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July 29, 2014, Oman

The oasis in Oman

Frankincense is the air in the capital Muscat amid its opulence.

Ryandall Lim

OMAN almost never makes the destination shortlist for local holidaymakers. The country that wraps the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula does not see many tourists from outside the region, but the lucky few who visit it swiftly get swept off their feet.

Oman is a country of warm hospitality, untouched beauty and exotic imagery. Think Aladdin and the lamp, magic carpet rides, and the three wise men — they’re all quite true, here.

Whether you’re getting lost — physically, in a frenzied bazaar seductively perfumed with incense, or metaphorically, as you stroll along a scenic promenade contemplating life’s serenity — this whole new world is as good as it gets.

Muscat, the capital of Oman, is strung together by several suburbs and spread over almost 50km — sandwiched between a beautiful pristine coastline and the majestic Western Al Hajar Mountains.

It does not have skyscrapers — in fact, the city has a strict height limit where buildings rise no more than a few stories, and painted mainly in two unexciting colours — beige or white — to reflect an earthy, natural feel. But what it lacks outwardly in variation, it more than makes up for in character.

Dazzling harbour front

Muscat’s main port area of Mutrah is undeniably charming.

I spent more than just a few moments each day gazing at the huge ferries, traditional dhows and fishing boats coming and going into the harbour from the vast Gulf of Oman, while passers-by fed flocks of squawking seagulls at the Mutrah Corniche waterfront promenade. The entire stretch is lined with beautiful gold pavilions, fountains and statues.

At night, the dimly lit boardwalk glows romantically against a backdrop of illuminated vessels.

A busy morning fish market and the Mutrah bazaar — or souq — jostle for curious attention.

The latter is a chaotic maze of shops selling everything from spices and genie-in- a-lamp souvenirs to carpets and clothes, and is more a pleasure to get lost in.

With the aroma of burning frankincense, a type of crystallised tree resin, lingering in the air, visitors are magically transported back to biblical times when these scents were used to welcome royalty.

Young or old, the smiling shopkeepers I met were eager for friendly banter whether or not I was interested in their wares, and posed, happily for photographs.

Grand monuments

On the day of my Big Bus excursion of Muscat, I was fortunate to be the sole tourist during a particular time slot, and got a personalised guided tour of its quaint, old walled city, whose entrance is marked by an iconic Muscat Gate that straddles the main road.

Within these walled compounds lie the Sultan’s exquisite Al-Alam Palace and other royal buildings.

Behind the palace, two 16th-century forts from Muscat’s Portuguese-occupied era stand guard on hilltops, flanking a concealed harbour that is used only on very special occasions today.

Farther down the hilly road, a compact marina berthed with luxury yachts and sailboats are testament of its citizens’ wealth.

Nearby, in the middle of a busy roundabout, a traditional dhow sits on a grass island surrounded with flowers, juxtaposed against the grand five-star Al-Bustan Palace Hotel where the city’s most important guests stay.

I ended my tour with the most impressive monument in the whole of Muscat — the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, located at the other end of the sprawling city.

The extensive white marble compounds of Oman’s largest mosque reflect the sun’s rays like a huge precious stone, with its refined multiple archways. Rows upon rows of luscious blooms and well-pruned shrubs within manicured lawns salute its imposing dome and five towering minarets representing the pillars of Islam.

The mosque’s interior is just as astounding. The first thing that caught my attention was a massive 15m Swarovski chandelier suspended from the centre of an enormous prayer hall.

I stood underneath the gigantic crystal structure looking up with my mouth agape until a guard told me to move along.

Just as amazing was the carpet I was walking on — it is the largest in the world. The single 70m by 60m Persian rug with possibly a million intricate interwoven patterns apparently took 600 Iranian women four years to complete.

I left the mosque with a deep feeling of awe, and for the rest of the day felt pleasantly light-headed. It has been a while since I was captivated by a city so pretty, so pure and so rich in tradition.

GUIDE LINES

- Thai Airways, SriLankan Airlines, Air India and several Middle Eastern airlines fly to Muscat via the airlines’ respective capital cities.

- The Big Bus Tour (20 OMR/ S$65) offers a comprehensive audio and guided tour of Muscat, covering most places of interest.

- The best time to visit Oman is between November and March, when daytime temperatures average 25 deg C. During other months, you’ll get a real feel of a desert. - The pleasant neighbourhood of Mutrah has the most affordable accommodation and is within walking distance to many attractions, including the unmissable Mutrah souq.

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