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Penang, Malaysia

Feb 18, 2016 – Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

I was waitlisted on two shore excursions for today, but neither came up, so I’m on my own. I walk out of the cruise ship terminal, running the gauntlet of taxi drivers trying to get me to hire them. Instead, they piss me off, so I put my head down and keep walking past them all, intent on getting out onto the street and freedom. I encounter one last driver, parked by himself about a block away on one of the nearby streets. Cheah offers me a four hour tour for a bit less than the Holland America excursions I was considering. Initially I walk by him, but noting how hot and humid it is this morning (33°C and 85%), I realize that touring in an air conditioned car makes a lot of sense, so I agree to hire him for a customized tour. I’m glad to see the money go directly to the operator; I see the sights I’m interested in; and I can stay longer at a site or leave more quickly, as I wish.

Despite it being completely unplanned, I enjoy my day ashore. It works out wonderfully!

My customized tour of Penang

  • Map showing the location of my photos taken in Georgetown

    Map showing the location of my photos taken in Georgetown

    St. George’s Church – is a beautiful church, and it is apparently the oldest Anglican church in SE Asia.

  • Eastern & Oriental Hotel – this is a sister property to the famous Raffles hotel in Singapore, and is the classic old hotel from SE Asia’s colonial past. Cheah stops outside just long enough for me to pop inside and check out the lobby area. It is beautifully appointed.
  • Local street art – paintings and sculpture on outside walls along Lebuh Armenian street
  • Clan Jetties – a fascinating look at an old, established Chinese community where people still live today.
  • Kek Lok Si Temple – I must confess I didn’t walk up all of the 200 steps in this temple, preferring to take the small funicular train to the top (cost is 6 Ringets up and down, CD$2.25). There are still plenty of steps for me to tackle in the hot and humid weather! The huge bronze statue at the top is very impressive, and the Seven Tiered Pagoda is beautifully sited on the hillside. On the way down, there is an old Buddhist monk being helped to the main worship room, which contains a big golden buddha statue. The temples and courtyards are all decorated with Chinese lanterns for the Lunar New Year, which is being celebrated right now.
  • Penang Hill – Cheah drops me off at the bottom of the funicular tram, where I get in line to purchase a ticket. The line for the regular tickets (30 Ringets) seems to go on forever, so I decide to pay 60 Ringets (CD$22) to get an Advanced Boarding pass. With this pass, I get to bypass the huge lines (saving about an hour), have a quiet area to wait and have priority boarding on the trains, so I am seated before the throngs push and shove their way onto the train. Penang Hill is 2,750 feet above sea level, and has temples, restaurants, a museum, some residences, and even a police station located on top. Since the weather is clear, the views of the city of Georgetown and Malacca Strait are spectacular.
Map showing the photos I took in Penang

Map showing the photos I took in Penang


My driver: Cheah TH
+6011-3688 0532
+6010-389-6933
cheahth6296@gmail.com


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Flights to Singapore and departure aboard Volendam

Feb 13-15, 2016 – Victoria, BC Canada to Singapore

My first two flights (Victoria to Vancouver and Vancouver to Hong Kong) are both about an hour late departing. This doesn’t cause me any major problems since I have lots of time between my flights into and out of Vancouver.

The Cathay Pacific flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong takes over 14 hours. We fly up the coast of British Columbia and Alaska, over Russia, and then south across central China, and to Hong Kong. I get a beautiful view of Venus off the wingtip and also of the lights of Wuhan, China.

Venus over the wintip in the pre-dawn with Wuhan, China's lights below

Venus over the wintip in the pre-dawn with Wuhan, China’s lights below

In the Economy section where I was seated, the flight crew serves dinner shortly after we leave Vancouver, and breakfast before we arrive in Hong Kong, but otherwise completely ignores our cabin. They never check on passengers, or offer any water or other refreshments or snacks. This is completely unacceptable. I have flown many long duration flights, and all airlines take much better care of their passengers than I experienced on this flight.

I am anxious about my late arrival in Hong Kong, since I have to go through security and change gates for my onward flight to Singapore, and accomplish all of this within an hour in an unknown airport. Deplaning in Hong Kong goes surprisingly quickly, but I immediately have to re-clear security before I can proceed to my next gate. The security guy operating the scanner screws up his face when my computer bag goes along the belt, so at the end, a young woman asks to see inside my bag. It appears she doesn’t know what binoculars are, but is satisfied once she inspects them. She even asks me how to pronounce the word “binocular”!

Cathay Pacific did redeem themselves on the Hong Kong to Singapore flight, where the cabin service in Economy was very good. They served us breakfast after departure, and ensured the passengers were comfortable throughout the four hour flight.

After over 30 hours elapsed travel time, and losing a day in the process, it was great to get to the Pan Pacific Orchard hotel, have a shower, and get some sleep for a few hours in my quiet hotel room. This hotel is not new, but it is very nicely appointed, and is located in the fairly quiet Orchard district of Singapore. This area is not downtown, but there are lots of malls, hotels, embassies, and residential towers in the area. I sleep soundly overnight,

Feb 16, 2016 – Singapore departure aboard Volendam

Freight yard cranes in Singapore harbour with Volendam's bow

Freight yard cranes in Singapore harbour with Volendam’s bow

I have some cappuccino and breakfast this morning at the hotel, and then repack before taking a taxi to the cruise ship terminal just before noon. As usual, Holland America Lines (HAL) are well organized. After filling in a few additional forms to allow me to exit Singapore, I check in at the cruise ship counter, receive my personalized security card for the ship, and walk my bags and myself through the concourse and aboard the ship to my cabin.

The ship is docked in Harbourfront, a busy area of Singapore. When I return in 15 days mid-cruise, I will have some time to explore Singapore, since the ship stays overnight before departing for Indonesia and the Solar Eclipse. I attend a welcome reception for three and four star Mariners, where snacks are served, champagne and orange juice are available. The Cruise Director and Hotel Manager welcome us as repeat HAL cruisers. After some delays caused by Singaporean authorities, the ship pulls away from the dock around 4:30PM into the busy harbour. We have a day at sea tomorrow before our arrival in our first port: Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.

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Dubai to Victoria

February 23, 2015 – Dubai to Atlanta

JoeTourist: Victoria to Dubai &emdash; Aurora out the aircraft windowOur Gems of Arabia tour group arrive about three hours before our flight leaves the Dubai airport at 11PM, so we have plenty of time to get through the check-in process and find our gate. The flight to Atlanta takes 16 hours and 4 minutes according to the pilot. I see the aurora out the aircraft window over Denmark and take some photographs. Oddly enough, by the time we fly over Greenland, the aurora is gone. I then briefly spot bright aurora again over Newfoundland.

February 24, 2015 – Atlanta

It is 6:25AM (3:25PM Dubai time) when we land in Atlanta. I quickly clear customs and immigration, since Atlanta has the same kiosks for US and Canadian citizens to use as SeaTac. Dealing with a customs agent after that only takes a few seconds, and then I reclaim my bag and say my goodbyes to the tour group. The sign outside says “Hotel Shuttles – call for pickup”, however what actually happens is that a shuttle transfers everyone from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, where the hotel shuttles are located.

I wait here in Atlanta for tomorrow’s flight to Seattle and then to Victoria by overnighting again at the Hyatt Place Atlanta Airport-South hotel near the airport. They don’t have any rooms available when I arrive at 8AM, since people are still having breakfast before they check out. I check my big bag and wait in the lobby while sipping on a cappuccino, so I’m relatively happy. After my room is ready, I have a shower and then draw the drapes and sleep for about 6 hours. I order some dinner and a cappuccino and take it back to my room, and then go back to bed and sleep through to 5am.

February 25, 2015 – Atlanta to Victoria, Canada

I had a good sleep at the airport hotel, but get up early since I’m still not fully adjusted to the time zone change from Arabia. I kill a couple of hours in the room, and then go down for breakfast and also have that essential cappuccino. I then return to my room and put in some time on the computer. I make some good progress on my travel photos.

I decide to kill time at the airport, rather than pay for a late check-out, so I leave at noon and have to sit around in the domestic terminal until 3PM, when Alaska Airlines will allow me to check my bag. I then have a bit more freedom, so clear security, ride the train to my terminal area and find my gate. Atlanta airport is certainly a great deal bigger than the last time I flew through it. There are two main terminals (domestic and international), and each of those terminals are huge in their own right.

The Alaska Airlines 737-900 appears at the gate on time, and we board on time, but then the screw-ups start. First up is rearranging the luggage in the hold, and then they pull back into the Jetway to let a passenger board. Apparently his dogs made it onboard in cargo, but he didn’t make the connection. The airline decides it is quicker and easier to pull back in to board him rather than send his dogs on ahead of him. I guess there is a first for everything! The pilot previously told us they would have to de-ice before taking off, and so after we pull away from the gate, the aircraft taxies over to a designated area for deicing. I remember from previous flights that deicing took place at the gate, but obviously ATL has different protocols. By the time all this transpires, we are an hour late leaving. It’s a good thing I have 2 hours and 15 minutes layover in SeaTac.

As it turns out, I have plenty of time to find the gate at SeaTac for the flight to Victoria, which is in a different terminal. Alaska Airlines announces Victoria airport is experiencing foggy conditions, so they will attempt to land, but if the flight crew doesn’t feel it’s safe, we will return to Seatac for an overnight stay. The weather is fine when we land in Victoria. My bag is one of the first to appear on the belt, I clear customs and immigration, take a taxi home and go to bed by 1:30AM. My trip to Arabia is over!

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New Dubai

February 22, 2015 – Muscat to Dubai

We drive from Muscat, Oman back to Dubai, U.A.E. today. We are staying in the new section of Dubai at the Manzil Downtown Dubai hotel. This is perhaps the poshest hotel we have stayed at on the whole trip, and when I check out the room rates, they start at 1,400 AED (CD$400) per night. There are multiple concierges in the lobby, all eager to be helpful. I have dinner in the hotel restaurant this evening, since I don’t feel too adventuresome. The boneless beef ribs in date sauce with french fries are very tasty, and I chase it down with a Tiger beer. Service is impeccable. Cost is AED130 (CD$43) – about what I would pay for a nice dinner at home in Canada.

February 23, 2015 – Dubai to Atlanta – last day of the tour

Today is a free day to do what we want in Dubai, since our flight home doesn’t depart until 11PM. We have a late check-out from the hotel at 6PM.

Joe takes a selfie on the Observation Deck of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Joe takes a selfie on the Observation Deck of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Last night I booked a ticket for the Burj Khalifa’s observation deck (140AED or CD$50). When I initially went online, the standard tickets were booked until the mid-afternoon, however when I selected having a cappuccino and a cake for 15AED more, I suddenly had my choice of time slots!

So this morning I navigate my way through the Dubai Mall to the observation deck entrance at 9:30AM. The elevator zooms up to level 124, and I experience the tallest building in the world! There are inside displays and an outside deck. Although the deck is glassed in, there are gaps in the glass so photographs can be taken without window reflections. As I sip my cappuccino and pastry from the coffee shop below, I gaze up a this imposing building. It is visible from virtually anywhere in the city of Dubai, and casts its shadow for blocks.

Most people on the tour are shopping in the Dubai Mall, which is right across the street from our hotel. Since I’m not into shopping and I’m feeling it’s time to return home, I spend the afternoon in my hotel room packing, napping, cruising the Internet, and annotating my many photographs from the trip.

Our bags are picked up at 5PM and we depart the hotel at 6PM for our farewell dinner. The restaurant is near the airport, and the food is underwhelming, so I won’t mention the name. I guess we have been spoiled with all the good food we have had on our tour. Our flight leaves the airport at 11PM, so we have plenty of time to wait. The flight to Atlanta will take 16 hours and 4 minutes according to the pilot.

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Jebel Shams

February 20, 2015 – Friday – Nizwa to Jebel Shams

After lunch in the Al Hamra oasis, we make a brief stop to see the abandoned Persian village of Ghul before climbing 2,000 metres up into the mountains. Our destination is Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun),  Oman’s highest mountain at 3,028 metres (just over 10,000 feet). We stay at the Jebel Shams Resort, which is at the end of a long, winding and steep road. The resort is situated a few hundred metres from Wadi Ghul, the Grand Canyon of Arabia.

I walk over from the resort to the rim of the canyon before dinner, and find a spectacular sight that is much deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I peer over the edge of Wadi Ghul to a small abandoned village barely visible almost 1,000 metres below! The wind is terribly strong, but at least it is blowing up the canyon and over the rim, so it isn’t a safety hazard. I find taking photos of the canyon in the late afternoon very challenging, and resort to bracketed photos and HDR settings.

Jebel Shams Resort has pretty basic accommodation compared to the luxury we have had so far on the tour. I keep the electric heater going in my room, since at this elevation, it gets very cold at night. The Internet connection is down, so I use my time this evening to catch up on my journal and tag my photos with locations and titles.

February 21, 2015 – Jebel Shams to Muscat

I get up before dawn this morning and take some photos of the mountains bathed in the pre-dawn light. The pre-dawn view of the mountains, the Earth’s shadow and the Belt of Venus is spectacular! After an early breakfast, we drive (as a group) the short distance from the resort to see and photograph Wadi Ghul after sunrise, and then drive down the mountain and onto the wadi and other sights before returning to Muscat and civilization.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

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Muscat

February 15, 2015 – Sunday – Khasab to Muscat

Musandam peninsula coastline from the air

Musandam peninsula coastline from the air

After spending the morning seeing some sights around Khasab, we take a noon Oman Air flight to Muscat, Oman’s capital city. As the flight takes off in a northerly direction, it circles over Khasab and the harbour before turning south, flying over the wadis we drove through yesterday on our way up the mountains to Jebel Harim.

The flight to Muscat gives me a good opportunity to take some aerial photos, especially of the harbour, coastline, and the dams in the wadis, which are obviously for flood control, since Khasab and the suburbs are all built in the valley floor on low ground. It takes about an hour to arrive in Muscat, and shortly after leaving Khasab I don’t see much, since it is cloudy the whole way.

After landing, we meet our Omani guide Yacoob, who will be with us until we leave Oman. The bus takes us to the City Seasons Hotel in Muscat, where we have the afternoon to ourselves. I catch up on my travel journal and photos, and have a nap this afternoon. We have a sumptuous and extensive dinner buffet in the hotel, consisting of western, Indian, and Omani food. Table service is top notch, and the desserts are amazing! The Al-Zawawi Mosque is nearby and is beautifully lit at night, so several of us find a good vantage point to take photos.

February 16, 2015 – Monday – Muscat

This morning we visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque: a beautiful example of Islamic architecture with exquisite crystal chandeliers, stained glass windows, wonderful flower gardens, and a beautiful exterior design. Arriving early means we are ahead of the cruise ship tours, so it’s nice to have lots of room and few crowds for the first 45 minutes. The whole experience at the mosque is peaceful and sublime. I am most impressed with this Grand Mosque over the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque) which we saw in Abu Dhabi.

After leaving the Grand Mosque, we drive down to the harbour, which is the Mutrah area of Muscat – an attractive corniche of latticed buildings and mosques. The Sultan’s very impressive yacht pulls into the harbour while we are there. This souq is the same as all the others we have visited, so after a quick walk through, I sit in the shade waiting for the group to reassemble. Our next stop is the nearby Sultan’s Al-Alam Palace, which has a beautiful plaza with flowers everywhere. The palace is very small…obviously for ceremonies only. We are not allowed inside, but we have fun taking photos of the grounds, the plaza, and Michele directs our guide Yaqoob (as our ever-willing model) to add some interest to the scenes by walking in front of the palace and along a colonnaded breezeway. Yaqoob (and our drivers) are always impeccably dressed in turbans (or hats) and robes.

Later, we also see the Portuguese-built Mirani and Jalali forts at either end of the harbour, which the Palace is also located on. Jalali was a prison and is now a museum of Omani heritage. Mirani fort guarded the harbour entrance. Neither fort is open to the public, so we take a few photos of the beautiful harbour setting with the forts on either side and then return to our hotel. We indulge in another sumptuous and extensive dinner buffet in the hotel.

2015.02.17 – Tuesday – Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

We leave Muscat this morning, driving south along the coast for most of the day to Desert Nights Camp. We are in 4×4 vehicles (3 per car) for the rest of our time in Oman.

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Al Ain, UAE to Musandam Peninsula, Oman

February 13, 2015 – Friday – Al Ain, UAE to Musandam Peninsula, Oman

I get up a bit earlier this morning, since we are leaving early for the long drive north to cross the border into Oman. The breakfast buffet is very extensive, and they have cappuccino, which is always a big bonus in my books!

Before leaving Al Ain, we stop at their camel sale this morning, where there are hundreds of camels in sheds and open air pens, as well as sheep and goats. It is fun watching the haggling, but I finally go back to the bus early to get away from the heat and the smell. Kais tells me even city people buy camels and keep them outside the city, in order to maintain their connection with their culture…and no doubt some race them.

The steep road along the Musandam coastline

The steep road along the Musandam coastline

We drive along the expressway to the outskirts of Dubai, and then north to Ras al-Khaimah. Here we drive along the coastal highway to the border crossing, and leave both our UAE guide and driver. The border crossing process takes awhile, due to some confusion which I don’t fully understand. Our Omani driver and guide meet us, and we drive the beautiful and scenic highway along the Musandam coastline to Khasab.

Before we check-in to our hotel, we have a late lunch or early dinner at the Al Shamaliah Grill and Restaurant in the New Souk Area of Khasab. Since it is Friday, everyone is being called to evening prayers – the whole town is filled with wailing sing-song broadcast from the minarets on the mosques. Our hotel is the Atana Musandam, built right next to the harbour, and it is right next to a LuLu Hypermarket (like our supermarkets).

The Musandam Peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the UAE, and is in a very strategically important location with the Strait of Hormuz separating Oman from Iran. Iranian smugglers pick up goods (mainly household appliances and cigarettes) in Khasab early every morning and zoom across the strait to customers in their country. The Musandam Peninsula is very arid and rocky, but features beautiful khors (rocky inlets), small villages, and dramatic, mountain-hugging roads.

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Al-Ain

February 12, 2015 – Thursday – Liwa Oasis to Al-Ain

We leave early this morning for Al-Ain, so I gulp down some breakfast and coffee before boarding the bus. We drive down the main highway back to the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and then take a freeway to Al-Ain. It takes over three hours for the trip with one rest stop.

The highways and expressways in UAE are superb. They have all been built within the last twenty years, so they are in great shape, and support high posted speeds. The interchanges and ramps rival or exceed any found elsewhere in the developed world.

After arriving in Al Ain, we have some time at the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum. This was the residence of the sheik who unified and created the United Arab Emirates. I find it fascinating to walk through the formerly private rooms, and ask myself “if these walls could talk”. In particular, the Private Majlis meeting room must have seen some pretty important discussions during the unification process.

We go for lunch to nearby Foodworld Restaurant, which was a very nice meal. They handle our group of twenty and our drivers very promptly. Our final stop for the day is the Al-Ain Zoo. I’m not a big fan of zoos at the best of times, although this one has large enclosures for the animals. It appears they have a mix of indigenous species to the Arabian Peninsula, and also have some exotic (mainly big African) animals.

Our hotel in Al Ain is the Al Ain Rotana. This is a five star hotel…very posh. This is obviously the place to stay in Al Ain, since I see a couple of cars with government plates on them (a crest and three digit number). Despite this, our tour leader Michele has some trouble to contend with before we are all settled in our rooms, however I won’t publish the details online. I find my new room to be quite luxurious…too bad we are only staying one night!

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Liwa Oasis & sand dunes

February 11, 2015 – Wednesday – Liwa Oasis

Today we go on an early morning sunrise sand dune 4×4 adventure, and then again for sunset. Several vehicles get stuck in the sand, but eventually the drivers get them out either by towing, pushing, or rocking them. The morning sunrise is the most rewarding, since the light was just right, and our guide finds a relatively pristine location with no vehicle tracks or footprints visible.

I found hanging out during the midday at the Liwa Hotel to be very enjoyable. Several of us take advantage of the very nice pool at the hotel, which we have to ourselves. I have a nap in the afternoon, and then catch up with my journaling while drinking a cappuccino in the lobby bar.

We visit a camel farm in the late afternoon. Camels are used for meat, milk, and racing, and every Emirati family seem to own a camel, even city dwellers. One of our tour group samples the camel milk – a brave man, since there is no refrigeration.

The evening sunset is not very rewarding and it actually ends up being pretty stressful. The light is totally flat, and the wind is up causing sandstorm conditions. Our driver misses taking the correct track along one of the dunes, and we end up right on the edge of a big hole. I get out and climb in the soft sand to the top of a dune to watch, as do my two vehicle mates. The expert is called, and drives the 4×4 out with pushers behind. Our guide Kais rides a snowboard down a sand dune, which is fun to watch!

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Dubai to Abu Dhabi & Liwa Oasis

Burj Al Arab hotel and the adjacent beach

Burj Al Arab hotel and the adjacent beach

February 10, 2015 – Tuesday – Dubai to Abu Dhabi to Liwa Oasis

We leave our Dubai hotel this morning to drive along the coast to Abu Dhabi, largest of the emirates. First stop is along the beach to photograph the iconic sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel. Unlike yesterday, the sky is blue and the haze hasn’t had a chance to gather, so we all get some good photos.

Our next stop is the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque), and it is indeed grand! Some of the women on the tour are hassled about not covering up enough when we arrive, but that is soon sorted out, and we enter the mosque. This is my first time inside a mosque. The floors and walls are decorated with beautiful inlaid flower patterns, and the main prayer hall has the largest silk carpet in the world (handmade in Iran), as well as the third largest chandelier in the world.

The outside of the mosque is all white marble, and the inside is also marble. The whiteness of the exterior hurts my eyes in the noon sunshine, even while wearing sunglasses. The Men’s Ablution (washrooms) are palatial – I take a photo! Members of my tour group who have visited the Taj Mahal tell me this mosque is grander…but who really knows?

We leave the coast and drive 240 kms into the desert to Liwa Oasis. There are villages and farms in this remote area, which hugs the edges of Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter. We arrive a bit too late for our planned sunset 4×4 drive through the sand dunes, so that will be put off until tomorrow. I’m happy to have some down time at the Liwa Hotel this evening. It appears this hotel is the only accommodation of any consequence in this sleepy little village.

The oasis at sunset on the way back to Liwa Oasis

The oasis at sunset on the way to Liwa Oasis