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Wednesday, November 30, 2022 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
 Bonnie James
Bonnie James
Bonnie James is the News Editor of Gulf Times. He has mainstream media experience of more than 27 years. Environment, wildlife, science and technology, and photography and videography are among his specialties. He has visited many destinations, including
Double Crested Cormorant. Photo by Bonnie James
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‘Bird Paradise’

The Sarus Cranes were in no mood to dance. “They will, if you are lucky,” guide Ishwar Singh, a 31-year veteran at the globally acclaimed Keoladeo National Park (erstwhile Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary), tried to assure me. Twenty minutes of futile waiting. The pair kept on foraging for delicacies from a marshy part of the Unesco World Heritage Site in historic Rajasthan, a northern Indian state bordering Pakistan. “There are many more things to see,” authorised sight-seeing rickshaw puller Jajveer Singh’s words did it. We decided to move deeper into the former duck-hunting reserve of the Maharajas, now one of the major wintering areas for large numbers of aquatic birds from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia.  Some 375 species of birds, including the rare Siberian Crane, have been recorded in the park, described by Unesco as an important wintering ground of Palaearctic migratory waterfowl and renowned for its large congregation of non-migratory resident breeding birds.  The wildlife oasis situated within a populated human-dominated landscape, is a mosaic of grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetlands spread across 2,873 ha.  Visitors are better off hiring cycle rickshaws to move around the park to cover the maximum area unless they are going to stay overnight nearby and return for a second day’s tour. The rickshaw pullers are almost as good as trained guides though they may not be fluent communicators like Ishwar Singh. This ‘Bird Paradise’ was developed in a natural depression wetland that was managed as a duck shooting reserve at the end of the 19th century. While hunting has ceased and the area declared a national park in 1982, its continued existence is dependent on a regulated water supply from a reservoir outside the park boundary.  Due to its strategic location in the middle of Central Asian migratory flyway and presence of water, large congregations of ducks, geese, coots, pelicans and waders arrive in the winter.  The park was the only known wintering site of the central population of the critically endangered Siberian Crane, and also serves as a wintering area for other globally threatened species such as the Greater Spotted Eagle and Imperial Eagle.  During the breeding season the most spectacular heronry in the region is formed by 15 species of herons, ibis, cormorants, spoonbills and storks, where in a well-flooded year over 20,000 birds nest. Around 115 species of birds breed in the park, which includes 15 water bird species forming one of the most spectacular heronries of the region. The habitat mosaic of the property supports a large number of species in a small area, with 42 species of raptors recorded. Ishwar Singh wanted to show our group an Indian Rock Python, so we ventured off road for a few metres. Guess the large snake was sleeping in its den on this unusually warm winter day.  While trudging back, we got our first sighting. Up above, in a tree hole, an owl was dozing off. Just below was a Rose-ringed Parakeet, warming itself, outside its home. During our nearly five hour ride and walk, we came across many species of herons, storks, cormorants, eagles, kingfishers, ducks and other water birds, grey hornbill, darter, bats, black headed ibis, many common birds including bulbul, and herds of nilgai and sambar deer in their undisturbed natural habitat.  Keoladeo is the only park in India that is completely enclosed by a 2 metre high boundary wall that minimises the possibilities of any encroachment and biotic disturbances. The park is open throughout the year, but the best time to visit is from October until March when migratory birds from around the globe could be spotted. HOW TO REACH: Keoladeo National Park is almost four hours’ or 222km drive from the Indian capital New Delhi via the Taj/Yamuna Expressway. The park is one hour or 55km from Agra, via the Bikaner-Agra Road. From Jaipur, it is about 3.15 hours or 186km drive. Inputs: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/340

GREEN: One of the many water features at Phulay Bay. Photo by Bonnie James
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Krabi, breathtakingly beautiful

A naturally-lit, airy corridor flanked on a side by a thick growth of trees is an anomaly for a typical hotel corridor, which by default across the world is akin to a dimly lit alley. A pitched-roof pavilion open on all sides and surrounded by water, instead of the usual reception desk is also an out-of-the-box concept. So is a resort with waterslides and free-form pools spread out among landscaped tropical gardens. Gulf Times came across such sights and more in the enchanting province of Krabi in southern Thailand earlier this month during a familiarisation trip organised by Qatar Airways in association with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The variety and diversity of hotels and resorts across Thailand is reflected in Krabi, highlighting the availability of a well-developed infrastructure that helps the country sustain and further develop its position as a premier travel destination. Sofitel Krabi Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort, surrounded by a lush tropical garden, is a just a few steps from the quiet Klong Muang Beach and Andaman Sea. The gentle breeze from the sea greets guests as they enter the lobby, which is open at the front and back. The 10-year-old 5-star property has 276 rooms spread across three floors on two wings on either side of the lobby. A walk along the corridors is in itself a relaxing and rejuvenating experience. The green surroundings soothe the eyes. Chirping of birds during the day and crickets at night is a treat to the ears. Fresh air calms the mind and body. The views from the rooms are also full of lush greenery. Plastic bags or bottles are not used in the hotel. Drinking water is supplied in glass bottles in the rooms. The laundry and shoe bags are from recycled fabrics. In line with the policy of Accor Hotels, guests have the option to reuse their towels and bedspreads. The hotel group claims to plant one tree every minute with savings made on water and energy. Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Krabi, is where the reception desk is replaced with a traditional Thai pavilion, surrounded by water. The debut Reserve property of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Phulay Bay is cradled by white-sand beaches below and limestone cliffs above. Thai for ‘where the mountains meet the sea,’ Phulay Bay is described as a luxurious hidden retreat, ‘designed for those who seek to escape the stresses of everyday life and immerse themselves into a completely bespoke and personally-tailored-to-suit vacation experience.’ Set on the shores of the Andaman Sea, Phulay Bay is a beautiful 54-villa and pavilion boutique hotel, a work of the noted Thai architect Lek Bunnag. Twenty ft high aubergine walls and ‘hedges’ made from indigenous trees create a sort of maze that secludes guests from the outside world. The ESPA villa at Phulay Bay is another avenue for relaxation and rejuvenation with stepping stones meandering through the spa leading to decked walkways and relaxation terraces surrounded by vegetation and reflection ponds.  Phulay Bay uses rainwater harvesting in addition to channelling the natural water flowing from the mountains, Puntip Cartlidge, director of business development, told Gulf Times. “We have significantly reduced the amount of plastic bottles in the last three months and plan to replace all plastic bottles from the guest-rooms with glass in 2017,” she explained. Currently, the plastic bottles used are recycled. Plastic bags have given way to those with recycled fabrics. Tapping solar energy is next on the agenda. “This is something we are currently investigating,” the official said while revealing that more environment-friendly measures are in the pipeline for 2017. Phulay Bay also has an organic chef’s garden on property.  “We have a spa garden which is utilised by the spa for treatments and a nursery on our land which partly supports our in-house decoration,” she added. Holiday Inn Resort, Krabi, Ao Nang Beach is a green haven within walking distance of the main shopping and entertainment centres. A total of 173 rooms and suites are spread across wings dedicated to couples and families, some with private balconies and direct access to the pool. The views on offer include that of the resort pool, a natural mangrove patch or the scenic Ao Nang Bay. (Qatar Airways flies from Doha to Krabi and back on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. Flight QR824 departs Doha at 5.30am and arrives in Krabi at 4.20pm. Flight QR825 departs Krabi at 5.20pm and arrives in Doha at 8.45pm. Krabi, GMT +7, is four hours ahead of Doha).

ROOM WITH A VIEW: On the way to Hong Island. Photos by Bonnie James
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Sight for sore eyes

The aquamarine waters lapped on the ivory white sandy shore. The leaves of the lone tamarind tree rustled in the gentle breeze that wafted down from the heights of the coconut palms lining the beach. The enchanting blue sky sprinkled with magnificent clouds and the horizon lined with silhouettes of distant limestone cliffs completed the picture of tranquility on Phi Phi Island in Krabi Province, located along the Andaman coast in southern Thailand. Two suitcases with airline tags and left under the tamarind tree on one side and tourists relaxing on lounge chairs in the shade of canary yellow parasols on the other summed up the essence of Krabi, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Enchanting land and seascapes, world-class diving amenities, national parks and eco-tours are among the attractions of Krabi, located on the south-west coast of Thailand and 800km from the capital, Bangkok. A population of less than 400,000 in an area of almost 5,000sq km means there is plenty of pristine land. The popular family destination has now become closer to Qatar residents, with the new four times weekly service launched earlier this month by Qatar Airways. It is a non-stop, six-and-a-half hour flight to Krabi from Doha. Krabi international airport is just a 15-minute drive from Krabi town.  Crystal clear water which allows you to see a long way into the sea, well-maintained beaches and majestic limestone cliffs dot the 160km long coastline, create stunning picture postcard views of the tropical islands. A paradise for sun-seeking, adventure-bound travellers from across the world, Krabi is now one of Thailand’s top tourism destinations. Any visitor should take a tour of at least a few of the nearly 200 islands along the coastline. Many are small rocky outcrops that rise out of the sea and have no landing access. Others are larger and uninhabited, with fine sandy beaches, coral reefs and intricate cave systems. Some islands have resident populations of monkeys, too. There are several options for those wanting to explore this beautiful province, as recommended by the five-star Sofitel Krabi Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort. From rock climbing on the tall limestone cliffs to snorkelling in the crystal waters of the Andaman Sea around stunningly beautiful small islands or elephant trekking through the lush vegetation of the rainforest, there is something for every visitor. Island hopping is a must. Rent a local boat from Krabi Town, Ao Nang or Railey. Or explore the idyllic islands with a guide and take a trip that includes snorkelling or kayaking. The best season to visit Krabi is November to April. Not all islands can be visited in the monsoon season from May to October when weather can be unpredictable. The scenic Hong Island, which is within 10 minutes by speedboat from Sofitel Krabi, has several spectacular beaches as well as a hidden lagoon which, at low tide, reveals stunning coral and tropical fish. The fabulous Phi Phi Island is about 45 minutes from Hong Island by speedboat. The ride is quite fast, touching a speed of 60km.  From a very quiet place until the late 1990s when the acclaimed British filmmaker Danny Boyle shot his big-budget The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, the National Park has exploded in popularity subsequently. Though the film bombed, Phi Phi Island took off! On a good weather day, the Maya Bay, the location for many scenes in the film, is crowded with tourists. The remarkable variety of dive sites concentrated in a small area, particularly off Phi Phi Don island, adds to Krabi’s uniqueness. Krabi is a great place to learn diving. The limestone cliffs are a paradise for rock climbers. Over 650 routes have been developed since the late 1980s when Krabi first welcomed mountain climbers. One witnessed an awesome sight of free climbing by a man who went up nearly 50m and then descended without any safety equipment! Krabi is an outstanding destination for kayaking too. Paddling along a coastline of soaring limestone cliffs, discovering hidden caves, lagoons and unique eco-systems is an enchanting experience, when the tide is just right. (Gulf Times was flown to Krabi by Qatar Airways and Tourism Authority of Thailand. Qatar Airways flies from Doha to Krabi and back on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. Flight QR824 departs Doha at 5.30am and arrives in Krabi at 4.20pm. Flight QR825 departs Krabi at 5.20pm and arrives in Doha at 8.45pm. Krabi, GMT +7, is four hours ahead of Doha).