Mad Dash through Muscat

We had a pre-dawn departure from our hotel to the airport on Wednesday, January 22nd for our flight to Oman. Oman was an optional add-on, and there were only two other travelers continuing on with us. To be honest, the only thing I knew about Oman before we booked this trip was its location on the map. Surprisingly, this seemed to be one more thing than most of the other travelers knew, as most of them seemed to think it was “another Emirate” and not an independent country! I figured I may as well see it while I was in the area.

The boarding process was rather lengthy and included a bus ride to the airplane. Once on the plane, we watched in amusement/mild frustration as people on the next bus tried to find their seats. It seemed as if every passenger needed help finding his or her seat. I still don’t understand how people couldn’t decipher the simple number and letter system to find their seats! All in all, the preflight process was longer than the actual flight itself, which was less than one hour. The crazy thing was that they served a full breakfast even though the flight was so short!

Once we arrived at the airport in Muscat (the capital of Oman as well as its largest city), we got in line at the money exchange counter to buy our tourist visas. I had read to do this online before leaving the US, but it still seemed strange and unofficial. When we got to the front of the line, we were about to pay for our visas when an airport official showed us our names on a sheet of paper and asked if we were those people. He told us we didn’t need to buy a visa and ushered us to the immigration line. I’m still not sure why we didn’t need to buy a visa, but I think it had to do with us coming from the UAE and/or the fact that our stay was going to be less than 48 hours. The airport worker led us over to our tour guide, and after getting our luggage, we all hopped into the mini-bus to begin our tour of the city.

Our first stop was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Unfortunately, we were not able to go inside as it was nearing the end of the time when visitors are allowed in the morning (8-11 AM, except for Fridays). Even so, I was quite impressed by the impeccably maintained grounds which featured well-manicured flower beds and palm trees. I did not expect a small city like Muscat to have such an impressive mosque. Apparently it contains one of the world’s largest hand-woven carpets. We had a nice stroll around the grounds and took some photos. It was a very tranquil setting, as there were not many other people around.

Next we went to the Muttrah Souk which is located near one of the harbors on the Gulf of Oman. We could see the Sultan’s giant yacht, the Al-Said, one of the largest yachts in the world, floating in the harbor. This was our first stop in a busy area, so I was now able to get a better feel for what the area was like. It was a much more laid-back vibe than in Dubai. The shop owners in the souk were all friendly, but still very pushy. This made it uncomfortable to do any browsing as that would just prompt a slew of unrelenting sales pitches. Our tour guide told us that there are very strict rules for the shop owners in the souks in Oman. Apparently, in some other countries like Morocco, the shop owners are even more aggressive and will physically pull people into their shop. This is illegal in Oman and can result in the shop owner getting his license revoked. In any case, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t do any shopping there since I was barely able to close my suitcase by this point!

Our next stop was the Bait Al Zubair Museum, a cultural heritage museum which has displays on things like the Omani traditional dress and daggers. After the museum, we went to Al Alam Palace and took some photos outside. Even though the Sultan does not live there (apparently it is primarily used for state functions), visitors are not allowed inside.

Finally we were taken to our hotel, which was surprisingly nicer than our hotel in Dubai. We had free time, and since we had already seen most of the attractions in Muscat already, we booked an outdoor excursion for the next day through our tour guide. Being that it was last minute and they were already booked up, we ended up having to do a private tour with just the two of us. It was kind of expensive, and we had to pay in cash. I had only brought enough Omani rial for a couple of day’s worth of incidental expenses. I didn’t want to use all of my rial and incur some insane ATM fee, so I paid in a mishmash of leftover UAE dirhams and good ol’ US dollars. I learned that the banks in Oman only accept dollars printed in 2004 or later as I watched our tour guide carefully inspect each dollar bill with great suspicion.

After resting for a bit in our hotel room, we decided to check out one of the shopping malls and have dinner there. Being that there is no public transportation system in Oman aside from a limited bus route, we needed to take a taxi. I had read online before our trip that Muscat had implemented metered taxis a couple of years ago, but we found out that was not the case. Instead, you have to negotiate a price with driver. I was not a fan of the system, but everything worked out okay in the end. The mall, which is their largest, was the size of an average mall in the US and a far cry from the malls we had just experienced in Dubai. We ate dinner at a burger place in the mall, mostly because it seemed like the option least likely to give us food poisoning. My travel doctor gave me a packet of information before I departed saying that food poisoning was possible in the UAE but was probable in Oman. There were specific foods we were supposed to avoid like fresh fruit, but at this point I probably would have eaten anything since the last thing I had was yogurt on the plane in the morning! I was completely exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel and fell asleep almost immediately.

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