28 Jan Oman Travel Tips & Photos (Part I)
Day 1: Start your trip in Oman with a tour of Muscat
My impression of Muscat: Muscat is a charming and easy capital city, a welcome relief from the over-the-top neighbouring capitals like Dubai. Instead of endless skyscrapers and in your face money, you have quaint, humble buildings that retain the Middle Eastern character. Here, the buildings have retained traditional designs (dome, windows, etc) that collectively showcase the down-to-earth Omani sensibility.
Muscat, a city that is over 3000 years old, is composed of three small towns:
– Muscat downtown, site of the royal palaces;
– Matrah Corniche, beautiful seafront and the Matrah Souq (bazaar); and
– Ruwi, the commercial and diplomatic centre of the city.
Top Things to Do in Muscat:
1. Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The major landmark of Muscat. It is a very impressive mosque, especially the blinding chandelier, which weighs 8.5 tonnes, contains 600,000 Swarovski crystals and 24-carat gold plating. Also inside is the world’s second largest carpet, which weighs 21 tonnes and has 1,700,000,000 knots!
2. Beit Al Zubair Museum
I found this very well curated museum, which showcases Omani culture in multiple ways. There are traditional Omani clothing from various regions, typical Omani household goods, weapons, a full-scale replica of an Omani village, etc, which gives a good insight into the Omani customs.
3. Mattrah Souq
I found this to be a typical souq (bazaar). Nothing spectacular here. It is mostly pots, pans, household goods and knock-offs from China. Also, can be quite crowded. If you have been to souq in other Middle Eastern countries, you can skip it. If it is your first time visiting a souq, worth a quick walkthrough when you are in the Mattrah Corniche area.
4. Al Alam Palace
The ceremonial palace of the Sultan of Oman. While you cannot go inside, you can see from the outside. The design of the building itself is quite unique. It represents contemporary Islamic design and you can see a photo of it below in My Oman Photos.
5. Mattrah Corniche – walk along the 3 kilometres of the harbour, especially beautiful when lit up during evening time. Also, lots of restaurants in the area with great seafood.
6. Mattrah Fish Market – not usually part of a typical tourist. But go here! It can be smelly (it is a fish market after all) but a great place to check out local seafood and people watch.
Omanis are neither Sunni nor Shia. They follow Ibadi Islam.
The Middle East is dominated by two sects of Islam: Sunnis and Shias. Most Omanis are neither Sunni nor Shia. They follow another sect of Islam, called Ibadi Islam. Omanis pride themselves in not getting involved in the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, and instead, remaining neutral.
Compared to neighbouring Gulf countries, Oman has far less oil and gas. As a result, its people are not swimming in excess cash. Most are low and middle-class. Accordingly, Omanis are more humble, relaxed and welcoming to foreigners as they are increasingly relying on tourism as a source of income. This is yet another reason why I loved Oman. Here, the culture is not centred around shopping malls, designer car and clothes. Rather, the focus is more on community, nature and the country still retains a very relaxed vibe. Also, historically, Omanis have been a seafaring people. They used to trade extensively with neighbouring countries and as a result, they are more welcoming of foreigners.
Day 2: Wadi Shab, Bimah Sinkhole and Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve
What’s a Wadi?
One of the best things about Oman is its Wadis, canyons which are dry but fill up with water after heavy rainfall. They form like an oasis, which you usually have to trek to and make for a great place for swimming.
Go for a hike in the mountains and swim in Wadi Shab: I went to 3 wadis in Oman: Wadi Shab (pictured on left), Bimah Sinkhole and Wadi Bani Khalid. Wadi Shad is the least accessible of the three but also, fewer people. You have to walk for about an hour and it can be a bit challenging as some parts of the hike are rocky, the path can be quite narrow and you may have to wade through not-very-deep rivers. Bring good sandals, water, and a bathing suit of course. I recommend sandals over shoes because there may be times when you have to cross a river. What I liked most about Wadi Shab is that it was not busy. Wadi Bani Khalid (reviewed below) is my favourite but also very busy.
If you have time, I recommend checking out all 3 – Wadi Shab, Bimah Sinkhole and Wadi Bani Khalid.
Along the way to Wadi Shab, make sure to stop and see Bimah Sinkhole. Don’t know why but locals call Bimah Sinkhole ‘Bait Al Afreet’ or Devil’s House. The local legend is that the hole was created when a piece of the moon fell on earth. The reality is that the hole was created when limestone cavern, part of which still overhangs above the sinkhole, collapsed and created a hole. The local legend and name sound more fun, no? It is picturesque and swimmable, but be careful, the water gets quite deep quickly. In fact, you can swim all the way to the Arabian Sea from the sinkhole!
Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve is about a 3-hour drive from Muscat where every year, thousands of sea turtles migrate from the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea to lay eggs here. It is supposed to be quite a site, however, I didn’t see it. That is why, while almost all photos on this site are mine, the one on the left is a stock photo.
The reason I didn’t see any is because I went in offseason. Best times to see them are May and September, and especially July to September. However, these are also the hottest months in Oman.
Day 3: Wadi Bani Khalid and Wahiba Desert
Wadi Bani Khalid, my favourite wadi in Oman!
Unlike Wadi Shab, this wadi is quite easy to get to. Simply park your car in the parking lot and walk for 10 minutes on a well laid out path, and voila, you’re there. But because it is so pretty, and accessible, it is very popular with both local and tourists. Avoid weekends. Remember, the weekend in Oman is on Friday and Saturday.
What is really cool is that there are 3-4 different areas where you can swim in. There is the main pool area which you will see when you first enter the Wadi Bani Khalid area. I don’t recommend swimming in the main pool as it is too shallow and has too many fish. Keep going. There are 3-4 more cave-pools that you swim in. It is a lot of fun to swim from one cave pool to the next. There is also a restaurant, which serves quite good food. You can easily make an afternoon of it.
This is me jumping off the bridge into one of the canyons in Wadi Bani Khalid!
There is a bridge which from which you can jump into one of the cave pools. I did it. It was thrilling! See photos of me jumping off the bridge below!
About 1.5-hour drive from Wadi Bani Khalid is the stunning Wahiba Sands.
About 1.5-hour drive from Wadi Bani Khalid is the stunning Wahiba Sands, or as it is known now, Sharqiya Sands. You can visit here as a day trip from Muscat but I recommend staying overnight, which is what I did. I stayed at one of the desert camps overnight and it was quite fun. The camp had great food and at night time, there was live music, which a lot of tourists joined in singing along with the band and dancing.
What I did: In addition to seeing the stunning sand dunes, there are a bunch of other activities that you can do here. I highly recommend going off-roading in the sand dunes. Go with an experienced guide but make sure you do this. It was a lot of fun. You can also visit an authentic Bedouin tent-house, have some tea and dates. As a responsible, a good way to give back is to buy one the handmade jewellery or small carpets that the Bedouin sell inside the tent-house. They are a proud but poor group, and buying a small artifact directly from them is a good memory for you and a small income for them.
I also took a camel ride in the desert from a Bedouin family, which was a lot of fun as well. Currently, about 3,000 Bedouins still live in the desert.