Month: May 2018

Bonus country: exploring Doha, Qatar, on a transit tour

Bonus country: exploring Doha, Qatar, on a transit tour

On our way to Oman, we had a long layover in Doha, Qatar’s capital. Since the main attraction at  the Doha airport, Hamad International Airport, is a giant teddybear that I frankly find quite creepy, we decided to take the opportinity to join a transit tour in Doha arranged by Qatar Airways especially for people in our situation, with a way too long layover in Doha. I think the tour is free if you involuntarily have a long layover, but if you’re just cheap like us, you’re going to have to pay for it. It only cost us 40 QAR (~11 USD) each for a three hour tour, so it’s still not much. To be honest, we most likely would’ve spent more if we’d stayed at the airport!

We reserved and paid for the tour in advance, and when we’d landed at the airport we simply found the tour desk in the transit area (near the teddybear) and handed them our voucher. Then a guide led us through the very efficient airport immigration and out to a bus waiting outside. Citizens from 80 countries can visit Qatar without a visa.

Now, if you’re not into government propaganda and advertisements for fancy hotels and restaurants, you’re going to struggle on this tour. Still, I think it gives a really good overview of the city, but if you want to actually go inside the Museum of Islamic Art (it sounded amazing), you should probably take your own driver. You can arrange this in advance through the tour desk to save time.

Katara Cultural Village, The Pearl and Souq Waqif

We had some photo stops around the city, the first being near the Doha Corniche outside the Museum of Islamic Art, which offered a lovely view of the skyscrapers in West Bay on the other side. The Doha skyline is really impressive.

We also stopped at Katara Cultural Village where we could stroll around for a little bit to take pictures. I really liked the examples of traditional architecture in the middle of the hypermodern new city.

Traditional buildings at Katara Cultural Village, Doha, Qatar

After Katara Cultural Village we stopped at The Pearl, which seems to be a place for the very rich to park their yachts. There were many high-end brand stores, but they were all closed for the weekend. That didn’t matter so much to us, instead we checked out the fancy boats.

The last stop of the tour was Souq Waqif, the market, which was a longer stop of half an hour. Most shops were closed as we were there on a Friday, but all the restaurants were open and we weren’t going to shop anyway. This was my favorite part, because it seemed more traditional and real than the rest of the city, which is mostly a construction site for new skyscrapers.

Restaurant at the souk in Doha, Qatar

Would I recommend a transit tour in Doha?

I would say that Doha is not for me, judging by the very brief visit. It seems to be geared toward the richer tourists rather than cheap-ass campers. I found the lack of people out in the city a bit creepy, and before we got to the souk, the whole city seemed like a movie set. Souq Waqif, on the other hand, had more of a local flavor. I’m very glad that we got some time to explore that.

That being said, if you find yourself stuck at the airport for a day, I would definitely recommend doing a transit tour in Doha. If you have more than the three hours the tour takes, you could opt for a private driver to allow for more thorough visits.

Also, while waiting for the plane, do take the time to read up on human rights issues in Qatar, for instance at Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.

Exploring Doha, Qatar on a layoverA layover tour of Doha, Qatar
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How to travel Oman on a budget

How to travel Oman on a budget

Here’s what we spent in eight days for two people, approximately:

Car rental, a 4WD for 8 days: 200 OMR (519 USD)
Gasoline: 25 OMR (65 USD)
Accommodation, one night in a hotel and one night in a desert camp: 20 + 45 OMR (169 USD)
Food, including two meals in restaurants: around 40 OMR (104 USD)
Entrance fees: 2 OMR (less than 3 USD)

You can definitely spend a lot less than this, however. Keep reading for some tips!

Our Oman itinerary for nine days

Pitch your tent anywhere

Wild camping is legal in Oman, as long as you’re not on someone’s land or a protected area. The mountains and beaches are pretty much free for all. We stayed one night in a hotel in Muscat, because our flight got in after dark, and one night in an organized desert camp. Six nights were spent camping.

Here’s my guide to some of the best camping spots in the country

camping spot between rocks on jebel shams oman

Eat at local restaurants or cook your own meals

One of the benefits of camping is that you can self-cater to avoid having all your meals in restaurants. We only had a single meal at a restaurant, as well as some drinks and an overpriced breakfast buffet, and cooked the rest ourselves on our camping stove. The selection at the hypermarkets is amazing, and they also have a section with prepared food if you don’t want to cook.

Preparing for a camping trip in Oman: all you need to know

Hitchhiking, public transportation or car rental?

If you have a lot of time on your hands, hitchhiking is going to be your cheapest option. Bear in mind that there is not much traffic on most roads, so the wait can get long. We did see some locals hitchhiking, but no tourists. While there is always some risk involved in hitchhiking, Oman is generally a very safe country.

Public transportation is generally not a very good option. You can take minibuses to go between the larger towns, but most tourist attractions are far from any bus stop.  A combination of public transportation and hitchhiking might work, there are many tourists in big rental cars going from central Nizwa up to Jebel Shams for example.

The 4wd mitsubishi outlander we used for driving in Oman

As you can see above, the car rental is the one thing we spent a lot of money on. If you can’t afford a 4WD, a regular 2WD saloon car is probably half the price. It won’t get you everywhere, but it sure will save you some money. Another option is to rent a 4WD only for a few days and then exchange it for a 2WD when you’re done with the mountains and desert. We used Rentalcars.com to compare prices, and ended up renting from Thrifty at the airport.

Avoid tourist attractions that are overpriced for foreigners

Most of the tourist attractions we went to turned out to be free, like Wadi Bani Khalid for example. The forts we went to had an entrance fee of 0,5 OMR, which is very little. One fort, however, the one in Nizwa, had a special rate for tourists of 5 OMR which is way too much. Go to the really nice fort in Jibrin instead and save those rials.

Jibrin castle supposedly the best fort in Oman

How to travel Oman on a budget
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What we did on our one day in Muscat

What we did on our one day in Muscat

Visiting Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

We started the day by going to Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in the morning. It’s only open to visitors between 8 and 11 AM. The mosque was inaugurated in 2001 and has a capacity of 20,000 worshippers.

We really liked walking around the mosque, looking at the intricate decorations on the walls. I especially liked the carpet, that is done in one piece, the second largest in the world.

Visitors must be modestly dressed, which includes to cover knees and shoulders. Women must also cover their hair with a scarf. You can rent clothing if you don’t have anything appropriate, but this costs 2.5 OMR so it’s probably cheaper to pick up a scarf in the souk. Also, children below the age of 10 are not allowed in the main prayer hall.

There was plenty of parking space just outside and no entrance charge for visitors, which I always find sympathetic for religious institutions.

Souvenir shopping at Mutrah souk

From the mosque we drove back to Mutrah, in the east of the city, to visit the famous souk. As opposed to the mosque, parking was a nightmare here. The streets were narrow and crowded, and we finally found a parking spot on a residencial street after clearing some trash away.

The souk itself was lovely though. There is a large indoor area with many alleys, where you could probably get lost forever without a GPS. The souk is quite touristic in parts, but it’s still possible to make a bargain. Make sure you haggle for the goods and do compare prices! We bought some really nice scarves for 2 OMR each.

Shopping in Mutrah souk, one day in Muscat, Oman

After several hours of walking in the heat and crowds, we sat down at a small restaurant just by the souk and ordered some well deserved mint lemonades.

Strolling down Mutrah corniche

Very close to the souk is the Mutrah corniche, a relaxed waterfront promenade. From here, you have great views of both the city and the dock with dramatic mountain tops in the background. It’s a nice place to chill while the souk is closed in the afternoon.

Driving in Muscat

Traffic in Muscat was very different from that of the rest of the country. The streets are wide, three lanes or more, and the traffic is fast-paced and a little bit aggressive with overtaking on both sides. That being said, it was fine. I was really nervous about driving in Muscat since I don’t drive a lot these days, but for the most part it was okay. We missed a million exits and detoured around like crazy, but with plenty of time and a GPS you’ll get there eventually.

Preparing for a camping trip in Oman: all you need to know

Where to stay in Muscat

We only stayed in a hotel one night and camped the rest of the time, but we would definitely recommend Mutrah Hotel. It’s supposedly the first hotel in Muscat, but it doesn’t look very old at all. Everything was really clean and the staff were super nice and friendly. It’s located in Ruwi, close to buses and very easy to find off the main roads. This was a bonus for us as we arrived after dark and weren’t used to the traffic.

Our Oman itinerary for nine days

Visiting Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, OmanOne day in Muscat, Oman
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The fascinating Wadi Bani Khalid and Wadi Shab

The fascinating Wadi Bani Khalid and Wadi Shab

One thing you’ll read a lot about when you research Oman is wadis. So what is a wadi? Usually it’s a dry river-bed, and some you’ll drive past without noticing, but some others are spectacular ravines perfect for hiking, swimming or both.

Planning a camping trip in Oman? Here’s all you need to know

Another thing you’ll see a lot of when planning a camping trip to Oman is the warning not to pitch your tent in a wadi. I can definitely see why you’d want to: the wadis are usually lush, relatively speaking, and often seem to protect you well from the elements. But if it starts to rain you may get surprised by a flash flood, and that’s one thing you don’t want.

Looking for a safe place to pitch your tent in Oman? Here are my suggestions!

We visited two of the wadis that have been adapted to tourism but not overwhelmingly so: Wadi Bani Khalid and Wadi Shab.

Wadi Bani Khalid, the perfect oasis

We spent most of the day at Wadi Bani Khalid, arriving in the late morning and scoring a great spot in the shade beneath a palm tree right next to the poolside. There was no entrance fee or parking fee, toilets were available free of charge and there’s a restaurant on site. I don’t know what their prices are like given that there’s no competition, but this being Oman, they’re probably not overcharging.

We brought swimwear and towels, a change of clothes, a plastic mat to sit on, some books, lunch and plenty of water and sun lotion.

Swimming at Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman

The water was so refreshing, as this was our first swim (and honestly second contact with water) since arriving five days earlier, so we really enjoyed swimming. There are some spots for jumping, some for swimming, and various depths. And plenty of room for everyone, even after a lot of other visitors had arrived around noon.

One funny thing was the little fish in the water that will nibble on your feet if you put them in. They didn’t touch me when I was swimming, but with just the feet down I got one of those Asian fish pedicures free of charge.

How to get there

The road that goes to Wadi Bani Khalid is on the inland highway 23 between Muscat and Sur, a very short drive from Al Wasil where we ended up after spending the night in the desert. It’s a new, paved road but goes a bit up and down before finally ending by a parking lot surrounded by palm trees. It’s well signposted with the brown signs leading to tourist attractions. You can definitely reach Wadi Bani Khalid with a 2WD.

When we arrived in the morning it was no problem finding a parking spot, but as we left the parking situation seemed a bit more chaotic. It’s about a five minute walk from the parking lot to the pools, so make sure you bring everything you’ll need so you don’t have to go back and forth several times like we did.

What to wear

Both men and women should wear a loose t-shirt, and while men can wear loose shorts as well, women should cover the knees. We saw some tourists wearing tiny bikinis or speedos, but that’s just not okay. Be respectful to the locals and cover up when you’re swimming. Besides, it’s really nice to have wet clothes on in the heat, you’ll stay cool much longer after a swim.

sign encouraging tourists to dress modestly when swimming in Oman

A hike down Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab is supposedly Arabic for “gorge between cliffs”, and that’s not a metaphor. The wadi opening is just below the highway, which isn’t that pretty, but if you’re lucky you can get a parking spot in the shade, so that’s something. The first pool is just by the parking lot and you can’t really see much, but for 1 OMR you’ll be taken across the water in a small boat to where the trail starts on the other side. There’s one coffee shop on each side of the water if you didn’t bring food or water.

Boat ride over pool at Wadi Shab, Oman

We took the boat across the water and started walking. It’s so hot when you’re out in the sun, so cover up properly and bring lots of water. We walked into the gorge, first on a trail between little farms and then across big rocks for a bit, before it all opened up to the upper pool where lots of people were swimming.

Hiking at wadi shab Oman

We were a bit unsure about the swimming, as there are signs everywhere saying you shouldn’t do it. But loads of people were swimming, so I guess it’s alright. If you do swim, make sure you dress appropriately. We had woken up at the beach and were headed toward another beach, so we didn’t really need to go in the water. Instead, we just relaxed under a cliff for a bit before turning back.

How to get there

Wadi Shab is just off the highway between Sur and Tiwi, very close to our camping spot at the beach in Fins. There are signs on the highway, and you’ll see the wadi when you drive down. The parking is a bit of a mess, but if you arrive early it shouldn’t be a problem. If not, I’d recommend that you park along the road leading down to the parking lot instead of taking the risk of having other cars block you on the way in. You can definitely visit Wadi Shab with a 2WD sedan car, as it’s right next to the new highway.

Here’s our nine day Oman itinerary, if you’re looking for some more inspiration!

Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman, the perfect oasis for a relaxing swimHiking in Wadi Shab, Oman
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Quality time with camels at a Wahiba Sands desert camp

Quality time with camels at a Wahiba Sands desert camp

Wahiba Sands (or Sharqiya Sands, depending on who you’re asking) is a large desert in the north of Oman, where a number of traditional desert camps have been set up for tourists. We were camping for the rest of our trip in Oman, but we were feeling quite insecure about self-driving into the desert without cell reception, and a lady also needs a shower every once in a while.

Preparing for a camping trip in Oman: all you need to know

Most of the camps are very expensive, but we found that Desert Retreat Camp offered good value for money. We met up at their office at 3 PM at the Al Maha gas station in Al Wasil, to be escorted through the desert to the camp. I was really happy about not having to try to find it myself! The people who didn’t have their own 4WD car could get a ride with the guides from the camp.

Driving in Wahiba Sands

driving in the desert wahiba sands oman

We all drove together through the sand, which felt a lot like driving in snow, only dustier. It was more fun than scary, but definitely some of both. I had to really focus on the driving, which was hard, when there were baby camels by the side of the road! When we got to the camp, we were dying to take a walk and hang with the camels just outside the fence.

Upon our arrival to the camp, we were all seated in the communal area and offered fruit and some really amazing dates, as well as Omani cardamom flavored coffee. We were then assigned our tents, that were pretty large and each had an outdoor bathroom with a shower behind it. A big difference from our tiny two person tent that we had been sleeping in for the last three nights, we could even stand up indoors!

We immediately changed our clothes and went for a stroll in the desert outside of the camp. We tried to approach some camels, but they all slowly walked away from us, everyone except for one very friendly one! The camel came up to us and it seemed to be really used to people, so it just stood there posing for a hundred pictures. I was a bit scared at first, because they’re pretty big animals, but soon relaxed.

Friendly camel in the desert Wahiba sands oman at desert retreat camp

After the camel walk, we climbed the sand dunes to get up there in time for sunset. Even though the dunes weren’t that high, it took forever to climb them as we sank into the sand. I was really exhausted when I got up there! The other people from the camp were also up there and we all sat down on the dunes to wait for the sun to go down. Unfortunately, some clouds came in and we couldn’t see a thing! A bit disappointing, but still a nice evening activity.

Hit by a sandstorm!

After a much welcome shower, the first in four days, we went to the communal tent for the dinner buffet. It was not dark, and the winds picked up to a full sandstorm. I don’t know if this is normal in the evenings out in the desert, but the winds got so strong that they were pretty scary. Our tent was moving so much that I thought it was about to fall apart. It calmed down after a couple of hours, so there was no need to worry about the night though.

A tent at the desert retreat camp in wahiba sands oman

Instead, we sat down to dinner, which was excellent. The vegetarian option was a soup followed by a vegetable curry, that was a little bit spicy and really delicious after the long day. As it gets dark at 6.30 in Oman, we had been having our dinners at 6 for the last few days, so waiting until 8 was torture!

After dinner, everyone retired to their tents to try to get the sand that the storm had blown in out of the beds. We immediately fell asleep, not bothered by the hard mattresses after several days on the ground.

A slow morning

In the morning, there was a breakfast buffet with daal, bread, yoghurt and lots of different things, definitely something for everyone.

Some people took off for activities, either camel riding or dune bashing, but as we’ve done that in other desert at other times, we were content with another stroll around the desert outside the camp, looking at the camels. In the late morning, we drove ourselves from Wahiba Sands back to Al Wasil, which was a lot easier than going into the desert as all the tyre tracks lead the way. From there we went straight to take a refreshing swim at Wadi Bani Khalid, which is not far at all.

We did see some good spots to camp with a regular tent, but I would still recommend doing the organized camp if you can afford it. It was good to break off the camping with some glamping, and meeting some other people instead of just being isolated outside of the towns. And even though we didn’t ride camels, we still had plenty of time to hang with them in the desert!

The best camping spots in Oman

Are you planning a trip to Oman? Here’s our nine day itinerary

Every day is hump day with the camels at Wahiba sands desert, OmanInto the desert at Wahiba Sands oman
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Jebel Shams and the Balcony Walk

Jebel Shams and the Balcony Walk

Jebel Shams is the mountain top next to Wadi Ghul, also known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia. With spectacular views over the canyon, a cooler climate than at sea level, great camping opportunities and several hiking trails, it’s well worth a visit when you’re in Oman.

Preparing for a camping trip in Oman: all you need to know

How to get there

To get to Jebel Shams, you will need to drive several kilometers on unpaved roads up the hill, which requires a good car. We did see a few 2WD saloon cars up there, and I’ve heard some more reports from people who made it up there without a 4WD so I know it’s possible, but having seen the road conditions, I never would’ve tried. We even passed some people in Jeeps or other great offroad cars on the way up, standing by their cars with the hood up and concerned looks on their faces.

unpaved road still in good condition from Jebel Shams oman

The road is paved at first, then unpaved, then paved again at the end. I thought the drive was quite fun, but also kind of scary as we would sometimes go over a hill and not see where the road was going on the other side. Some guides drive up there way too fast, but there were plenty of places where I could just stop by the side to let them pass in a cloud of dust.

Where to sleep on Jebel Shams

We were camping, and there are such amazing camping spots up there! This is the one place we camped where we saw plenty of other campers, but the area is so big that it doesn’t get crowded.

camping spot between rocks on jebel shams oman

See our guide for driving directions to the best camping spots in north Oman, including several on Jebel Shams

There also seemed to be groups with guides camping up there, so I think you can find a tour that will provide you with all the equipment needed if you don’t want to camp for the whole trip but still enjoy waking up to these amazing views.

tiny tent and car from a distance at jebel shams oman

If you’re just not a camper, there are also two hotels up there, Jebel Shams Resort and Sama Heights Resort. We had lunch at the latter and took a look around, and they seemed to have a range of accommodation, as well as a good restaurant.

Walking the Balcony trail

Our highlight was the hiking trail W6, also known as the Balcony Walk, that goes from the village of Khateem to the abandoned village of As Sab, and then back. To get from Jebel Shams Resort and the camping spots to the start of the trail, drive on the sand road that starts at the resort until you get to a parking lot and a tiny village. The trail starts from there and goes along the inside of the canyon.

The hiking trail is well marked on the balcony walk jebel shams oman

The trail is quite narrow, two people can meet in most places but not more than that, and it goes along the edge of the cliff so you’ll have to pay attention to where you put your feet. That’s easier said than done with views like that. This is easily one of the most scenic hikes I’ve ever done.

We started just after 8 in the morning and it took us about an hour and a half to reach the old houses at As Sab, with some short breaks on the way. When we reached the end, there were already lots of people resting, and annoyingly some guides who were playing music on their phones.

On the way back, we learned that we’d slowly been going down the whole way there without noticing, and the return was so much more strenuous with a bit of a climb, a higher temperature, and more tired legs.

It was a really, really nice hike though, and I would highly recommend it. It’s not a very difficult one, but it’s not easy either, and I think people who have difficulties with their balance will struggle, both physically and mentally.

Planning a trip to Oman? Here’s our 9 day self-drive itinerary!

Jebel shams and the balcony walk goats OmanHiking the balcony walk on Jebel Shams, Oman
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