Archive | October 2014

The Twin Delights of Southeast Asia – Manila and Jakarta

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.

Makati skyline (Manila - Philippines)

Multicultural Melange
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).

Jakarta

Attractions Galore
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.

Bali

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)

Bandar Al Khayran Highlights!

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

Bandar Al Khayran

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

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

Heightened Awareness: Adventures in the Mountains of Oman

Oman’s mountains offer a spectacular contrast to the flat, desert landscapes of much of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. They are a sanctuary for those wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of nearby Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. And for travellers from all over the world, they represent the classic definition of ‘desert mountain wilderness’.

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Mountains have always had a profound effect on humans. These giant rock structures seem to inspire greatness in us, and there lies within humans an instinctive desire to climb them, explore them, and make our homes next to them. And even just see them (and pull out our smartphones to take photos of them).

Classic mountain experiences
Oman’s mountains, and the ease with which they can be explored, are one of the things that make the country such a memorable travel destination. Here are the not-to-be-missed mountain experiences and eco-travel adventures for those travelling through the Sultanate.

Four-wheel-drive trips: Oman is four-wheel-drive territory at its best. On the various commercially run and self-drive four-wheel-drive tours on offer, you’ll be taken through some of the most breathtaking switchback passes and mountain roads imaginable. The famous jeep track from Rustaq to Nizwa through Wadi Bani Awf has always been a classic among experienced four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, but commercially-run and privately organised drives up Jebel Shams, Jebel Akhdar and through many of the Oman’s mountain wadis are also popular.

Trekking: The trekking season in Oman runs from September to May. There are well-established trekking routes that cater to all fitness levels, in all the mountainous regions of the country. Trekking remains the best way to explore and get ‘up-close-and-personal’ with the Sultanate of Oman’s mountain environment. There are also a series of via ferrata routes – climbing routes with fixed wire cables and ladders – set up around Oman. The route at the Snake Canyon, near Balad Sayt in Wadi Bani Awf, is the most popular. These are regularly closed for routine maintenance however, so it’s best to check with local guides before planning your trip.

Mountainbiking: Oman’s mountain terrain seems to be made for mountainbiking. There are a handful of tour operators that offer guided mountainbiking trails through the mountains and wadis (often passing old villages, forts, traditional ‘falaj’ irrigation systems, and other cultural relics along the way). The Trans Hajar Mountain Bike Race, is an annual multi-stage mountain bike race that takes place in the Al Hajar range.

Rock-climbing: Most of the rock-climbing in Oman takes place on good quality limestone. There are a number of climbing sites, all within three hours drive outside of Muscat, with nearly 100 graded routes ranging in difficulty. There are also several multi-pitch routes up the huge mountain walls of Jebal Misht, near Ibri. What sets Oman apart from the rest of the world is the sheer volume of high quality climbing routes that are waiting to be ‘opened’. Climbers in Oman are spoilt for choice!

Photography: The unique natural lighting and colour palletes that accompany Oman’s mountains mean that they are a dream destination for photographers – like the Oman in Focus photographic expedition, who were a team of photographers that recently did a groundbreaking photo ‘safari’ around the Sultanate, and recorded some spectacular images.

Mapping Oman’s Mountains
There are two main mountain ranges in Oman – The Al Hajar Mountain Range, and Dhofar Mountain Range.

Al Hajar Range: This begins at the Musandam Peninsula in the north, and then runs in a south-east direction slightly inland, but parallel to the coastline. The awe-inspiring sea cliffs, mountains and fjords of the Musandam Peninsula are Oman’s northernmost mountains, and form the beginning of the Al Hajar range. They are only two hours away from Dubai by road, and the approach to Musandam and its main town, Khasab, is quite possibly the most dramatic and scenic coastal drive on the Arabian Peninsula. As the range heads south, it begins to rise to the highest and wildest terrain in the country, peaking at the Jebel Akhdar mountains, and then Jebel Shams, the highest point in the country (at 3,009 metres). From here, it heads in a southeast direction, closer and closer to the coastline, and ends up a few kilometers short of the fishing town of Sur.

Dhofar Range: In Oman’s southern Dhofar region, the Al Qamar, Al Qara, and the Al Samhan mountains collectively make up the Dhofar Mountain Range. The range extends from the Yemen border in the West, to an area called Sadah, about a 100 kilometres west of Salalah, and begins just inland as it rises up out of the Arabian Sea. At 1,821 metres, Jebel Samhan is the highest peak here. What sets this mountainous region apart from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula is its lush greenery – which is a result of Dhofar’s tropical climate, as well the annual monsoon ‘Khareef’ season that takes place during summer. This unique, tropical climate brings with it a unique set of wildlife and biodiversity to the mountains. For example, in the remote, inaccessible eastern part of the range is Jebel Samhan Nature Reserve, which is the last wild habitat for the highly endangered Arabian leopard.

Classic Desert Mountain Wilderness?
For anyone in search of authentic ‘desert mountain wilderness’, the Sultanate of Oman should be on top of your list. Muscat itself has dozens of smaller peaks dotted around the city. These serve as a constant reminder of what lies in wait – on a much larger scale – further afield. You won’t be disappointed if you find yourself heading off into the heights to explore them.

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