Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country specific advice, tips and info for: The Middle East - Israel, Iran, Kurdistan (Iraq), Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Syria and Turkey.
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A quick note about
The 9th and most important month in the Islamic Calendar. During this
time Muslims abstain from eating, drinking or smoking until after sundown
on each day. As a traveller of course you don't need to follow this,
but some Muslims appreciate that you don't take meals or smoke in public
places. Many restaurants and cafes won't open until after sundown and
public transport may be less frequent, shops close earlier before sunset
and the pace of life is generally slower. So travel can certain be a
bit more difficult, but Ramadan is no major hindrance to travel and
certainly not in moderate Islamic areas/countries.
Turkey is a real highlight, but that's only half
the story. Heading into the Middle East, whether South into Lebanon
and Jordan or East to parts of Iran or Iraq is not only possible, but (visa hassle aside)
easy, safe and ultra welcoming.
Get your bearings.. show/hide map of the region
View Larger Map (external link)
Visitors to Israel virtually stopped during the last nadir, but political
events have stabilise and tourist numbers have climbed dramatically. Jerusalem
where most head for is - despite the tourist numbers - is one of the world's
most incredible places. Away from the major draw card, Tel Aviv has a laid-back
beach culture to rival Sydney or Rio and like many cities is totally secular.
The Dead Sea can be visited a day trip from Tel Aviv/Jerusalem. To get around
the country transport is easy and so is renting a car and self-driving,
many of Israel's sights blow your mind, when reflected on. Israel can be
a little raw and unwelcoming (not to mention expensive), but it is a first
world country and travel is fun and comfortable (if a little hot at times)
- but (as with Western Europe) you need reasonable deep pockets to get the
best out of it.
In terms of historic terrorism, don't let this scare you too much, the number of attacks has fallen dramatically and moreover the risks of injury is far below most bus travel in Asia or South America. This new country is fascinating to get an understanding of, is easy to travel around and has a history like no other.
Highlights: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem you might say the rest pails in comparison. Few places in the world inspire quite as much passion as Jerusalem (Yerushalayim in Hebrew, Al-Quds in Arabic), the 3000-year-old capital of Israel. As mentioned in the intro Tel Aviv has a lot to offer if you have time to kick back. And finally if you believe you can travel safety, well a visit is the West Bank, it's certainly worth the comparison. For those with the time and money there is plenty more to see and do.
Lowlights: Eilat, politics, costs and the occasional local. Some biblical sights such as Nazareth and Armageddon are disappointing
Visa strategy: Visa on arrival for as long as the person on duty
feels like giving (or so it seems), typically it should be 3-months. See
www.goisrael.com for full details on who gets what.
Note that by visiting Israel you may not enter (on the same passport) all Middle Eastern, Gulf or North African countries, apart from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia. So that's: Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi-Arabia, Syria, UAE, Qatar and Yemen. Oman denies entry to Israeli nationals, but not to those who have visited. See avoiding that passport stamp you don't want to the below.
Avoiding that passport stamp you don't want
By having evidence of a visit to Israel in your passport, you may not enter (on the same passport) all Middle Eastern, Gulf or North African countries, apart from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia)
There is only one way to not have your passport show evidence of a visit to Israel and that is to fly in and fly out - requesting no stamp on both entry and exit. Entering by any overland crossing, except maybe the ferry to/from Greece or Cyprus, and you will have an exit or entry stamp of the bordering nation i.e. Egypt or Jordan that will be a tell-tale sign. Or in the case of the King Hussein Peace Bridge to Jordan from the West bank, no stamp at all that is equally a give away. You can still request Israeli officials not to stamp your passport at any crossing, it just probably won't do any good, considering the entry/exit stamp from the country you are entering from or leaving to. Don't believe what other travellers tell you about the Peace Bridge crossing or asking for no stamps, it will not work - I have personally seen travellers turned away at the Syrian border with a valued visa for Syria, but evidence of a trip to Israel.
If you have two passports (i.e. you have dual nationality), this can be very handy for many things, but in the case of avoiding an Israeli stamp, you will end up with one passport with an entry stamp from say Jordan and an exit stamp in your other passport and of course the Syrians or whoever will likely notice. The only other way is to get a new passport, but don't try reporting it lost in Egypt since the embassies all know this trick and are less than happy about it. Syrian border officials will find it strange that everybody losses his or hers passport in say Jordan? Don't forget that the Syrian border guards are allowed to search your bag, looking for proof (money, hotel bill, etc) that you have been in Israel.
Sometimes mentioned and likely to work, if affordable/practical, is to fly from Tel Aviv to Amman, Jordan. Thereby getting an airport entry stamp from Jordan. Then take a bus to Damascus, continuing your journey. The only fool proof way to do a grand tour through the ME and include Israel - is to conclude it there. The only route overland is from the North to the south, if you want to conclude Israel in it. Otherwise fly in and out of Israel avoiding stamps you don't want that way.
Locals: Many will admit, myself included, they nurse a dislike for Israelis, meeting so many in other parts of the world. Often incensed by their behaviour and dress. Kept awake by them at night and finding them on the whole rude and obnoxious. In fact many travellers meet so many Israelis abroad, one of the reasons to visit Israel is to see if there are any there! What is said about Israelis abroad is true, but you will had no real problem with Israelis in there own country, but a proportion can still be a little brash. Palestinian residents can be very friendly through to rude, it really depends on how far you get off the tourist trail.
Other travellers: Plenty in Israel at the moment, lots of Americans, but basically everybody. Popular destinations always have a steady stream of tourists, notably during religious festivals.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Everything stops from sun down Friday to sun down Saturday. Similarly on Friday in Gaza and the West Bank. Some hassle from desperate souvenir vendors in Jerusalem
Women alone: Fine, out-side of the occupied territories, Israeli women dress to impress
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Go to Dahab, Egypt
Rating: 7.5/10, despite costs, just Jerusalem and other highlights 9/10
Miss at your peril: Jerusalem and other Holy Land sites - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Miss at your peril: Iran - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Expect some of the most welcoming and truly hospitable people in the world (although that term is used far too often, here it is appropriate). Expect open-minded individuals who are about a millions miles away from religious fanatics who will be delighted to further your surprise in finding out the true nature of the place and go out of their way to help you. Expect some of the best value travel in the world. Expect virtually no hassle (this isn't Egypt you know). Expect to feel extremely safe and welcomed and finally, expect to find a country where you can walk beside beautiful mountains streams below towering snow caps (even go skiing) one day, forests and rice paddies the next, harsh deserts the next and historic oases the next... the list goes on.
Safe, civilised, cheap and reasonably efficient Iran is one of the last hidden gems of this nature. There is too much to share in a small intro like this so if you are even thinking about going it's best to pick up the excellent LP for some more reading. To summarise in a few words: 'Iran - there's nothing to be scared of.'
Getting a visa is a hassle, but it's not as bad as many think or like to make out. If you are on a tour you will have no problem (Americans will pretty much always have to travel this way), but do yourself a favour and don't visit on a tour - there's no need. Independently there are three approaches you can take. The first a transit visa that you shouldn't have too much problem getting (with some delay) even en-route in a neighbouring country. This gives you five days to transit, which will allow you to see at least something. The days of extending these visas ended a long time ago. You will not get an extension and the taste of Iran you get is more than likely going to make you wish you had a full visa.
Moving on to full visas, you can approach this two ways. One, apply directly to an embassy yourself. Most nationals from countries with okay relations with Iran should get a visa this way with an extended wait, a few forms and a fairly costly charge. The second method and best if you are from a nation that doesn't have that rosy relations with Iran or if you want to pick your visa up en route during a big trip, is to use an Iran based agency to give you a reference code. This authorization code will be sent to an embassy of your choice and ensure you get your visa with minimum delay. You still pay the standard fee and there's no 100% guarantee you will get a visa with this method any more than the first. Such agencies would be www.key2persia.com and www.irainianvisa.com both charge around EUR30 on top of the standard visa fee which varies by nationality. You may well be asked to provide an itinerary, but don't worry about this: in fact you could make it up, as it won't be checked. The process will take at least a few weeks, and if you get turned down by one agency, try another. Once in Iran, in the right towns (Esfahan/Shiraz), visa extensions are possible.
Much is written about visas being easier to obtain in this embassy, harder in that embassy, or about how, because of a diplomatic spat/agreement they are now harder or easier. There is some truth in these reports, but at the end of the day it's a lottery so just buy a ticket and don't worry too much. Remember if you get knocked back once, try again.
Women will need to wear a headscarf in the visa photos supplied and not showing loads of cleavage is probably good idea too! But don't worry too much about this, as long as most of your hair, ears and chest are covered. Reports of having to wear a head scarf in the photo in your passport are nonsense. If you are a Muslim and have a Muslim name in your passport, forget all this, you should get a visa with ease.
Dangers and annoyances: Virtually none Iran is actually a remarkably safe country, but strict religious laws do apply - however, these serve more than hinders travellers. Photography of government buildings is illegal and unlike in other places, taken seriously. There are reports of fake policemen scams (full details in LP), but this is no longer really a major problem with some attempts being laughable - demand ID or that you go back to your hotel, otherwise just walk away, you are in no real danger. Around the Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan border things are a little different and care is required
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Autumn and spring are pleasant and would be considered the high season, but a sweater is still needed, especially on draughty night buses. Winter is surprisingly cold with towns like Masule getting cut off by snow - skiing is cheap and possible near Tehran up to about mid-April - and even in Spring/Autumn, when the centre of the country is pleasant northern and high lying areas can be quite chilly. Conversely, in the summer most of the country roasts, but in the interior the dry heat is not too bad. Even in November it's unpleasantly hot and sweaty on the Gulf coast, making mid-winter the only bearable time to visit here.
Typical tourist trail: Tehran, Yazd, Esfahan, Shiraz/Persepolis (Pur-sep-o-Lis)
This is the one issue that worries most visitors to Iran - well female at least - and for little reason. Please, please forget ideas of having to cover up totally in black or of locals scrutinising you every time you step out on the street. There's a huge range of what women wear in Iran, from the all black clador numbers to outfits that would not seem out of place in Europe with head scarves barely hanging on. It comes as a surprise to many visitors to discover how far the dress code is pushed in places.
There are 3 simple rules that are easy to follow and will pose you no problem. 1) Cover your head, neck and ears with the sort of scarf that's easy to find in any high-street store like H&M (you can buy another with ease in Iran). The technical name for this style of head covering is the shayla. It's fine to have a few inches of hair showing at the front. 2) You need to wear a light jacket (although this is the wrong word, really any top that is long), that covers your arms and your arse. In the winter you will appreciate of a thicker coat, in the summer a light cotton jacket (think of it as a long blouse) is better.
These garments are normally black or navy blue, but any colour is fine, They are easily available for about €10-30 and can look fairly stylish. The last kind of rule 3) would be make sure your arms and chest our covered. Showing a wrist or ankle is fine and so are sandals (although not that common). A long skirt is also fine, but not commonly seen, so trousers are better.
Dress code does vary somewhat, with places like northern Tehran and the ski slopes being the most relaxed, to Qom and Mashhad (religious centres), being understandably much more conservative. Okay words only works so far. For some images of what is typically worn by younger women and acceptable in Iran, click here - example 1 / example 2. Understandably this is tricky issue for many, but is no reason not to visit. Any questions get in touch.
Apart from at a handful of religious monuments there is absolutely no reason to wear a clador (easily borrowed). A clador, for those unfamiliar with the term, literally means 'tent'. It's often black and acts like a cape to totally hide form. It has no fastenings so needs to be held shut by teeth or hands all the time. Not to be confused with a purda (the total veil with only a slit for the eyes), which is rarely seen in Iran (only in parts). For more details on all styles of head covering see this excellent resource.
Getting around Iran is easy and brilliant value. Starting at the cheapest and going up: Buses come in several forms, from the standard Asia battered up type and service (ultra-cheap) to more flashy and comfortable Volvo style buses on key routes. Mini-buses run on shorter routes, but don't leave to a schedule. Taxis around towns seem a little pricey compared to other transport costs, but it all depends on your bargaining skills. For longer journeys taxis can easily be arranged and will allow you to travel in comfort, stop on the way and shave at least 20% off the journey time compared to buses. The going rate seems to depend on your bargaining skills, has been increasing over the past few years, but is still go value. Normally, a hotel can help you with this.
Trains are a welcome luxury. Routes are limited, but tickets cheap (even for better classes). Key routes would be Tabriz to Tehran/Ahwaz. It's worth booking a day in advance. Flights are also good value, but can add up. Getting a handle on what routes are possible is not easy as guidebooks are is little help - visit a travel agent when you first arrive. All major towns are air-linked, flights can get full, but it really depends on the day, time of year (No Ruz) and frequency. If you're on a limited time schedule and not an ultra-low budget, a few internal flights work wonders.
Books: You will be able to find pretty dull English language newspapers and books in major towns. There are the odd news-stands selling copies of Time and Newsweek (although always out of date). That's it.
TV: Most hotels of an okay standard have a TV, although you are unlikely to get anything other than state television in Farsi (although live Premiership football is shown). In more expensive upper mid range hotels you might be lucky and get BBC World and CNN.
Food: Eating can be somewhat difficult in Iran. Restaurants are seldom geared to tourists and signs/menus are mainly in Farsi. Food isn't that bad, with plenty of rice, yogurt and salad. Fish isn't too common and most dishes contain meat. There are plenty of pizza, and kebab/burger places around, but none are likely to excite your taste buds.
Vegetarians: Difficult, but not impossible. Salads, yogurt, rice and fresh fruit/veg are plentiful. Well stocked shops/bakeries will sell tins of fruit and snacks. Vegetarian pizzas are unusual, but can be had. Rice and mashed eggplant/aubergine dishes feature on most menus. It's easy to buy bread, cheese and salad material to make your own sandwiches.
Language: Farsi is spoken (not Arabic), although like Urdu in Pakistan, it's written in Arabic script. Street signs are excellent and are written in English/Farsi, as are most official signs. However, restaurants, cheap hotels etc. can be hard to locate with no Latin script signs. 'Hello' is the same as in Arabic, and the French for 'thank you' (merci) is commonly used Other than that, for those without language skills, getting your tongue around words and pronunciations is hard and even asking for a bus to somewhere like Qazvin can be a nightmare.
No Ruz or Nowrūz (Nu-ruse) is the Iranian new year celebrated for at least a week in Mid-April (spring equinox). Imagine this week as Christmas in the west: pretty much everything stops, shops close, transport and hotels get booked solid. No Ruz then continues in a fashion for a second week, with schools still off, and many people staying off work and visiting friends/relatives or taking a holiday. This is around the time of year many consider visiting and it's probably best to stay away if you can, but travel is possible especially in the second week (just stay away from Mashhad, Shiraz and Esfahan - unless you have a room booked and don't mind crowds).
The Kurdish province is separate from the rest of Iraq. It is autonomous almost to the extent of being a separate country. They have their own government, their own laws and their own language. Business is thriving and the economy is growing rapidly, all of which can be seen in the skyline of Erbil. And if Kurdistan ever was to become a country, Erbil would be the capital (The local government wants to make Erbil the "new Dubai”, and this development is visible when you go there. Of course, this won’t happen tomorrow, but go before it’s too late).
Here’s the inside scoop: It’s not dangerous! That is, as long as you stick to a certain itinerary. Generally the rule is: The more south you go the more dangerous it is. Don’t go to the areas of Mosul and Kirkuk (especially not the latter). The itinerary of Dohuk - Erbil - Sulaymaniyah is safe. Of course, you can travel in the areas surrounding Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, but ask around before you do so. If you stick to this itinerary, the most dangerous situation you’ll experience is taking a taxi from city to city. Did you think they drove crazy in Asia or Latin America? Well, then welcome to Iraq! The highways are full of oil trucks and everyone is a race car driver. Especially you taxi driver. Expect to see the speedometer hit well above 150 km/h several times (probably while the driver is overtaking several trucks simultaneously).
Highlights: Erbil, especially Ainkawa (the Christian part of Erbil), and the old town. Meeting locals, who are extremely friendly and curious as to what you are doing there. And of course, getting that Iraqi stamp in your passport. Crossing the border to Iraq.
Lowlights: Lack of sights and things to do, crazy intra-city taxi drivers, the price tag, and crossing the border back into Turkey.
Visa strategy: North Americans, Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders and Turkish nationals get a 15 day visa on arrival (if you want to stay longer you need to see an immigration office within 10 days). NOTE: This visa is ONLY valid for the province of Kurdistan.
Typical tourist trail: Tourist factor? LOL. You will not meet ANY other tourist. However, there is an expat scene in Erbil due to the oil business.
Money: Bring Cash. USD. A western debit card probably won't work on an Iraqi ATM. However, there was a possibility of using a credit card at expensive hotels, in case of an emergency. Accommodation and most transport was paid for in US Dollar. Minor transactions, such as food, was paid in Iraqi dinar. 1 USD is approximately 1000 Iraqi dinars. Normally, whenever you pay in USD you get the change in Dinar. If you need to exchange money, just ask around. Plenty of hotels and shops can do it (especially phone shops and jewelry shops). In Erbil, there’s a black exchange marked in the old town. Overall, rates are quite good. Note that Iraqi Dinar can be difficult to exchange once you leave Iraq.
Costs: More expensive than you would think. Accommodation is the worst budget killer. Food is quite cheap. Approximately $60 per day is realistic. Couchsurfing would make the trip much cheaper.
Hot/cold/wet and dry: It’s a mountainous area, so it’s cold during winter. Especially Dohuk and the border. However, it’s not too cold, and the sun is still strong so this is not really a problem. It’s the Middle East, so expect hot and dry summers.
Locals: Lovely people. They are very happy to have you there and are genuinely hospitable. If you have a problem, they will go out of their way to help you. The level of English is low-medium. Most people won’t speak English, but then you’ll suddenly meet someone who speak it excellently.
Other travellers: Non-existent
In: Crossing the border from Turkey, which is a nice experience. People don’t cross on foot. Shared taxies (minivans) are arranged in Silopi, Turkey, which is only 15 minutes or so from the border. You will share this taxi with the local Kurds, who are very nice although they don’t really speak English.
This crossing is very pleasant (Turkey to Iraq); small queues; they give you tea while you wait; it’s nice. However, going the other way is a nightmare.
Most would say, Amman needs a day, Jerash, as set of Roman ruins and Wadi Rum, out in the desert are over priced and the Dead Sea is easier (especially for females, but more expensive) in Israel. But then again there's Petra and a comparatively safe Middle East experience away from the crowds and hassle of Egypt.
For those of you who don't know the name. Petra, shown left, which was recently highlighted by the ridiculous 'new7 wonders' campaign is an ancient stone city. Petra, meaning stone/rock in ancient Greek. With two highly impressive stone façades cut into rock faces as seen in 'Indiana Jones'. Coupled with the whole area and a long narrow passage leading up to one façade make it unforgettable. If you have some privacy away from the sometimes large hoards that visit daily, the area is awe inspiring. However, don't expect to find anything exciting inside the façade entrances as in the movie!
Lowlights: Amman, Jerash (compared to Ba'albeck or Palmyra), Aqaba
Visa strategy: 30 days on arrival for all non-Arab countries. Easily obtainable on arrival at most border/airport points apart from crossing from the West Bank at the King Hussein ("Allenby") Bridge - where you need to check the situation. Note the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge (main entry point from Jordan to the occupied Palestinian Territories/Israel) is closed during Yom Kippur and Eid. Opening times are always shorter than normal during imported Jewish holidays. Currently you are not able to get a visa to Jordan at King Hussein/ Allenby Bridge (or use the crossing with an Israeli passport), but can get a visa to Jordan at Sheikh Hussein Bridge (also known as the Jordan River Crossing) which is one hour north of Allenby/King Hussein Bridge. Visa prices have been standardized for non-Arabs at JD 20.
Typical tourist trail: From Syria, to Amman, Jerash and back and/or Jerusalem, Petra then Egypt/Eilat
Dangers and annoyances: Dipping in the Dead Sea with a cut you did not know about and creative pricing by taxi drivers in Amman
Money: ATMs - currency is the Jordanian Dinar, aka. JD
Costs: The JD doesn't go that far, especially with the Petra entrance
fee and little rip-offs. US$30-40 a day min.
Note the Petra entrance fee has been creeping up slowly for years and by the time you read this it likely would have increased again. During 2011 it increased from 40JD to 60JD to eventually an astronomical 90JD by 2013 (1-Day Visitor, overnight is cheaper). Ref: http://petranationaltrust.org
Getting around: Okay buses and mini-buses and
shared (service) taxis, don't let them rip you off, ask
a local how much they are paying. Service taxis are more expensive than
minibuses, but a lot faster and more convenient. Private buses (mainly operated
by Hijazi) run from Amman to Irbid, Petra and Aqaba. Minibus services then
normally connect smaller towns on a much more irregular service basis (read:
leave once they're full).
When running, the Hijaz Railway train travels once a week between Amman and Damascus on the same track that was built by the Ottomans at the beginning of this century. Currently the train departs Amman every Monday morning, arriving at Damascus that evening, and leaves Damascus every Sunday morning to arrive in Amman that evening. Tickets are cheap, but can only be bought on the day of travel.
Guide book: Many good guides, a general Middle East guide is fine
Locals: Jordanians are really quite nice people, the problem is finding one with so many Palestinians, Iraqis and others about, who are not that friendly at all.
Other travellers: Lots of Australians and Kiwis and some package tourists, especially at Petra
For not-too expensive independent travel, if you have 3 or 4 friends sharing and are competent at 4-wheel driving, the best way to have a marvellous time in Jordan is to hire an off-road vehicle (with 2 good spare tyres) and head off on desert tracks. It is NOT too expensive to hire a local guide/interpreter to help out; with a GPS and mobile for back-up, you can see a hell of a lot.
There are painted desert castles, lost Roman forts, pink sand deserts, white salt flats with mirages to explore - and much, much more; a lot off the beaten track, and by no means all of it difficult or dangerous to reach, just a little bit rough. Jordan, especially the south, has possibly some of the most varied and spectacular scenery in the world.
One idea is the route down from Petra, through the Araba mountains, on ancient trails to the Dead Sea Rift. It's a dream. - With thanks, Antonia Willis
Intro: Most travellers give what was one of the worlds hottest destinations a miss due to its former bad rap and problems with getting back into Syria on their single entry visa. Lebanon can be expensive when compared to Turkey and getting to see the mountains and famous cedars without a car is difficult. Beirut is not overly stimulating and a good night out will set you back quite a bit. Nevertheless, Beirut truly is the Paris of the Middle East: the most liberal, sophisticated, open-minded place in the region (only place in MENA region with gay bars) with beautiful architecture (bullet-holes included), beaches and people. However, accommodation is good value and the temple and ruins at Ba'albeck are one of the must sees of the whole region. Limited travellers, generally nice people, small distances and easy to use buses mean that exploring and a visit to the Middle East's least visited and most beautiful country is extremely rewarding. If only for several days before picking up the Istanbul to Cairo trail again.
Highlights: Ba'albeck and checking out Beirut, especially its nightlife and obvious war damage
Visa strategy: Available on arrival at the border/airport for most (up to 3-months) if passport has no evidence of a trip to Israel. Visa free if you stay under 48 hours, ~25,000 Lebanese Pounds for up to 14days stay.
Typical tourist trail: None, normally a dash to see Ba'albeck with a night or two in Beirut
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Ranges from very cold (in mountains) to very hot. April or May the weather is wonderful. August is really hot.
Costs: Pretty good value, but not dirt cheap. Like almost anywhere, Lebanon can get expensive if you want a high standard of living or to live it up
Money: ATMs. Can withdraw US dollars in some machines.
Getting around: Shared mini-bus or shared taxi
Guide book: Hard to find something decent
Locals: Great fun people
Other travellers: Very few
Tourist factor: 3/10
Accommodation: Few cheap places, cheapest places in Beirut are over the 'Wash Me' car wash, hard to find (see guidebook). Go to the third floor for friendliest service.
Hot water: Fine
Average cost: Less than US$30 can be found, which is better value than Damascus in a generally more expensive country
Communications: Many 24 hour internet places in Beirut, but not that cheap
Books: Lots of imported magazines and newspapers
TV: Cable in hotels
Food: Fast food and general Middle East eating, not that cheap. Great selection in supermarkets.
Vegetarians: Generally okay with a little difficulty.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Taxis beeping at you in Beirut. A much more western society than Syria
Women alone: Generally okay, you may be hit on a lot - this is a male dominated society
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: The best place to get a beer in the Middle East
Intro: Oman has something to offer most travellers. It is the Arabian peninsula squeezed into one country, with crystal blue lagoons, vast deserts and beautiful mountains. In many ways, the country feels like it’s been stuck in history. Muscat, the capital, and the country’s only major town, looks like something out of 'Aladdin', and in the Wahiba Sands, locals still live in nomadic camps. Compared with the nearby countries - visa restrictions in Saudi Arabia, price and pretentiousness in the UAE, violence in Yemen - a trip to Oman should be a breeze. The best way to see the country, by far, is to rent a car. It’s a very rural country, and many places can be difficult, if not impossible, to get to otherwise. So if you don’t have a license, this can possibly be a let-down, especially if you have to share a tour-bus with package tourists from Dubai. There aren’t really any 'backpackers' or other independent tourist in Oman, and thus limited to no facilities for this sector. So unless you get a travel partner, you might end up spending a lot of time alone, and travel the country for twice the price (considering hotel rooms and car rentals).
Highlights: The Wahiba Sands! A trip to this vast desert should be on the top of most travellers'list. Ride a camel, visit a nomadic camp, and look at the stars at night. Oh, and driving a 4WD in the desert is wicked. Nizwa Fort is a cool visit for any history buff. Another highlight is the locals, who are genuinely funny and nice. The Jebel Shams offers a nice and easy trek with an amazing view.
Lowlights: Distances between attractions. This is a major let-down if you don’t have a car. For example; Nizwa Fort is nice, but it’s the only attraction within hours of driving. And that’s not taking into account added time for public transport. The same goes for Jebel Shams; it might be nice, but it’s only a one day trek. And it’s ages away from anything else. Without a travel partner, you might have to spend a lot of time alone, and the trip will be twice the price. My advice is going on a travel forum to get a partner: I don’t have a driver’s license, but I teamed up with someone who did, and we went on a road trip together.
Visa strategy: Visa on arrival for most nationals. The process is nice and easy with very little hassle. It costs around $40 and is valid for 1 month.
Many thanks to Torgeir Holmen for proving this summary and the great photos. It is worth noting that the opinions here are that of Torgeir and should perhaps not be compared directly to other summarise on this page or the site.
The Wahiba Sands
Even if you are not a big fan of tour packages, consider going on a tour in the sands. There’s a handful of agencies online and you can call them from Muscat to set up a time. You will sleep in a nomadic camp in the middle of the desert, go camel riding, 4WD driving etc, much of which would have been difficult to do by yourself (of course, it’s possible. Anything’s possible with the right attitude). For me personally, this was one of the highlights from all my travels in the Middle East, and is worth a look into.
Costs: Depends on you, but around $50 to $60 per day is advisable (plus car rental). You can go lower, but this could limit your trip because sometimes you don’t have a lot of options for accommodation. However, compared with the neighbouring Saudi and UAE, Oman is very cheap.
Money: Plenty of ATMS in Muscat, but consider bringing cash elsewhere. You can find an ATM at the occasional gas station, but don’t count on it.
Getting around: By car: The highways are nice and plentiful and easy to navigate. Gas is cheap. The cars come with a GPS system that works pretty well. Don’t remember exactly how much it cost to rent a car, but I believe it can be as cheap as $20 - $25 per day.
Public transport: Cheap and ok. There is a bus going almost anywhere, but considering the distances and the low population density, this can be a hassle.
Hitch hiking: Possible. However, again, the distances and the low population density might make it problematic.
People vibe: Very friendly. And they’re a humble people too, so in case you want to be left alone, no one will bother you. There is a huge Indian population that’s been there for generations. However, unlike the UAE, they mix with the local population, and they seem to live peacefully together.
Other travellers: Very few. Hence, if you actually meet someone, it will feel like the most natural thing in the world to talk to them.
Tourist factor: 3/10 - 4/10
Accommodation: Hotels and resorts of decent standard with variations in price. Between $20 and $40 for a room. Some room for haggling, but not much. Normally there aren’t a lot of options, except for Muscat, of course. Hot water almost everywhere.
Communications: Limited internet outside Muscat, but always possible to find if you look for it. VERY slow.
Food: Standard mix of Middle Eastern and Indian food. Anything from Roti, curry and chicken tandoori to lamb sticks and kebabs. The fish in Muscat is highly recommendable.
Vegetarians: Fine, although it might get boring.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Outside the market in Muscat, you won’t experience much hassling. Everyone is very relaxed.
Women alone: Not really a problem. But dress conservatively - that’s to say, you don’t have to wear a headscarf, but try not to dress like Miley Cyrus either!
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: As with Dubai alcohol is not illegal, but sold only in license places, which are typically expensive hotels. Away from 5 star palaces in Muscat it’s uncommon. If you will be desperate for a drink the best best is to bring your own into the country when landing at Seeb Airport (where 2 liters are allowable and you can buy on arrival), you are not allowed to bring aclcohol into the country by private car. Cigarettes are plentiful and cheap.
Rating: 7/10 (however if you are alone and/or don't have the funds to hire a car (or visit during the hottest period) 4/10).
Warning: Until present problems are resolved, it would be better to visit elsewhere in the region.
For anyone reading this whom was able to visit Syria before
the conflict, the disruption to the lives of million of normal hard-working
and fundamentally hospitable people is tough to fathom. The UNHCR estimates
over 2 million refugees. For anyone who can or wants to help the details and
the appeal can be found at:
The original country summary has been left for a date when we and other can return.
Intro: Often described as the ugly sister of the Middle East (for current good reasons), with Israel and Egypt, getting all the glamour. Syria also gets its fair share of media attention and normally for the wrong reasons. Like Iran the name seems to inspire fear in many. Quite the contrary is true, Syria is fascinating, welcoming, safe and full of wonders. Well worth a visit and in fact a necessity if doing the Cairo to Istanbul route. Visa hassle and disappointing cities, made up for by Palmyra, the Crac des Chevaliers (famous crusader castle) and some of the friendliest people in the world.
Visa strategy: You really need to get this in your home country, technically only those nationals without an embassy or consulate in their home countries can get one at the border/airport. Visas are possible in Ankara or Cairo, but very expensive (you will need to get a recommendation letter from your embassy) and are time consuming (we are hearing more and more mixed reports on this, some people having no problem in Istanbul - it is up to you to take the chance). Get a multiple entry visa if you want to visit Lebanon (which you should). Passport must have no evidence of a trip to Israel.
Typical tourist trail: Turkey to Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Damascus to Jordan or Lebanon
Dangers: There are tragically continued violent attacks across the country. Military operations and clashes between protestors and security forces have caused many deaths and injuries. There are of attacks on regime-affiliated targets in different parts of the country and right now it is not safe to visit.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Can snow in Damascus, very hot in summer
Costs: Cheap, although getting increasing more expensive, less than US$25 per day outside Damascus.
Money: Bank Audi or any Lebanese bank works with American and British bank cards, but the Commercial Bank of Syria and the Syrian National Bank do not allow international bank cards to withdraw money. Most Syrian ATM's just wouldn't give you cash for whatever reason. Advisable to take a good part USD/EUR cash, as mentioned few international ATMs that need tracking down. Changing Travellers Cheques can be a real pain, you will need your purchase receipts. It is advisable to carry cheques in US Dollar, it is difficult to get cheques in € or even £ exchanged. Good places to change non USD TCs are reported in Aleppo (the CBS branch near Ugarit cinema 1st floor, some 5 minutes walk north of Baron hotel), in Damascus try the branch opposite the Semiramis hotel, (expect to be kept busy for about half an hour - you'll have to pass by 7 persons, on 2 floors, including twice via the manager!). Cheques in US$ are widely accepted, sometimes even at hotels.
What to take: USD/EUR cash - get from Turkey/Jordan/Lebanon
Getting around: Buses and mini-busses to nearly everywhere - a little rough, but amazing value. Shared taxis also good for international destinations. Additionally there is actually a modern and very cheap train service which goes from Aleppo to Damascus and on into Jordan. Trains are impressively comfortable, but not particularly fast. The train from Damascus to Jordan is very slow, but it's much more comfortable than a full bus.
Guide book: Overkill, but good Lonely Planet or Syria chapter in Footprint or Let's Go
People vibe: Some of the friendliest people on the planet, their kindness and hospitality will never cease to amaze you
Other travellers: Lots of Australians, Europeans and Kiwis. Pretty much a full gamut, except for Americans and Israelis.
Tourist factor: 6.5/10
Accommodation: Fantastic and amazing value in Palmyra and Hama. Terrible value and just plain terrible in Homs and Damascus. Between $5 and $10 per night for roof-top beds in hostels (zero privacy) and $30-$40 for walls and private bathroom
Hot water: Fine
Average cost: US$30
Communications: The Internet is in all big cities now, although some sites (such as Facebook are blocked).
TV: BBC World
Food: Limited choice, outside Palmyra. No fast food chains, good pizzas in Damascus. Very cheap. National dishes include kubbeh (minced semolina and meat formed in balls and stuffed with minced meat, onion and nuts) and yabrak (vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced meat). Falafal in Syria is very distinct and excellent (especially Aleppo).
Hassle and annoyance factor: None, apart from people continuously being friendly and not leaving you alone at times
Women alone: Dress very conservatively, having your own headscarf might be an idea to save money hiring them from mosques and in remote areas. However this is nothing like Iran and no ultra-conservative dress is required or enforced.
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: For booze head to the Christian quarter in the Old City in Damascus or Aleppo and there are a couple hole in the wall bars and liquor stores. Also, the new Duty-Free shop at the Syrian border on the road from Beirut to Damascus has the cheapest everything- beer for fifty-cents a can, and cigarettes at US$5/carton. As per Middle Eastern culture, everyone smokes.
Miss at your peril -Turkey 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Intro: Turkey: where Europe and Asia meet, the best of both worlds and one of the best traveller destinations on the map. It is big and diverse, has amazing sights, cities, history, beaches, cheap prices, a great bus system and it is as easy living comfortably on the beaten track as it is to be in a town where no English is spoken and the culture is unique. Turkey has a significant divide, the west, where most travellers and package tourists hang out and the east which is much more like Asia. The east is more remote, requires major bus travel and is much less civilized meaning everything written below needs reassessing.
Highlights: The deserted East, Cappadocia, Istanbul, Butterfly Valley (near Oludeniz), Mosques in Istanbul and Edirne, to name but a few including most of the coast (apart from really developed areas), ruins and natural wonders won't disappoint. Don't miss the East, Van and north-eastern mountains.
Lowlights: Tourist damaged tacky beach resorts such as Bodrum and long distances especially if heading to Iran or the Caucasus. Over zealous males in beach resorts trying to crack onto foreign females is a common complaint.
Visa strategy: Available on arrival. Authorities are keen to link visa fees - that vary per country (Americas pay the most $20) - to currencies of nationalities. For example as a British citizen you would pay something like £10 in GBP and an Irish citizen €10 in EUR and so on to a certain extent. Try to have this (or at least USD) with you to avoid exchange fees. The tourist visas have good validity and can be extended no problem. There are two different visa types. With a single entry visa, you can enter Turkey only once and stay up to three months. Multiple entry visa, on the other hand allows you to enter and exit the country more than once within one year period specified on your passport and you can stay in Turkey for three months each time.
Typical tourist trail: Istanbul to Troy, to Ephesus to Oludeniz to Kas to Olympus (amazing Chimera) to Cappadocia
Dangers: Enjoying yourself too much. Some terrorism and heavy army presents in Iraqi border areas (PKK)
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Very hot in the summer, too cold in the winter. Visit late September or Spring
Costs: The whole country is excellent value for money, although without a doubt getting increasingly more expensive. Good value still remains, notably outside of peak tourist seasons and away from touristy coastal areas. It is worth noting that the Turkish Lira is one of a number of rapidly developing nation currencies that has significantly strengthened against western currencies and to find the very best value you have to head to the east of the country.
Money: ATMs, all major currency traveller cheques cashed no problem. 2005 saw the introduction of the New Turkish Lira (YTL) which replaced the old Turkish Lira (TL). The New Turkish Lira is equivalent to one million (old) Turkish Liras (TL). It's juts the six zeros have been dropped from the old TL to make the YTL, i.e. If you paid TL1,000,000 for a beer in 2004, you now pay YTL1. YTL is divided into 100 New Kurus (Yeni Kurus, yeh-NEE koo-roosh). Old liras notes were withdrawn from circulation and now cannot be used. So gone are the heady days where everyone could become a millionaire and most a billionaire in Turkey.
What to take: There is some good trekking in the north east of the country that will need camping equipment if you are up for it
Ferries to Greece
During the high season-usually from May till October,
there areseveral regular ferry services between these Greek Islands
and Turkish towns. Ferries depart from around six Greek islands to around
ten ports in Turkey.
Guide book: Many. The Lonely Planet is good. Asia Overland by Trailblazer is also an excellent resource, but not an all out guide. An excellent web-resource on Turkey is www.turkeytravelplanner.com
Locals: A little jaded in the very touristy coastal areas, but on the whole a fantastically welcoming friendly people with a tradition of hospitality that really means something
Other travellers: A wide range from round-the-world tripping Australians and Kiwis to Club 18-30 package holiday teenagers
Tourist factor: from 10/10 to 2/10 - its a vast country with plenty to explore, especially in the north east
Accommodation: Great widespread choice of accommodation. More basic in style the further east you go
Hot water: Fine, in some traveller beach colonies shower water is salty
Average cost: Under US$15
Communications: Widespread internet (in west)
Books: Some book shops in Istanbul, but generally expensive. A few book exchanges and daily foreign (especially English and German) newspapers available in tourist areas. English tabloids, not such a good read, are printed in Greece daily, so ready available on same day in coastal package resorts.
TV: Some English news channels, plenty of cinemas
Food: Great choice, great Kebabs and always at a good price
Vegetarians: Normally okay
Hassle and annoyance factor: There are a few touts and lots of carpet sellers, but they are not anything like their counterparts in Egypt or India
Women alone: Dress conservatively, you will probably constantly be looked at and hit upon with bad lines.
E-mailed comment: Turkey is indeed a gem, and I met some very kind and friendly people there. The eastern end was my main focus and I would say, go! As a solo female traveller I didn't get hassled at all - it felt safe to say I was travelling alone (against practically all advice I've read), and in fact that caused people to look after me even more. Incidentally, on long-distance buses in Turkey, a woman travelling alone will always be seated next to another woman, or will have a seat to herself. I dressed conservatively (covered my arms and legs; no low-cut tops; and I wear a bandana/headscarf anyway when I travel, for convenience); I also avoided eye contact unless asking directions etc., as Turkish women seemed to do. I was stared at a lot, particularly in the eastern towns, as I am clearly a foreigner, but (perhaps because of my clothing and behaviour) I did not experience any sexual harassment or feel uncomfortable (though I used my common sense, e.g. did not wander round the streets at night in small eastern towns). I've taken the advice on packing light - I tried out a 35L daysack for 2 weeks in Turkey - and it made travelling a lot easier. Now I've gone ahead and bought a proper 35L bag with a frame, for use on all my non-camping trips. - Hannah
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Getting a beer outside touristy areas can be difficult. Most adults smoke, expect to second hand smoke about twenty a day. Although you can probably get away with second hand smoking only maybe half a dozen cigarettes now that they have banned smoking on all the public buses.
Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel' - This whole region is a treasure chest, great people, great sights, easy transport. Apart from other flashing stars on this page: Petra, Palmyra and Ba'albeck should not be missed. Don't be put off by news headlines - check the facts. The Middle East is top draw, reasonably safe and very hospitable.
Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours).
Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.
"Before you criticize someone, first walk a mile in their shoes. Because then you will be a mile away and have their shoes!"