We start the day with the fascinating, colourful, and very busy city fish market (see above banner image). I shoot video with my GoPro camera to capture the action, and take close-ups of the seafood to capture the colours and patterns. We then take boats to see the four Malay stilt villages located across the harbour from the city in the South China Sea.
We drive to the Masjid Negeri Sabah state mosque, which has a certain understated elegance. The Puh Toh Tze Buddhist temple is next, where there is a huge statue of Guan Yin in front, in addition to the traditional temple. There is also a giant drum and bell to presumably call the faithful to worship.
We wait for sunset to light up the Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu city mosque located on Likas Bay. That doesn’t happen since there are too many clouds on the horizon, however the mosque is lit by the very pretty golden hour light, which I capture in the time lapse high definition video I shoot with my GoPro Hero action camera.
We start our full day in Brunei visiting the opulent Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah new mosque, where we are allowed to visit the inside of the men’s prayer hall after removing our shoes. The women in our group must also cover their heads and legs, and everyone has to check our bags, although we are allowed to carry a camera with us.
There is a very impressive Royal Entrance to the mosque with fountains, gardens and ornate gates, however the best photo-op I found was the Woman’s Entrance, where the symmetry of the golden domes and minarets is stunning.
We then travel back into Bandar Seri Begawan to see Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien old mosque. I decide to not go inside, since our time here is limited. I walk out to the decorative cement boat that is situated in the middle of the lake beside this mosque, where I take some very nice photos of the mosque despite the midday Sun beating down on us.
We walk along the Jalan McArthur waterfront promenade to the jetties and board boats which take us across the Brunei River to Kampong Ayer, a Malay stilt village. After our return, we have time for a quick lunch at Franini’s Italian restaurant before boarding the bus to head out of the city. We make a quick stop for some retail therapy at a Starbucks in a mall, where I find some unique souvenirs of Brunei to take home with me before we continue on to see the Wawasan Brunei 2035 craft skills display.
Boats on the Brunei River take us past Istana Nurui Iman – the Sultan’s palace to see Proboscis monkeys in the mangrove at nearby Pulau Ranggu. We finish the day with another visit to the Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah new mosque at night, which is spectacular.
I’m pretty well beat by the end of this marathon day, so after we return to the hotel, I go downstairs to have a quick dinner of Nasi Goreng, and then I unwind in my room before bedtime.
We leave this morning on a city tour of Kuala Lumpur, arriving at the KL Tower when it opens at 9:30AM, so there are no crowds. Our tour guide Susan waves off the photographers who normally take photos of everyone as they enter the elevator area. We go straight up to the Sky Deck, which offers open air viewing. This is much better for photography than the glassed-in deck I visited in 2016 when I was here on a Holland America shore excursion. There are also two Sky Boxes on this level, which are glass-floored boxes that extend out into the open air clear of the tower superstructure.
We make a stop at the Titiwangsa Lake Gardens for some very nice views of the Petronas Towers and the hospital district with the cityscape reflected in the lake. Our next stop is the Petronas Towers mall for lunch in the Signature Food Court on level 3. The food is cheap and good, but I have to eat quickly and get out of there to escape the noise and crowds.
We visit the highly ornate Thean Hou Chinese Buddhist temple, which presents us with lots of photo ops. By the time we get back on the bus, it is after 2PM and getting very hot outside. Some of our group are done for the day, however our tour leader Susan wants us to see two more sights before we return to the hotel. She proposes to finish the original tour, which includes a walk-about Chinatown and two more temples, but only for those in the group who want to go.
So we all go to see the Chan See Shu Yuen clan hall, which is very interesting, but only worth about 15 minutes, and then we go to nearby Merdeka Square, where there are lots of colonial era buildings, including an old English-era church and a cricket field. We cross the street and walk a block to the River of Life area, where two rivers meet and where the historic Masjid Jamek (Friday Mosque) is located.
Susan takes the group who want to see more off on their walkabout to Chinatown, while the rest of us (me included) are driven back to the hotel. I have a shower and a rest before we leave in the bus for a dinner and cultural show at Saloma (now called WoW KL) in the club district of the city. The cultural show is a high-energy affair, which highlights the multi-cultural milieu that makes up the country of Malaysia.
We arrive early this morning in Singapore’s cruise ship terminal. We have a day in port and then overnight aboard the ship this evening. Most of the passengers are disembarking tomorrow morning, but I’m one of the 175 who are staying on board for the next cruise segment.
I take the Best of Singapore excursion today. It is an exhausting 8 hour tour, but we cover a great deal of ground, and I take some good photos and video. Our guide takes us to the City Gallery, where there are some wonderful scale models of the city and the whole country of Singapore. It shows just how much of Singapore is dedicated to gardens and other non-developed land, including the reservoir system for their water supply.
We take an electric-powered riverboat ride down the Kallang River and into Marina Bay, past Merlion Park. The Merlion fountain statue was erected as a symbol of welcome to visitors; the lion statue is emblematic of Singapore itself.
We also see the historic Fullerton Hotel, on our way to the three towers that make up the Marina Bay Sands hotel. Our group have passes to go to the Observation Deck, some 200 metres (650 feet) above sea level, perched on Tower 3 of the hotel. I manage to photograph the amazing infinity pool (reserved for hotel guests) by leaning out from the observing deck to grab a shot. The view of Gardens by the Bay below the towers, as well as the city and harbour are fantastic from this high vantage point. The Marina Bay Sands hotel has one of only two casinos in Singapore, and a huge number of high end shops in a vast mall under the main hotel.
Our bus takes us to the entrance to Gardens by the Bay – a 100 hectare (250 acre) spectacularly designed park, home to an amazing variety of rare plants housed in giant, innovative domed conservatories. There are several different regions and ecosystems to discover, but we only have time to explore two: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.
The Flower Dome replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean regions, and showcases flora that thrive in these conditions. Oddly enough, cactus and succulents, as well as Baobab trees are included in this ecosystem. True to its name, the Flower Dome showcases massive numbers of flowers from all over the world. As we move into the mist-veiled Cloud Forest, we feel the climate change to warmer and moister conditions. The 35 metre (115 foot) tall mountain showcases the world’s tallest indoor waterfall and presents plant life from tropical ecosystems, and is nothing short of spectacular.
We stop for a family-style Chinese lunch in a restaurant in Chinatown, which offers us a welcome air-conditioned respite from the heat and humidity on Singapore’s streets after seeing the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. After lunch, we see the gold-domed Masjid Sultan Mosque, the centre of Muslim culture in the city, and nearby Arab Street offers lots of carpet dealers. Shopping in Little India is interesting, and there are bargains to be had here when compared with Singapore’s more upscale (and expensive) shopping areas.
We finish our day at the legendary Raffles Hotel. I have a Singapore Sling cocktail while our group relaxes in Raffles’ Long Bar where this cocktail was originally invented. Named after the British designer of modern-day Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, this property is one of the world’s finest and most famous hotels. The high ceilings and colonial architecture reflect the era of British rule (1819-1963). There is no public access to the lobby and other guest areas, however the Long Bar and shops are open to the public.
After our flight lands in Muscat, 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 the city, 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.
February 15, 2015 – Sunday – Khasab to Muscat, Oman
We visit the Khasab Castle, originally built by the Portuguese in the 17th century, but now a museum to showcase Omani history and culture. Traditional boats and other historical artifacts unique to the Musandam region are featured. After withdrawing some Omani Riyals from a bank machine, I take a few photos of Kasab’s lovely Friday Mosque: As Sultan Qaboos Mosque. There is a small souq in the town square, with mostly livestock, fodder, and a few food items for sale under the tents. Next, we drive to the nearby Oudah village, located in Wadi Oudah. There are some petroglyphs in the rocks at Tawi village at end of the road.
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.
As the flight climbs out of Khasab, I have 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. Shortly after leaving Khasab I don’t see much, since it is cloudy the whole way.
It takes about an hour to arrive in Muscat, where we meet our Omani guide Yacoob and our driver. They take us to the City Season Hotel, where we have the afternoon to ourselves.
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 a 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.
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 adjacent to a LuLu Hypermarket (like our supermarkets).
The Musandam Peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the UAE. It 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.
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 place.
February 9, 2015 – Monday – Old Dubai – first full day of the tour
I’m awakened by the 5:30AM call to prayer outside. I sleep a bit longer and then go to breakfast at 7AM, since we depart on tour at 8AM. The buffet breakfast served downstairs in the Arabian Courtyard Hotel is great: lots of choices, freshly made hot and cold food, very good coffee, and great table service.
We meet our local guide Kais (or Qais) this morning as we board our bus outside our hotel. He is Tunisian, but has lived and worked in Dubai for the last 10 years with his wife and daughters.
This morning, we walk along the Creek in the historic Bastakia Quarter, which has souqs and some fascinating displays of Emirati culture. The Ruler’s Court is located in this area, which is where the sheik still receives delegations of local people. Vendors in the souqs in this area sell spices, gold, perfume, and more. We take an abra (small taxi boat) to cross the Creek, and have lots of time to explore all the nooks and back alleys – it’s like a shopping mall full of specialty shops!
We have lunch alongside The Creek at Al Bandar restaurant. We have a variety of salads, hummus & another spread, pita bread, grilled lamb sausage and chops, chicken chunks, vegetables, french fries, and non-alcoholic beverages and water. Fresh fruit is served for dessert. There are some scrawny small cats lurking around, loudly begging for table scraps. Our guide Kais smokes a hookah, and one of our group tries it too.
This afternoon we photograph the lovely exterior of Jumeirah Mosque and later drive through the ruling family’s residential area, making a stop at the famed Burj Al Arab hotel, supposedly the only seven-star hotel in the world. Driving out onto the Palm Jumeirah Island reveals a world unto itself: lush homes (all waterfront), very posh shopping districts, high end business offices and towers, and a still developing resort complex.
Rush hour traffic back into the city means it takes well over an hour for our final stop of the day in New Dubai’s Marina District. This is a superb example of beautiful modern architecture combined with futuristic urban planning – a dream come true for architects and community planners. We leave after the sun sets to return to our hotel, the Arabian Courtyard Hotel in Old Dubai. By this time, most of us are sleeping in the bus due to jet lag.
There are only 950,000 Emirates citizens. The rest of the 9 million people living in the UAE are foreign workers. When asked on CNN why Dubai is so “over-the-top”, the current sheik states that he feels it is his obligation to give his people the very best of everything possible.
Dubai is one of several sheikdoms in the United Arab Emirates. Dubai only gets 5% of the oil revenues of the UAE, but is traditionally a trading centre, and specializes in transportation. The Dubai port and airport are the biggest hubs in this area, and support extensive business interests both here and abroad.