Friday, September 22, 2017

5 Nights in Oman

At first glance, Oman is the redheaded stepchild of the Middle East. It lacks magnificent tall buildings like Dubai's Burj Khalifa. It doesn't have a Ferrari World like Abu Dhabi. It's not calm and classy like Brunei, though local citizens will disagree and swear Omanis are the calmest people in the Middle East. (You'll hear the phrase, "We Omanis don't want trouble," a lot.) 

Setting aside its lowly position in the Middle Eastern totem pole, Oman is an undiscovered gem. As close visually to Disney's land of Aladdin as any other country I've seen, Oman has exquisite mountains, beaches, and sand, but also perfectly paved roads and highways. 

Muscat, Oman is a port city, and like all port cities, it has incredible diversity and excellent food. If you're vegetarian, try an Indian restaurant, but the highlight in any non-Indian restaurant will be the seafood. Many Omanis speak three languages--Arabic, Farsi, and English--and you'll hear many other languages because most people are temporary residents from Africa, Pakistan, the Philippines, Morocco, and India. Permanent residency is difficult to attain--buying expensive property is the easiest way to gain it if you're not able to live in the country on work visas for 20 years--but that hasn't stopped millions of people from making Oman their home

Despite the lack of birthright citizenship, Oman contains all the colors you'd expect from a country situated between Africa and Asia. Indeed, it's impossible to determine whether someone is Omani or not Omani, a test of true diversity, i.e., a lack of segregation. The most beautiful mix, in case you're wondering, seems to be an Arab-African one. It wasn't unusual to see Arab women with much darker-skinned brown men. (Note to America: no one cares about race when segregation isn't practiced.) 

Best of all, the Omanis do their own work unless a specialized skill is needed. Unlike Abu Dhabi, where all taxi drivers are foreigners, Omanis drive and often own their own taxis. Uber or Careem does not exist in Oman, but metered and non-metered taxis are numerous. Rides from the airport to the city center should cost about 8 rials; within the city center, rides should cost around 2 to 5 rials, depending on your negotiation skills. Unfortunately, Oman lacks easy-to-use public transportation, meaning its taxi drivers have a virtual monopoly. I expected to get overcharged every time I hailed a taxi, and I considered it an unfortunate cost of being a non-Arabic speaking foreigner. Governments do not seem to realize that an honest, transparent taxi system requires competition from Uber, BiTaksi, Careem, Grab, etc.  It's as if they think tourists want to spend their vacations haggling over basic transportation. 

In any case, if the UAE is the Middle East's prep school graduate who drives a clean white Mercedes S-class, then Oman is its wayward brother who prefers leather jackets and a black, never-washed Ford Mustang. Don't get me wrong--you'll see plenty of expensive Mercedes and Lexuses in Oman (though, oddly enough, few BMWs), but the average Omani resident is perfectly fine with a used car. In short, s
tatus signaling doesn't exist in Oman's mainstream, whereas it seems to be the UAE's primary reason for existence. (If you ask me, too much money has led to complacency in the UAE, but that's a different topic.)

The Omanis embrace ostentatiousness only in their choice of headgear. Many Omanis wear ornate and colorful massars, which Americans would call turbans. They also wear kumas, which the Bruneians would call a songkok. In some cases, a massar is wrapped around a kuma, giving it a pleasantly plump look. 

Update: a certain design may mean the wearer has been to Mecca/Hajj.
Despite the government's efforts to make Oman as posh as the UAE, Omanis ooze blue collar toughness. Step into the wrong building in a formal location, and an Omani--not a Nepalese or Bangladeshi, as it would be in the UAE--will shout at you as if you have violated the most sacred of tribal customs while simultaneously directing you impatiently to the correct entrance.

When I failed to observe proper mosque protocol regarding shoes--you're supposed to take them off before you enter, which I did, but I reflexively put them on when I was about to depart--an Omani ran up to me and heckled me. I heckled him right back and got the better of the exchange, to the point where he actually called the police (a sure sign you've lost an argument). Still, I have to hand it to him--even the shortest, fattest, and ugliest Omani I saw took an opportunity to assert his masculinity in a misguided way. A classier Farsi-speaking gentleman mediated the dispute, and I walked away, satisfied I'd provided my side of the story. (An old-fashioned Italian would have appreciated the animated exchange, including my possible use of the term, "bastard," and the Omani's attempt to rally the small crowd around him by falsely claiming I had called *all* Omanis bastards, not just him.)

In any case, let's talk tourism. 

Most visitors need a visa before entering Oman. You can apply online and as of September 2017, it will cost you about 50 USD. Print a paper copy of the visa if you don't go through the newer airport, which is set to open around January 2018. Currently, Muscat's only international airport lacks passport e-scanning machines. I showed immigration a photo of my e-visa on my mobile phone, but he was expecting a paper copy and called a supervisor before approving my entrance.

Whereas the UAE's mosques are gaudy and set up deliberately as tourist attractions, Oman's mosques are designed to be places for prayer. Outside of Iran, the most beautiful mosque I've seen so far is in Muscat--the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Wear long pants, go before 11:00AM, and be sure to see inside the main prayer hall. 
Qaboos Grand Mosque

The Bowshar sand dunes are nearby Muscat's city center. It's a small dune, but still worth a visit if you want to drive an ATV and "dune bash." Tell the cab driver to take you to "rimal bosher" around 5 or 6pm--you'll see lots of ATVs available to rent. 

For great food, try Bait Al Luban or Turkish House Restaurant in Muscat. They're not very cheap, but they're not very expensive, either. Right outside Bait al Luban is the Corniche, a walkway located near the ocean.

Another mosque worth seeing, especially at night, is the Mohammed Al-Ameen mosque. (Note: I can't list all the interesting mosques here--rent a car if you want to see the major ones.)

The Muttrah Souk, a short walk from Bait Al Luban, is listed in every guide book, but it's just a couple of narrow streets with jewelry/gold shops. Skip it. (Also, do not confuse the Muttrah Souk with the Mutrah area or the Mutrah fort.)

There are two main museums: the National Museum of Oman and the Bait al Zubair museum. After the Qaboos Grand Mosque, the National Museum of Oman is the best tourist destination. 

I liked the Bait al Zubair museum, but I wouldn't be upset if I had missed it. Unless you're really into old stamps and old coins, you can skip Bait al Zubair. Ideally, however, you'd visit both museums, since they're near each other, and you'd go to Bait al Zubair first.
Coin gallery in Bait al Zubair museum
A palace is also close to the National Museum of Oman but two security gates block visitors from going near the actual building. It's still worth a quick look as you walk from Bait al Zubair to the National Museum of Oman. 
The Palace -- I zoomed in with my
mobile phone behind the 2nd gate
Outside the city center is the "Rustaq Loop," which includes the Rustaq fort, the Nakhal or Nakhl fort, Al-Hazm castle, and the Nakhal hot springs (aka A'Tawwarah hot springs). Although the term "Rustaq Loop" is mentioned in guide books, locals don't seem to know the term. If you want to hire a taxi driver, you need to mention the specific sites you want to see. From Muscat, y
ou'd first visit Nakhal fort (about an hour away), Nakhal hot springs (ask about the location of the hot springs after seeing the fort--it's a small area nearby, and locals bathe in the warm water), then Rustaq fort. Of the three, Rustaq fort, about an hour and half away from Nakhal fort, was the largest. I did not see Al-Hazm castle, which was another hour's drive from Rustaq fort.

Like its mosques, Oman has too many forts to list here, but the main ones would be Bahla, Mutrah, Rustaq, and Nizwa. Within or near Muscat itself, a local recommended the Al Jalali Fort and the Al Mirani fort, but I didn't have time to see them. (Quite frankly, the forts in Oman are nice, but after seeing the much more magnificent ones in India, I wasn't impressed. The Agra fort and Delhi's Red Fort remain my favorite forts.)

About four hours outside the city center is Ras Al Hadd, which has turtle watching. I didn't go, so I can't tell you anything about it. 

Oman may not have Ferrari World, but it does have a world-class opera house. If you're really into opera, check out its events. (Why do I get the feeling Oman's government is listening to consultants who don't realize Oman is more interesting than overpriced Western Europe and the glitzy UAE precisely because it lacks things like an expensive opera house?) 

You may use UAE dirhams in Oman, but you'll lose a 4 to 5% premium. You'll get a 10 dirham to 1 rial rate when the actual rate would be 10 to 1.05. I didn't mind--I appreciated the convenience. After all, when businesses convert the dirhams to local currency, they'll have to pay a commission. 

I hope I've covered most of what a casual tourist would need to know about Muscat, Oman. I did not see Salalah, Oman, another popular tourist destination. I was in Muscat for 5 nights, which was the right amount of time (especially if you, like me, need to rest after trying to run up a sand dune). 

If you have to choose between Oman and Abu Dhabi/UAE, definitely choose Oman. Its unspoiled elegance won't last forever, at least not if the tourism consultants get their way. Finally, don't forget: take your shoes off before you enter a mosque. If the shoe cubbyhole is inside the mosque, don't put on your shoes until you're outside. As the belligerent Omani man told me, "It's a holy place." He was right--but not just about the mosque. 

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