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Sunday, December 27, 2009

VIETNAM

Vietnam is an utter assault on the senses; it is at once dizzying, frenetic and fascinating. Yet it is lovable. The Vietnamese are friendly and endlessly generous, and travelling the country is nothing but a delight. The cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are both chaotic and captivating: the capital Hanoi is the focus for arts in Vietnam and has been since its foundation in the year 1010, while Ho Chi Minh, still referred to as Saigon, is the business hub, but no less interesting. The imperial city of Hue offers a well-preserved insight in to Vietnam's proud past.

Bustling street life

Life in urban Vietnam is conducted on the streets. In
bia hois (pavement pubs) men sup ice-cold beer and nibble on boiled quails eggs. Odours from makeshift food stalls fill the nostrils: see steaming pho, a noodle soup with various unidentifiable chunks of meat, or grilled chicken feet. Along nearly all the moped-clogged streets produce is sold. Tubs wriggle with live sturgeon, crabs and frogs (still a delicacy from French colonial days), baskets are top heavy with colourful and bizarre fruit, and every possible piece of a pig is on sale.

Traditional country ways
Rural Vietnam is entirely different. Just a short distance from the cities, water buffalo wallow in green rice paddies and elegant women wearing traditional conical headwear cycle along dusty paths. Vietnam's remarkable geography, from the lush Mekong Delta in the south to the remote Sapa valleys in the north, demonstrates a traditional way of life.

THAILAND

Each year Thailand is discovered by millions of visitors, drawn to its pristine beaches andaquamarine seas, as well as its rich culture, glitzy shopping malls, chic boutiques and colourful markets crammed with bargains.

With its enticing mixture of established destinations such as
Phuket and Hua Hin, and out-of-the-way palm-fringed islands, Thailand appeals to the most varied of travellers, whether they are craving barefoot luxury or hippy chic. From staying on a converted rice barge, clambering into a jungle tree house or bedding down in a hill tribe village, Thailand offers a wealth of choice for every taste and budget.

Pampering is an art form in Thailand, and throughout the country
spas offer authentic treatments whether it's in a 5-star luxury resort or a beach-side hut. If it's pulse-raising excitement you are after, head to the hectic sprawl of Bangkok's futuristic high-rise buildings.

Early morning is when the
saffron-robed monks leave the sanctuary of their wats(temples) to receive alms from the people, be it in a dusty village or on crowded city streets. Buddhism is a way of life here and the Thai's are also strong supporters of their monarchy. In fact, His Majesty King Bhumibol is the longest reigning monarch in the world, since coming to power in 1946.

Following the end of absolute monarchy, Thailand moved towards
democracy, but this was thwarted by the military, which has often staged coups in protest at government policies. The most recent was in September 2006 when a bloodless coup overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and replaced him with an interim prime minister until elections at the end of 2007.

For all this, Thailand has risen above the economic collapse of 1997, SARS and avian influenza as well as the devastating tsunami in December 2004, to become a hugely popular destination on the long-haul tourist

SINGAPORE

Cultural melting pot and dazzling example of the region's economic successes, wealthy Singapore assails the senses of the first time visitor.

The former
British trading post and colony has carved a unique niche for itself in its two short centuries of existence, nowadays offering a vivid combination of ultra-modern skyscrapers, remnants of tropical rainforest and colourful ethnic urban areas, each with a character very much of their own.

One of the most noticeable features of this tiny but bustling city-state is its cleanliness - indeed, it is sometimes criticised for its many seemingly petty regulations, such as the banning of chewing gum - but crime is virtually unknown, and it is one of the
world's safest places to visit.

Despite its rather sanitised reputation, though, Singapore is anything but dull. The visitor is spoilt for choice, for things to see and do, and in terms of
vibrant nightlife, its rich cultural mix, and a whole planet's worth of culinary experiences. Singapore is a veritable feast for the senses, a heady mixture of the familiar and the exotic.

It suits all budgets, too, presenting a happy collision of opposites - grand and expensive at the famed
Raffles Hotel, but low-key and cheap (but good) in thefood markets of Bugis Junction and Clarke Quay.

Philippines

Although composed of 7,107 islands (7,108 at low tide), with a total coastline longer than that of the USA, most of the population of the Philippines lives on just 11 islands. The country offers warm tropical waters, coral gardens with beautiful marine life and dramatic drop-offs on the sea bed.

Inland, the
rich history and culture of the Filipino people, the dramatic landscapes andthriving cities fascinate the visitor. Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is also its heart and soul. It sets the rhythm of life in this archipelago and is a pulsating hub that blends the Oriental with the Occidental, the traditional with the modern, the mundane with extraordinary.

The islands were occupied by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945, during WWII, only achieving
independence in 1946. The country has suffered from frequent natural disasters, and has pockets of violent rebellion. Povertyand the country's debt burden are also very high, explaining the high number of Filipinos residing abroad.

Infrastructure projects involving airports, expressways, inter-island transport and even the currently almost non-existent railway system are part of a 10-point development agenda until 2010.
Travel and tourism will surely benefit, asairports nationwide are being constructed or renovated to accommodate larger planes and more visitors

MYANMAR

But for its brutal military regime, the beautiful country of Myanmar (previously known asBurma) would be a popular tourist destination tempting visitors from across the globe to explore its dense forests, abundant wildlife, friendly people, rich culture and underdeveloped coastal resorts.

However, would-be tourists face a difficult choice in whether to come. On the one hand, there are many attractions: thousands of
pagodas, fascinating culture and ancient towns among them. And tourists are welcomed with open arms by locals hungry for news of the outside world, and for their economic contribution.

On the other hand, it is argued that tourism directly funds the military regime. The pro-democracy resistance figure
Aung San Suu Kyi is one of many who have asked tourists to resist travelling to Myanmar for this reason.

Travellers should also be aware that certain areas in Myanmar are currently out of bounds owing to the political disturbances of recent years; always seek advice before planning a trip.

MALAYSIA

Malaysia, which celebrated 50 years of independence in 2007, is one of the rising stars of South-East Asian tourism, a nation looking to the future while cherishing the ways of the past. Centuries of trade combined with a vibrant mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and tribal influence have created a mix of peoples and culture that make it a colourful and intriguing place to visit.

Tropical island resorts and endless white, sandy beaches offer a taste of paradise, while beneath warm coral seas, world-class divesites await exploration. Orang-utans, the oldest rainforest in the world, city skyscrapersand majestic mosques and temples, plus a gorgeous coastline, are enough to tempt even the most jaded visitor. And if that were not enough, Malaysia's culinary credentials are among Asia's finest.

The
British were relatively late arrivals to the region in the late 18th century, following Portuguese and later Dutch settlement, but they played a key role following the European wars of the 1790s and, in particular, the defeat of the Netherlands by France in 1795. TheFederated Malay States were created in 1895, and remained under British colonial control until the Japanese invasion of 1942.

After Japanese defeat in 1945, the 11 states were once again incorporated as British Protectorates and, in 1948, became the
Federation of Malaya. In 1963, the Federation of Malaya merged with Singapore and the former British colonies of Sarawak and Sabah, on north Borneo, to form modern Malaysia. Singapore seceded to become an independent state in its own right in 1965, leaving Malaysia in its present form.

Its convoluted history highlights why Malaysia is so ethnically and
culturally diverse. Even better, the magnificent landscape is no less fascinating - dense jungles, soaring peaks and lush tropical rainforests harbour abundant and exotic flora and fauna.

LAOS

This land-locked mountainous country is gaining a reputation as an ecotourist destination. Its many rivers criss-crossing the country and unspoilt national parks are ideal for activities such as trekking, kayaking and caving. The capital, Vientiane, and the other major towns have been spared major modern developments with traditional and colonial architecture still dominant.

Tourism newcomers
Laos is one of the few Communist countries left in the world. Until 1988, tourists were not allowed access to Laos, but now it is perfectly feasible to travel all over the country, preferably with a recognised tour company, although plenty of backpackers do it independently. The number of tourists is expected to continue increasing over the next few years as more and more people discover the delights of this laid-back country of mountains and rivers.

Unspoilt and undeveloped
For now, Laos remains relatively isolated and undeveloped. Its capital, Vientiane, is more like a big village than a crowded Asian hub and life throughout the country is slow paced. Most people come to Laos and make a brief tour of Vientiane and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang with perhaps a brief detour to the mysterious Plain of Jars. But those who make the effort to explore further afield will be well rewarded with luscious landscapes, friendly people and unique glimpses of a country hardly changed for over a century.

INDONESIA

The islands of the Indonesian archipelago are strung like beads across the equator. Clear blue seas lap pristine beaches, gentle breezes carry scents of spices and flowers, and divers are entranced by the ocean's riches. Inland, dramatic volcanic ranges tower above a green mantle of terraced hillsides and lush rainforest.

Bali, Lombok and Jakarta
Bali offers an image of paradise: stunning scenery, gentle sarong-clad people and sunsets of legendary glory. On peaceful Lombok, life moves at a slower pace, while bustling Jakarta exhibits Indonesia's cosmopolitan, modern face.

Adventure

Komodo Island's ‘living dinosaurs' and the entrancing ‘sea gardens' of Suwalesi invite exploration, as do Borobudur's architectural treasures, which include 5km (3 miles) of Buddhist relief carvings. Adventure-seekers head for Kalimantan's remote jungle interior or explore Sumatra, with its teeming wildlife and wealth of tribal groups.

History

Long-term president, General Suharto was forced to resign in 1998 after decades of keeping control of the country in his own hands. It wasn't until September 2004 that the first ever direct presidential election was held when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected. The government is taking a strong stand against terrorism and tourism is slowly returning to the numbers experienced at the end of the 1990s. Once again visitors are discovering the myriad marvels scattered throughout this intriguing archipelago

EAST TIMOR

In May 2002, after 450 years of continuous foreign occupation, East Timor became theworld’s newest independent state. However, East Timor's road to independence was long and traumatic.

The
Portuguese first arrived on the island in the early 16th century and by the 1550s had occupied the eastern part. The Dutch took control of the western part, which became part of the Dutch East Indies and, after independence, Indonesia.

In 1975, the new left-wing Portuguese government relinquished all of its colonies. East Timor then enjoyed just a few days of independence, before the Indonesians
annexedit as their 27th province. There was little local resistance and the international community largely acquiesced.

The main Timorese
independence movement, FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionario de Este Timor Independente), which was originally formed to fight the Portuguese, now had to gear up again to combat a new and even more brutal occupier. In the savage counter-insurgency campaign that followed, the Indonesian army killed over 100,000 East Timorese.

It was not until the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the subsequent removal of veteran Indonesian President Suharto that the growing international criticism of the Indonesian campaign began to have some effect. In June 1999, President Habibie of Indonesia announced that a
referendum would be held in East Timor, offering independence or autonomy within Indonesia.

The referendum was held in August 1999 and 80% opted for independence. By way of revenge, the Indonesian army, along with local militias that they had armed and financed, indulged in an orgy of destruction and killing that displaced hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed the territory’s already fragile economic base.

In October 1999, a
UN transitional administration (UNTAET) was set up in East Timor, pending the conduct of national elections. The new country faced a massive reconstruction task and the government has found it difficult to deliver on many of its initial promises.

Colonial architecture, Portuguese fortresses and other remains from the 100-year-long Portuguese occupation can be found all over the country. However,many towns and villages were destroyed during the Indonesian occupation and the fighting in 1999, and these are only slowly being rebuilt. Many houses are still built on stilts in the traditional way, using local materials such as grass, bamboo, tree trunks and palm leaves

CAMBODIA

Captivating Cambodia is a land of beautiful temples, wild jungle and unspoilt countryside, yet still bears the scars of years of conflict.

For so long off limits to the tourist trail, Cambodia began to open up to visitors again in the late 1980s. Travellers poured into the gritty capital
Phnom Penh and marvelled at the jungle temples of Angkor as the Khmer Rouge militia dissipated.

An extensive landmine clearing programme has made other areas of Cambodia accessible, and visitors should take the time to discover the
hill tribes around Banlung, the colonial architecture of Battambang and the sandybeaches of Sihanoukville.

Today's tourists can expect to mix
luxurioushotels and restaurants with traditional markets and ramshackle side streets in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Intrepid foodies can look forward to sampling
deep fried spiders and cockroaches which have become delicacies in northern Cambodia, despite being a reminder of the food crisis endured by Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge.

With the road network improving, it's time for visitors to start exploring this
delightfulcountry beyond its imposing temples

BRUNEI

Although a tiny state with a small population,Brunei has one of the highest standards of living in the world thanks to sizeable deposits of oil and gas.

Situated on the
northern coast of Borneo in South-East Asia, Brunei is a heavily forestedstate where visitors will encounter the grandeur of Islamic architecture and royal tradition. Architectural treasures include the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, with its gleaming gold dome.

The country only gained independence in 1984, but has the
world's oldest reigning monarchy and centuries of royal heritage. At the helm of the only remaining Malay Islamic monarchy in the world, the Sultan of Bruneicomes from a family line that dates back over 600 years. The first sultan ascended the throne in 1405, founding a dynasty of which the current sultan, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, is the 29th ruler. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has been on the throne for 38 years and is one of the world's richest individuals.

Friday, September 11, 2009

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

From the timeless tranquillity of the desert to the lively bustle of the souk, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offers a kaleidoscope of attractions for visitors. In recent years, the country has rocketed to the forefront of the international tourism stakes.

Dubai
has led the way with phenomenal investment in opulent hotels and infrastructure and is now firmly established as one of the world's top short break and holiday destinations. But Abu Dhabi is also developing fast, helped by its new airline, Etihad, and several other emirates are following suit.

The space age image of the UAE's
modern cities is in marked contrast to its comparatively recent past prior to the advent of the oil industry, when these seven sheikdoms were asleepy backwater reliant on fishing and pearls.

Abu Dhabi City is a modern and sleek city, filled with skyscrapers. The UAE's capital, located on an island connected to the mainland by two bridges, is increasingly developing visitor attractions. And dazzling Dubai is a tourism honeypot, with superb shopping and rich cultural life.

The UAE is a federation of seven states (emirates) - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Qaiwain - formed in 1971 after independence from Britain

YEMEN

Yemen has established itself as a tourist destination, attracting travellers with its strikingscenery and spectacular Islamic and pre-Islamic architecture. Yemen boasts hugely varied landscapes, from magnificentmountains to lush fruit-growing valleys to semi-arid plains and wide sandy beaches. The towns and cities hide souks and spice markets, mosques and ancient city walls.

To the
Romans, Yemen was Arabia Felix, whose mountains and fertile areas distinguished it from the barren desert of the rest of the Arabian peninsula. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Yemen came into the seventh century under the influence of Islam. It remained within the orbit of various regional powers until, in the 15th century, it became a flashpoint in the struggle between the Egyptians and the Ottoman Empire. During the early 17th and early 19th centuries, the struggle for control was between the Europeans and the Ottomans. Split in two by political and civil warfare throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Yemen was finally reunited in 1990 under Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The country is home to numerous significant
archaeological sites, whileadventure travellers can enjoy camping and trekking in the unique Socotraarchipelago, which counts over 270 endemic species among its enormous range of wildlife and plant life

SYRIA

The Syrian Arab Republic revels in itsantiquity, having been inhabited for tens of thousands of years - and in the variation andcultural riches that such antiquity has brought it. This is a country that preserves scores ofrelics documenting the rise and fall of different civilisations, and which continues to welcome such diversity.

Syria was once regarded as a frontier region, bordered to the east by the
Arabs andPersians. The Persian invasions were repulsed but Syria eventually fell to the Muslims in the mid-seventh century. From then on, Syria was to be firmly part of the Muslim world, although retaining Christian and Jewish populations. Muslim control of Syria was vital to the defeat of the Christians and their expulsion from Jerusalem. Even when the terrifying force of the 13th century Mongols was unleashed on Syria, their massive Hulagu army was eventually defeated at the Battle of Goliath’s Well – a victory that, in retrospect, must be seen as one of the world’s most decisive military engagements, preventing both the Muslim world – and the Christian one – from certain doom.

Today, Syria's Islamic identity is as central to the country as its Arab roots. Such doctrine over-spilled into Arab nationalism in the 1950s - indeed, Nasser’s revolution in Egypt prompted Syria to join Egypt in the United Arab Republic. However, the alliance was short-lived, Syria seceding in 1961 to form the Syrian Arab Republic. Since then, Syria has been ruled at the head of a tightly controlled dictatorship. Even when General Hafez al-Assad of the Ba’ath Party (or Arab Socialist Renaissance) died in 2000, and his son Bashar assumed headship, Western hopes that the country would pursue a more pro-Western line proved misguided – in the vocabulary of the US Bush administration, the Syrian Arab Republic is a ‘state of concern’ (one level below the ‘axis of evil’).

SAUDI ARABIA

There is a veil hung over Saudi Arabia that distorts the reality that resides behind it. Lift the veil, however, and you will find that many conceptions of Saudi Arabia are misconceptions. It is a country with many areas of beautiful oases and dramaticmountain-tops, beaches and rivers. Itscities, although having no nightlife, do have plenty of cafes and restaurants. There are alsoshops galore, from the souk to the huge department store. Indeed, Saudi Arabia's major cities are generally very modern, with amenities of a high standard.

In the year AD622, Prophet Muhammad launched a successful campaign to recapture Mecca from the Persians, who had made it a province of their empire. Afterwards, the Muslims would continue their expansion across the Arabian peninsula and into Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia, and westwards into Egypt and North Africa.

As the
birthplace of Muhammad, Saudi Arabia contains the holiest cities of Islam. The Saudis take the responsibility for protecting the integrity of this holy land with utmost seriousness, and Islamic laws are strictly enforced by the mutawwa (religious police).

To the non-Islamic eye, Saudi Arabia also succeeds in being
beautiful andpraiseworthy. This complex country is likely to remain a significant part of the worldwide map for some time.

QATAR

Forget the 20th-century stereotype of a richArab Gulf state, of hastily thrown up tower blocks, chaotic streets and bafflingly tacky urban sculpture: Qatar - or at least the capital,Doha - has metamorphosed into a self-confident, elegant entrepĂ´t that gives the UAE a run for its money.

Occupying a flat peninsula jutting into the oil-rich waters of The Gulf, Qatar is one of the
richest per capita countries in the world - a wealth exhibited in high-profile projects, such as the new Museum of Islamic Art, built to house the largest such collection in the world.

With 50% of Qatar's population living in the capital, the country is a
virtual city state. But for those not content with jogging around Doha's fine corniche, a string of beaches beckon for rest and recuperation, and the magnificent dunes of Khor al-Adaid help even up the odds between God and Mammon

PALESTINE

With everything from fertile river plains to scrubby desert, from Mediterranean olive groves to liberal sprinklings of historical sites, Palestine seems to have it all. Sadly, war and intifadas mean this contested territory is badly damaged and for now theancient secrets and mysteries of this fascinating place may only be unlocked and enjoyed by its warm inhabitants and a few brave, some might say foolhardy, travellers.

Travel Warning: Travellers should be aware that the political situation in the Palestinian National Authority is extremely volatile. It is a hotly contested area where gun fights and violence between the Israeli Defence Force, Fatah militia and Hamas militia are unpredictable and not infrequent. Some areas, notably beaches in the Gaza Strip, are mined. Law and order are not reliably enforced and kidnappings of foreign nationals are not uncommon. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises caution when travelling in Jerusalem and against all travel to the Gaza Strip where the threat of kidnap is especially high. All but essential travel to the West Bank is advised against

OMAN

Mountain villages clutched against canyon walls, clusters of dates weighing heavy in the plantation oases, a ribbon of sand blown across the dunes, a lone camel padding across the limitless interior - these are the kinds of images afforded by the beautiful and enigmatic country of Oman.

In years gone by, Oman was rich with copper and
frankincense, and enjoyed an extensive East African empire. Then, in the early 20th century, a deeply conservative ruler, Sultan Said, chose deliberately to isolate the country from the modern world. His son, peace-loving Sultan Qaboos, assumed the throne in 1970 and that date now marks the beginning of the widely celebrated 'Renaissance' in which the country has been returned to an age of prosperity and progression.

What makes Oman's renaissance somewhat unique in the region is that the transformation has been conducted with great sensitivity towards traditional values - there are few high-rise buildings in the capital, Muscat; the country's
heritage of forts (numbering over 2,000) are meticulously restored; ancient crafts like weaving are actively supported. Moreover, traditional Arabian values, such as hospitality and practical piety, are still in evidence making Oman somewhere to experience Islamic culture at its best

LEBANON

Lebanon's diverse patchwork of Mediterranean-lapped coast, rugged alpine peaks and green,fertile valleys is packed into a parcel of land some 225km (140 miles) long and 46km (29 miles) wide.

Once known as the ‘Paris of the East',
Beirutcommands a magnificent position, thrust into the Mediterranean. Behind the city are towering mountains, visible when the traffic haze settles down. The Corniche seafront boasts beaches, restaurants, theatres and a dazzling variety of shops and restaurants.

Beirut suffered greatly from Lebanon's 16-year civil war, but following an impressive and ongoing process of
reconstruction, the city was poised to become one of the most popular tourist and business destinations in the Middle East before the Israeli attacks of 2006.

Outside of the capital, several
UNESCO World Heritage Sites await, many of which reflect the country's various ancient civilizations. Phoenician tombs, Roman temples, Crusader castles and Mamlouk mosques can be found in the cities and ruins of Baalbeck, Byblos and Tyre. The town of Aanjar in the Bekaa Valley contains an Umayyad site from the 8th century - a unique historical example of a commercial centre that was inland. Within themountainous interior of the Kadisha Valley, ancient monasteries and churches can be seen, including a chapel built into the rock face

KUWAIT

Kuwait consitutes a puzzling but intriguing mix of Western liberalism and strict Islam. The capital, Kuwait City, is a bustling metropolisfull of the high-rise buildings and luxury hotels. Yet the country is also host to elaborate and opulent mosques and palaces, and its religion is an integral part of its affairs.

This juxtaposition perhaps stems from Kuwait's marrying of Islamism with
oil-wealth, mostly traded with Western superpowers. Upon independence from Britain in 1961, Sheikh Abdullah assumed head of state, adopting the title of Emir. The large revenues from oil production allowed independent Kuwait to build up its economic infrastructure and institute educational and social welfare programmes.

In the early 1990s, the emir established a National Assembly (
Majlis), which placed limits on the power of the ruling family. Since then, the national assembly has clashed several times with the emir and the cabinet (which is still dominated by the al-Sabah family) over misuse of state funds and poor management of the all-important oil industry. Underlying these disputes is the growing impression that the ageing and increasingly infirm al-Sabah clan is no longer capable of running the country. However, they continue to dominate Kuwaiti policies.

JORDAN

Petra, the jewel in the crown of Jordan's antiquities, has been declared by popular ballot one of the 'new' Seven Wonders of the World. The magnificent rock-hewn city of the Nabateans hardly needed further billing (since Jean Louis Burckhardt discovered it in the 19th century, it has been a favourite destination for Europeans) but at sunset on a winter's day, when the rose-pink city catches alight, it's easy to see why it has charmed a new generation of visitors.

Not to be outdone by Petra's success,
Wadi Rum, that epic landscape of Lawrence and Lean - 'Arabs' man' and moviemaker - is a contender as one of the Seven NaturalWonders of the World. Two such weighty accolades would be entirely disproportionate to the minimal size of Jordan.

But Jordan, once an important trading centre of the
Roman Empire and straddling the ancient Holy Land of the world's three great monotheistic religions, is no stranger to punching above its weight. Stand on Mt Nebo, newly consecrated by Pope John II, and survey the land promised to Moses; unwrap a scarf or two at Mukawir, where Salome cast a spell over men in perpetuity; float in the Dead Sea, beside a pillar of salt, reputed to be Lot's disobedient wife - go just about anywhere in Jordan and you'll find every stone bares a tale, and those of Madaba's legendary mosaics tell more tales than most.

ISRAEL

Israel means many things to many people. For millions of travellers around the world, this is the ‘Holy Land', spiritually sacrosanct for the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Archaeology buffs, eco-tourists and beach bums all find their own reasons to visit. For others, Israel evokes images of war, suicide bombings and broken peace treaties. However you view the country; Israel is an undeniably beautiful slice of the world, with alternating scenes of sea, desert, ancient towns and verdant nature reserves .Weeding through Israel's convoluted history is both exhilarating and exhausting. There are crumbling temples, ruined cities, abandoned forts and hundreds of places associated with the Bible. One minute you're snooping around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the next you're amid dancing rabbis at the Western Wall. A short itinerary will leave you breathless. And while a sense of adventure is required, most sites are safe and easily accessible.Israel's three big cities each have a distinct character and atmosphere. Jerusalem is forever holy and the domain of the ultra-religious. In Tel Aviv you're more likely to spot latte-sipping liberals, internet entrepreneurs and late-night ravers. Haifa has a gritty industrial feel but, as the world centre for the Baha'i faith, it has an added complexity making it all the more intriguing. From the Dead Sea to the sea grottoes at Rosh HaNikra, there is plenty to see in between.

IRAQ

The media depiction of Iraq is of a place where humanity is found at its most ugly; a land of violent insurgency, kidnappings and religious intolerance and extremism. Yet this is also where humanity at its most tremendous once lived.

The core of modern Iraq was
Mesopotamia, at the heart of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires between the seventh century BC and AD100. Many great civilisations were cradled in often verdant arms here - amidst huge and unforgiving desert terrain snakes stupendous rivers such as the Euphrates andTigris. This country supposedly contained the glorious Garden of Eden and Babylon's bountiful Hanging Gardens.

Ancient Baghdad was a focal point of learning, a major stop along the Silk Road. The museums of Iraq were once testament to these cultural learnings, crammed with astonishing artefacts and relics, but sadly many of these were damaged or looted following the conflict.

However, Iraq has been blighted by
resurgent conflict: from the Arab Caliphate to Mongols, and from the Timur Empire to the Ottoman Empire. In 1920, the Hashemite Amir Faisal ibn Hussain was proclaimed king; independence came in 1932. In 1958, the Hashemite Dynasty disintegrated via murder and coup. Iraq’s final coup in recent history came in 1968, bringing the Ba’ath Party to power.

ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN

Iran is located in the Middle East, bounded by Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, Iraq and Turkey. The centre and east of the country is largely barren desert withmountainous regions in the west. Tehran, the capital, is essentially a busy and modern city, but the best of the old has been preserved.

As one of the first countries to be occupied by the early Islamic armies which came out of Arabia in the seventh century, Iran has a rich and detailed history. The
antique sights of Persia, one of the greatest empires of the ancient world, can be witnessed alongsidebustling metropolises and vast mountain ranges. Several bazaars are just as old and Iran is the destination for those in search of the most expensive rugs and carpets in the world.

Iran has maintained a distinct
cultural identitywithin the Islamic world by retaining its own language and adhering to the Shi'a interpretation of Islam. As a unique Islamic Republic, Iran is ruled by both supreme leaders and elected presidents