traditional region referred to as the downtown area – and then a more modern, vibrant area in the western part. Amman is very much a city of hills – to get anywhere one will have to zoom up and down many hills. The positive part about this is that there are spectacular views at almost every turn. Amman’s mall and market culture is a big part of what the city is about. Besides the malls that stock international brands and designer items, there are other shopping experiences not to be missed.
For instance, at the Balad, the busy downtown area in the old heart of the city, you can walk through a maze of street cafes and shop stalls that sell everything from fruits and spices, to souvenirs, clothes, hardware items, and all kinds of tasty local dishes. Wakalat Street is a pedestrian street in Sweifieh that has shops, restaurants and cafes with open areas for sitting, relaxing and ‘people watching’. The much-loved Shari’ Al-Rainbow is a cobblestone street that has a European feel to it, and is populated with small antique stores, clothing shops, restaurants, cafes and tea shops.
It’s been said that the people of Amman are multi-cultural, multi-denominational, welleducated and extremely hospitable – and they welcome visitors and take pride in showing them around their fascinating and vibrant city. What more could any visitor desire?
Oman Air flies seven times a week between Muscat-Amman.
The one time burial place of famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and an ancient trading centre, Kochi, in Kerala, southern India, is a colourful city where past and present exists side by side.
Kochi, in south-western India on the Malabar Coast, stirs the senses. As with most cities in India, Kochi’s roots reach back far into the past. Recorded history reveals that after severe flooding of the river Periyar in 1340AD, which destroyed the trading city of Cranganore, the forces of nature carved out a new natural harbour at Kochi. The city quickly became the epicentre for a lucrative spice route, including cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, among other spices. Many different cultures based their trading operations in Kochi, including the Arabs and Chinese, then later the British, Portuguese and Italians. Each at one time governed the city, resulting in a cultural melting pot of architectural and culinary influences. Each culture found something to remind them of home there, to the extent that the British called Kochi “Mini England”, the Portuguese called it “Mini Lisbon” and the Dutch called it “Homely Holland”.
Indeed, such was the prominence of Kochi that one explorer, the Italian Nicolas Conti, wrote that, “If China is the place to make your money, then Kochi is the place to spend it.” So where can you spend your money in modern-day Kochi? From touring flea markets and taking boat trips on the backwaters, to visiting numerous sites of historical and cultural significance, there really is something for everyone in this charming town. Bearing in mind that the whole region has been visited over the millenia by traders from countless countries, it makes sense that cuisine reflects a very diverse range of cultures. This is a land famous for its spice production and Kochi earned international fame because of the production and export of these precious spices.
Today the city occupies an important place in the global spice market. It is worth taking a trip round the city to visit the various spice markets. You will quickly notice the pungent aromas of different spices as you wander through the streets of Kochi, and it is an oddly comforting feeling when you realise that these same smells permeated the nostrils of people who lived and worked here hundreds of years ago.
Out and about
Kick off your shoes and feel the sand between your toes in a stroll along the beach. Sunset is a magical time, and be sure to look out for the Chinese fishing nets and boats against a sunlit horizon. Many European-style bungalows have been built along the shoreline. After a brisk walk, you are bound to be hungry so be sure to visit one of the numerous stalls which sell mouth-watering traditional fish dishes. A stroll along the long tree-lined coastal pathway that lines the backwater is also a good way to pass a morning or afternoon. Cherai Beach is ideal for swimming, and is situated at the north end of Vypeen island. The beach is lined by coconut groves and paddy fields. Vypeen is one of the numerous small islands which can be reached by boat. A boat ride through the backwaters is a great day out. Be sure to take in Bolghatty Palace on Bolghatty Island. The island also has a small golf course and superb views of the port and the bay.
Inspiring art and culture
A great way to pass a morning and an afternoon is to soak up some local history and culture. A good place to start is at the Mattancherry Palace, which was built by the Portuguese, and then converted by the Dutch in the 17th century. Many Rajas of Kochi held their coronations here. The palace has a fine collection of mural paintings depicting scenes from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The palace is located in Mattancherry. When you are done touring there, take a trip to the 19th-century Hill Palace in Tripunithura, 16km east of Kochi. It was built by the Raja of Kochi and indeed served as the seat of the Raja of the Kochi province. The palace was later converted into a museum housing an impressive collection of archaeological findings and art.
For a fun, educational and entertaining afternoon, it is worthwhile visiting Kalamassery, and spending some time browsing through the Museum of Kerala History, which has fun audio-visual exhibits depicting the history and culture of Kerala. Another beautiful museum which affords a glimpse into the grandeur of yesteryear is the Parikshith Thampuran Museum, which has a large collection of old coins, sculptures, oil paintings and murals.
Once you are done learning all about the history and culture, now it is time to take in the natural beauty of this exotic destination! Situated 48km north-east of Kochi, on the banks of the river Poorna, Kalady is the birthplace of Sri Adi Sankaracharya, the eighth-century Hindu philosopher. The shrine is a must-see for visitors. Elephant Kodanad is 30km north-east of Kochi situated on the lower ranges of the Western Ghats on the banks of the river Periyar. The wildlife reserve is famous for the elephants and the largest elephant training centre is situated here. The reserve also features a mini zoo. If you are keen to keep your children amused, then make sure you set aside some time for South India’s largest amusement park, situated just 14km from Kochi. Veega Land has many fun attractions, such as mini-castles, water parks, Ferris wheel, rides, slides, shows and fountains.
Germany has a vibe all of its own, and wherever you go, you can experience the pulsating life of its bustling cities, calming boulevards, the art galleries, at the flea markets, or in the city’s innumerable entertainment arenas.
Located in Central Europe, with Denmark bordering to the North, Poland and the Czech Republic to the East, Austria and Switzerland to the South, France and Luxembourg to the Southwest, and Belgium and the Netherlands to the Northwest, Germany is a major economic and political powerhouse in the European continent and has been a leader in numerous theoretical and technical arenas since time immemorial.
The most populous member of the European Union – a political and economic union of 28 different member states – with a population of 80.5 million Germany is a country consisting of 16 states, spread across a land mass of 357,1021 km2, with Berlin being its largest and capital city.
Germany has been the home of many influential philosophers, music composers, scientists and inventors, and is known for its rich cultural and political history. Tracing their origin, the Germanic tribes are thought to date from the Nordic Bronze Age, or the Pre-Roman Iron Age periods.
One of the largest economies in the world, Germany offers the highest standards of living for its residents, including a very comprehensive social security system and perhaps the world’s oldest universal health care system dating as far back as 1883. Enabled largely by its position in the world as following an open social market economy system and manned efficiently by a highly skilled labour force, and supported by a large capital stock, with a low level of corruption, and a high level of innovation, Germany is grand indeed in so many ways. Germany’s achievements in the sciences too have been significant and continuous research and development efforts form an integral part of the economy. In fact, for most of the 20th century, German laureates had accumulated more awards than those of any other nation, especially in the sciences (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine). Some well-known global brands bearing the prestigious ‘Made in Germany’ seal of proven quality are Mercedes-Benz, BMW, SAP, Siemens, Volkswagen, Adidas, Audi, Allianz, Porsche, Bayer, Bosch, and Nivea to name a few. Not surprisingly, Germany also has the largest and most powerful national economy in all of Europe. Given its pivotal position in the continent of Europe, Germany is an essential transport hub, reflected in its dense and modern train transport networks. So advanced is this network, Germany’s famous motorway ranks as the world’s fourth largest in length and is known for its lack of a general speed limit. Connecting places within the country and some destination in the neighbouring countries is the ‘InterCityExpress’ zipping at speeds of up to 300 kmph (186 mph).
When it comes to flying, Germany’s largest as well as the busiest airports are the Frankfurt Airport and the Munich Airport, both hubs are connected by Oman Air. Culturally very comfortably placed and can be considered as wealthy in many ways, Germany has been called as ‘Das Land der Dichter und Denker’ (“the land of poets and thinkers”).
During a recent count it has been officially listed that there are over hundreds of subsidized theatres, symphonic orchestras, thousands of museums and almost 11,000 libraries spread all across Germany. These cultural opportunities are enjoyed by the culture vultures visiting and domiciled in the country. There are over 106 million German museum visits every year. And as of 2013, the UNESCO inscribed 38 properties in Germany on the World Heritage List. Germany stands head and shoulders above many other nations in the world in music, arts, sports, architecture, literature, philosophy, science, technology and much else.
Germany is a country of thousands of medium-sized towns and cities. Four cities, Berlin, Hamburg, München (Munich) and Cologne (Köln), are Millionenstädte – cities where more than one million people live. Another nine German cities have a population of more than 500,000 people. The population of Germany’s 300 largest cities amounts to more than 37 million, or 46 per cent of all people living in the country. Oman Air flies to two of these cities, namely, ‘The City of Arts’, Frankfurt, and ‘The City of Lifestyles’, Munich.
Frankfurt has gained the reputation of a premier cultural destination that also offers an equally wide range of recreational activities. Whether art, nature, culture, shopping or any other form and kind of entertainment, Frankfurt has them all. Frankfurt and its neighborhoods offer excellent quality of life. For nature lovers, this is paradise. Countless city parks, the Frankfurt City Forest, the Rhine and Main River with the neighboring mountains provide ample scope for unlimited relaxation. Notably, the Frankfurt Rhine-Main Regional Park with the Frankfurt Green Belt has a 63 km circular cycle path and a 65 km hiking path. Along these paths are spectacular picnic and barbecue areas, shelters and lush apple tree tracks. Frankfurt is a city which exudes a cosmopolitan flair and inimitable style of its own. The impressive skyline, characterised by the unmistakable Messeturm and numerous banking skyscrapers, has become “Mainhattan’s” unofficial city symbol. Today, Frankfurt is home to the German Stock Exchange, the European Central Bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank and around 260 financial institutions from around the world, making the 1200-year-old trade and commerce city one of Europe´s foremost finance centres.
Frankfurt, has in fact managed to retain much of its charm, serenity and old-town flair, especially the time-honoured going-out district of ‘Sachsenhausen’. And as a city of contrasts, Frankfurt continues to prove to one and all that there is ample space and opportunity for indulging oneself in art and culture. Frankfurt offers everything expected of a cosmopolitan city. Historical buildings, a renowned museum landscape, superb exhibition venues and countless sightseeing attractions, combined with numerous cultural highlights, international sporting events, superb nightlife locations and excellent shopping opportunities.
In all the simple things that make a place liveable, Munich excels. It is clean. It is safe. The public transport system is exceptionally efficient. Distances are short. The skies are blue (quite often anyway). And the food is comforting. With the Oktoberfest and opera, Hofbräuhaus beer hall and Pinakothek art galleries, BMW and Bayern Munich, the city of Munich manages to marry old Bavarian traditions with vibrant modern living. A city sight-seeing tour by bicycle is a great way to see Munich’s highlights. Also, a walk through Munich’s historic centre will help visit its most important churches and see the carillon at Marienplatz. A visit to the fascinating Pinakothek Modern, followed by a musical evening at the Deutsches Theater would provide for some typical local entertainment.
The Nymphenburg Palace with its famous Gallery of Beauties and the porcelain factory is another great attraction for visitors. The ‘Allianz Arena’, Munich’s temple to football is a must see for all sporting aficionados. A not to be missed place to see is the Deutsches Museum, the largest museum of science and technology in the world. While in Munich, go on a breath taking Climbing Tour on the tent roof of the Olympic Stadium which could be followed by a trip to Lake Starnberg for a boat ride to the Buchheim Museum in Bernried, with its outstanding collection of German expressionists.
Oman Air flies six times a week between Muscat – Frankfurt and four times a week between Muscat – Munich.
From its inception in 1993 until now, Oman Air has witnessed only success. The tiny airline, which began operating only one aircraft for its flights to Salalah, has now grown to a mighty airline ready to challenge all major airlines.
Many great achievements have paved the way to success and among the first was completing the International Air Transport Association’s Operational Safety Audits. Oman Air attributes the successful completion of the audit to its conforming with the standards and regulations set by IATA. This places the airline to be in the list of companies that comply with internationally recognized safety standards.
Tourism in Oman
Oman Air continues to have a large impact upon the inflow of tourism into Oman. It went on to win The Oman award for Excellence, as tourism promoter for 2001. The award is instituted by OCIPED to recognize accomplishments of individuals and organizations that contribute to the Oman economy.
The airline shows continuous support and dedication to premium sports events though a several sponsorships, among the most recent the Oman Sail event and the National Bank of Oman Gulf Classic. Oman Air’s sponsorship also includes the Oman Football Association and motorsports star Ahmad Al Harthy. Their sponsorship also extends abroad as they support polo events in Europe. These events are aimed at raising awareness for the Oman Air brand and their awards-winning products and services, but also creating increased exposure for Oman’s unique attractions as part of a fabulous holiday destination.
Impeccable Products and Services
Oman Air soon started expanding its destinations and aircraft and now it flies to more than 40 destinations throughout the world. Its strengths lie in the high quality standard of their aircraft and cabin and the always-fantastic service offered to their customers. With such impeccable service, the awards soon followed. Oman Air was named winner of the “World’s Best Business Class Airline Seat” award at the 2011 World Airline Awards, in a ceremony held in the French Air and Space Museum at the Paris Air Show. Also in 2011, The Passenger Choice Awards presented them with the award for “Best In-flight Connectivity & Communications”. For the second year running, they won ‘Best Business Class Airline Seat’ at the prestigious World Airline Awards™, run by Skytrax. The prestigious Business Destinations Travel Awards have awarded Oman Air the title of ‘Best Business Class Airline, Middle East’ in 2012.
Looking to the future
Oman Air is striving to be ahead of the rest and place great importance on technological innovation. They found it imperative to implement the Electronic Ticket system and become the Second Middle East carrier to issue e-Ticket (ET) in 2005 and targeted 100% e-ticketing by end of 2006 while IATA mandate is 2007. More recently, Oman Air is celebrating reaching second place in the December 2013 issue of the highly competitive Heathrow Punctuality League Table, in recognition of its enviable on-time departure record. This success is being accredited to the extensive planning, organization and logistical resources that they have put into ensuring that the highest service standards are consistently maintained.
This great level of success has been the fuel for hard work and ambition of Oman Air. The fame and reputation that they have achieved throughout their existence is the result of dedication, passion and perseverance. Their aim is to improve their services and technology and always provide the highest level of customer satisfaction.
The Kathmandu Valley was once widely believed to be the fabled Shangri-La – a fictional, earthly paradise and utopia, isolated from the outside world. Because of this, a visit to Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu has often been claimed as a rite of passage for ‘serious’ travellers. To call yourself a proper traveller, you would have to have been to Kathmandu!
Indeed, since Nepal opened its doors to the outside world in 1950 (due to a change in the country’s political situation), Kathmandu has enjoyed a dedicated following among modern travellers. When talking about Kathmandu, most travellers are actually referring to the Kathmandu Valley – made up of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, and its sister cities Patan, Kirtipur, Thimi and Bhaktapur. Together, these form the most populated and developed region in Nepal. Nepal itself is famous for being a centre point for Hinduism and Buddhism as it is home to many sacred temples for both faiths. One of these is the revered Buddhist pilgrimage site of Lumbini – the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, who was the ‘enlightened one’ on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. Nepal also contains eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains, with Mount Everest, on the Tibet-China border, the tallest. Nepal is landlocked between the Tibet Autonomous Region in the north, and the India in the south, east, and west. At some travel destinations, there seems to be a prevailing sense of urgency to get through a list of ‘must-do’ activities. Kathmandu can be best enjoyed by just ‘being there’ – without feeling the need to progress through any sort of busy itinerary.
In Kathmandu, as well as the rest of the country, it is common to greet people with a warm ‘Namaste’ with palms together, fingers up – in place of a hello or goodbye. It should only be said once per person, per day. Roughly translated the word means ‘The divine in me salutes the divine in you’.
Valley of Treasures
Arriving in Kathmandu for the first time, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of the place can be wonderfully overwhelming for a first time traveller. To a certain extent, due to Kathmandu being the largest urban centre of Nepal – complete with congested walkways, traffic delays, over zealous street traders etc – it is easy to think it is just another developing world city. But it isn’t. And once you’re settled, and begin exploring Kathmandu’s back streets, alleyways, little courtyards and older parts of the town – some of which seem to have been untouched since the Middle Ages – the real spirit of Kathmandu comes alive.
In fact, the Kathmandu Valley is an enormous treasure trove of art and culture and tradition – with much of it in the form of statues of the gods, goddesses and iconography of Eastern spirituality and philosophy. And it is hard not to be deeply affected by it all. There are well over a hundred monuments in the valley, with several Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage sites, including seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Durbar Square is the traditional heart of Kathmandu, and has been in active use since around 1000 AD. It is crowded with palaces and temples, and the most spectacular of Kathmandu’s traditional architecture. Durbar is one of three loosely linked squares – all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Perhaps the best-known building here is Kasthamandap – a three-storied temple built in the pagoda style by the early sixteenth century King Laxmi Narsingha Malla. The whole temple is built from the wood of just a single tree, and covered with the shrine. In a special ceremony held every year here, people stay up all night to share legendary stories about the temple, while feasting on traditionally prepared food.
Thamel is the commercial nerve centre of Kathmandu. It is a haven for tourists and although some consider it to be overcrowded, the streets of Thamel are fascinating. You can buy almost anything at the many markets and shopping stalls lining the streets and alleyways. Some favourites are incense, prayer flags, and cultural artefacts like Kukri swords or Hindu and Buddha statuettes. There are also bookstores, clothing shops, outdoor outfitters, internet cafes and banks in this district – and of course dozens of hotels and restaurants.
It’s easy to lose yourself in the magnificence and grandeur of some of the sites around Kathmandu – like the sacred and highly revered Buddhist sites of Swayambhu and Boudha; as well as the important Hindu temple, Pashupatinath. There is also the Garden of Dreams (called Kaiser Mahal) near Thamel where you can relax in a beautiful and peaceful walled garden next to the former Royal Palace. At the Budda Neelkanth site, an idol of Bhagwan Vishnu in a sleeping position, surrounded by water, makes for an extraordinary cool and calming spectacle.
The so-called Freak Street was once a gathering point of western hippies seeking enlightenment during the 1960s and 1970s. But these days, you’ll just a find a few restaurants and hotels here.
Kathmandu Valley is referred to as the ‘gateway for travellers into Nepal’ – and many visitors use it as a launching pad for their trekking and mountaineering adventures, holy pilgrimages or sightseeing tours into the rest of the country.
Dhulikhel is a scenic town situated 30 kilometres east of the city on the Kathmandu Kodari Highway. From here one gets a panoramic view of the Himalayan range. If you would like to see some of the Himalayas from Kathmandu itself, it is possible to spend a day or two walking out of the valley to various view points, from where you can gaze up at and photograph these magnificent peaks. Most trekking companies in Kathmandu can also organise longer, more intense treks into the mountains.
Water sport is now a rage all over the world. All countries plan different strategies to develop this sport by enhancing the sports facilities to attract more water-sports enthusiasts. As far as this sport is concerned, Oman is a paradise and is one of the best-kept secrets in the world of water sports. Hence, special focus is being accorded to develop and upgrade facilities for it. A key element of the strategy set out by the Ministry of Tourism calls for a major diversification of the tourism product. This strategy has helped Oman to successfully host the Asian Beach Games of 2010.
Water sport is one of the popular sports in Oman with more than 3000 kms of coastline and clean unpolluted waters; there are several fascinating aqua sports which are popular in Oman.
Diving: Oman has an amazing world of colour in its waters. There is a wealth of scenery, wildlife, and thrill beckoning the more intrepid underwater explorer. Yes, diving is a major activity in Oman. The relative remoteness of pockets of the rocky coasts and secluded fjords has helped to preserve their natural beauty and wildlife. These areas offer greater access with nature and exciting opportunities for exploratory diving. And the balmy water and mellow currents make Oman a favourite diving destination. Its breathtaking underworld features rock falls, scenic walls and reefs. So to explore the crystal waters and be with the amazing corals, visit Bandar Jissa, Bandar Al Khyran, Damaniyat Islands, Fahal Island, and Al Sawadi. All these places serve as a natural magnet for snorkelling and scuba diving enthusiasts alike. Night dives are popular and divers are often astounded by the amount of phosphorescence found in Oman’s nighttime waters. The phosphorescence is green/blue and emitted by microscopic plankton as a result of a chemical reaction issuing from vigorous movement.
Sailing: This sport is the latest rage in Oman thanks to recent successes of Omani sailors and teams in premier sailing events around the world. There are regular regattas held in the waters of Oman. The Marina Bandar Al Rowdha or Capital Area Yacht Club draw up plans for sailing. Sailing initiative, Oman Sail along with the Ministry of Tourism, aims to tap the maritime tradition by developing and training a core crew of Omani sailors who will then represent the Sultanate at sailing events in Europe and Oman. The aim is that Oman Sail will help to attract tourism and promote the Sultanate as a world-class sailing destination.
Parasailing: It is an adventure sport that blends the exhilaration of flying, parachuting and sailing into a single experience. Parasailing is yet to take off on a big scale here. The dhow sailing is also adventurous and the dhow sailing races are without a doubt the most spectacular and gracious events on the water sporting calendar.
Surfing: How does it feel to ride on the white waves and feel the high of surfing in the aquamarine waters of Oman? Great! Beaches in Oman are ideally suited to enjoy surfing. One of the best places to surf in Oman is Masirah Island, reached only by ferry from the village of Shanna on the mainland. Masirah with surf of four to six feet is also an ideal area for windsurfing, particularly during the Khareef (monsoon season – June to September), when warm, strong winds sweep across from the southern region of Dhofar.
Kite Surfing: This water sport has been around for a while but has started to grow quickly in the last few years. The sport uses the wind as the propelling force. Oman is among the best places in the region to kite surf – the summer season, from May to September, is ideal. The wind is consistent and on an average, 20 knots plus every day from Ras al Hadd south makes for perfect conditions for kite surfing. Masirah is popular with both kiters and windsurfers while the town of Aseela, 16 kms from Al Ashkarah, is very popular for kite surfing.
Kayaking: This is a relatively recent introduction into Oman and is currently limited to the Capital Area. Explore the fjords and coastal waters of Muscat as you gently glide in 1 or 2-seater kayaks. Kayaking on the warm waters of Oman makes for an adventurous experience. One can kayak among the fjords of Bandar Al Khyran. Musandam is another striking location that springs up in the mind when kayaking is mentioned.
Game Fishing: It is being promoted in right earnest in Oman considering the element of excitement involved in the sport. Angling is expected to find enthusiasts and those looking for new ways of adventure. Omani waters abound in a great variety of fish like Tuna, Swordfish, Queenfish, Cobia, Sailfish, Barracuda and Black Marlin.
Other water sports: Jet ski, canoeing, etc. are slowly finding a place on the domain of water sports. In the coming years, Oman is set to become an ideal destination for water sports!