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Friday, March 30, 2012

Treasure Hunt in Dubai

Forget the hustle and bustle of modern-day Dubai – just a 20-minute drive outside the city, between Jebel Ali and Ghantoot, life looks much the same as it did before oil. And life before oil was pearls, the most important industry for the coastal town of Dubai.

Pearling in the emirate goes back thousands of years – archaeological evidence suggests as far as the 6th century BCE – with divers coming from all over the region to take part in the industry. Gulf pearls were and still are highly prized for their quality, and in the 19th century almost all of the pearls found off the coast of Dubai would have ended up in the bustling pearl market of Mumbai.

As the desire to own pearls grew so did their value, and the period between 1900 and 1930 was the high point of the pearl trade in the Gulf. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. In 1929 the Great Depression had a huge impact on the sale of pearls and then in the 1930s the pearl trade was dealt a final blow; the Japanese perfected the art of cultured pearls and they flooded the market at a much lower price than the natural pearls of the Gulf, reducing demand massively. By 1950 the pearling industry seemed to be over.

In the past few years, however, under the aegis of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre and its subsidiary the Dubai Pearl Exchange, the pearl industry has experienced a rebirth with demand for natural Gulf pearls growing locally, in the surrounding Middle Eastern market and in Australia and India. And with this increasing demand has come a return to the traditional ways of doing things; pearl diving is back and becoming important to the region again; the lure of finding natural treasure is irresistible.

And so it was for me.

We cross the gangplank in single-file wearing the traditional pearl divers costume to guard against jellyfish stings. This is a voluminous white cotton shirt with hood and matching trousers, tied by a drawstring, in which one size really does fit all; it’s possible to fit three reasonably proportioned people in one pair.

Carrying fresh water urns on our shoulders, we board the traditional wooden dhow with its one huge white sail, juxtaposed against a calm teal blue sea, and its small rectangular tarpaulins strung together overhead as protection from a fierce sun. The decks are covered in thin turquoise tapestry upholstered cushions and we sit and wait to sail, hoping there will be enough wind to take us where we want to go; manoeuvring a dhow is difficult because it’s designed to catch the wind and then go as fast as it can in one direction until the breeze subsides. There’s a gust of wind and the crew, all from traditional pearl diving families, haul in the anchor and hoist the sail, their singing disguising their exertion, and we’re off to the oyster beds, full of anticipation, just like centuries of pearl divers before us.

Once the anchor is dropped, a large teardrop-shaped rock tied by two pieces of string on either side and weighing approximately 5kg is produced along with a bucket in which to put the shells. The rock is dropped over the side of the boat by a helper who holds onto the strings and a diver jumps in and demonstrates how to slip your foot into the space between the strings while holding both ends in one hand. A clip that would originally have been made from tortoiseshell is fixed to your nose to stop the rush of salt water and then, when you’re ready to dive, you let go of the string and the weight takes you down to the sea bed.

It’s not easy; the distance to the bottom is about five metres and I have to swim hard to get there with cotton flapping around holding me back, my ears beginning to ache from the pressure. Once down there I realise why it’s best to be wearing gloves; oysters cover the bottom as do sharp rocks and sea urchins and in a frenzy to pick up as much as possible before your breath really does give out it’s difficult to be discerning. I stay down for as long as possible, which isn’t very long, and then just when I start to feel panic I tug on the string and the helper pulls me up.
When the basket is full we stop diving and congregate on deck to learn how to open an oyster shell and start the meticulous work of looking for a pearl. Natural pearls come in all shapes and sizes and are usually to be found under the outer rim of the fleshy part of the oyster. It’s painstaking work and we are all hungry from diving so lunch takes over. And just as we are finishing, one of the crew opens an oyster and shouts that she has found a tiny yellowy-white pearl. Everyone crowds around, incredulous, but it is true, natural treasure has been found.


While many of the travel tips are general in nature, some are pertaining only to air travel. Rail/Road travellers, please excuse. 
  • Buy a seat upgrade that gets you access to priority security lines and early boarding - applicable in some international carriers.
  • Get a credit card that gives you a free checked bag and early boarding (American Express gold and silver) or lounge access (American Express platinum). The Citi Executive AAdvantage. World Elite MasterCard offers a free checked bag, early boarding, priority lines, some miles that count toward elite qualification and American lounge access (more suitable for overseas travel). Beware:Some cards can carry hefty annual fees.
  • Customize your black rolling suitcase by tying a colorful ribbon on (but not so long that it gets caught in baggage machinery).
  • Put your business card inside your bag. If the name tag and bag tag get eaten by airline baggage machinery, and many do, the airline will open your bag to try to identify the owner.
  • Beware: Never put valuables in a checked bag. The airline's liability for loss and damage is quite limited, and airlines don't offer any reimbursement for many lost items, including jewelry, electronics and valuables. If forced to check your bag at the gate because overhead bins are full, pull out valuables and electronics.
  • Pack clothing with just two colors, suggests Henry Harteveldt, a longtime travel analyst and researcher. That way, everything matches and you save room in your bag.
  • Beware: Never check the suit you need for the next day, whether it is a bathing suit or a business suit. Bags get lost and delayed.
  • Have a travel bag with toiletries so you're not packing that every trip, and a bag with chargers and power cords so you don't have to round them up or risk leaving them behind.
  • Other items to consider carrying: An umbrella, a pair of flip-flops if you don't want to pad around a hotel room barefoot; an empty water bottle to fill once inside security so you can avoid paying through your nose for a mineral water bottle at the airport store.
  • Print boarding passes early as a bit of insurance against getting bumped from a flight. If you haven't claimed the seat, it is there for the taking by an agent, especially if you're running late. If you are flying on a cheap fare, you can be a big target for bumping, since compensation the airline owes you is based in part on the fare you paid. If you're away from home or the office, many hotels now have computers with printers available for boarding-pass printing.
  • Printing boarding passes in advance also saves you one stop at the airport, as long as you aren't checking bags.
  • If you have a smartphone, you can download your boarding pass on the fly at most airlines rather than printing it out on paper.
  • Airport security screening checkpoints are great places to lose important things: drivers' licenses that don't make it back to wallets, for example, or laptops that walk off with other "travelers." Here's my routine:
  1. Cellphone, watch, keys and pens all go into my briefcase before I get in line. My passport goes back into my wallet immediately when I get it back from the agent at the security desk. Boarding pass goes in the same pocket every time.
  2. Liquids and laptop are carried in the same place in my bags every time so when I get to disgorge, I know exactly where they are. Laptop goes into one security plastic tub. Wallet into a second tub, along with jacket, belt and pocket change.
  3. Big bags go first on the belt so I have them first to refill on the other side.
  4. Beware: Laptop goes on the belt last. If I get delayed at the metal detector, the laptop won't be sitting out in the open for a long time. And the bag to repack it in has already come out.
  • Dress the part. No jewelry that will set off the body scanner and lead to an aggressive pat-down. Wear shoes that are easy on and off. You may be tempted to layer up the clothing to avoid having to check a suitcase, but you'll pay for that frugality at the checkpoint if security makes you peel off extra sweaters, shirts, pants and jackets.
  • Seek alternative checkpoints. If the line is long, some airports have other checkpoints that may be faster, even after a walk to get there. In addition, if you want to avoid X-ray screening machines, check which lanes, if any, feed into metal detectors instead of full-body scanning machines.
  • Choosing a room. Some travelers always request upper floors at hotels to lessen disturbance from street noise and to enjoy the city view. Others insist on lower floors so that they are within reach of fire-department ladders if there is a fire. In fact, some companies insist in contracts with hotels that their employees get rooms within four stories of the street.
  • Once you're checked in, spend a few minutes walking from your room to the nearest emergency stairwell—not the elevator. If fire alarm is blaring or the hallway filled with smoke, you would know.
  • I suggests placing a shoe (yes, only one from the pair) you plan to wear on flights in the room safe with your passport and other valuables. That way, you'll remember to clean out the safe when putting on your shoes for the trip home.
  • Take your room number and hotel address with you. Tear off the room number from the paper given to you at check-in and keep it in a pocket so that when you can't remember whether it is 625 or 629—or perhaps 629 was last night in another city—you won't be lost.
  • Last, but not the least. Beware: Never call home happy, when you are traveling alone on business or pleasure. I learned this the hard way many years ago. Out of the country, participating in a conference I called home giddy. I was enjoying a fine meal with my colleagues. My wife listened quietly while I recounted the excitement of the fun we were having over a few couple of drinks. And then I heard my wife saying how she had to put up with my two kids, who had been throwing tantrums all day. Big mistake on my part.

Travel in the dot-com age

Travel has become ever so simple in the digital era. All you have to do is browse the scores of websites on the Internet, read an e-book or consult an app on your smart phone to get information about destinations and make holiday plans. You can even take a virtual vacation thanks to Google Street View.

Summer is up and so are your travel plans. It's fun travel in the digital age, to be one of a new breed of travellers. As a digital nomad, the first thing you do when the air turns hot is to log on to a digital device. And Google. Where you go, where you stay, with whom, what you do, how big a bite your credit card will take, and who will go with you are all decided digitally. The merit or unworthiness of hotels comes from the reviews of total strangers. In the place of the bulky guidebook, you now carry a sleek laptop.
Scenic View of Swiss Lake
Hundreds of websites such as promise to fetch you the best possible travel tips, tricks and offers “out there.” Blog pages give you “ideas” about the best — read scariest, cheapest, remotest, coldest, most romantic and exotic places, how-tos and other travel information. Travel companies offer solutions to suit every whim and oddity. As Venkat at Vacations Exotica says, “You can go to a little-known place today and find an Indian restaurant there.” Travel has never been so doable.

No more a hassle

Getting travel ready isn't a hassle either (though passing through airports can dampen your enthusiasm).You can learn the local language on the Internet or through an app on your smart phone. You could browse e-books to know of places you want to leave your footprint on. Packing is a breeze as we've shed heavy clothes and our inhibitions — a couple of jeans, keds and T-shirts are all we need. We can indulge in things we haven't dreamt of — White water rafting? Hang gliding? Scuba diving? Snorkelling? Rappelling? Skiing? We supply equipment! — get a minute-by-minute itinerary, know about food options and even a massage. You scan a 360-degree view of the rooms in a resort before booking your holiday there. If you're still in doubt, you can log on to Facebook, or start a tweet on your destination to buzz up advice. Want to talk it over? Call for a Skype conversation or a video chat.

But you hate to leave your couch and miss your daily dose of serials. You're suspicious of the food in strange places and will need curd rice for sustenance. You worry about the comfort quotient. Yet, you want to talk intelligently about travel. Right, you can watch travel programmes on someone else's tour choices or take a virtual vacation with Google Street View (GSV).

GSV mapping

Check out Google's latest Street View mapping projects. They allow you to take a leisurely stroll in the lush Amazon rainforest or find yourself in unknown areas in Thailand.

Google Street View isn't anything new. Its cameras have taken us voyeuristically through local roads, college campuses, malls and airports. But recently GSV has updated itself to take viewers comfortably on a trip through the Amazon basin or to watch the reconstruction of Thailand after last year's bludgeoning monsoon.

This is the highpoint of this particular GSV: there are hardly any roads in the Amazon, so you get to see a lot of jungle images, of places you would never have ventured into. Some 50,000 images taken along the rivers capture the beauty of the rainforest in 360-degree view. The GSV then helpfully picks your locations for “sightseeing.” You watch scenes of Tumbira, the largest community, in a developed village in the Amazon reserve, or float down the Rio Negro. The adventurous can try to navigate the jungle trails, and find out where Brazil nuts are harvested.

In faraway Thailand, you get to “walk” the roads of Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai by punching a few keys. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is particularly happy about this GSV since it shows how the cities have been rebuilt after nearly five months of flooding. Viewing the renewed streets of its historic places, Thailand hopes, will persuade travellers to pack their bags for a real experience. “We really want to show that Thailand isn't still under water,” David Marx, Google's Tokyo-based communications manager, told Reuters. “People should see Thailand for what it is.” You can, just go to GSV.

Google might have had its controversies, but this GSV project has been welcomed, especially by armchair travellers and eco activists. GSV images bring attention to how precious and fragile Amazon rain forests are, they say. It will sensitise the world to the challenges of climate change and help spread information about the effects of large-scale deforestation.

Is GSV the same as being there and getting one's feet wet and arms mosquito-bitten? Does it take away from an ‘authentic' experience? Answer these later. If you're feeling stressed and are in dire need of an instant vacation, get on board a virtual tour of the Amazon and Thailand.


* Sightseeing is done on “Trikes” or camera-mounted three-wheelers.
* The pictures are woven into Google Maps and Earth services.
* People can virtually peer about as if they were there.
* Satellite positioning equipment on Trikes pinpoints where images are gathered.
- The Hindu

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Beautiful Beaches of Thailand

Look nowhere else. With the introduction of Chennai-Bangkok-Chennai Air Asia service, travelling to Thailand has become very affordable. Especially for honeymooners, here are some useful tips.

It isn’t fair, really – there are over 200 countries around the globe and Thailand has managed to snag a disproportionate amount of the world’s top beaches.

These aren’t your average stretches of sand; you’re about to uncover perfect powder-soft dunes and dramatic limestone crags that pop straight out of the impossibly clear waters. Robinson Crusoe, eat your heart out!

Hat Phra Nang, Railay

This beauty will shock and awe. Perfect sand, limestone cliffs and caves, emerald water and colourful long-tail boats make this photographic bliss. It’s little more than a cosy nook, and tends to get crowded in high season.

Phra Nang: (shown as Pranang Cave Beach in local maps) a fine white sand beach, on the southern tip of the peninsula. Can get crowded and busy. This lovely beach, recently voted one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world, is 20 minutes away from Ao Nang by longtail boat. It has jaw-droppingly spectacular scenery and is an excellent swimming beach. Watch the climbers climb right off the beach. Have a massage, eat a delicious barbeque and salad lunch, maybe cliff-jump off the rocks into the water. It's a great place to spend a lazy or not-so-lazy day. Phra Nang is arguably the finest beach in Thailand, if not southeast Asia. A broad strip of white sand with massive cliffs framing each end of the beach, Phra Nang has just enough facilities: roast chicken and salad lunches cooked on the beach, massage ladies and people inconspicuously selling cold drinks. It still thankfully lacks all the things that spoil a beach: pollution, traffic, noise, over-enthusiastic hawkers, jet-skis and lager louts. 

Hat Khao Lak

On this seemingly endless swath of golden, boulder-studded beach, expect outrageous sunsets and lazy days. The Surin and Similan Islands as well as inland jungle parks are an easy boat or road trip away.

Hat Khao Lak ( KhaoLak beach ) is an exceptionally pretty and long (several kilometers) stretch of pristine sand picturesquely studded with granite boulders. It actually comprises of three individual beaches, and at the far northern end there is a network of sandy beach trails, some of which lead to completely deserted stretches.

The coast is set against a background of casuarina pines, which in turn give way to lush green palm groves, interspersed with lakes, and rubber & coco plantations.

Ko Tao

Trying to decide between a slice of lively sand and hermitic retreat? Ko Tao offers plenty of both. Hit the island’s west side for tiki-torched beach bars, and escape to the eastern shores to re-enact your favourite scenes from TV’s Lost.

Koh Tao is unique in many ways and not just because it offers the best scuba diving in the Gulf of Thailand. Conveniently small, with a real international community, truly great cuisine at reasonable prices, fantastic night life, exciting activities and stunning vistas, Koh Tao really is full of surprises! No matter what you are looking for whilst on holiday or traveling you can probably find it on this delightful island. 

Ko Mak & Ko Kut

Ko Mak Beach
Ko Kut ( Ko Kood) Beach
Take your pick on quiet Ko Mak: sling your hammock up on a desolate beach or the next one over, which is just as perfect and pristine. Jungle-ier Ko Kut next door has an excellent spread of flaxen sand as well.

A tropical haven for those who seek the relaxing life, it has so far escaped the grasp of the major developers and remains a small slice of paradise locked in time.

Ko Kut (aka Koh Kood)’s great advantage is its relative remoteness. Getting there requires a bus/train journey from Bangkok, followed by an hour’s speed boat ride from the mainland (slow ferry can take up to 6/8 hours).

Ko Ngai

Cook on the slender, powder-white beach, dip in the sandy-bottomed shallows then slip over the reef for clear water, healthy corals and fish aplenty. Knobby karst islands fill the horizon towards the Krabi mainland in the distance.

Plain and simple, Ko Ngai is a small, beautiful upmarket resort island. The only locals you'll see here are those working in the tourism industry, so Ko Ngai lacks the charm found on islands with local villages like Ko Muk and Ko Bulon Lae. As impersonal as Ko Ngai may be, however, the island boasts one of Trang's best beaches -- a long sliver of white sand with stunning views of distant limestone karsts, Ko Muk and the mainland. So if a comfortable (and expensive) resort holiday in an idyllic tropical island setting is what you have in mind, then Ko Ngai is for you.

Ao Bang Thao, Phuket

With 8km of white sand, expect calm seas in the high season and surfable waves during the low season. Don’t let the posh Laguna Complex scare you; this laid-back yet lively beach has something for everyone.

Home to some of the islands mega-resorts (serious pampering at serious prices), Ao Bang Thao laps against a lovely 8km-long crescent of white-sand beach on Phuket’s western coast. A steady breeze makes the bay ideal for windsurfing; since 1992 the annual Siam World Cup windsurfing championships have been held here in January. A system of lagoons inland from the beach has been incorporated into Laguna Phuket, a complex of five upmarket resorts dominating the central portion of the beach. Even if you can’t afford to stay, the beach makes a nice day trip.

Ko Pha-Ngan

Every month, on the night of the full moon, pilgrims pay tribute to the party gods with trancelike dancing and neon body paint. Join the legions of bucket-sippers on the infamous Sunrise Beach for the ultimate gathering that eclipses all other celebrations around the world.

Ko Pha Ngan (or Koh Phangan is an island in the Gulf of Thailand in South East Thailand, and located in Surat Thani Province. It is famous for its full moon party at Haad Rin Beach and as a backpackers destination. Ko Pha Ngan has two sister islands: the larger Ko Samui to the south and the smaller Ko Tao to the north.

For attractively priced package for any of these islands, contact us today

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Why? England's historic capital was the centre of the British Empire for generations, and is imbued with a sense of history. Modern London has retained its ancient heritage and remains the focus of world events. Anyone wishing to understand and explore the origins of Western culture will revel in a holiday in London, where traditional attractions still amaze and astound.

When? London is famed for its abundance of rain and fog, so an umbrella is a necessity when planning to travel to London on holiday any time of year. The best time to holiday in London is during spring (May and June) when the parks erupt in a profusion of flowering bulbs, or autumn, when the trees turn into golden hues and skies are often a murky blue. The long summer evenings make June and July good months to travel, although public transport can become oppressive on hot days. Winters are gloomy, dark and cold.

Who for? A holiday in London is enjoyable for anyone and everyone. Families with children can visit numerous entertaining attractions, from the Tower of London with its bloody history to the London Dungeon and Madame Tussaud's waxworks museum or the London Eye with its stunning vistas of the city. Couples can enjoy the restaurants and nightlife, see a West End show, and explore the markets and famous shopping streets.

Whether you arrive in London via the underground or inside one of the city's ubiquitous black taxicabs, you will immediately be greeted by a deep sense of history and met with the unique vibrancy of this incredible destination.

In its dark and troubled past, the city of London has survived Roman occupancy, sackings from the Celts, Romans, Vikings and Saxons, a Norman invasion, two great fires, the bubonic plague, Nazi bombings, the Spice Girls and Damien Hirst.

But the London of today promises something for everyone. The London Eye lifts visitors high above the river into vistas that stretch tight across the fading skies. Further down on the South Bank, the Tate Modern contains one of the world's most incredible collections of Modern Art, while the city's 30,000 stores and boutiques will exhaust even the most avid shopper, and its 6,000 restaurants are only too eager to demonstrate why Britons revere their chefs as celebrities.

For those interested in exploring the country's heritage, the Tower of London is an excellent starting-point. First constructed in the 11th century, the Tower has been rebuilt several times as later monarchs have left their mark. Still one of London's biggest attractions, and a great celebration of pomp that is free to all visitors, is the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, which happens daily.

As the great dome of St Paul's reflects the colors of the setting sun, London comes alive with an un-rivalled nightlife. For those up for something more thrilling than dinner and the theater, London has a vast number of bars and nightclubs catering to all tastes.

As London gears up to play host to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, there is simply no better time to visit England's capital city. Cheap flights to London are available on a huge variety of airlines - book now, and get the ball rolling on the holiday of a lifetime.

The nightlife in London is second to none with something for everyone and for just about every kind of occasion, from the pulsating dance floors of some of the world's most famous clubs to the more chilled out and intimate music lounges and bars.

Hardcore party animals wanting to strut their stuff will love the clubbing scene, complete with well known local and international DJs, while the countless bars and cosy independent theatres featuring local and international live music acts that will blow your mind. Live music in London is the best in the world, and on any given night there will be an international or local band playing in more than one of the venues around this pulsating metropolis.

The West End in particular is home to many bars, clubs and restaurants, and Soho is one of the trendiest and coolest places to drink. This is also where most of London's gay bars and clubs can be found. The perpetually cool Notting Hill and Portobello Road areas still draw large crowds and local areas, such as Camden and Angel up north and Clapham and Brixton down south, boast some fantastic pubs and bars, all with their own unique flavour.

Call us for a memorable package to London.