My trip to Oman is one of the fastest trips I’ve planned.
I took this decision to go to Oman quickly. From Singapore, flying to Muscat let December, was as cheap as flying to Colombo. And, Oman emerged as a highly recommended tourist destination to check out in December- as it’s not cold, and neither is it too wet. This is supposing that you’ve already covered most of South-East Asia, Australia, and India (other great destinations to escape from the Northern – Hemisphere winters). These factors worked well to persuade me to act quickly!
Given a surprise work trip, end of November, I did not have much time to plan the trip myself. So, I opted for a fully organised tour by Asoka Dream Holidays, and honestly- it was pretty good. The tour agency applied for my Omani visa, arranged an airport pick-up and drop, and ~7 day tour in the desert, and mountains. All things that make the life of a working professional much simpler.
So why Oman? You may wonder.
Pics: View of the Muscat Royal Palace at night
Oman has one of the world’s most unique landscapes, and is a great way to sample an Arabic way of life. It’s cuisine is atypical, and rarely available outside Oman. Lastly, Omanis are very hospitable people, and practise their own version of Islam – the Ibadi school of Islam (different from the more famous schools, Shia and Sunni). These cultural nuances, and unique landscapes are essentially what make Oman a great place to visit.
My top recommendations for Oman are as follows:
Jebel Shams: Oman has the 2nd largest canyon in the world, the Jebel Shams.
Pics: Jebel Shams Canyon from various angles
Jebel Shams is a rocky canyon devoid of greenery, and its location in an Arabic setting make it an extremely unique landscape. Little Arabic villages, and ancient irrigation canals strewn in the foothills of the mountains add a unique flavour to it.
Sharqiya/Wahiba Sands: Home to the Bedouin tribes of Arabia, the Wahiba sands is what brings out the true (i.e. historic) Omani identity. Spending a night, or more, is a great way to experience a desert lifestyle – hot mornings, and cold nights. My memories of Wahiba sands include climbing up, and rolling down the sand dunes (as childish as it sounds :)); driving up a car in the sand dunes (and getting stuck in it, only to be rescued by another car); learning about the Bedouin way of life, listening to some simple Bedouin music in the night, that lingers in your mind only for its simplicity.
Ras – al – Jinz: Turtle Reserve: It’s here where I could picture the beauty of an Arabian night. Apart from being the most popular Turtle laying site in Oman, and in the Indian Ocean, Ras Al Jinz is a great place to see the beauty of an Arabian landscape at night. The beach is secluded, as there is a cap on the number of people that can visit – and the landscape absolutely stunning. I visited Ras-al-Jinz on a full moon night to get a glimpse of the Turtle hatching season. The Turtle hatching season in Oman is fascinating. At Ras Al Jinz, a quiet fishing village in eastern Oman, we were fortunate to see Green Turtles laying eggs at night. Green turtles are endangered today.
Pics: Desert night at the Ras al Jinz (left); Turtle laying eggs (right)
Muscat: Muscat is the first place that an international traveller flying to Oman will visit. The question is whether you should consider stopping and spending some time there, or, simply use it as a base to begin road tripping in Oman. I argue for the former.
Muscat is a charming city for a short visit. It has some very interesting places to visit, and sample good Omani food.
Royal Opera House: The Royal Opera House for me was the highlight of my trip to Muscat. The visit gave me a good glimpse into the Omani high society (with not all women wearing the veil) and an introduction into Arabic music. I attended a concert by Singer Kadim Al Saher, apparently dubbed as a Caesar of Arabic Music. We weren’t permitted to take photos in the Opera, so only words can describe my experience. What I learnt is that I know very little about Arabic music – Kadim Al Shaher, is apparently a huge pop sensation in the Arabic world, with several Arabic women devastated when he picked up a girlfriend 🙂 Additionally, after the 2nd song, it was difficult for me to discern one song from another. All sounded pretty similar. But the songs were melodious, and I felt that 2 hour in an Opera playing Arabic music was what I could handle.
Pics: Royal Opera House from the interior
Muscat Grand Mosque: Comparable to Dubai’s Grand Mosque, Oman’s grand mosque is only better and looks, somehow, more authentic. The Grand Mosque is the most popular mosque in Oman, with many people praying in it during Fridays. It is famed for its Italian – built chandelier that is the largest in the world. It’s white walls are built in pristine marble, and wood works are inspired by south-east asian designs. It has a classical Islamic architecture (embellished leaves, horseshoe arches). Its dome is modelled after the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and more the Taj Mahal that accomplished the same design in marble. Built in 1992, the Muscat Grand Arch has one of the largest Persian carpets (70*60 m), that is makes it the second-largest Iranian carpet in the world.
Pics: View of the Grand mosque from the interior
Muttrah Souq : A walk through the Muttrah Souq, is valuable for one thing. It’s a great way to see the things than Omanis value. Notable amongst these are Persian rugs, gold and lamps. I would not encourage souvenir purchases at the Souq, if you’re about to visit Nizwa – that has a better, and cheaper collection.
Pics: View of the Muttrah Souq from the interior, and the streets to which it leads out to
National Museum: If you’re wondering whether the Omani history is more than just forts, and ship building – the National Museum is a great place to learn more the Magan civilization – that honestly I missed in my history reads. The Magan civilization existed approximately around the same time as the Indus Valley civilization (around ~ 2300 to 550 BC), and was famed for its ship-building and maritime capabilities (something that existed since then, until the middle ages in Oman). There is evidence to suggest that Magan traded with the Indus valley and Sumerian civilization.
Nizwa: A visit in Nizwa, for me gave a better glimpse into the traditional Omani way of life. First, traditional food like the Omani bread, and Arsiya were readily available on road side restaurants, than in Muscat – where you would typically find this food in high end restaurants in the malls.
Second, walking in the streets of Nizwa gives you the feel of walking in a medieval arabic city – whereas Muscat does not quite give the same feel. The souqs in Nizwa seem more Omani, and traditional.
Pics: Nizwa fort from the interior. Note the fort houses a mosque in the interior as well
A bit more about Nizwa- Nizwa, at one point of time, was a great centre of learning, and lay in the midst of a strategic trade route. The Nizwa fort is one of Oman’s most visited monuments – and gives a good glimpse into how middle-age Oman’s royalty lived (Imams in this case. Imam’s were the religious, and administrative head of the region). The forts, that also doubled as royal residence, served a dual purpose. And so, pale in comparison to other Islamic palaces like the ones in Istanbul, or Delhi.
Aspects of the Nizwa fort, are quite similar to the Daultabad fort in India that was built at an earlier date in the 14 century. Examples of similarity include the use of iron nails on doors to ward of the enemy, hidden intricate hidden passageways, and wall-drains to throw heated oil on enemies.
Adjacent to the Niwza Fort, is the Nizwa Souq which is a great place to buy spices (albeit from Iran/India/Pakistan), Omani honey (I bought one and it’s super tasty) and Omani Halwa.
Pics: Nizwa Souq
The Jibran castle is another medieval castle close to Nizwa and is worth a visit to get an idea of Omani architecture and history.
Pics: Jabrin fort from inside
Bahla Fort: Bahla is a UNESCO heritage site, famous for its fort, pottery and wall. Our tour guide did try to oversell the 12 km wall surrounding the fort, by claiming that it was the 2nd largest wall after China. Though this is not true (as the longest fort wall in the world is the Kubhalgarh Fort in Rajasthan, India) – the Bahla fort is indeed an architectural marvel. It’s a mud-walled oasis in the Omani desert, that also served as the centre of Ibadism – a unique sect of Islam. The oasis is watered by an indegenous system of canals or Falaj. The walled city was, and still is, famous for its souqs and mosque.
Pics: Bahla fort, and its protective walls
Food: Must try include the Omani bread, Harees (rice and chicken porridge), Kahwa (tea), shuwa (lamb meat with dates). Ubhar is a great restaurant in Muscat to try this.
Pics: Harees (white porridge), Shuwa (in foil)
Travel: I would encourage booking a tour agency for inland travel by road. It saves you from the haggling. You can also choose to drive by yourself, but the risk of getting stranded, particularly in the desert areas/jebel shams ways (not concretized) remains. You can consider taking booking via the travel agency I used. The rates are pretty decent.
Transportation within Muscat: As Uber is not there, Omani taxis will take you for a ride. The best app to use is the OTAXI app, which is pretty reliable.
Airlines: If you’re looking for luxury, then Emirates/Etihad/Qatar airways should be your pick. Otherwise, I opted for Sri Lankan airline. The food is decent, though the Colombo airport is not easy to navigate, and also does not have some great shopping/entertainment options.
Clothes: As with an Islamic country, Oman is a place to dress modestly. Though some women do wear shorts, I would encourage women to wear a long dress or jeans when they visit a mosque, or forts (that often have mosques inside). In public beaches, women dress modestly; though private beaches are more liberal in this aspect