Archive for the ‘Middle East’ category

Let me surprise you about Iran!

May 9, 2013

I’ve been to my share of exotic places, but nothing roused the curiosity of my friends and colleagues more than Iran. And for a good reason. All we know about Iran are terrorism, nuclear plants, third world, etc. etc. Perhaps some are aware that Iran was once part of the Persian empire, which is majestic and amazing in its own way. But present Iran? No, all it provokes are fear and skepticism.

I was lucky I had a friend who went, and reassured me that Iran is a pleasant, safe place to visit. I am even luckier that I have an equally adventurous family to go with. So off we went, not knowing exactly what to expect.

In a nutshell, Iran is practically the opposite of what you think it is.

Misconception # 6. It is a war-zone. Stay away or you’ll get shot!

Any of the cities, Tehran, Esfahan, or Shiraz, is probably safer than most big cities. I observed that our tour bus driver rarely locks the bus when he steps out. You walk on the street and people will not harass you. Things don’t get stolen from the hotel. And no, apart from the occasional checkpoints in the highway, there are no remnants of it being a war city at all. No, people do not carry guns! Although their posters depict people carrying guns. But that’s about it.

"Army" poster - amidst a beautiful snowcapped backdrop

“Army” poster – amidst a beautiful snowcapped backdrop


The "infamous" Supreme Leader!

The “infamous” Supreme Leader!

Misconception # 5. Persian food must suck. Or at the very least, you must get tired of eating kebab day after day.

I loved a lot of the food we ate in Iran. One unforgettable dish is the saffron baked chicken which is absolutely yummy. The restaurant is an old Persian mansion adorned with mirror mosaics. And you know it is not a touristy place because it was packed with locals on a weekday lunch!

My favorite dish during our trip. Saffron baked rice stuffed with chicken!

My favorite dish during our trip. Saffron baked rice stuffed with chicken!


Kebab galore!

Kebab galore!


Hmmm... which is which...

Hmmm… which is which…


Kebab!

Kebab!

Misconception # 4. Cities in Iran must be dirty. It is such an underdeveloped country.

The three cities I went to are all very clean. There is absolutely no trash, and people are very disciplined about it. The only thing that “litters” their streets are rows and rows of flowers, especially roses!

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The garden in our hotel is full of what else??? Flowers!

The garden in our hotel is full of what else??? Flowers!


Garden in our beautiful hotel in Esfahan

Garden in our beautiful hotel in Esfahan

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Misconception # 3. Don’t think Persian or modern Iranian art is that big of a deal

Iranians are naturally artistic and their expression of art is all over tourist sights and their establishments. Even their bus stops are cute!

BC art in the National Museum in Tehran

BC art in the National Museum in Tehran


Restoration

Restoration

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Even the cutlery display is creative!

Even the cutlery display is creative!

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Typical Persian art - in Abbasi Hotel in Esfahan

Typical Persian art – in Abbasi Hotel in Esfahan


Artist at work. The artwork on the intricate vases are drawn by hand. We bought one!

Artist at work. The artwork on the intricate vases are drawn by hand. We bought one!

Never saw a prettier wall!

Never saw a prettier wall!

Even an old door is beautifully decorated

Even an old door is beautifully decorated

Trying to hail something. Actually, just posing for the camera :P

Trying to hail something. Actually, just posing for the camera ūüėõ

This is a bus stop!

This is a bus stop!

Intricate drawings in Golestan Palace, Tehran

Intricate drawings in Golestan Palace, Tehran

Misconception # 2. There must be nothing to see. If there are, they must have been destroyed by the wars.

See for yourself ūüôā I am thankful that there are not much tourists, so we were able to almost monopolize the sights!

Azadi square - the icon of Iran

Azadi square – the icon of Iran

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Milad Tower with a beautiful display of Iranian flags

Milad Tower with a beautiful display of Iranian flags

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I like the chandelier! Hmmm... will this fit into my room?!?!?

I like the chandelier! Hmmm… will this fit into my room?!?!?


Golestan Palace

Golestan Palace


Another angle

Another angle


Fascinating interiors of the Golestan Palace in Tehran

Fascinating interiors of the Golestan Palace in Tehran


Milad Tower in Tehran. The best place to see breathtaking bird's eye views of the city

Milad Tower in Tehran. The best place to see breathtaking bird’s eye views of the city


Another shot of Imam Square

Another shot of Imam Square


One of the beautiful bridges

One of the beautiful bridges


I love the beautiful arches

I love the beautiful arches


Mosque in Imam Square

Mosque in Imam Square


This square is so beautiful, I can sit here the whole day!

This square is so beautiful, I can sit here the whole day!


Bird's eye view - I had to brave a construction site to take this shot!

Bird’s eye view – I had to brave a construction site to take this shot!


Imam Square during the day

Imam Square during the day


Typical Persian interior design

Typical Persian interior design


The famous and beautiful Imam Square in Esfahan at night

The famous and beautiful Imam Square in Esfahan at night


View from my room in Esfahan

View from my room in Esfahan


Tomb in Pasagard

Tomb in Pasagard


Little bazaar in Shiraz

Little bazaar in Shiraz

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Woman in prayer. She was actually crying.

Woman in prayer. She was actually crying.


Mirror mosaics!

Mirror mosaics!


You think this is pretty? Wait til you see what's inside

You think this is pretty? Wait til you see what’s inside


The walls are just beautiful

The walls are just beautiful


The family taking off their shawls for the picture

The family taking off their shawls for the picture

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Wall near the entrance in Persepolis

Wall near the entrance in Persepolis


Persepolis! If there is one sight you have to go, it is this!

Persepolis! If there is one sight you have to go, it is this!

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Hmmm... I forgot what this is called.

Hmmm… I forgot what this is called.


Mosque in Shiraz

Mosque in Shiraz

Misconception # 1. The people must be violent and harsh! It’s understandable, they’ve lived in that condition for such a long time

The Iranians are the friendliest people I know. And it really takes a big deal for me to say that because Filipinos’ friendliness is hard to beat. But yeah, finally, after visiting 80 countries, I concede. They are cheerful, helpful, and just naturally nice. Since they do not see a lot of tourists, they are fascinated with Asian “exoticism” and would politely request for pictures. I felt like a celebrity! Here are some pictures with the amazing locals.

Met the one and only Filipina during our whole trip. She was with her family - she married an Iranian guy and they have a son. And their common language? Japanese! They now live in Bacolod, Philippines but met while living in Japan.

Met the one and only Filipina during our whole trip. She was with her family – she married an Iranian guy and they have a son. And their common language? Japanese! They now live in Bacolod, Philippines but met while living in Japan.


The boys are cute, too!

The boys are cute, too!


Goofing around before the teacher "caught" me!

Goofing around before the teacher “caught” me!


Posing with school children

Posing with school children


School trip

School trip


Isn't the woman stunning? Mind you, she requested for the picture with us!

Isn’t the woman stunning? Mind you, she requested for the picture with us!


The kids are so beautiful!

The kids are so beautiful!

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Peace everyone!

Peace everyone!

A tale of two nations – UAE and Oman

January 8, 2013

My family and I went to UAE and Oman during the last Christmas holidays. Actually, they wanted to go to Dubai, but I insisted in including Oman, as I have heard a lot about it from my well-traveled friends. What we realized is while both countries are so different, it is worth your while to visit both. Because it will give you the contrasts that make up an interesting vacation. At the end of this post I will share a suggested itinerary.

So what are the dichotomies between the two countries?

Gentle vs. aggressive personality

UAE, especially Dubai, is not known for its hospitality. Having lived in Dubai for 3 months, and going back several times for work, I have to say I have yet to be wowed by the locals’ personality. Omanis on the other hand, are gentle and helpful.

Conservative vs. (relatively) liberal values

UAE, especially Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are mostly composed of foreigners (at most 20% locals!) Hence they are used to the Western culture. While they continue to embrace the local traditions, they are okay when Westerners parade in their bikinis at the beach, or wear miniskirts at the mall. Omanis, on the other hand, are not comfortable with that. So I wear sleeves outside Western resorts, and make sure my hem length is at least just above the knee.

Many choices vs. a few for accommodations

Dubai has countless options for accommodations, from the modest 4 star Western hotels like Four Points (there are three of them in Dubai alone!), to the beautiful Burj al Arab and Atlantis (from the famed hotel in Bahamas). Even for business hotels there are so many choices. My favorite is Emirates Towers.

Burj al Arab from the beach

Burj al Arab from the beach

Atlantis hotel

Atlantis hotel

Emirates Towers - I used to stay in this luxury business hotel in 2005.

Emirates Towers – I used to stay in this luxury business hotel in 2005.

Abu Dhabi is not far behind. My family’s favorite is Qasr¬†Al Sarab¬†in the Liwa¬†Desert. Bar None, the best resort in Abu Dhabi, and perhaps the whole UAE, and the tripadvisor ratings prove it. I love its arabic theme, unparalleled service, and delicious food. Shangri-la has a good view and infinity pool. We spent one night here over Christmas eve.

Qasr al Sarab

Qasr al Sarab

Qasr al Sarab resort

Qasr al Sarab resort

Beautiful room in Qasr al Sarab

Beautiful room in Qasr al Sarab

The mosque and Abu Dhabi's skyline, as seen from Shangri-la's infinity pool

The mosque and Abu Dhabi’s skyline, as seen from Shangri-la’s infinity pool

Oman, on the other hand, lacks options. Either you pay the overpriced Shangri-la at USD 500 per room per night for the CHEAPEST room, and a similar price range for the Chedi, or stay in almost run down hotels like the Tulip Inn for USD 150 per night (still expensive for the quality that you get.) And options are far in between. But hey, the sights more than compensate for the accommodations. Not even looking beyond Shangri-la, check out the views in the resort itself!

Chedi's pool

Chedi’s pool

Inside the Chedi, Oman

Inside the Chedi, Oman

The relatively "spartan" room in Shangri-la, Oman

The relatively “spartan” room in Shangri-la, Oman

View in Shangri-la Oman

View in Shangri-la Oman

View in Shangri-la Oman - Al Jissah

View in Shangri-la Oman РAl Jissah

Private beach in the exclusive Al Husn resort in Shangri-la

Private beach in the exclusive Al Husn resort in Shangri-la

Nature vs. man’s creativity

Beyond accommodations, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are about building the most unimaginable, most creative, and architecturally challenging buildings. From the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, to the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi, the buildings are just beautiful. Dubai has a themed mall, Ibn Batuta, which has a Moorish Spanish version. Check out their copy of the Alhambra fountain!

The towering Burj Khalifa - tallest building in the world - for now

The towering Burj Khalifa – tallest building in the world – for now

Ibn Batuta Mall, Dubai. See the semblance to Alhambra?

Etihad Towers skyline in Abu Dhabi

Etihad Towers skyline in Abu Dhabi

Hyatt Capital Gate - Abu Dhabi

Hyatt Capital Gate – Abu Dhabi

UAE does have its share of nature – an example is Jebel¬†Hafeet in Al Ain. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Wait until you see what Oman has to offer. It’s good that we went to this first before visiting Oman!

Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain - pretty. Again, wait til you see Oman!

Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain Рpretty. Again, wait til you see Oman!

Oman’s natural sights – well, a whole post can be dedicated about it. I won’t describe them more than a short caption for each picture, as the pictures will speak for themselves.

Outside Nizwa souk - with Omanis in traditional attire

Outside Nizwa souk Рwith Omanis in traditional attire

View from Nizwa fort

Village near Jebel shams. Lots of date trees.

Village near Jebel shams. Lots of date trees.

Jebel Shams

Jebel Shams

Goat in Jebel Shams. They're so cute we ended up feeding one!

Goat in Jebel Shams. They’re so cute we ended up feeding one!

A well-fed goat :)

A well-fed goat ūüôā

Wadi Nakher

Wadi Nakher

Wadi Nakher

Wadi Nakher

 

Nakhl Fort - beautiful fort, but wait til you see the view! Even better than the view from Nizwa fort!

Nakhl Fort Рbeautiful fort, but wait til you see the view! Even better than the view from Nizwa fort!

View from Nakhl Fort

View from Nakhl Fort

View from Nakhl Fort

View from Nakhl Fort

View from Nakhl Fort

View from Nakhl Fort

Wadi Ghul

Wadi Ghul

Wadi Ghul

Wadi Ghul

Mountains near Wadi Bani Auf

Mountains near Wadi Bani Auf

Mountains near Wadi Bani Auf

Mountains near Wadi Bani Auf

Mountains near Wadi Bani Auf

Mountains near Wadi Bani Auf

Mountains near Wadi Bani Auf

Mountains near Wadi Bani Auf

Bilad Sayt village

Bilad Sayt village

Look! Multi-colored mountain!

Look! Multi-colored mountain!

Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab

Bimah sinkhole

Bimah sinkhole

Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Tiwi

Wadi Bani Khalid

Wadi Bani Khalid

Wadi Bani Khalid

Wadi Bani Khalid

Wadi Bani Khalid

Camel hug in Wahiba Sands

Camel hug in Wahiba Sands

Wahiba sands

Wahiba sands

Wadi Arbayeen. See the reflection of colors!

Wadi Arbayeen. See the reflection of colors!

Extravagance vs. simplicity

Beyond the buildings, hotels, and the malls, while the UAE is used to showing off what money can buy, very little has been shown about Oman. My family’s reaction when I insisted on going, they asked, “What is there to see?” And this simplicity and low-keyness¬†extends to its ruler, Sultan Qaboos. He lives a (relatively) simple life, and a very anonymous and quiet one at that. He is single, and no one knows if he has girlfriends or mistresses, and avoids the press.

So which one of the two countries? You pick. Your preference will dictate the number of days you will spend in each, but each country is worth at least one visit in a lifetime ūüôā

My itinerary

This was our itinerary. It was very busy, so add a few more days if you want to relax. (Spend more time in Qasr al Sarab!) Also add/subtract the number of days depending whether you prefer the glitzy resorts of UAE or the nature sights of Oman.

Day 1 and 2: Dubai

Burj al Arab for breakfast РSee it from Jumeirah beach РAtlantis РDubai Mall / Burj Khalifa

Day 3: Qasr al Sarab in Liwa Desert, Abu Dhabi

Day 4: Abu Dhabi city tour: Sheikh Zayed Mosque, then enjoy the Shangri-la (with the view of the  mosque!)

Day 5-10: Oman

Day 5-6: Just lounge in Shangri-la

Day 7: Mountain tour РNizwa fort and market, Wadi Nakher, Wadi Ghul, Jebel Shams

Day 8: Canyon tour: Wadi Bani¬†Auf (make sure it’s a really sunny day, it would be dangerous in cloudy weather), Bilad¬†Sayt¬†village, Nakhl Fort

Day 9: Waterful wadi tour: Wadi Arbayeen, Wadi Shab, Wadi Tiwi, Bimah sinkhole

Day 10: Wahiba Sands desert and Wadi Bani Khalid

I feel so nostalgic now, I know I’ll be back in that part of the world one day ūüôā