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October 10, 2017, Oman

Delving into Muscat’s treasures

Catherine Hostiani glimpses the soul of Oman during her Arabian holiday

Catherine Hostiani

THE man in dishdasha (Omani traditional dress) with an ornamented khanjar (curved dagger) tugged on his belt and opened the tall, heavy door; and I walked into air-conditioned coolness that was a relief from the balmy heat, and the dim interior a welcome respite from the harsh sunlight.

This must be the finest representation of Arabian grandeur, I thought to myself, as I passed the elegant, yet not opulent, entrance of The Chedi Muscat hotel.

I dined in one of its excellent restaurants on saffron rice, hamour (reef cod), and red capsicum relish. In the Gulf heat, cranberry mint and ginger juice was a refreshing choice.

Treasure hunting

In the afternoon, we headed to Mutrah souq (market), located in Mutrah Corniche, a busy seafront where Al Said, the Sultan of Oman’s luxury yacht, was docked at the port.

The frankincense-perfumed souq had just woken up from its afternoon nap.

Amid shops selling kitschy souvenirs, there were some offering items that seemed to have come from a pirate’s treasure chest.

In one shop, we felt like Hollywood action hero Indiana Jones discovering the Holy Grail. There were vintage compasses, hourglasses and bejewelled treasure chests.

In another alley, a swan-like copper dallah (coffee pot) looked as though a genie would appear from its slender mouth.

Mosaic lamps in kaleidoscopic colours sat amid peacock feathers and silver scrollers — reminding me of the images I had while reading the Arabian Nights. Of course, haggling was mandatory to get a good deal.

For the early birds who want to get a glimpse of everyday life, there is a traditional fish market nearby that is loaded at sunrise with fresh seafood. On offer are tuna, hamour and lobsters that are commonly found in the Persian Gulf.

A few formidable forts lining the corniche were testament to Portuguese occupation in the 16th century. These were built as defences against the Ottoman forces and also used as prisons. One of them was the massive Mutrah Fort on a rocky hill that looked impressive from afar.

As the sun set, the corniche sparkled with the city lights.

We walked towards an openair carpark to two smaller rocky hills that offer a bird’s-eye view of the corniche and Riyam Park that houses the iconic giant frankincense burner structure.

We also climbed a few hundred steps to a watchtower where a cannon was on display and sneaked a peek of the ocean from its window.

Our sumptuous dinner was at Bait Al Luban, still in Mutrah Corniche. The restaurant serves both modern and traditional dishes in an Omani house setting.

We sat on the floor and sampled Khobose Rakhal, a paperthin Omani bread, and Papllo, a soup made of local fish with tomatoes and turmeric.

To dine alfresco, head to Fast Food ‘N’ Juice Centre. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly uncreative name.

It is a successful rag-to-riches story and serves delicious food with efficient service.

History lesson

The next day, we visited the National Museum in Old Muscat. This modern interpretation of the mosque’s iwan is situated across the Al Alam Palace.

With 14 galleries in a 14,000sq m building, the museum extensively covers Omani history and culture, from maritime technology, weapons, and forts to musical instruments.

For a more intimate cultural experience, we visited the Bait Al Zubair museum, a 10-minute walk from the National Museum. Exhibits here relate to the Omani culture, customs and crafts, and have been collected by the Zubair family that owns and run the museum.

In a garden outside the main museum, is a barasti (palm frond) hut, a falaj (ancient water distribution system), and a miniature Omani village. Stop by the café to see a replica of a traditional Omani house with rooms dedicated to different family members.

On our last day in Muscat, we visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.

The outer latticed dome is exquisite, and inside the hall is a stunning Swarovski chandelier and a handwoven, floral-patterened Persian carpet covering the floor.

Muscat was a good introduction to Omani history and culture that prepared us for a deeper appreciation of the other towns in this charming part of Arabia.

GUIDELINES

We flew to Muscat on Emirates with a stopover in Dubai.

Taxis often operate without a meter. Public bus is comfortable and more affordable at 300 baisa (S$1).

■ Visitors can get a visa on arrival. A 10-day visa costs 5 rials. 

■ Oman is quite modern and women do not have to wear headscarfs.

However, it is advisable to dress conservatively to respect the Islamic culture.

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