Unwrapping the secrets of Yangon
Peering out of the Emirates Boeing 777-300ER flight from Dubai to Yangon, you can see the lazy river. A muddy, sludgy, squidgy creek. Meandering. That is the Irrawaddy – the river that Kipling’s famous Road to Mandalay poem glorifies. No fishes jumping skywards. No hathis pilin’ teak. Just a snake like river engorged with sand and silt making its way past green paddy fields to the sea.
The mystique of Yangon (Rangoon) does not start when you disembark at the spanking new international airport. It’s when you come out of the airport and see the antique Chevrolet bus with teak and leather interiors that has been arranged by the Belmond tour guides to transport you to the Governor’s Residence, that you realize you are in a city that is waiting to be discovered.
Fresh squeezed pineapple juice and cold towels are offered to you inside the bus that takes you on a 20 minutes ride from the airport to the colonial Belmond Governor’s Residence. You know you have left Dubai’s desert far behind when you see the luscious green grass and the leafy trees that surround the 1920’s era structure that will be your home for a few nights. Swans and peacocks welcome you to the hotel while the efficient staff escort you up a flight of stairs to a bedroom that has all the creature comforts you require – a tea kettle with plenty of refills and wifi.
Political issues had cut off Myanmar (Burma) from the world. Mobile telephony penetration was under 1% in 2010 but has now surged to over 50% and tourist arrivals that were minimal are projected to grow to 7.5 million by 2019. If you are one of those who trails the way for others to follow then the new Emirates daily service to Yangon is just for you. In fact, after a 90 minutes stopover in Yangon the Emirates flight continues to Hanoi and you can cover both cities in one trip.
Wherever the British went, they left their colonial architecture behind. And Yangon is no different. The old British era Telegraph House, the General Post Office with its high ceilings and the British Embassy in Rangoon – the Brits have not been able to digest the name change yet! – are all colonial structures built over 100 years ago and are now part of the city’s Heritage sites.
Downtown Yangon has many street vendors peddling betel nuts, fresh fruit salads, DVDs, inexpensive Chinese mobile phones and even aphrodisiacs. Sitting outside a Hindu temple you can find a medicine man on the footpath selling a variety of herbal concoctions including one called “Vigara: Love for Couple.” Apparently, if prayers are not answered, Vigara [sic] can come in handy.
Myanmar is a Buddhist country and Yangon has several temples that have to be part of every traveler’s itinerary. But to get up close and personal to the saffron wrapped monks we visited a monastery where both male and female monks are trained. The pink fabric clad female novices are allowed to cook while their male counterparts venture door to door every morning to collect food. Just before noon all of them gather in a big dining hall, chant holy prayers and eat their day’s only big meal after which they can just drink water and juice until the next morning. Pretty ascetic lifestyle. Novices who do not feel they are up to it, can opt out once they turn 18.
The Temple of the Reclining Buddha is one of the major tourist attractions of Yangon. A large reclining Buddha stretching across a vast room greets you when you enter the temple. The head is jewel encrusted and the golden robe makes you feel you are in the midst of royalty. Walk over to see his soles and you will see an intricate pattern with 108 distinguishing marks. For photographers wanting to capture it all there is a raised platform near the feet of the Buddha which gives you a good panoramic view. Be careful as the platform is not selfie-safe!
The most important historical heritage site and tourist attraction in Yangon is, of course, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This shiny, gilded monumental temple of Buddhism is the main reason why Myanmar is called the land of the golden pagodas. Perched on a hillock overlooking Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda can be reached by taking a lift to the entrance level – foreigners have their own elevator and everyone has to take off their shoes and socks. The main pagoda is surrounded by dozens of gilded stupas some of which have statues of Buddha and are marked with a weekday. People born on that day pour water over the statue and offer flowers.
At the very top of of the Shwedagon Pagoda there is a diamond orb which has 4,351 diamonds totaling 1,800 carats. The apex diamond alone is a 76 carat stone. Below the orb is the ‘umbrella’ which is just over 3 meters in height and is made of 500 kgs of gold. And all this is just in the top 4 meters of the 99 meters structure. Visit Yangon and be amazed!
Yangon is street food haven – for those with a stomach made of steel. Unlike Singapore and Malaysia where hygiene standards are above par, in Yangon the normal tourist should only take pictures of the little tea shops where locals go for breakfast, lunch and dinner and for a healthy dose of politics and street gossip.
The upscale Rangoon Tea House is for those who want the same food but in an aseptic clean environment. According to the co-founder and Managing Director, Htet Myet Oo, they only source their chicken and lamb from Halal food suppliers that export Halal meat to the Middle East because these vendors follow high quality standards. However, Muslim travelers should be aware that the Rangoon Tea House also serves pork and alcohol. Vegetarian and fish options are also available.
Myanmar’s economy is growing and those who are benefiting from the economic boom want to spend it in style. For Asian fusion food and an artsy ambience you can go to Port Autonomy, an eclectic new restaurant managed by Kevin Ching, Group Executive Chef of Pun+Projects, a company owned by Ivan Pun, the 30-something Oxford-educated son of one of Myanmar's richest real estate tycoons. Kevin is a gracious host and if you are lucky he will come and share a meal with you and talk about his culinary skills while directing the staff to make sure that everyone is enjoying the food. The restaurant prides itself in serving fresh produce from the Shan State alongside regional seafood. While Halal meat is not available, there are plenty of vegetarian and seafood options to satiate the Muslim diner. The restaurant is located in a residential area and prices are steep.
Another trendy restaurant that also doubles as a butchery and a bakery is Sharky’s. Founded by U Ye Htut Win who in 1996 traded in his swanky nightclub in Geneva to become a farmer in his homeland. In a country that was at that time almost inaccessible to foreigners, he started growing vegetables and making cheese which could only be found in Europe. Sharky’s is a great place for having a pizza and a salad. With his own cheese and homegrown vegetables – 80% of his ingredients are from Myanmar – his wood fired oven pizzas are sprinkled with his specialty fleur de sel (hand harvested sea salt) to give them an exquisite taste.
When you are at Sharky’s make sure you watch how a pizza is made – it just takes 2 minutes to convert the dough into a delicious meal.
Every tourist needs to bring home souvenirs. A little object in your living room is a conversation piece that brings back memories of your visit. While Burmah teak is what Myanmar was famous for – the hathis pilin’ teak – it will be difficult to cart a wooden table home so you have to make do with trinkets that fit neatly in your suitcase and can be given away as gifts to your less fortunate colleagues at work or to adorn your home.
Augustine Souvenirs is a treasure trove of antiquities ranging from intricately sculpted brassware and copperware to carved wooden wall hangings to old radios and His Master’s Voice gramophones. Most of the stuff in this shop is meant for those who have enough space for large objects in their living rooms and can afford to have them shipped.
For the regular tourist on a budget, street vendors near the Sule Pagoda and the Independence Monument are good places for buying souvenirs. When you enter some of the streets and alleys and look up you will find dozens of blue colored satellite dishes sticking out from every apartment – and a mesh of wires crisscrossing above.
I guess Ooredoo, the Qatari company that is one of the telecom operators in Myanmar, will need to introduce their broadband and TV services soon to Myanmar.
For designer shopping a new western styled shopping mall – The Myanmar Plaza – opened in December 2015. With more than 100 shops including a large food court with both local and international fast food outlets, this is the place locals flock to. The 5-star Melia Hotel that is connected to the Myanmar Plaza and opened in August 2016 also offers several fine dining options if you prefer to have a waiter serve you food after a tiring day’s shopping.
If malls are not what you came to Yangon for, you should head straight to the Bogyoke Aung Sang Market (formerly knows as Scott’s Market). Right by the entrance you will see the creativity of Myanmar’s youth. Colorful paintings are for sale for as little as $40.
Walk in and you will see shops filled with multi-colored longyis and sarongs that are worn by men and women in Myanmar. Ranging in price from $5-$20 you can buy these as gifts for coworkers. But beware, the color runs from the less expensive ones. You do not want to be known as the person who gave a gift that spoiled a full load of clothes in the washing machine.
Intriguing gifts that you can buy at Bogyoke market include a cowbell attached to a leather belt that once went around a cow’s neck (pricey: around $200) or an intricately designed pipe used for puffing opium (make sure there are no traces left or you may have an unpleasant experience at the airport). You need to spend at least an hour or two at Bogyoke to do it justice as there are numerous shops in the market. Remember, this is not a mall and the shopkeepers expect you to haggle.
About a 5 minutes walk from Bogyoke Market there is a mosque and a few Halal restaurants. Yangon has several mosques and Halal food outlets but as in most non-Muslim countries, the Halal eateries are not the best of places in terms of cleanliness. Pizza, vegetarian or seafood options are advisable for those that do not have a strong constitution.
For rain-starved tourists from Dubai, Yangon has plenty of torrential showers and thunder to offer.
But although it may seem that the taps up above have been left open, the sky clears and the newly washed leaves on the trees at the Belmond Governor’s Residence rustle and sway as we make our way back to the airport to take the Emirates flight from Yangon to Hanoi – where another adventure awaits.
Last Updated on Monday, 10 October 2016 00:19
Cruise into the sunset on your own boat
Your wife is a “soccer mom” driving an SUV. You have a few other cars parked in the garage. Your annual vacation takes you to exotic destinations every summer – and increasingly every winter as well. You dine out every weekend – and some weeks have extra weekends. You think life is no longer a struggle. You are moderately well off. All your creature comforts are taken care of. And along comes Al Marakeb and spoils it all!
Al Marakeb makes boats in Sharjah. And their latest Scylla35 is aimed squarely at you. For about Dh145,000 (not including a Dh 120,000 engine) Basel Shuhaiber, Managing Director of Al Marakeb, now wants you to add a boat to your collection.
Basel has been building boats since he was very young. He built one for his dad who loves fishing. Basel says that it is the ugliest boat he has ever made but it served the purpose and he has enjoyed many fishing trips on it.
The new Scylla35 is built with passion and an in-depth knowledge that experience brings. While reeling in a big catch sometimes you have to go around the boat – and you can safely do that on the Scylla35 as there are no barriers on either side. Even the entrance to the cabin below is carefully thought out. The press of a button magically lifts the stairs on one side of the boat to let you in to a comfortable room below. Equipped with a double bed, some sofas which can be used for sleeping children, a bathroom and air conditioning, you can relax in this cabin while anchored overnight in some cove.
The 35 foot Scylla35 can cover 300 km in a single tank and can be used for weekend trips with the family as well as off-shore cruising, game fishing or open water diving expeditions.
Al Marakeb can currently manufacture two Scylla35 boats every six weeks and Nour Al Sayyed, their young Architect and Head of Design who has a degree from the American University of Sharjah School of Architecture, states that the modular design structure of the boat enables her to customize each boat based on individual buyer requirements. She enjoys her work at Al Marakeb which allows her to test each boat at sea – cruising into the sunset is certainly a good way to earn a living!
And of course, now that we know how affordable their boats are – you don’t even have to pay high marina charges for berthing the boat as you can just roll it on to a trailer and park it at home – life will be incomplete until you tick off your bucket list and become the proud owner of a Scylla35.
Last Updated on Sunday, 10 November 2013 17:58
Honeymoon in Thailand
My husband and I did a lot of research to select our perfect honeymoon destination. We were looking for a relaxing beach holiday where we felt pampered, but we didn’t want to go to a crowded tourist hotspot. We were in search of luxury, natural beauty and good food, but most of all we just wanted some peace and quiet, so in July we finally found ourselves in Koh Phangan.
The island of Koh Phangan is located off the south-east coast of Thailand, about 15 kilometres from the more popular Koh Samui. Koh Phangan does not have an airport; the only way to access it is by boat, which is fascinating in itself.
If you’ve heard of Thailand’s infamous full moon parties, you may be aware that Koh Phangan is where they are held. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is all the island has to offer; there’s a lot more to this blissful holiday escape than glow sticks and pounding music.
We selected the Anantara Rasananda as our resort of choice after reading good reviews online, packed our bags and set off. After making a short pit stop in Koh Samui to attend the destination wedding of two of our friends, we were more than ready for the honeymoon leg of our holiday.
The Anantara sent a car to pick us up and take us to the hotel’s private beach where a speedboat was waiting for us along the shore. The courteous staff asked us to remove our shoes as we waded through the waves and made our way to the boat. It was a short and sweet 30-minute ride, during which we saw Koh Phangan’s stunning coastline as we sped all the way to the northern end of the island.
The Anantara Rasananda is a relatively small resort, comprising about 40 villas at the time we went. The laid back vibe of the resort was exactly what we had wanted, and our villa was gorgeous. The room itself was just beautiful and the private garden, outdoor rain shower and plunge pool were an added bonus.
Our resort was tucked away on the secluded north-eastern beach of Thong Nai Pan Noi. Just behind the resort is a quaint little village scattered with an eclectic collection of restaurants, ranging from authentic French cuisine to my personal favourite, Jip Shop, which I thought was by far the best local restaurant there, worthy enough to warrant two visits. Another great find was BTS, which was recommended to us by the hotel staff for delicious pizza. Though the charming village was limited to a dirt path only about 300 metres long, there was no shortage of fantastic (and legitimate) massage parlours, souvenir shops, internet cafes and grocery stores.
We faced an unfortunate spell of rain one afternoon and decided to use the opportunity to venture out and explore the island. We rented a jeep from the village, found a map and set off, not knowing what to expect. The first few minutes of the drive were great. Thanks to the hotel’s barefoot policy, we had grown used to the feeling of sand between our toes; having a road beneath us was a welcome change. We should have known better, though, because paved roads are a rarity in Koh Phangan and inevitably the rest of our hour-long drive consisted of us off-roading through muddy paths between the island’s hilly forests.
The southern end of the island is much busier than the north. On one east is the beach town of Haad Rin, where the full moon parties take place. It’s known to be a sleepy town in off-season, so instead, we opted for the port town of Thong Sala on the south-western side. If you happen to crave Japanese food while wandering around Thong Sala, you must go to Zen. Managed by Japanese expat Yamazaki Nobuharu, this hidden gem serves some of best Japanese food I have ever had, anywhere. Later that evening we paid a visit to Thong Sala Night Bazaar for some local shopping and dining options before making the hour-long adventurous drive back to the north.
We had our jeep for a 24-hour time slot so the following day we drove to a nearby waterfall, Than Sadet. It was a bit of a trek to get to the fall but both the trek and the fall itself were worth the effort.
No mention of Thong Nai Pan Noi is complete without Mr Handsome, who is the face of what can only be described as a local retail conglomerate. From Handsome Laundry to Handsome Tours, this brand offers it all. Though I can’t say we tried all his offerings, I can vouch for the delicious Handsome Burgers.
As part of our honeymoon package the resort offered us a romantic candlelit dinner on the beach. We saw the lovely hotel staff setting up all afternoon and were touched at the effort they put into it. It was great to have a private dinner by the waves, secluded from the rest of the resort. Apart from the fantastic daily breakfast, this was the only meal we had within the hotel.
On our last day in Koh Phangan we went in for our spa treatment, which was also part of the honeymoon experience. The Anantara’s spa is absolutely breathtaking. We had had our fair share of fantastic massages in every roadside massage parlour we could find, but this was a whole new level of serenity. A pebbled pathway through lush green surroundings led us through the spa as we made our way up to the private tree house where we were to receive our massage treatments. It was a pampering experience and the massage itself was relaxing enough to put me to sleep. The prices were higher than those outside of the resort, but the spa itself is a must-see for anyone visiting the area.
That evening we returned to the popular BTS one last time for some Tom Yum pizza and indulged in our second massage of the day. This time, we chose the cooling aloe vera massage treatment – highly recommended for the sweltering heat. It kept us cool for a good two hours after we were done and we regretted not discovering it sooner, otherwise it would have become a daily activity for us.
Our last day also happened to be the first of Ramadan according to the Islamic calendar, and we came across a Malaysian Muslim man with a pancake cart right outside our hotel. He spoke to us in an excited mix of Malay, Hindi, Bengali and English, and informed us that there was in fact a mosque on the southern end of the island in the village of Ban Tai where eight people attended Friday prayers the previous afternoon. Not only was he a friendly guy, his pancakes were delicious too!
We left early the next morning right after sunrise while the rest of the cove was still asleep. We had a flight to catch from Koh Samui airport in a couple of hours and did not want to risk missing it. Though the island is small, it’s packed with adventure and I wish we’d had time to zipline through the forest, snorkel with exotic fish, attend a Muay Thai boxing match and go to one of Koh Phangan’s renowned yoga retreats. I suppose it’s not possible to see everything in one trip, and it’s just as well because now we have a reason to go back to this secluded slice of paradise.
Last Updated on Monday, 18 February 2013 20:02
Junket in Muscat
By Irfan Ahmad
I was going on my first press junket. I travel frequently but this felt different. I did not even have an airline ticket. I had to join a group of journalists at Terminal 2 at Dubai airport at 5:30am. We were going to Muscat. flydubai was taking us there while the Shangri-La’s Barr al Jissah Resort & Spa was hosting us.
My group mates were a diverse lot - several Brits, a Kiwi, a Yemeni, a Syrian, an Egyptian, a couple of Lebanese and I. A common thread – journalistic abilities – wove us into a group that gelled instantly. No competitive urge to get a scoop. We were not out to dig dirt. We were being pampered to write.
And pampered we were. The fine folks from flydubai did not make us wait in line for checking in. (From subsequent experience I have learnt that it does help to arrive early for a morning flight as there are several flights that leave in the morning and queues tend to be long for passengers with luggage.) Our luggage was whisked away and we were escorted to the immigration counter and promptly bussed to the plane.
Like other low cost carriers, flydubai charges for the services you use. Checked in luggage costs extra and so do in-flight entertainment and meals. But we were given headsets and meals on our short trip to Muscat. The entertainment options were good and I managed to watch the pilot, first episode of Two and a Half Men. The Boeing 737-800 aircraft used by flydubai are new and exude a sense of safety and comfort.
The Barr al Jissah Resort and Spa is about a 45 minutes drive from Muscat airport. You drive past the majestic Grand Mosque, reach the beautiful Muttrah Corniche with its azure blue waters and then drive by craggy mountains and undulating wadis and suddenly the driver turns into a road which comes to a stop in front of a grand hotel.
If you have not done your homework you will not know that the Shangri-la Barr al Jissah Resort is not just one hotel but is a collection of three hotels. The family friendly Al Waha or Oasis is the largest with 262 rooms, the meetings and conventions oriented Al Bandar has 198 rooms while the luxury Al Husn, where children under 18 are not allowed, has 180 rooms. All are rated five star.
Of course, we were taken to the Al Husn. The rooms are large. The brochure says they are 48 sqm. That is a lot of space for one person. It would be quite comfortable for a couple – and there were several couples staying there. Some had come to discover themselves and looked like newly weds. Others appeared to be rediscovering themselves. After a job well done, their children having moved on, these couples seemed to be enjoying the fact that they once again had each other to spoil.
And what better place to spoil your loved ones than in the luxurious exclusivity of Al Husn. The rooms have a well equipped minibar which is free – yes, unlike other hotels, you do not have to pay atrociously high prices for a Coke or a bar of chocolate. Even afternoon tea at Al Husn is complimentary. And for those who cannot disconnect themselves from the internet while on vacation, there is free wifi in every room.
After checking into the room we were reminded of our official chores – we were on a familiarization trip and were escorted around the three hotels at the Shangri-la Barr al Jissah. We were first made to realize that the large rooms we were staying in at Al Husn were actually very small compared to the 500sqm Jabreen Suite which catered to royalty – or those who kept their money in Birkin bags. We then went to the less intimidating Al Waha hotel with its focus on families with children. We saw the 500 meter long Lazy River, took a look at the vast private beach and stopped by the inviting Chi Spa, did a quick tour of Al Bandar, the meetings and convention hotel and made our way back to Al Husn with its infinity pool and luxurious architecture.
Lunch was at Al Tanoor with its rich buffet spread that included Omani and Arab cuisine as well as Mediterranean, Persian, Indian and Turkish food. The open cooking stations were convenient and I had the pink slices of leg of lamb grilled to just the right shade of well done. You are spoilt for choice at buffets which have such a wide variety of culinary delights on offer. Perhaps the Indian food at Al Tanoor was responsible for getting Indian movie stars Akshay Kumar and Imran Khan to agree to stay at Shangri-la Barr al Jissah during the shooting in Oman of the sequel to the movie “Once Upon a Time in Mumbai.”
In the afternoon we went on a tour of Muscat. First stop was Muttrah Souq. This is a smaller version of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar or Cairo’s Khan el Khalili. A labyrinth of small alleys with everything a tourist or souvenir aficionado could desire. Omani silver coins, finely carved daggers, antique compasses and
gyroscopes, wooden boxes, frankincense, Omani caps and one unassuming little shop up a flight of stairs with a calligrapher who is a glib talker who managed to get several of us to exchange papers. We gave him a few small papers with the picture of Sultan Qaboos and he gave us a larger piece of paper with our name inscribed in Arabic.
Across from the Muttrah Souq is the Muttrah Corniche with its fishing boats, old dhows and yachts in the marina. But we did not venture there. We drove past the Al Alam Palace which is the official residence of Sultan Qaboos, took pictures of the two old forts (the Al Mirani and Al Jilali forts) that guard Muscat Harbour with their ack ack guns and admired the jagged mountains that seemed to be rising from the sea. To preserve the natural scenic beauty of Muscat, Sultan Qaboos has decreed that no man-made structure will rise above 10 stories. Quite a contrast from Dubai with its glass and steel towers stabbing the clouds.
Dinner was at Bait al Bahr, the seafood restaurant at Al Waha. We had just been served with some starters when I was reminded that it was time for my appointment at Chi – the Spa. Seafood could wait. I needed that Hilot hot oil body massage. And what a sensation it was. Individual “treatment” rooms at Chi give you a sense of privacy while the masseuse gets to work on untangling all the knots that you never knew existed in your back. After an hour of body therapy you are ready to fall asleep and the most difficult part of the Chi experience is to get up and call the golf cart guy to transport you back to your room in Al Husn where you can finally doze off.
The next morning we went on a dolphin watching tour. We took a short ride to the nearby marina and got on a boat that took us into the Gulf of Oman where the Captain assured us we would see dolphins. Seemed like a case of déjà vu. I heard the same story when I was in the Arctic Circle near Svalbard in Norway the previous summer and was assured that we would see polar bears but we had to make do with walrus and seal sightings. Oman was different. Captain Issa had promised us dolphins and dolphins we did see. Dozens of them. Cavorting in the sea. Swimming past our boat. Several of them jumping out of the water in unison as if they were in a giant aquarium performing for their audience.
With a bunch of journos sitting together it was inevitable that someone would ask what a group of dolphins are called. School? Shoal? Or, pod? The consensus was that they are called a pod – although they can be referred to as a school of dolphins as well.
Before heading back, Captain Issa took us on a tour of the Omani coastline. We saw some sheer cliffs, secluded coves and admired how the emerald waters of the sea near the shore seemed to retain their distinct color despite the fact that not too far offshore the water turned azure blue.
On returning to the shore we were taken to the diving school where those who wanted to explore Nemo’s world signed up for an afternoon of snorkeling and diving. Landlubbers like me were happy to be back on terra firma.
In the evening we were again taken to the marina for a sunset cruise. We were welcomed on board the luxury yacht with cold towels and drinks. The two bedrooms and a sitting area in the lower deck made us wonder if we could go on an overnight trip on it, park it in Dubai and make it our permanent home! We were told that the yacht would not leave us much spare change after shelling out $3million – and of course marina berthing charges are extra. But we were not there to buy a boat.
We set sail out into the sea with lengthening shadows cast by the sun behind us. We took turns at the helm and intimidated by the high-tech navigation system on board stuck to gliding the boat by turning the ship’s steering wheel. We waved at a number of smaller tourist boats that our powerful sea stallion overtook. Some of us decided to enact the Titanic scene by standing at the bow with outstretched arms and hoping Kate Winslet would join us. Others climbed to the top deck to keep a lookout for Captain Jack Sparrow. Although it was the peak of summer, the evening breeze was pleasant and most of us enjoyed staying on the upper deck.
Finally, we turned the boat around to see the receding sun slowly slip behind the mountains of Muscat. The rays from the golden ball in the distance were replaced by the shimmering lights of the city, reminding us that the sunset cruise was coming to an end.
Dinner was at Shahrazad, a Moroccan restaurant with a deceptively Persian name. The delicious lamb Tajine was enough to give it a stamp of Moroccan authenticity. This was our last dinner in Muscat and our hosts were there to make sure that we had a good experience. Some shop talk naturally ensued but with people from varied backgrounds the discussions were equally random.
I had watched on the hotel’s in-house channel the making of the wolves in winter Shangri-la TV commercial and I marveled at the beauty and lasting impact it made. We also discussed the importance of online marketing to a generation that is now spending more time online than on any other medium. I was told that while Brits still account for a majority of tourist arrivals in Oman, Russians are also discovering the country – with Faberge eggs no longer available, I guess exploring the world is now a favored pastime for the new czars of Russia.
Muscat is under an hour’s flight from Dubai. With convenient flight connections it is a great place to spend a long weekend. The natural beauty of the mountains and the calm waters of the Gulf of Oman will be a soothing change from the din of the concrete jungle that is Dubai.
The next day we said our thanks and goodbyes and headed to the airport for the flight back to Dubai. flydubai operates from Dubai’s Terminal 2 which may not be as glamorous as Terminal 1 or 3 but it is very efficient. No endless escalator rides or long walks to immigration. Within minutes of landing you are in the baggage area and out the door … and the real world beckons.
Last Updated on Monday, 19 November 2012 01:45
Beirut: the Chic City
By Bushra Alvi
When my husband was invited to attend a weekend symposium in Beirut, there was no way I was going to stay behind. For too long Beirut had been on my list of must-visit places and, while the trip would be short, I decided to tag along. The Emirates flight we took was full and cramped - especially for my six foot tall husband - but the prospect of going to Beirut was so appealing that every discomfort was worth it.
I shared my list of sites to see in Beirut with my husband as we enjoyed the Moujadara salad, chicken machbous and Moroccan style lamb tangine served by the airline. I only prayed the weather would clear since we learned before boarding our flight that it was raining non-stop in Beirut.
One look at the people in the airport and you know you are in Beirut, the fashion capital of the Arab world. The Beirutis’ sense of chic is evident in the way they dress and carry themselves. Stylish from head to toe, Beirutis are very conscious of their appearance and are always fashionably dressed, be it at the airport, a hotel, or a shopping center.
Beirut’s Rafic Hariri Airport, though not flashy like Dubai’s International Airport, was efficient and we were soon out of the terminal and on the fifteen kilometer drive to the hotel along with other delegates attending the symposium. We were awed by the scenery around us as we drove through the city along the sea towards the edge of Beirut. Beirut is such a charming city, so picturesque, so natural, such a delight!
It was raining constantly during our trip, from the moment we arrived until the moment we left. Rather than be a damper on our spirits, the rain added a magical quality to everything. Briefly, the sun peeked out once for about half an hour or so, and the city sparkled like a jewel.
Our hotel, Le Royal, a five star luxury hotel, was situated on Leisure Hill Complex, Dbayeh, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The shaded waters of the sea blended with color as if a careless child had spilled bottles upon bottles of turquoise, emerald, jade, and all other shades of blue-green poster colors across them. When the sun shone, it looked like thousands of diamonds had been sprinkled by a generous hand and their wicked sparkling was taunting as the mighty sun chose to hide yet again behind those menacing clouds!
The first night we were taken for dinner to Restaurant Mounir in Broummana, an absolutely enchanting place in the middle of a forest of pine and oak, a private vineyard, gardens, and waterfalls. Our seats gave us a spellbinding view of the city and its twinkling lights far below us. The elaborate Lebanese cuisine served was as magnificent as the view and we certainly couldn't decide which treasure was better and deserved more of our attention! We couldn’t help but linger longer than necessary, absolutely captivated with the surroundings (and of course, the food).
The next morning we set off for Jeita Grotto, the amazing caverns of stalactites and stalagmites in the limestone caves of the Mount Lebanon range near the Nahr El Kalb (Dog River), merely five kilometers north of our hotel. A short ropeway trip transported us to the entrance of the caves. Photography being prohibited, we deposited our cameras in lockers provided at the entrance. Here, hundreds of years of action of limestone in water have resulted in fascinating structures with architecture akin to an enormous cathedral sculpted by the hands of nature. The walls were amazing with their unusual, curtain-like formations, some tinged in hues of light pink. It was eerie even as it was mesmerizing and gripping - indeed a magical wonderland! These caves truly deserve a place in the New Seven Wonders of the World.
While some of our group members walked the distance between upper and lower caves, others enjoyed a joy ride aboard the colorful red and green toy train. The lower cave was cool at sixteen degrees Celsius while the upper one was warm at twenty-two degrees. We spent some time simply walking around and taking in the natural beauty of the place, feasting our eyes on rock formations, soothing our senses with the greenery around us, and inhaling the intoxicating scent of pines. Climbing high on a ledge, I broke a small branch off a pine tree along with a few unripe pinecones to take back as a ‘natural’ souvenir. After living in Dubai, trees seem to hold a special appeal, starved as we are here of vegetation.
For lunch we were taken to a seafood restaurant, Dar L'Azrak, on Old Roman Way, Byblos. This restaurant literally tips off a cliff and affords stunning views. We enjoyed another sumptuous Lebanese fare accompanied by the thrashing of the Mediterranean Sea just outside our window. The natural beauty all around is just so absorbing, every piece of rock so incredible!
Late afternoon and evening was taken up by the symposium that my husband had been invited to attend. A gala dinner followed in Diwan Shahryar, the oriental restaurant of the hotel, which again featured an elaborate spread of Lebanese food with mezza and grilled specialties. There was a live band and popular Arabic songs by Jihad Mahfouz, whose lively rendition had the audience clapping and singing alongside. Plenty of dancing followed while the fragrance of 'shisha' pervaded the restaurant. The Lebanese sure have a zest for life and know how to live it up.
The highlight of the evening was a beautiful belly dancer who enthralled the audience with her gyrations and nimble footsteps as she danced her way from table to table enticing men to join her on the floor. I asked my husband if I should beckon her to take him to the dance floor too, but he felt shy. Had I not been with him he may have been adventurous and taken a shot at it! (One thing I must say about Lebanese women though, they ooze oodles and oodles of ooomph!)
Next morning we went up to Faraya. There was a thick blanket of snow all around and, with snow laden trees, it looked like a scene straight from a Christmas card. When we reached our destination, it started snowing afresh. My husband and I were as excited as kids since we had never seen snowfall before, though the snow became a bit annoying later as it picked up speed and lashed across our faces, forcing us to close our eyes. Visibility was poor and snow scootering, though thrilling, had an element of danger as we battled with the falling snow. At places the route was very narrow and I literally had my heart in my mouth and a prayer on my lips - I was quite relieved when we were back on the bus.
The village of Faraya is synonymous with skiing in Lebanon. The actual slopes are in nearby Ouyoun Al-Siman in the Kfardebian area of Mount Lebanon. During the winter months from December to April, Faraya is most sought after by skiers from the Gulf and elsewhere who flock here in droves. Skiing is offered on pistes with varying levels of difficulty. It is easy to see why Lebanon has been nicknamed the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
Another elaborate spread was organized for us at the Intercontinental Mzaar Lebanon Mountain Resort and Spa at Mzaar Kfardebian, Faraya Village. By then we had had an overdose of Lebanese food and did not quite do the meal justice. However, I did manage to tuck in a fairly generous helping of sheesh taouk and tabbouleh and ended my meal with baked baklawa cheesecake served with vanilla custard sauce and chopped pistachios.
There was no time for any more sightseeing as we had a flight to catch later that evening. I truly regretted not being able to see my father's college –American University of Beirut - about which I had heard so much. Well, that will give me an incentive to visit Beirut again since there is so much more to explore in this charming city.
All said and done, for a very short weekend trip, it was certainly worth it!
Last Updated on Sunday, 22 February 2015 08:30
Seychelles: Life in Slow Motion
By Amna Khalique
Visiting Seychelles is like stepping back in time into another realm. Calm, serene, phenomenally gorgeous beaches, so many species of wildlife – you will definitely be tempted to visit each year. With a population of approximately 90,000 in the entire archipelago consisting of 115 islands, Seychelles is natural, untouched beauty at its best.
The dream to visit Seychelles started when I was in high school and I heard about fishing in glass-bottomed boats. I was told the water so clear that you could almost see down to the coral reefs and that the sand was so white it looked like snow. True enough, Seychelles lived up to its reputation.
As our cab driver drove us from the airport to our resort, I finally understood how Seychelles’ unparalleled beauty makes it one of the world’s top destinations for honeymooners. As the car drove further uphill, the view from the top got better with each turn; the outer islands – some tiny islands that are uninhabited and some larger ones – were visible from everywhere. The islands were lush green, contrasting sharply with the deep blue ocean and the bright blue sky. Photographs cannot do them justice.
What makes these islands unique is their untouched, natural beauty and the fact that they are not densely populated. The Seychellois likely have made little effort in making their nation a tourist destination. However, tourists do not throng to Seychelles because it is an expensive place. Here you can relax, unwind, be one with nature, read–all without bumping into groups of fellow tourists. Even the public beaches here resemble private ones. On Mahe alone there are dozens of beaches where you can soak up the sun. The views are stunning. I remember how we could see the ocean, just a few feet away, as soon as we walked into the hotel lobby. The rhythmic sound of the waves is hypnotic.
The Seychellois have a sweet, island charm about them. Extremely friendly and hospitable, they are also very laid-back, which sometimes results in slow service at restaurants. Maybe the Seychellois are this way so they can take a step back, not rush through their day but, instead, take in all of the sights and sounds that their country has to offer.
The food here is delicious. My favorite restaurants in Mahe are Kraz Kroel-recommended by our cab driver-where we ate delicious crab, and Chez Plume, which is only a few minutes from our hotel on foot. Chez Plume served lovely Creole food in a small, cozy outdoor setting at comparatively reasonable prices.
Seychelles has a tropical climate and during January it rains incessantly. But the rain did not prevent us from making our trip a memorable one. The highest point in Mahe is Morne Seychellois (905m), atop which the view is spectacular. The opportunity to see small islands surrounding Mahe from so high was a great experience, despite the fog and rain. On the way to the top we stopped for tea at the tea factory, where we were given a guided tour. The best part of the tour was the portion where we sampled fragrant local teas, including vanilla (grown in Seychelles), lemon grass, and orange. Needless to say, we returned home with various sizes and flavors!
Just a short hike from our hotel (about 20 minutes) was the Grand Anse beach – a little frightening for anyone who doesn’t know how to swim. Since there is no reef by the beach, the ocean here can be very rough, especially during the monsoon season. The tides were extremely high, but you could see miles into the horizon. Even more fascinating were the several tidal pools we crossed on our hike. Small but extremely deceptive, the pools filled up as it started to rain, making it almost impossible to get back to the shore.
I was extremely scared of the rough sea so I missed out on snorkeling in Seychelles, which I later developed the nerve to do in the middle of the Andaman Sea. Determined to see some of the pretty fish, I climbed onto the rocks by our beach and, as I stood watching, hundreds of different colored fish swam by – pink, orange, orange and white stripes, black … too many colors to count – I was absolutely dumbstruck. Hundreds of thoughts raced through my mind, the primary one being how I was still missing out on the corals and the real underwater world by not opting to snorkel. I still regret that I never took pictures of that moment when I could just reach out and touch the fish.
During our week-long stay we took a day trip to two popular islands, La Digue and Praslin, well over an hour away by boat. I thought the beaches in Mahe were gorgeous, but I was in for a surprise. La Digue was something else, characterized by huge (about 30 feet high) granite boulders towering above the white sandy beaches. Here the main forms of transport are bicycles and oxcarts. Stepping back in time, it seemed as though everyone around me had forsaken their worries and tensions. People rented bright colored bikes and cycled their way around the small island. The Black Paradise Flycatcher, a bird native to Seychelles and found exclusively in this part of the world, flew a few feet above us and settled on a coconut tree. But it isn’t just the Black Paradise that is native to this archipelago – here you will also find the Giant Tortoise lazily feeding on grass. One of the more famous islands for ecotourism in Seychelles is Bird Island, which has overnight accommodation for individuals who wish to observe various species of birds in their natural habitat.
Praslin is hilly like Mahe and home to the famous Vallee di Mai, a forest unexplored by humans until the 1930s. Spread over eighteen hectares, it is now a UNESCO heritage site because of the six types of palm trees unique to Praslin, its diverse flora and fauna, and the famous fruit native to Seychelles, the Coco de Mer. The fruit bears the largest seed in the plant kingdom, weighing well over fifteen kilograms. It is also believed that these palm trees date back thousands of years and belonged to the ancestors of current plant types.
My only complaint about my trip to Seychelles? It was expensive. If you’re looking to splurge, relax, get close to nature and witness beauty at its best, then this is the right destination for you. However, you shouldn’t be deterred solely by the cost: some travel agents are now offering budget accommodation packages to open Seychelles up to the world.
Seychelles offers much to travelers who want to explore and discover new places. You can go deep sea diving with PADI instructors, fishing on glass-bottomed boats, or just sail out in the open sea and go island hopping. Whatever you choose to do, you will not tire of this gorgeous country and its people.
My last night in Seychelles beckoned me to return again. The midnight blue sky was lit up with millions of stars, literally illuminating the sky and outshining the moon. As I sat on the grass observing the stars, I felt like I was in another world.
Yes, I am definitely going back.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 June 2012 12:54