First and foremost, props to Ann “Narcoleptik!” Wen on this trip for the blogpost’s witty pun of a title — It’s going to be sad to leave such an unexpectedly pretty city that it’s the reason for the teardrops on our “Qatar” (hey hey hey!).
After 4 wonderful days in Oman it was time to say goodbye; I had to return to work back home in 2 days and the girls’ vacation time was ending soon. So at around the last minute we collectively decided to make a brief one day foray into the capital of Qatar, Doha before heading home.
We booked and boarded an 11:40am Qatar Airways flight and landing in Doha around 2 hours later at 12:15pm Qatar time (Qatar’s 1 hour ahead of Oman).
Unlike Oman, visas are free for Americans and it was refreshing to finally cross through; Doha was my first ever layover when I first traveled on my own to India in 2009 and I had always been meaning to visit it officially. Nearly 10 years later, I’m finally here!
We decided to keep it convenient and stay near the city center in Souq Waqif, Qatar’s oldest souq that translates to “standing market.” As for lodging, it seems that a collection of boutique hotels united by the Tivoli Brand has a monopoly on most of the souq’s refurbished buildings, although it nevertheless commands the best value stay here with luxurious accommodations for relatively affordable prices.
Around $75 per person gets you a full on suite here that should cost $400/night if this was in Europe or North America.
After freshening up for half an hour we headed out to explore the area around Souq Waqif.
Across the street is a clock tower that acts a useful landmark to find your way around.
Another notable landmark on the other side of the souq with which you can use to orient yourself is the Qatar Islamic Centre:
And by the waters stands the Pearl Monument, which heralded the development of this manmade island in Doha. You can rent a 30 minute boat ride here for 50-100 Qatari Rials (QAR).
And right behind Souq Waqif is Al Koot Fort, a 1920s military fort that’s currently being renovated to become a museum.
We then took a cheap Uber ride from here towards the Qatar National Library, passing by numerous buildings that would make most architects blush.
During Ramadan the National Library closes at 4pm instead of 8pm so we had only half an hour to explore.
The library’s interior is a master class in space and design. No number of panoramas can do it enough justice:
When the library closed we took another Uber to the recently finished Al Hazm Mall, at the recommendation of our concierge. It’s ridiculously ornate and elaborate, built to look like an Italian city:
We were the only ones here.
After about 20 minutes walking around, we took another Uber to the Doha Corniche for these classic views of the Doha skyline:
We then returned to our lodgings at Souq Waqif during which we passed by this curious caravan of camel-riding pedestrians on a random city street:
After changing quickly, we walked a few steps over from our hotel for dinner overlooking the Doha skyline at Al Shurfa Lounge.
Their hookah menu blew my mind:
And the views weren’t so bad either:
Once dinner was over, we headed into the souq to walk around a little bit. They sell everything here from handcrafts, food, snacks, sweets, clothing, souvenirs, furniture, and even pet animals including kittens, birds, and giant turtles (can you spot the lonely turtle in the photo below?):
Then we walked 20 minutes in the sweltering humidity towards the Museum of Islamic Art:
Right by the museum are a collection of boats you can pay to take you around the harbor for 20-30 minutes. We bargained down from 100 QAR to 50 QAR for the 3 of us for a 20 minute boat ride.
After we redocked back in the marina, we hailed an Uber to take us up a 20 minute drive to The Pearl, a 4 million square meter artificial manmade island that was built as the first place in Qatar where foreigners can own property.
We then drove to Katara Cultural Village nearby, a cute waterfront area featuring a beach, an amphitheater, museums, a convention center, and multiple shops and eateries:
After a few minutes driving around here, we then returned back to our hotel in Souq Waqif and called it a night.
Tomorrow morning Ann and Mihaela sadly fly out on an 8am flight back to NYC where I take a 1pm flight back to Muscat to catch a KLM flight home back to NYC via Amsterdam.
Another monsoon in now in the books!
- At time of posting in Doha, it was 40 °C -
Humidity: 29% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
The main sight and reason to come to Nizwa is for its fort, built in the 1650s by the second Ya’rub and was the administrative seat for the presiding imams at the time. It also served as a stronghold against raiding forces that desired Nizwa’s abundant natural wealth, water, and its strategic location at the crossroads of vital trade routes. It is also Oman’s most visited national monument.
Admission fee is 5 rials for tourists, 3 rials for locals:
Views from the top of the fortress:
It took us about 30 minutes to see everything here.
Afterwards we briefly took a look at the small number of shops still open in the souq before heading to an ancient nearby falaj, an intricate engineering system of water channels acting as aqueducts, used to distribute water within a community. It sits close by the Harat As Sibani settlement and is under UNESCO restoration.
By the falaj is what I consider a more interesting site if you were to come to Nizwa: the Birkat Al Mouz Ruins. Bombed out by the British Royal Air Force at the request of the Sultanate during the Jebel Akhdar War against the rebelling Imamate of Oman, Birkat Al Mouz remains today as a ghost town with its rubble scattered across like jewels in a desert oasis.
Be careful not to step on any rooftops as they’ve been known to collapse. Just keep your footing on the old staircases and any piece of rock that won’t give with an easy step. Keep your wits about you and you can climb all the way to the top of the village:
Views from the top:
We then drove around and up another hill to gain a vantage point of Birkat Al Mouz and other abandoned mud villages from afar:
We then headed back to Muscat mid-afternoon to make it in time for 7pm dinner reservations at one of the fine dining options in Muscat: Al Angham Restaurant.
- At time of posting in Nizwa, Oman, it was 32 °C -
Humidity: 59% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After a few hours swimming in the beautiful water holes of Wadi Shab, Talal and the gang continued south towards Sharqiya Sands. Also popularly known as Wahiba Sands named after the local Bani Wahiba tribe there, it boasts sand dunes up to 100 meters high and 170 km long:
When we got here in the later afternoon, Talal immediately took us dune bashing, which is when our 4×4 simulates itself as a roller coaster on the dunes. I unfortunately took this video after all the craziness happened, so I did my best by adding in some appropriately cheesy music:
We then parked our 4×4 and sat on top of a dune ridge to admire the sunset:
Afterwards we headed into the nearby town of Bidiya where we sat on a carpted floor outside and had a traditional Omani/Yemenese dinner.
After dinner, we found a new café that just opened to enjoy some outdoor shisha while watching the England vs. Nigeria football match:
We then retired back to the middle of the desert for outdoor camping underneath the stars. Because of Ramadan, it seemed like we may have well been the only tourists out there that night:
After picking us up from Muscat and showing us around Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in the morning, Talal drove us about 2 hours towards Wadi Bani Khalid, a literal oasis in the middle of the desert.
We stopped for a few photos along the way for some photo ops.
Once you arrive at Wadi Bani Khalid, you’ll see palm trees everywhere, just like what you imagined an oasis would look like.
Follow the streams of drinking water to the lake. You can’t swim just yet because this is where their drinking water comes from.
You can grab shelter from the sun at the gazebo by the bridge over the lake.
Weave around the bridge and café and continue walking up on the right into the gorge. You’ll get more privacy here from the rest of Oman, so we stripped down and got straight to swimming.
Wadi Bani Khalid is one of the popular wadis in Oman where foreigners and locals alike can go for a dip in the crystal clear waters of the gorge.
Stop along wherever for a swim, or keep hiking inland for more swimming holes.
Talal showed us plenty of small little waterfalls to climb up through, small rivers to do a quick swim around, and diving holes to jump into (see following 8 second video):
What made it even better was that Ramadan season ensured nobody else else was around to bother us or take any our stuff; Wadi Bani Khalid became our little own playground for a few hours.
If you decide to venture further into the underground cave, be forewarned you have to be a pretty decent swimmer to get there — it involves swimming under and through a small tunnel to get inside. And Talal warned us to not bring anything that isn’t solidly waterproof or can be dropped; if you lose something you might lose it forever…it’s pretty deep!
After about 1-2 hours here, we headed back to the car and drove on for the desert of Wahiba Sands.
- At time of posting in Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman, it was 38 °C -
Humidity: 52% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After 24 hours in Kuwait, Ann, Mihaela and I boarded our 9:05pm Oman Air flight for Muscat, landing at around 12:15am.
Muscat’s new international airport is really really nice.
The current fee for an Omani tourist visa on arrival is 20 Omani Rials (OMR), which you can quickly pay at a desk next to passport control with a credit card. Unlike the runaround I had back at Kuwait Airport, the visa process here takes only a few minutes.
Like Kuwait there are no hostels in Muscat for the budget traveler, so I found an apartment for all of us to share on Booking.com. And Muscat as a city is not a single entity but rather 6 distinct, separate provinces connected by a highway along the coastline, so when looking for lodging you have to choose where you want to stay depending on what you want to do.
We wanted to be near the mosque as that seemed to be the top tourist attraction here so we stayed around Al Ghubrah South. I found a great value at Somerset Residences, which is a newly designed apartment complex located inside Panorama Mall. They offer an airport pickup service for 15 OMR which I took up since I didn’t feel like haggling after what we had experienced all day back in Kuwait.
We woke up to a brutal 107ºF day the next morning, and given that everything was closed during daytime for Ramadan, we decided to stay in until the weather cooled down.
Mihaela and I both hit our respective gyms inside Somerset (they separate male and female gyms here, and funny enough — or disappointingly — Mihaela had weights that only went up to 10kgs whereas I had weights going up to 20kgs), after which we became famished after working out. Fasting for Ramadan was not going to do us any good; we needed to cook something ASAP, so we quickly went grocery shopping on the bottom floor of Panorama Mall.
It’s worth mentioning how much of a difference it makes when your lodging is is connected to a giant mall — we never stepped foot outside to brave the 107ºF weather once.
By 5:30pm it dropped to only 105ºF outside so we said screw it and decided to go out anyway. We headed downstairs and hailed a cab towards the 3 forts/palaces on the eastern side of the Muscat coast, stopping first at Al Mirani Fort.
Right in front of Al Mirani is a strategic harborfront location where you’ll get scenic views of the other 2 palaces/forts. One is Al Alam Palace, the ceremonial residence of the sultan that’s famous for its facade with bright blue & gold columns.
The other in the distance is Al Jalali Fort:
You can’t enter any of the 3 as a tourist as they’re all government buildings guarded by the military. So we drove back west along the corniche.
We then got out at Mutrah, where we walked along the corniche for sunset.
Turning left towards the city, we checked out Mutrah Souq:
The sunset adhan began to play so we stepped back outside for a surreal, serene moment where the entire city quiets down to break their Ramadan fast for iftar. Everyone begins to eat in silence.
As everyone was distracted by their iftar, we climbed up unguarded Mutrah Fort for views over the famous Mutrah Corniche:
We went up as high as we could, even hopping up on a precarious ledge with no guardrails. Don’t fall! The photos are worth it.
A Sunset in Muscat
Take all the selfies you want.
Mutrah glows during sunset:
We then headed back down from the fort and did another round at the souq for some more shopping.
Afterwards we took a cab to Moorish Café in the Shati Al Qurum province, arguably the best shisha café in the city.
Then it was one last walk along the beach before heading back home.
The next morning we got up early for our 2 day journey across the rest of Oman. Thanks to Ihita, another monsooner who had traveled with me to Russia last year and was just in Oman 2 weeks ago, I was referred to Talal Al Alawi of Talal Transport, a master tour guide in a country where it seems that everyone knew his name.
He picked us up promptly at 11am, our first stop being the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the 11th largest mosque in the world and home to the world’s largest chandelier. Visiting hours are 8:30am-11am Saturday to Thursday and admission is free.
Our first stop was the women’s area to pray, which can fit about 500-700 people:
The mosque complex as a whole can fit as many as 20,000 worshippers inside.
…and the main prayer hall features an 8-ton chandelier from Germany, with its wooden doors from Myanmar, the single-piece giant carpet from Iran, and the marble from India.
We spent about 45 minutes here exploring, as well as getting free gifts (I got a picture frame, the girls got Frankincense) from the tourist center.
After an epic 2 day adventure swimming at Wadi Shab, camping overnight at Wahiba Sands, and exploring bombed out ghost towns by Nizwa with our fearless guide Talal, we returned to Muscat the next evening for one of Muscat’s handful of fine dining options at Al Algham Restaurant, located at the newly constructed Opera House.
We went at the recommendation of Ihita, another monsooner from my Russia trip who was in Oman 2 weeks ago (she also had helpfully referred us to Talal).
Upon arrival into Muscat at around 4pm, we decided to book a last minute stay at nearby Al Qurum Resort, which is a 10 minute walk away from the opera house complex in the Opera Galleria Mall.
Al Angham is meant to represent the highest class of Oman cooking, serving traditional recipes in a glamorous, modern, setting.
When we say down we already had a plate of dates, fruit, a basket of fried starters, and fresh juices waiting for us.
Our next course was a lamb congee soup.
Next was a French presentation of a lamb pasta course, followed by unlimited rounds of coconut chicken, grilled lamb with rice, a glutinous lamb dish, and fried lamb with rice, all served to you on your plate by rotating waitresses:
Dessert featured a series of small bites that included a pumpkin pastry, frankincense flavored ice cream, and cardamom rice pudding:
Since it was Ramadan they only could serve their iftar set menu, which cost us 20 OMR per person. There have other set menus and a la carte options if you choose to come at a different time of year.
After dinner we headed out to the opera house to take some photos:
…which wouldn’t be complete without it getting served:
Tomorrow we head to Qatar!
- At time of posting in Muscat, Oman, it was 36 °C -
Humidity: 24% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
Then I returned to NYC for 2 hours to do a connecting flight, switching from Terminal 5 to Terminal 4 at JFK Airport
Now I’m back to the Gulf/Middles East today for Kuwait.
So NYC –> Caribbean –> NYC –> Middle East –> NYC –> Caribbean –> NYC –> Middle East.
It’s very well known amongst travelers that Kuwait isn’t much of a destination for tourists, let alone a place to visit during the summer when the weather is 105ºF and up, or even worse, during Ramadan when everything is closed until 7pm.
Well, we just did Kuwait in the middle of summer during Ramadan: how about THAT.
Before we get there though, it wouldn’t be a monsoon without beginning one with series of inconveniences that work in our favor:
Originally I scheduled an itinerary to depart from Haiti – NYC – Amsterdam – Kuwait, but KLM Airlines cancelled their NYC – Amsterdam leg (due to inclement weather there) and instead rebooked me, adding in an extra leg to make it NYC – Brussels – Amsterdam – Kuwait.
However, once I was in the air on my way to Brussels, KLM then also cancelled their Brussels to Amsterdam flight, leaving me stranded in Brussels by the time I landed.
After arriving in Brussels I ran around the airport, even through an extra unnecessary security screening to connections, with no staff member bothering to help. I then finally found a kiosk representing KLM who helpfully rebooked me on a Lufthansa Airlines itinerary that would take me from Brussels – Frankfurt – Kuwait that was leaving in 35 minutes.
I ran back through security again and made it to the Lufthansa flight on time, getting to Kuwait an hour earlier than my original itinerary with an 8pm landing. Huzzah!
Once you land in Kuwait airport, you’ll may likely need a visa on arrival. So instead of going through passport control, head upstairs to the departures level and turn left around a corner towards a long hallway. There should be a sign pointing right to a visa office.
Except it’s not an office but rather a large banquet hall that sometimes functions as a visa office with a large waiting area. You first have to fill out a quick form, get your passport xerox’ed, and take a number.
Once they call for your number, you present your documents with your passport where they fingerprint you and give you a huge piece of paper that’s your visa.
You then go to a desk on your right to get confirmation of your visa with an officer, and then you can head back downstairs and whisk through passport and customs without having to be stamped.
Once at arrivals, I took an airport taxi waiting outside.
FYI: Looking back, if I were to return to Kuwait I’d rent a car to get around. Every cab driver we hailed tried upsell us such as asking us to pay 1 extra KWD on top of the listed meter fare, telling us that their meter was broken, or giving us the runaround route, which wasted a lot of time. It was not until we used the app Careem — the few times when it actually works — where we got more of a fair deal.
Although Ann and Mihaela is traveling with me for the whole itinerary, Donavan just joined us at the last minute for Kuwait as he just happened to be scheduled to work here for the month. I have to give props to his reaching out to me a few days ago about joining the trip for just 24 hours, as he and I had met way back in 2014 for only a mere few seconds at the ECAASU conference in DC. I remember he had stopped by my suite with a few friends, we then introduced ourselves, and that was that before 80-90 more people started coming in. The fact he’s now here hanging out with me 4 years later in Kuwait is mindblowing to me and I’m grateful he’s kept up with The Monsoon Diaries since then.
Since most of you reading this might be budget backpackers: There are no hostels in Kuwait City. Your best bet is sharing an apartment on Booking.com.
What I found, Arkan Residence, is one of the few affordable options if you want to stay inside Kuwait City. However, it’s an odd place being that although it looks fancy and has a gym, kitchen, two bathrooms, a pretty water filter, laundry machines, dryers, microwave, TV, shampoo/conditioner amenities etc., there’s somehow no toilet paper, the bedroom door doesn’t quite shut all the way because the corner of one of the beds blocks it from closing, and there’s only one electrical socket per room (even the living room) with no power strips to fix the situation. That means a room may have multiple unplugged lamps or a washer and dryer with no power strip to share between the two — you have to unplug one to start another.
Yes, it looks pretty but still very much a work in progress.
At least the kitchen works well enough to boil ramen (hey, it’s Ramadan here and we’ve been doing our best fasting with them the whole time here).
After freshening up we headed out to a free Art Space event in the Salmiya District. Mihaela had heard about this from her couchsurfing host the night before, and because why not.
We spent about half an hour here before heading to Sky Lounge Café nearby for shisha, food, and endless rounds of watermelon juice (it’s in season here!) with rooftop views of the city.
We headed back after their 2am closing and turned in at 3am, sleeping in until 11am the next morning where we got ready for our day in Kuwait.
Except you probably shouldn’t start your day early in Kuwait if it’s during Ramadan.
Pro-tip: If you’re visiting during Ramadan like we’re doing, this should be your itinerary: visit the Grand Mosque at 10am and then head to the malls to wait for everything else to open in the afternoon. Then see everything in the afternoon and the evening.
If you don’t want to visit the mosque, then don’t bother starting your day early otherwise: Not even the main tourist attraction of Kuwait Towers opens until 3pm. We found that out the hard way when we made that our first stop of the day — we took a quick 5 min cab there and broiled under the 105ºF sun all alone and by ourselves.
Nevertheless standing under this iconic pair of glittering blue towers with not another soul in sight around during Ramadan can be pretty surreal.
Next to the towers is a Fish Market, but it’s really a seafood restaurant.
We then fled for shelter from the heat and hailed a cab after Donavan found us nearby Souk Sharq, a mall with its very own island (and is open during Ramadan!).
Although nearly all the shops were closed except for Zara, Bath and Body Works, and a grocery store, we found a small and cute open café inside the grocery store that was allowed to make food but not have it’s customers eat anything in front of it (because of Ramadan).
So we ordered some smoothies and snuck into the back kitchen to consume our goods.
Afterwards we then explored the real fish market on Souq Sharq:
By then it hit 3pm, so we returned to Kuwait Towers and paid the admission ticket of 3 KWD to go up to the 4th floor, which sports a revolving viewing deck and a snack bar.
After about half an hour here, we took a cab to Mubarakeya souq, which is a covered market of connected outdoor shops. Some were open.
Around the souq are some small parks and fountains where you can get more views of downtown Kuwait City.
We tried to walk in the heat to the National Assembly of Kuwait, famous for being designed by Jørn Utzon (who also designed Sydney Opera House) but gave up after 15 minutes and took a cab for a fly-by.
For many Kuwaitis, the National Assembly building is a symbol of freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
We then tried to get into The Grand Mosque as their opening hours are listed to be 10am-11am in the morning and 5pm-7pm in the afternoon. However, we would find out from the security guards that during Ramadan the mosque is only open in the mornings.
We tried to sneak in anyway from the back.
Across the street from the Mosque is Seif Palace, which is best known for its watch tower covered in blue tiles and with a roof plated in pure gold.
Afterwards we hailed a cab and took it to Liberation Tower, a 372-meter-high telecommunications tower, the 39th tallest building in the world. It was built to symbolize Kuwait’s liberation from Iraq.
We then returned to our hotel to pick up our bags, heading to KWI airport afterwards to catch our 9:05pm Oman Air flight to Muscat.
Get there a little early even if you already checked in online; you still need to wait in the check-in line for a printed ticket and then wait in another line at security, and then it’s another line for passport stamp out, and then another security line to get into your gate.
Luckily for us there’s not much to do in Kuwait during Ramadan so we got there really early and used our Priority Passes to enjoy the best of the lounges, Dasman First Class.
- At time of posting in Kuwait City, Kuwait, it was 40 °C -
Humidity: 40% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear