I was so excited to be going on a road trip to Oman, that even waking up early wasn’t enough to dampen my spirit. It was good to be doing a road trip with my good friend Ashleigh. I was also happy to be on well-maintained roads where it was easy to cover 100km in an hour. That meant that the drive from Sharjah to Muscat would only take 5 hours! I was very thankful for air conditioning too, as the outside temperature was around 45 degrees.
Along the way, I saw shifting sands trying to encroach on the road and found out that it can sometimes be a huge problem during sandstorms. There are people employed solely to remove this sand from the road. Although it was kinda flat and boring at the start of our drive, we soon got some lovely views of desert mountains, which have a beauty all of their own.
Once at the border, we ran into a slight problem with insurance. Oman requires all cars within its boundaries to have additional insurance on top of the insurance from the country of origin. Although Ashleigh had this, the officer wouldn’t accept the paperwork and therefore wouldn’t stamp us in until additional insurance had been purchased. If it weren’t for the time spent dealing with that and people constantly trying to jump the queue, it’s possible that passing through this border would’ve been relatively quick.
Short Stop in Sohar
Sohar is a small coastal city around 200 kilometres from both Muscat and Sharjah, making it a great place to break up our trip. The city had at one point in history served as the Omani Capital, but is now the fifth most populated area in the country. My friend Ashleigh had a friend living there, so we all decided to head out to the local mall for some food.
The Safeer Mall, as it’s known, is one of 2 malls in Sohar. It looks very flashy from the outside, which made it all the more surprising to walk into the restroom and see women with their legs up on the bench while washing their feet in the sinks. I had figured that a country with a majority Muslim population, would’ve had some kind of foot cleaning facilities next to the prayer rooms in their malls.
While chatting at the cafe in the mall, I got the feeling that Sohar was a rapidly developing city. Ashleigh recalled how much it had changed in the months since he had been there last, while his friend informed us of many other projects that were currently, or soon to be, under construction. I guess I’ll have to visit again soon to see how much different it looks!
On the drive to Muscat, Ashleigh had joked that there were no right turns in the more newly developed parts of the city and that you just had to keep turning left to get where you want to go. It turns out he wasn’t really exaggerating that much. I found it rather strange that the only access point for a mall on the right-hand side of a highway, was an offramp on the left-hand side of the highway. How convenient!
Muscat is a very spread-out city with only about 5 buildings that have more than 5 floors; all hotels, of course! I like the low rise idea, but the positioning of some of the roads in relation to some buildings, can only be described as odd. If you approach a building from the wrong side, you may have to take a several kilometre detour to turn around and access it from the correct side, as I found out first hand.
The city is definitely not geared toward pedestrian traffic and it’s downright impossible to cross a lot of roads as a pedestrian. I guess with the price of fuel being so cheap and the scorching summer temperatures, locals are inclined to drive everywhere, even if it’s just across the road. While there are road rules in Oman, it seems that the penalties for being on the wrong side of them are so miniscule, that many locals are willing to openly break them. This makes Omani roads fun, in the nail-biting kinda way.
Old and New
Road traumas aside, Muscat is a beautiful city. Once passing through the city gate, Old Muscat lies near the waterfront, surrounded by barren mountains and sea. It is a lot more pedestrian friendly, but a little less car friendly, than New Muscat and it seems to be quite lively. At the centre of the old town is the Mattrah Souq, which I’m told could be one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world. The old style buildings in the area are delightful to look at and it almost feels like you have stepped into another time.
Down on the waterfront, some relics from bygone eras have stood the test of time and are open for people to explore. One such relic is a small watchtower, high above the promenade. A 5 minute walk up a lot of stairs will get you to the top, where you can not only look out over the sea, but also over the whole of Old Muscat.
While there is definitely a visible difference between the old and the new city in Muscat, it seems that some architectural themes flow effortlessly through both. For instance, the colours of buildings are pretty much the same in both, mainly off-white, cream and beige. These colours aren’t really inspiring, but they are very earthy and definitely fit in seamlessly with their surroundings.
Both residential and commercial premises seem to have sleek designs with smooth facades, high ceilings and grand Arabian style arches. This means that every building you walk into feels big and airy. I probably noticed this more because I live in a place where housing can be ridiculously small, but I still think it’s lovely.
Problems Unique to Oman
You probably know that Oman is a majority Muslim country, ruled by a Sultan. As such, there are many things seen as taboo there. One of those is an unwed or unrelated female staying in the same room as an unwed or unrelated male. While many of their other conservative regulations can be overlooked when it comes to foreigners, apparently this one is a must follow rule.
I’ve been told that, if you book just one room in this case, hotels can ask you to provide proof of your familial relationship or marriage. If you cannot provide such information, then you could be subject to refusal of service. I think this wouldn’t be enforced on foreigners in practice, but it seemed that it would just be easier to book two rooms to avoid any uncomfortable questioning.
Two more uniquely Omani laws disallow speaking about the Sultan’s private life and showing anger in public. Doing so could actually land you in some pretty hot water, legally. If you’re formally charged, you can’t leave the country until all proceedings are finalised. So that’s how you legislate civility, I guess. It certainly explains why Omanis were very friendly and even-tempered; they don’t want to go to court for shouting at someone! Obviously, it’s better to just be nice.
Ready For a Drink
You would think that such a conservative Muslim country would not allow drinking, so you might be surprised to know that it’s not against the law, in certain circumstances. Many establishments, like hotels and bars, are licenced to sell alcohol and it is completely legal to imbibe at those places. It is, of course, illegal to show any signs of intoxication in public, so it’s probably best to just have a few quiet ones if you’re out and about.
Ashleigh and I were quite pleased when we found a cute little Irish pub near the beach, where we could sit down and have a quiet drink, guilt free! We ended up having a great chat with the foreign owner of the pub, who had been in Muscat for many years, whilst digging into our delicious Irish pub grub.
In a few words – old and new
Language – Arabic and English
Currency – Omani Rial (OMR)
WiFi availability – 📶📶📶📶📶
Wifi is widely available in shopping centres, cafes and restaurants
Transport – I would presume that the transport in Oman is not that great, as everyone seems to own cars and I didn’t really come across many tourists while I was there.
Roads – 🛣🛣🛣🛣🛣
Omani roads are immaculate and all look like they are brand new.
Scenery – 🏜⛰🏜⛰🏜
A lot of desert and dust with some baron mountains thrown in for good measure.
Prices – 💰💰💰
As a fairly developed country, many high priced items can be found there, but if you eat more local fare, prices tend to be a lot more reasonable.
Border efficiency – 🛃🛃🛃🛃
Except for a small insurance issue on entry, passage through the Oman immigration area, on both entry and exit was fairly smooth.
Overall – 👍👍👍👍