Muscat, capital of Oman, is my first pin in the Middle East. The moment I landed on Muscat international airport, I was in awed with all the white washed buildings. White colour is most revered in Oman, which resembles purity. That also explains why all men dress only in white colour robes.
Expectation: Barren desert | Reality: Beautiful white washed buildings
Muscat consists of three smaller towns, i.e.
- Muscat (where the royal palaces are)
- Mutrah (originally a fishing village, now famous for the massive maze-like market, Mutrah Souq)
- Ruwi (commercial hub, and business district)
The towns are quite spread out, about 15 km away from each other.
The only transportation mode in Muscat is by car/ taxi, which makes getting around very expensive! Throughout my 2 weeks (business trip) stay, I got around using only taxi, and paid about 3 to 10 OMR (8 to 26 USD) depending on distance.
Tip: It is not easy to hail a taxi. You want to keep a few taxi driver contacts and call them to come fetch you.
Expectation: Ride on camels | Reality: Expensive taxi rides
Where to stay
Hotels in Muscat are very expensive! I paid over 110 OMR (286 USD) per night at the Intercontinental (and later Hyatt). I first checked in Intercontinental, but the rooms are old and the staffs not motivated at all. There was also some renovation works ongoing during my stay which caused some inconveniences. After a few days, I decided to change hotel, and moved to Grand Hyatt. And of course, the Grand Hyatt was amazing!
With the start of Airbnb, you can now find cheaper accommodation alternatives.
What to do
The beach of course. Having Qurum beach just in front of my hotel, I could just put on my swim shorts, walk out of my room, and dive into the waters of Gulf of Oman!
There are even parts of the city, which have stairs where you can just step off and jump into the waters.
The Royal Opera House is a beautiful building you must check out. It was built on the royal orders of current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, who is a big fan of classical music and arts. Unfortunately, there were no shows for me to catch during my stay. Otherwise, it would be really cool to check out the interiors.
A visit to Mutrah Souq is also a must for your Muscat itinerary. It is near the Corniche area, by the sea side. The Mutrah Souq is a maze-like marketplace, which sells everything from jewelries, lamps, clothes, but also a lot of China goods. You can still find local handcrafted products if you avoid the store nearest to the main road. I bought myself a few silk scarves at very fair prices.
While at Corniche, you want to also check out the Mutrah fort.
During my trip, I also visited Wadi al Shab. Wadi is a valley or ravine, that is dry during the drought season. There are a few wadi(s) around Muscat, but the most famous is Wadi al Shab. It is quite a drive from Muscat town (about 140 km). I chartered my regular taxi driver for the whole day for this. My driver ended up also being my tour guide (the local Omanis are very friendly, I’ll talk about it later).
After we parked at the entrance, we hiked a bit on the dry rocky grounds. Some parts of the waters are forbidden to swim, as it is also their drinking source. But, further inside, there are pools where swimming is allowed. I swam a bit in the turquoise water, paddling through little canals. There’s a partially submerged cave you can duck into. But, my taxi driver cum tour guide strongly advised against it. There have been a few drowning cases before.
Expectation: Barren desert | Reality: Turquoise waters inland!
Muscat is also famous for scuba diving. I managed to do two open water dives. It was my first time diving with my Gopro and got a little too excited when I saw a moray eel. I dived pretty near it to get a close up with my Gopro. There are some interesting dive sites, e.g. this 40 m long wreck ship, which I couldn’t do because I didn’t have my Advance certificate. The other divers who did all say it was amazing!
I wanted to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, but unfortunately couldn’t find the time. Apparently, there’s a Swarovski crystals chandelier inside you must check out!
Tip: Visiting times for Non Muslims, 0800 to 1100 hrs everyday EXCEPT FRIDAY.
Also, you should visit those super luxury hotels, e.g. Al Bustan Palace Hotel, Chedi Muscat etc. These are luxury at a completely different level! I visited Chedi Muscat and had an amazing dining experience there.
The most open minded locals
Local Omanis had to be the most friendly locals I have ever met. First of all, they are very open minded, and welcoming of foreigners, even taking the efforts to understand different cultures, and religions.
Everyone of them whom I met, from taxi drivers to restaurant staffs, to random people on the streets, they are all so eager to share their stories with me. I had some really deep conversation especially with my regular taxi driver, discussing my country Malaysia, my religion Christianity, my work, family, values etc.
It was very really unexpected. Honestly, before I came to Muscat, I (shamefully) over generalised them to be close minded Muslims. But, instead they are the most open minded people, yet they still revered greatly their religion and ruler.
Expectation: Close minded locals | Reality: Locals discussing my religion Christianity with me
The Omanis have shown more inclusion to foreigners than most developed countries. For example, I didn’t expect I could find any pork in this country. But instead, I found it on the same buffer counter top, where Muslims get their food. In Malaysia, major grocers even have separate sections for Non Halal products, with separate baskets and trolleys!
Expectation: No pork and alcohol | Reality: Pork (bacon and salami) served on buffet counter
Another example, I didn’t expect to find places of worship for other religions besides Muslim. But instead, I spotted churches and temples, built for the expat communities.
What to eat
I have to say, after 2 weeks of Omani cuisines, I’m still not a fan. Omani cuisine uses a lot of cardamon, rose water and dried lime (all of which I still haven’t developed the taste bud for).
If you want to give it a try (which you should), the one I like the most (or dislike the least) is Ubhar restaurant, which is just opposite the Royal Opera House. There’s this dish, of which camel meat is kept inside a clay pot, and buried in the desert sands for at least 48 hours, to be cooked by the heat trapped by the sands.
Expectation: Ride on camels | Reality: Eat camel meat
Otherwise, it is pretty easy to find decent international cuisines. I highly recommend Tuscany, the Italian restaurant in Grand Hyatt. You want to book in advance and request for a table on the terrace.
I couldn’t find decent Asian food in town though. Except for the Japanese fusion dinner I had in Chedi Muscat! The spicy seafood miso soup just satisfied my then Asian cravings. It wasn’t even the best miso soup I had. But it was just the most spicy food I had in Oman, and yes, I have been deprived for awhile.
Yes, of course I will visit Muscat again. But, the next time, I’ll make sure I have gotten my Advance diving certificate, and then I’ll do the wreck dive!
And maybe, if I save up enough money, I’ll check myself into Al Bustan Palace Hotel for a night?