Muscat – Then & Now

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I had a stopover in the Omani capital of Muscat last week, a place where I worked for a few years in the late 1970s / early 80s.

The capital area has grown enormously since I was there and is today built up all the way from Seeb Airport to old Muscat town, a distance of around 35 km.

In this blog post I am showing a few photos of the historic Muscat harbour area to show how it has changed over the years.

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Muscat in 1904. This old photo shows the city walls and gates which were locked at 6 pm every evening and anybody venturing out after dark had to carry a lantern.

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Sultan Said bin Taimur, father of the current Sultan. Under his reign, Oman was a feudal, backward and divided country. There were almost no roads, schools or hospitals. Citizens had to obtain the permission of the Sultan to buy a radio or to wear spectacles. He was overthrown by Sultan Qaboos in 1970.

Muscat-in-the-1970s

By the early 1970s the town looked much the same. The rugged mountains surrounding Muscat are made from ophiolite, a rock formed from magma under the oceanic crust and uplifted and exposed above sea level. Oman’s outcrops are considered as some of the best examples of this type of landscape.

muscat-bait-greizaBait Bait Greiza (above centre) was built in the early 19th century and demolished in the 1970s. The name Greiza originated from ‘igreja’ (Portuguese for church) as a church once stood nearby.

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Bait Mughub served as the American Embassy until 198o, following which is was demolished, along with the nearby British Embassy, to make way for a new wing of the Sultan’s palace complex.

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Bait Faransa was built between 1820-1840. It became the French Consulate in 1896.

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Bait Faransa is now the Omani-French Museum and showcases the long standing relationship between France and Oman, which is a bit of a cheek because the Gulf region was never really France’s bailiwick. Britain has had a much deeper relationship with Oman but has no museum to commemorate it. Still, it is a nice museum and here are a couple of photos on display inside:

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Jean Béguin-Billecocq, Vice Consul, pictured in 1904 feeding his parrots on the terrace of the Consulate in Muscat, probably wishing he had studied Vietnamese instead of Arabic at l’École des Langues Orientales de Paris. At least he had his wife Louise for company.

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Louise Béguin-Billecocq at Sur (Oman). Oddly she appears to be wearing a Japanese kimono but perhaps she found the silky material and full length cut to be more appropriate for local climate and cultural conditions than typical western attire of the period.

Muscat-al-Khor-Mosque

Al Khor Mosque is one of the oldest in Muscat although it has been renovated a number of times. It is overlooked by Al Mirani Fort.

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Al Mirani Fort is one of the twin forts guarding the entrance to Muscat harbour. Both forts were built by the invading Portuguese who bombarded and burnt Muscat around 1507 AD. The tower on the right is a more recent addition and conceals a lift shaft. Unfortunately neither fort is open to the public.

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Al Jalali Fort is the other fort guarding the harbour. It served as the country’s main prison up until the 1970s and jalali was the generic term for prison during my time in Oman.

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Left to Right: Al Jalali Fort, Extension to the Royal Court, the 1970’s Al Alam Palace. A semicircular lawn has been added in front of the palace on reclaimed land. A couple of modern naval guns are mounted on the sea wall to provide additional protection against sea-borne attackers.

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Muscat-harbour

This is the same harbour front in the 19th century. The British Embassy (where my parents lived and worked in the 1980s) was on the left. The taller building sticking up behind the British Embassy was the American Embassy.

Muscat-al-Zawawi-mosque

The Al-Zawawi Mosque, built inside the city walls at the beginning of the 20th century, is unusual for its square tower minaret, said to be built in the Portuguese style in favour in India at the time, and looking rather church-like.

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Facing the Al Alam Palace a red-paved mall has been constructed, perhaps imitating the one in front of Buckingham Palace, flanked by gardens and stately colonnades and leading up to the impressive National Museum of Oman.

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You could cash a cheque here if you had a few hours to spare.

This is how The British Bank of the Middle East, Muscat looked in the 1970s when I worked there. The building was completed in 1956. Prior to that the bank had operated from premises in Bait Faransa.

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The bank is now demolished.

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One of our competitors at the time.

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Thanks to Muscat Gate Museum where most of these old photos were obtained.

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Gore-Tex Noselift

When I think of Gore-Tex I think of hiking boots and waterproof jackets. Until my recent trip to the Philippines I was unaware that the brand is also associated with implants used in rhinoplasty and other cosmetic surgery procedures.

Gore-tex Nose Lift

A waterproof nose could be useful for those heavy colds.

There are a lot of good looking people in the Philippines but some feel dissatisfied with their cute, God-given flat noses, wishing instead to have long, pointed noses. For this reason, plastic surgeons seem to be doing a good business in Manila although lagging far behind Thailand and even further behind South Korea, said to be the plastic surgery capital of the world.

According to Dr. Shimmian’s website, a primary Gore-Tex noselift with septal cartilage graft will cost you Peso 100,000, or around US$2,000. That’s quite a lot of money in a country where the average family income is only Peso 22,000 per month*. It seems a Gore-Tex nose is only affordable to the better off. Perhaps I could sell a bit of my nose, which seems to get longer every year!

*2015 figures: Philippines Statistics Authority

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Upper Burma

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I was in Myanmar last month, a country that is in the news for all the wrong reasons.

A lot has happened since my previous visit seven years earlier. At that time Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest, receiving the world’s sympathy and adulation for her brave and determined opposition to Burma’s military rulers.

Now she is Myanmar’s de facto leader and is under fire for not speaking up against the forced expulsion of the Muslim Rohingya community, which the UN and many others regard as ethnic cleansing but which the Burmese see as sending foreigners back to where they came from. Whatever the circumstances, there is no excuse for the inhumane treatment of innocent people, especially women and children. 

There are probably days when Aung San Suu Kyi wishes she was back in her cosy Yangon bungalow under house arrest.


My trip this time was to the Mandalay area in what is sometimes called Upper Burma. I particularly wanted to visit Pyin Oo Lwin, formerly the British hill station of Maymyo, named after a Colonel May.

I have written five articles for my other website and you can read them by following these links:

1. National Kandawgyi Gardens

These are among the finest botanical gardens in the whole of Asia.

2. Maymyo Hill Station

Pyin Oo Lwin, formerly known as Maymyo, has a wonderful climate, many well preserved colonial buildings and beautiful flowers and gardens.

3. Maymyo English Cemetery

Here I met a Mr. McDougall, a mixed race Anglo-Burmese who told me something of his family history.

4. Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin Train

This four hour train ride costs 40 cents.

5. Mandalay

I was slightly disappointed by Mandalay but there are a few sights worth seeing.

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Malaysian Road Traffic Signs

Road traffic signs in Malaysia generally follow the international standards used in Europe, but there are a few which have been tailored for local conditions. This one is my favourite:

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It informs users of this busy urban dual carriageway that bullock carts, trishaws, pedal-powered food carts and bicycles are not permitted.

The chances of seeing a bullock cart these days are rare. I recall seeing some in Malacca about 25 years ago. They were used to ferry tourists around the padang. They’ve gone now. This may be the only bullock cart left in Malacca:

Bullock-cart-Melaka

Trishaws have all but disappeared too as a means of transport. There are a few in the main tourist area of Melaka for selfie purposes. This working trishaw was spotted in Penang a few years back:

Trishaw-Penang Food carts are still around but they too are under threat as urban councils tighten up on hygiene laws and parking spaces. I snapped this photo in Muar some time ago (probably would cost a lot more than RM 3 today):

Food-cart-Muar

It’s a shame to see these icons of traditional culture disappearing from modern Malaysia, to be replaced by sanitised shopping malls, food trucks and Uber cars. All that’s left is the road sign as a reminder of what has been lost.

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Kowloon Extension Agreement 1898

When Brexit Secretary David Davis sat down with EU negotiator Michel Barnier last month for a round of talks he was criticised by some in the media for having a completely empty desk while his opposite number came prepared with piles of documents.

Perhaps Davis is modelling his draft Brexit agreement on some of the concise conventions and treaties from Britain’s imperial past.

Take for example the Kowloon Extension Agreement of 1898 in which Britain obtained possession of Hong Kong’s New Territories for a period of 99 years.

Kowloon Extension Agreement

This masterpiece of brevity filled just one side of A4 paper and was probably knocked up by MacDonald (the British signatory) and his private secretary one evening over a couple of gins in the Hong Kong Club.

Of course it helped that it was prepared at a time when Britain was strong and the Chinese side was in a weak negotiating position, leading the Communists to later describe it as an ‘unequal treaty’ when they took over China in 1949. But the amazing thing is that this treaty remained in force and was honoured by both sides for 99 years exactly, until Hong Kong was handed back to China on 1st July 1997.* This despite major wars and changes of regime in China.

It is doubtful that any agreement Messrs Davis and Barnier draw up will last for 99 years. It certainly won’t fit on one side of A4.

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* Although the treaty was honoured, its ambiguous wording did lead to some problems in implementation, particularly with regard to Kowloon Walled City. You can read a fascinating account of Kowloon Walled City here.

 

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The Last Post?

3 Rifles A Company Fire Support Group Jackals on Patrol Sangin

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed a decrease in the number of posts in recent months. The reason?

My blog is hosted on WordPress.com which comes with 3 GB of free space. Now, after seven years, 448 posts and a heck of a lot of photos, it seems I’ve almost used up all my free space.

This has put me in something of a dilemma. I have a few choices:

  • I could upgrade my plan and pay WordPress for additional space. This would probably be the easiest and most sensible thing to do. However it is not the Thrifty thing to do. While I don’t mind not getting paid for writing I’m not really keen on paying for the privilege.
  • I could delete some of my old posts to free up space for new ones. I would be reluctant to do that. Some of my old posts still get found by the search engines. For example, my most popular post ever (Mt. Kinabalu vs. Fansipan vs. Rinjani) was written almost seven years ago and still gets visitors.
  • I could convert my old posts into eBooks before deleting them. That would be a waste of effort – nobody would ever read those!
  • I could just start another free WordPress blog and call it Thrifty Traveller Too (or 2). But that would mean starting all over again to build up visitor numbers.

Instead of the above I have begun posting all my travel articles on my other website, Malaysia Traveller, even if they are not related to Malaysia. Malaysia Traveller gets far more views than Thrifty Traveller and it does earn a few cents in commission so it makes sense.

You can find a summary of my recent posts, including travels in Japan and Laos, on this page:

http://www.malaysia-traveller.com/Malaysia-travel-blog.html

You can follow Malaysia Traveller’s Facebook page by clicking on the ‘Find us on F’ button if you are a fan of Facebook.

So is this my last post on Thrifty Traveller? Hopefully not. I still have about 1% of my 3 GB left. Perhaps I’ll use it for any posts that are not travel-related.

Thanks for reading.

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Tomogashima Island – Japan’s Hidden Treasure Island

TomogashimaIsland

Travellers looking for an off-the-beaten-track destination in Japan might consider a boat trip to Tomogashima, which is the collective name for a group of four small islands called Okinoshima (the biggest island) Jinoshima,  Torajima and  Kamijima located off the small town of Kada in Wakayama Prefecture.

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Tomogashima – Source:Wikipedia

Shugendō Buddhist monks once used the steep hilly terrain of these islands as part of their ascetic mountain training.

TomogashimaMap

This coastline was for centuries a haven for pirates who preyed on ships passing through the narrow entrance to the Inland Sea between Awaji Island and Honshu. One famous pirate was named Tsumujikaze Goemon and he was rumoured to have buried a stash of his loot on one of the islands which has never been found.

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During the Meiji period the Japanese military fortified the islands with a number of brick-built gun batteries, powder magazines, bunkers and support facilities to defend the strategically important approach to Osaka Bay against foreign naval attack. Up until the end of World War II, access to the islands was strictly prohibited and their existence was removed from maps, hence the use of the word ‘hidden’. The gun emplacements are now overgrown and damaged by coastal erosion but you can see that they would have had a great view of any approaching invasion force.

Laputa

Some say that the ruined defences bear a resemblance to those in the Studio Ghibli film Laputa, Castle in the Sky and may have inspired the artist.  One of the ferries to the island is even called Laputa, obviously aiming to attract Ghibli fans.

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Nowadays the islands, which form part of Seto-naikai National Park, are a popular place to visit for both Japanese and foreign tourists (mostly Chinese and Koreans). There are a number of well marked hiking trails around the island and in addition to the military remains there is a lighthouse, some quiet stony beaches, bbq and camping spots and lovely coastal views.

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A noticeboard on the island says this about the lighthouse:

Viewing the beautiful scenery of the Seto Island Sea from the white, western style lighthouse is sure to lighten the heart of even the most downtrodden spirit.

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There is some accommodation on the main island – Uminoie guest house.

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Camping is free but you need to register at the office first.

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We noticed a few warning signs about snakes and it was not long before we spotted a small one on the path which slithered away after a tense standoff (possibly a non-venomous rat snake?).

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Mind your step.

How to get to Tomogashima

'Laputa', one of the ferries from Kada to Tomogashima.

‘Laputa’, one of the ferries from Kada to Tomogashima.

A ferry service operates from Kada Port.

There are four sailings per day in each direction as you can see on this photo.  Two additional sailings at 10am and 3pm during the peak holiday season.

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Ferries leave Kada at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 4pm. Return ferries leave Tomogashima at 9.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm and 4.30pm.

The boat trip takes about 20 minutes.

The cost is JPY2000 return for adults and JPY 1000 for kids.

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Kada railway station.

To get to Kada you can take a train from Wakayama City, Wakayamashi station.

Kada is famous for sea bream and there is a special pink coloured, fish-themed sightseeing train called Medetai at certain times of the day but our train was just an ordinary one.

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