The Middle / Near East

No one area inspires more fear and misunderstanding in travellers. While some parts maybe no go, for the most you’ll find exceptional history and culture. Not to mention hospitality. Don't believe the stereotype. Go see.

Mosque Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country specific advice, tips and info for:

The Middle East - Israel, Iran, Kurdistan (Iraq), Jordan, Lebanon, Oman and Turkey.

* It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for www.travelindependent.info.

A quick note about Ramadan.

The 9th and most important month in the Islamic Calendar. During this time Muslims abstain from eating, drinking or smoking until after sundown on each day. As a traveller of course you don't need to follow this, but some Muslims appreciate that you don't take meals or smoke in public places. Many restaurants and cafes won't open until after sundown and public transport may be less frequent, shops close earlier before sunset and the pace of life is generally slower. So travel can certain be a bit more difficult, but Ramadan is no major hindrance to travel and certainly not in moderate Islamic areas/countries.

Ramadan in 2017 starts 27th may till 25th June (and in 2018 16th May till 14th June). Note the festival of Eid ul-Fitr is held after the end of Ramadan and may last several days. Eid al-Adha is the other major festival: 31st August 2017.

Exact dates will depend on astronomical observations and may vary from country to country.

Obviously this is a volatile region and one part of a country maybe perfectly safe, while another part is totally off-limits. Obviously, always check the latest governmental travel advice. Anywhere along a border with Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria such be considered with extreme caution.

Editorial..

Middle East Map

Turkey is a real highlight, but that's only half the story. Heading into the Middle East, whether South into Lebanon and Jordan or East to parts of Iran or Iraq that are not only possible, but (visa hassle aside) easy, safe and ultra-welcoming.

Don't buy whole heartily into the 'war on terror', 'anti-west', 'anti-British/America' hype, with due care the countries featured on this page (Syria aside) and many others in the Middle East are quite safe, friendly and to be honest - even without the current lack of crowds - amazing.

What needs to be made clear is whereas the majority of the Muslim world is perhaps ardently anti America based on its foreign policy, they are not (loony fractions aside, which are the tiny minority) anti-Americans or westerner in general. The way the loony faction of Islam is operating bombing easy targets, terrorism can and does happen almost anywhere in the world and has never been targeted directly at backpackers or independent travel. On the contrary the majority of attacks are aimed at government/ foreign offices, banks and luxury/business hotels. Or are kidnap related where a high reward is expected, such as with expat workers. Either way by taking care to follow sensible travel advice you should be far away from the major hotspots. Terrorism can and does happen almost anywhere in the world. You might get some funny looks or snide comments, but these are no more different that being called a gringo in Mexico and are easily ignored or explained away.

Less visitedWe've travelled through this area many times during and after 9/11, the Iraq wars and wider Syrian conflict, have experienced first-hand and received several e-mailed updates from travellers, all reporting an amazing lack of crowds, great friendly people and no more problems that you would experience in many parts of Asia.

Added:Many thanks to Torgeir Holmen for supplying the Oman and Kurdistan summaries.

* Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region

  • The Golden Dome - JerusalemIntro: Israel is amazing, invigorating and depressing, and normally at the same time. It is also typically expensive if you are use to prices in the surrounding region. It is a sad fact that terrorism, politics and safety comes to mind with thinking of Israel.

    Indeed visitors to Israel virtually stopped during the last nadir, but political events have stabilised and tourist numbers have climbed dramatically. It is still sadly a fact life that every few years hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis flair up and the country lives under high security, but compared to recent history the country experiences far less security issues and tourist numbers are only rarely now affected by problems when [the widely reported problems] occur.

    Jerusalem, where most head for, is - despite the tourist numbers - one of the world's most incredible places. Away from the major draw card, Tel Aviv has a laid-back beach culture to rival Sydney or Rio and like many cities is totally secular. The Dead Sea can be visited a day trip from Tel Aviv/Jerusalem. To get around the country transport is easy and so is renting a car and self-driving, many of Israel's sights blow your mind, when reflected on. Israel can be a little raw and unwelcoming (not to mention expensive), but it is a first world country and travel is fun and comfortable (if a little hot at times) - but (as with Western Europe) you need reasonable deep pockets to get the best out of it.

    Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem you might say the rest pails in comparison. Few places in the world inspire quite as much passion as Jerusalem (Yerushalayim in Hebrew, Al-Quds in Arabic), the 3000-year-old capital of Israel. As mentioned in the intro Tel Aviv has a lot to offer if you have time to kick back. And finally if you believe you can travel safety, well worth a visit is the West Bank, it's certainly interesting to compare. For those with the time and money there is plenty more to see and do.

    Eilat, politics, costs and the occasional local. Some biblical sights such as Nazareth and Armageddon are disappointing.

    In terms of historic terrorism, don't let this scare you too much, the number of attacks has fallen dramatically and moreover the risk of injury is far below most bus travel in Asia or South America. This new country is fascinating to get an understanding of, is easy to travel around and has a history like no other. Just take enough cash and energy.

  • Visa strategy: Visa on arrival for as long as the person on duty feels like giving (or so it seems), typically it should be 3 months. See www.goisrael.com for full details on who gets what.

    Note that by visiting Israel you may not enter (on the same passport) all Middle Eastern, Gulf or North African countries, apart from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia. So that's: Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi-Arabia, Syria, UAE (although reported experience say you can get away with it), Qatar and Yemen. Oman denies entry to Israeli nationals, but not to those who have visited. See "avoiding that passport stamp you don't want" below.

  • Tourist factor: Depends on current situation and what CNN are showing, with troubles linked to the entifada long behind the country, tourists have returned enmasse and depending on the season it is normally very busy in key sites, especially with religious tour groups.

  • What to take: An open mind and a knowledge of the situation that exists between Israel and Palestine

  • Getting around: Very good, but somewhat expensive public buses. Shared taxis/buses in West Bank and Gaza.

  • Typical tourist trail: Jordan to Jerusalem to Egypt via Eilat

  • Dangers: Terrorism can be a serious danger. Security is excellent, but depending on the current situation, avoid crowded areas, travel in and out of the occupied territories and visits at particular times of tension. A stay just in the old city of Jerusalem, plus a visit to Eilat, Dead Sea, Tiberias and Tel Aviv, is not the end of the world and is probably safer (as previously stated) than bus travel in Asia.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Jerusalem gets cold in the winter, as with the rest of the region temperatures soar in the summer making sight seeing on foot uncomfortable

  • Money: ATMs

  • Guide book: Rough Guide or LP

  • PriceCosts: Israel is expensive, compared to surrounding countries and should be considered on par with the worst of Western Europe or East Coast USA - minimum US$50 a day. Some prices can seem outrageous and it is not always easy to find value.

VisaBy having evidence of a visit to Israel in your passport, you may not enter (on the same passport) all Middle Eastern, Gulf or North African countries, apart from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia)

There is only one way to not have your passport show evidence of a visit to Israel and that is to fly in and fly out - requesting no stamp on both entry and exit. Entering by any overland crossing, except maybe the ferry to/from Greece or Cyprus, and you will have an exit or entry stamp of the bordering nation i.e. Egypt or Jordan that will be a tell-tale sign. Or in the case of the King Hussein Peace Bridge to Jordan from the West bank, no stamp at all that is equally a give away. You can still request Israeli officials not to stamp your passport at any crossing, it just probably won't do any good, considering the entry/exit stamp from the country you are entering from or leaving to.

If you have two passports (i.e. you have dual nationality), this can be very handy for many things, but in the case of avoiding an Israeli stamp, you will end up with one passport with an entry stamp from say Jordan and an exit stamp in your other passport. The only other way is to get a new passport, but don't try reporting it lost in Egypt since the embassies all know this trick and are less than happy about it. Don't forget that border guards are allowed to search your bag and maybe looking for proof (money, hotel bill, etc) that you have been in Israel (this was an issues with Syria - but that is now pretty  much off everyone's itineraries these days).

 The only fool proof way to do a grand tour through the ME and include Israel - is to conclude it there. The only route overland is from the North to the south, if you want to conclude Israel in it. Otherwise fly in and out of Israel avoiding stamps you don't want that way.

These days those arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport automatically won't get a stamp in their passport. You will get a little card printed with all your personal information, picture included.

  • Accommodation: Hostels, make sure you bargain and choose carefully, most are full of day labourers and have a very lived in feel. Hostels in Jerusalem are the cheapest. Get used to big dorms if you want to save money.

    • Average cost: US$40-60 double room in hostel. Dorms a third to quarter of this price

  • Communications: Brilliantly fast, but quite expensive internet, many international call centres

  • Media:

    • Books: Almost all in Hebrew. Good English newspapers and magazines selection

    • TV: Subtitled TV and films in hostels, many cinemas

  • Food: It is expensive to eat out, your best bet is to cook for yourself in hostels

    • Vegetarians: Wonderful choice for veggies and vegans alike

c 'I recently travelled to Israel and was lucky enough to spend 5 weeks there. I travelled from the very tip of Israel, from the Golan Heights, down to Eilat and the border with Egypt. For a county, 1/3rd the size of Tasmania in Australia or roughly the size of New Jersey, Israel was a melting-pot of so many cultures. From walking through the Arab shook in Old Jerusalem, to the visiting the 'Taj Mahal rivalling' Baha'i Gardens in Haifa. I watched the sun rise at Mount Masada, and the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea in Tel-Aviv. For cheap 8 Shekel ($2.50 AUD) shots, visit the Budah Bar in the 'old port' in Tel-Aviv. If you're after a truly biblical view of Jerusalem, a city holy to the three main monotheistic religions, head up to the 'Haas Prominade'. Also, while in Jerusalem, for the best 'no-risk to health' Shwarama, visit Rehov King George (Rehov=Street). However, as a general rule of thumb, the least clean shops usually have the best tasting Shwarama. Accommodation, especially around the Old City is quite expensive. The YMCA there had rooms from around $70US from memory. If you are near the Western Wall (The Kotel) and have a craving for a smoked-salmon bagel, check-out 'Bonkers Bagels' - from memory 15 Shekels will get you a bagel with around 3/4 of an inch of cream cheese and smoked-salmon. Don't be put off by loud Americans questioning the change given back to them, that's just them. Now, if you want to join the Madonna inspired Kabbalah movement and giving charity at the same time, buy some red string from the beggar woman asking you for 'Tzdakah' - meaning 'charity' in Hebrew. Visiting Israel for me was a life changing event. For those concerned about the security situation, you really must ask yourself - wouldn't you feel safer if when entering a mall, you knew that everyone had to pass through airport like security, rather than simply just walking in - which is most likely the case at your local mall. Happy trekkn'!- Stefan, Melbourne Australia'

c 'I have enjoyed looking through this site.  I have one comment - I have travelled twice in the West Bank of Palestine. I have found people there to be incredibly kind, generous, and warm. Families have invited me to sleep in their homes, whether in a city (like Nablus) or in refugee camps (like Balata and Askar) and it's difficult to not spend hours in peoples' homes drinking tea and coffee and just talking. My experiences are not reflected in this site's comments on Palestinians and I want to let readers know'. - Matt

c 'With respect to Israel there are a number of things you neglected to mention. The culture is different in the Middle East, many people confuse rudeness with different social customs. I have travelled the country extensively and have been invited to homes many times by strangers and abundantly fed. You also neglect to mention many of the most fascinating places in Israel to see such as Banias in the north, the Judean Desert with the different Wadis, the Negev, the Dead Sea, Masada, Caesaria. Some of these are not easy treks but if you missed them you missed out. If you did not see tourists I am shocked. There were many tourists around when I was travelling. I heard an abundance of Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, German....' - Benjamin

c There is more to Israel than just Jerusalem. You need to focus more on Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is one of the most laid-back, best beach culture cities I've ever seen. Totally SECULAR, great parties and bars, hot women, great set of hostels, etc. Tel Aviv rivals Rio and Sydney in terms of beach culture. Please highlight Tel Aviv, as there really is more to Israel than just Jerusalem. - Jay

  • People vibe:

  • Locals: Many will admit, myself included, they nurse a dislike for Israelis, meeting so many in other parts of the world. Often incensed by their behaviour and dress. Kept awake by them at night and finding them on the whole rude and obnoxious. In fact many travellers meet so many Israelis abroad, one of the reasons to visit Israel is to see if there are any there! What is said about Israelis abroad is true, but you will had no real problem with Israelis in their own country, but a proportion can still be a little brash. Palestinian residents can be very friendly through to rude, it really depends on how far you get off the tourist trail.

  • Other travellers: Plenty in Israel at the moment, lots of Americans, but basically everybody. Popular destinations always have a steady stream of tourists, notably during religious festivals.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Everything stops from sun down Friday to sun down Saturday. Similarly on Friday in Gaza and the West Bank. Some hassle from desperate souvenir vendors in Jerusalem

  • Women alone: Fine, out-side the occupied territories, Israeli women dress to impress.

    * Rating: 7.5/10, despite costs, just Jerusalem and other highlights 9/10

    Miss at your peril: Jerusalem and other Holy Land sites - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

    Recomended

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Miss at your peril: Iran - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

RecomendedIt's amazing that such a traveller's gem can induce such fear in so many people. Give it a try mention you are even thinking of going to Iran to friends and relatives and watch the reaction. Listen to them speak... 'but there are terrorists there' (no that's Iraq (not to mention most of the world)), 'but women are second class citizens' (no that's Saudi Arabia - there are actually more women than men in University education), 'didn't they blow up those Buddhist statutes' (no, that was the Taliban in Afghanistan)... it goes on. The ignorance Iran inspires can almost be painful.

Even well-travelled individuals get slightly nervous at even the name. There is absolutely no reason to be. The problem stems from many sources. First up is that most of us know nothing about Iran other than what we heard about the revolution, hear in the media and what a strict Islamic government chooses to present. The other fault we all make is filling in the gaps ourselves. Iraq to the left, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the right (hmm, not exactly the most instantly appealing destinations), it's natural to assume Iran is somewhere in the middle. The reality is that even the most widely travelled and open-minded visitor is likely to have preconceived views shattered and find a country that truly is a marvel.

Expect some of the most welcoming and truly hospitable people in the world (although that term is used far too often, here it is appropriate). Expect open-minded individuals who are about a millions miles away from religious fanatics who will be delighted to further your surprise in finding out the true nature of the place and go out of their way to help you. Expect some of the best value travel in the world. Expect virtually no hassle (this isn't Egypt you know). Expect to feel extremely safe and welcomed and finally, expect to find a country where you can walk beside beautiful mountains streams below towering snow caps (even go skiing) one day, forests and rice paddies the next, harsh deserts the next and historic oases the next... the list goes on.

Safe, civilised, cheap and reasonably efficient Iran is one of the last hidden gems of this nature. There is too much to share in a small intro like this so if you are even thinking about going it's best to pick up the excellent LP for some more reading. To summarise in a few words: 'Iran - there's nothing to be scared of.'

Esfahan , Masule, Yazd , Alamut Valley, Chogo Zambil, forgotten and well preserved history, atmospheric bazaars & tea shops, the gentle honest hospitality and getting off the beaten track

Food can become trying after a while especially if a vegetarian. Bam can still be visited but most of the old city is in ruins (even more than before).

The climate can also pose a problem with big variations in temperature through the country, plus (in parts) a baking summer and freezing winter.

VisaGetting a visa for independent travel is now for 'most' very simple as it is available on arrival at the airport. If you are not 'most' (the most notable exceptions are Americans, Brits and Canadians) or you need to cross at a land border it is a minor hassle, but it's not impossible or as tricky as you might have imagined. Internal policies and politics in Iran will dictate how friendly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be (to you and your country) and with relationships improving this can make things simple.

Getting a 15 day tourist visa at the airport is easy, normal fees payable and a return plane ticket as per the normal visa process. The key to getting a visa lies in your nationality if you are from an EU country (excluding the UK), Korean, Swiss, Australian, South African or Japanese (for example) you will have no problem and will find it on arrival at the airport after completing pre-arrival processes. If you can't prove you have an insurance that is valid in Iran (it's not valid if it says 'valid world wide'), they will ask you to buy an insurance for EUR14 and the VOA fee depends on where you are from. If you are British, Canadian and (of course) American it is be different, but if doing your research and heading to the right embassies or consulates (e.g. Trabzon in Turkey or Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan) and getting an invitation it is in reality not too difficult. With Iran starting to open up it should be getting easier all the time.

If you are on a tour you should have no problem (Americans will pretty much always have to travel this way), but if possible do yourself a favour and don't visit on a tour - there's no need.

Independently (for Americans, Brits and Canadians) there are three approaches you can take. The first a transit visa that you shouldn't have too much problem getting (with some delay) even en-route in a neighbouring country. This gives you five days to transit, which will allow you to see at least something. The days of extending these visas ended a long time ago. You will not get an extension and the taste of Iran you get is more than likely going to make you wish you had a full visa.

Iran VisaApplicable for Canadians, Brits and Americans (rest visa free now). For a full visa, you can approach this two ways. One, apply directly to an embassy yourself. Depending on prevailing politics and international relationships with your nationality you may get a visa this way with an extended wait, a few forms and a fairly costly charge. The second method and best (especially if you want to pick your visa up en route), is to use an Iran based agency to give you a reference code. This authorization code will be sent to an embassy of your choice and ensure you get your visa with minimum delay. You still pay the standard fee and there's no 100% guarantee you will get a visa with this method any more than the first. Such agencies would be www.key2persia.com and charge around EUR30 on top of the standard visa fee which varies by nationality. They simply apply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs domestically - but if they don't want to play ball they don't help any more. The process will take at least a few weeks, and if you get turned down by one agency, try another. Once in Iran visa extensions are possible.

Much is written about visas being easier to obtain in this embassy, harder in that embassy, or about how, because of a diplomatic spat/agreement they are now harder or easier. There is some truth in these reports, but at the end of the day it's a lottery so just buy a ticket. Remember if you get knocked back once, try again.

Women will need to wear a headscarf in the visa photos supplied and not showing loads of cleavage is probably good idea too! But don't worry too much about this, as long as most of your hair, ears and chest are covered. If you are a Muslim and have a Muslim name in your passport, forget all this, you should get a visa with ease.

  • Dangers and annoyances: Virtually none. Iran is actually a remarkably safe country, but strict religious laws do apply - however, these serve more than hinder travellers. Photography of government buildings is illegal and, unlike in other places, taken seriously. There are reports of fake policemen scams (full details in LP), but this is no longer really a major problem with some attempts being laughable - demand ID or that you go back to your hotel, otherwise just walk away, you are in no real danger. Around the Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan border things are a little different and care is required.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Autumn and spring are pleasant and would be considered the high season, but a sweater is still needed, especially on draughty night buses. Winter is surprisingly cold with towns like Masule getting cut off by snow - skiing is cheap and possible near Tehran up to about mid-April - and even in Spring/Autumn, when the centre of the country is pleasant northern and high lying areas can be quite chilly. Conversely, in the summer most of the country roasts, but in the interior the dry heat is not too bad. Even in November it's unpleasantly hot and sweaty on the Gulf coast, making mid-winter the only bearable time to visit here.

  • Typical tourist trail: Tehran, Yazd, Esfahan, Shiraz/Persepolis (Pur-sep-o-Lis)

  • Costs: The cost of travel in Iran has been creeping up slowly over the years and is now much more expensive than it was five/ten years back when one could find a black market exchange rate and when fuel subsidies were greatest. Fuel is slowly getting more expensive thereby increasing costs (mind you, it's still silly cheap). That said Iran is still a bargain and travel on as little as €10-15 is quite possible: however you will live much more comfortably on €25-35 and have plenty of money for entrance fees. Internal flights cost about €30-50 for a leg like Esfahan to Shiraz. Foreigner pricing for entry fees have come, gone and reappeared. Currently they are five to ten times the local price.

  • Money: There are plenty of ATMs in Iran, but you won't be able to use any of them. Likewise travellers cheques and credit cards are no good. It really is a cash only trip with USDs and Euros being best, but you can change YEN, GBP, CHF with no problem in larger cities. Some carpet and expensive souvenir shops will let you use a credit card that they authorise in Dubai or elsewhere. All this changed after the 1995 USA trade embargo and is likely to change again if the sanctions are lifted or tightened. The currency is the Rial of which you get a fair few for your dollar/euro. Notes are small denominations. Confusingly, verbal prices are generally quoted in tuman not rials, making things sound one tenth of their real price. If something sounds too cheap it's probably in tuman. 10,000 rial (around a thirty us cents) = 1,000 tuman or normally one finger held up. Having a small calculator on you makes arranging prices much easier and avoids confusion. Arabic numbers are used, but everyone understands Latin script numbers (e.g. 1,2,3).

  • People vibe: It's widely reported and very true that the people you meet in Iran will be amongst the friendliest in the world. However, don't expect to rock up in Esfahan or Tehran and see all smiles and get invited into someone's home straight off. It might happen, but these places see a fair number of tourists. If you want a true Iranian experience, the formula is simple: get off the beaten track. If you have time, both the North East and North West are - despite lacking big pulls - beautiful and interesting. In certain areas you will come across many Afghans and Turkmens. There are very few travellers who will not be totally blown away by the genuine warmth and hospitality of the vast majority of Iranians and even the most open minded are often quite perplexed that their preconceived image was so very, very wrong.

    • Locals: There is little hassle with locals, Iranians on the whole are good tempered and trustworthy.

    • Other travellers: Compared on a global scale, expect very few independent travellers: nevertheless there are still a fair few, who are normally at least over 25 and from European countries. Also, at main attractions expect a lot of large package tour groups, particularly in peak season these groups are normally German, Spanish/Italian, French or Japanese.

  • Tourist factor: On the beaten track 6/10, off 2 or 3/10

  • Accommodation: Cost of accommodation, as in most places worldwide, depends on your standards. Iran is definitely a country where you can find very cheap places to stay, but you get what you pay for. Hotels will normally always have twin beds. If a couple, expect no problem if you're not married (it is assumed that you are married- not having the same second name or a ring makes no difference).

    • Hot water: Hot water and heating is common and works well

    • Average cost: On average €25 gets you something pretty descent. Double this for a good standard. Halve it for a basic place. Most hotels have a dual price lists, one for Iranians and one for travellers, so if a price looks a bit high, bargain away.

  • Communications: Internet is fairly plentiful in most towns, although pretty slow. In the biggest towns you can find call centres if you look hard. Most European mobile phones pick up an Iranian network.

This is the one issue that worries most visitors to Iran - well female at least - and for little reason. Please, please forget ideas of having to cover up totally in black or of locals scrutinising you every time you step out on the street. There's a huge range of what women wear in Iran, from the all-black clador numbers to outfits that would not seem out of place in Europe with head scarves barely hanging on. It comes as a surprise to many visitors to discover how far the dress code is pushed in places.

Head ScarfThere are 3 simple rules that are easy to follow and will pose you no problem. 1) Cover your head, neck and ears with the sort of scarf that's easy to find in any high-street store like H&M (you can buy another with ease in Iran). The technical name for this style of head covering is the shayla. It's fine to have a few inches of hair showing at the front. 2) You need to wear a light jacket (although this is the wrong word, really any top that is long), that covers your arms and your arse. In the winter you will appreciate of a thicker coat, in the summer a light cotton jacket (think of it as a long blouse) is better.

These garments are normally black or navy blue, but any colour is fine, They are easily available for about €10-30 and can look fairly stylish. The last kind of rule 3) would be make sure your arms and chest our covered. Showing a wrist or ankle is fine and so are sandals (although not that common). A long skirt is also fine, but not commonly seen, so trousers are better.

Dress code does vary somewhat, with places like northern Tehran and the ski slopes being the most relaxed, to Qom and Mashhad (religious centres), being understandably much more conservative. Okay words only go so far. For some images of what is typically worn by younger women and acceptable in Iran, click here - example 1 / example 2. Understandably this is tricky issue for many, but is no reason not to visit. Any questions get in touch. 

Apart from at a handful of religious monuments there is absolutely no reason to wear a clador (easily borrowed). A clador, for those unfamiliar with the term, literally means 'tent'. It's often black and acts like a cape to totally hide form. It has no fastenings so needs to be held shut by teeth or hands all the time. Not to be confused with a purda (the total veil with only a slit for the eyes), which is rarely seen in Iran (only in parts). For more details on all styles of head covering see this excellent resource.

Getting around Iran is easy and brilliant value. Starting at the cheapest and going up: Buses come in several forms, from the standard Asia battered up type and service (ultra-cheap) to more flashy and comfortable Volvo style buses on key routes. Mini-buses run on shorter routes, but don't leave to a schedule. Taxis around towns seem a little pricey compared to other transport costs, but it all depends on your bargaining skills. For longer journeys taxis can easily be arranged and will allow you to travel in comfort, stop on the way and shave at least 20% off the journey time compared to buses. The going rate seems to depend on your bargaining skills, has been increasing over the past few years, but is still good value. Normally, a hotel can help you with this.

Trains are a welcome luxury. Routes are limited, but tickets are cheap (even for better classes). Key routes would be Tabriz to Tehran/Ahwaz. It's worth booking a day in advance.

Flights are is  good value, but can add up. Getting a handle on what routes are possible is not easy as guidebooks are little help - visit a travel agent when you first arrive. All major towns are air-linked, flights can get full, but it really depends on the day, time of year (No Ruz) and frequency. If you're on a limited time schedule and not an ultra-low budget, a few internal flights work wonders.

  • Health: High medical standards with most doctors speaking English: consultation fees cheap. Plenty of pharmacies with cheap prices on generic medicine. There is a slight malaria risk depending on the location and time of year. In extreme summer heat, dehydration is of course a danger. On the plus side, tap water is safe to drink almost everywhere.

  • Media:

    • Iran, the LP way Books: You will be able to find pretty dull English language newspapers and books in major towns. There is the odd news-stands selling copies of Time (although always out of date). That's it.

    • TV: Most hotels of an okay standard have a TV, although you are unlikely to get anything other than state television in Farsi (although live Premiership UK football is shown). In more expensive upper mid-range hotels you might be lucky and get BBC World and CNN.

    • Movies: To view a few digital camera shot movies shot in Iran, click here.

  • Food: Eating can be somewhat difficult in Iran. Restaurants are seldom geared to tourists and signs/menus are mainly in Farsi. Food isn't that bad, with plenty of rice, yogurt and salad. Fish isn't too common and most dishes contain meat. There are plenty of pizza and kebab/burger places around, but none are likely to excite your taste buds.

    • Vegetarians: Difficult, but not impossible. Salads, yogurt, rice and fresh fruit/veg are plentiful. Well stocked shops/bakeries will sell tins of fruit and snacks. Vegetarian pizzas are unusual, but can be had. Rice and mashed eggplant/aubergine dishes feature on most menus. It's easy to buy bread, cheese and salad material to make your own sandwiches.

    • Language: Farsi is spoken (not Arabic), although like Urdu in Pakistan, it's written in Arabic script. Street signs are excellent and are written in English/Farsi, as are most official signs. However, restaurants, cheap hotels etc. can be hard to locate with no Latin script signs. 'Hello' is the same as in Arabic, and the French for 'thank you' (merci) is commonly used. Other than that, for those without language skills, getting your tongue around words and pronunciations is hard and even asking for a bus to somewhere like Qazvin can be a nightmare.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Apart from curious locals and the odd carpet shop guy (although most are pretty nice) in Esfahan, the beauty of Iran is that it is virtually free of hassle and annoyance, 2/10

  • Women alone: There is much less sexual harassment than you might expect/fear and it's nothing like India/Pakistan. The problem is really that it's uncommon for women to travel alone and although there's little danger, it's much better if you are with a friend.

  • Social conventions: When meeting those of the opposite sex shaking hands is not common or considered polite. Generally if you are a couple the male will be spoken to and addressed.

  • Local poisons for the body: Cigarettes and water pipes are cheap and easily available. Beer is also readily available (only it's always non-alcoholic and available in a curious array of flavours). Most of Europe's opium passes through Iran and there is a major drug problem, although as a traveller you are unlikely to come across it. Of course this is not the place to go breaking any laws or looking for a good time.

    * Rating: 8/10

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No Ruz or Nowruz (Nu-ruse) is the Iranian new year celebrated for at least a week in Mid-April (spring equinox). Imagine this week as Christmas in the west: pretty much everything stops, shops close, transport and hotels get booked solid. No Ruz then continues in a fashion for a second week, with schools still off, and many people staying off work and visiting friends/relatives or taking a holiday. This is around the time of year many consider visiting and it's probably best to stay away if you can, but travel is possible especially in the second week (just stay away from Mashhad, Shiraz and Esfahan - unless you have a room booked and don't mind crowds).

  • KurdishstanIntro: You might get wide eyed responses when you tell people you’re going to Iraq. After all, since the American invasion in 2003, it has become the symbol of warfare, much like Vietnam was in the 70s. However, the Kurdish province was largely untouched by the war. It's safe, people are friendly, and it's going to completely change the image you have of Iraq. This is not Baghdad.

    Beware that the visa for the Kurdish autonomous province is not valid in the rest of the country. And so, if you venture too far south, you will become an illegal immigrant in Iraq. Not recommended. It's a thrilling experience just because it's Iraq, and getting that stamp in your passport sends butterflies flapping around your stomach.

    All this aside, it's a very relaxed place, and the Kurds are incredibly friendly. Once they reailse you’re a tourist and not an expat, they will get even more exited, and do everything to make your stay more pleasant. It's not an eventful place though. And it's not cheap either. The sights are few and far between, and the towns, except for certain parts of Erbil, are largely unimpressive. But you didn't come here for that. You came because you wanted to break a new frontier and go where other travellers haven't gone. And although you will come to realise that this place is just as “normal” as anywhere else, it will be a tale to tell in the future.

    The Kurdish province is separate from the rest of Iraq. It is autonomous almost to the extent of being a separate country. They have their own government, their own laws and their own language. Business is thriving and the economy is growing rapidly, all of which can be seen in the skyline of Erbil. And if Kurdistan ever was to become a country, Erbil would be the capital (The local government wants to make Erbil the "new Dubai", and this development is visible when you go there. Of course, this won't happen tomorrow, but go before it's too late).

Erbil, especially Ainkawa (the Christian part of Erbil), and the old town. Akre. Meeting locals, who are extremely friendly and curious as to what you are doing there. And of course, getting that Iraqi stamp in your passport. Crossing the border to Iraq.

Lack of sights and things to do, crazy intra-city taxi drivers, the price tag, and crossing the border back into Turkey.

Here's the inside scoop: It's not dangerous! That is, as long as you stick to a certain itinerary. Generally the rule is: The more South or West you go the more dangerous it is. Don't go to the areas of Mosul and Kirkuk (especially not the latter). The itinerary of Dohuk - Erbil - Sulaymaniyah is possible at time of writing although government advisories warn of 'avoiding non-essential travel'. Of course, you can travel in the areas surrounding Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, but ask around before you do so. The spill over of the conflict in Syria has/will affect the security situation. If you stick to this itinerary, the most dangerous situation you’ll experience is taking a taxi from city to city. Did you think they drove crazy in Asia or Latin America? Well, then welcome to Iraq!

  • Visa strategy: North Americans, Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders and Turkish nationals get a 15 day visa on arrival (if you want to stay longer you need to see an immigration office within 10 days). NOTE: This visa is only valid for the province of Kurdistan.

  • Less visitedTypical tourist trail: Tourist factor? LOL. You will not likely meet ANY other tourist. However, there is an expat scene in Erbil due to the oil business.

  • Money: Bring Cash. USD. A western debit card probably won't work on an Iraqi ATM. However, there was a possibility of using a credit card at expensive hotels, in case of an emergency. Accommodation and most transport will be charged in US Dollar. Minor transactions, such as food, are normally paid for in Iraqi dinar. 1 USD is approximately 1000 Iraqi dinars. Normally, whenever you pay in USD you get the change in Dinar. If you need to exchange money, just ask around. Plenty of hotels and shops can do it (especially phone shops and jewellery shops). In Erbil, there's a black exchange marked in the old town. Overall, rates are quite good. Note that Iraqi Dinar can be difficult to exchange once you leave Iraq.

  • Costs: More expensive than you would think. Accommodation is the worst budget killer. Food is quite cheap. Approximately $60 per day is realistic. Couchsurfing would make the trip much cheaper.

  • Hot/cold/wet and dry: It's a mountainous area, so it's cold during winter. Especially Dohuk and the border. However, it's not too cold, and the sun is still strong so this is not really a problem. It's the Middle East, so expect hot and dry summers.

  • People vibe:

  • Locals: Lovely people. They are very happy to have you there and are genuinely hospitable. If you have a problem, they will go out of their way to help you. The level of English is low-medium. Most people won't speak English, but then you’ll suddenly meet someone who speaks it excellently.

  • Other travellers: Non-existent

  • Accommodation: There is no "backpacker accommodation". The main type of accommodation consists of hotels catering to business travellers. The going rate is US$45 to US$70, but the Kurds are really nice and understand that you’re a poor backpacker, so they will most likely give you the room for half price without you even bargaining. The receptionists will try to help you and will give you as low a rate as possible without them getting in trouble with the management. Hence, the actual rate is more like $20 to $35. Hotels normally include a generous breakfast. The price in Ainkawa, Erbil is much higher. So avoid sleeping in this area (it's very nice though so see it).

  • Communications: Wi-Fi in most places, with a decent speed.

  • Food: Kebabs, kebabs and kebabs. You can get anything from a 3 dish kebab dinner at a restaurant to very cheap kebabs in street stands. The price is anywhere from $0.50 to $15.

    • Vegetarians: Not the best place for vegetarians. There's a LOT of lamb. Of course, anything's possible, but your options are more limited than other parts of the world.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Minimal. The Kurds are busy going about their own business.

    • Women alone: Perhaps not the best area for a woman alone, but it's definitely possible. In my personal experience: Kurdistan seems less conservative than many other Muslim countries. Culturally, it's very similar to eastern Turkey (which is also Kurdistan). Just bring common sense.

In: Crossing the border from Turkey, which is a nice experience. People don't cross on foot. Shared taxies (minivans) are arranged in Silopi, Turkey, which is only 15 minutes or so from the border. You will share this taxi with the local Kurds, who are very nice although they don't really speak English. This crossing is very pleasant (Turkey to Iraq); small queues; they give you tea while you wait; it's nice. However, going the other way is a nightmare.

You can also fly to Erbil. There are planes going to and from Istanbul frequently. There is an airport in Sulaymaniyah as well, but Erbil might be a better bet for international flights.

Erbil old town Around: The common way to get from city to city is by taking a taxi. They run all the time and cost around $10 per person. The taxi won't leave until it's full, so you have to share it with strangers (you might have to pay $20 from the Turkish border to Dohuk). These taxies stop at military check points along the way, so have your passport ready. It needs to be said that these taxi rides are not for the light hearted, as is explained in the "danger” section above. The intra-city taxies are not local taxies however. So when you arrive, you need to switch to a local taxi to get around the city.

Added: Many thanks to Torgeir Holmen for proving this summary and the great photos. It is worth noting that the opinions here are that of Torgeir and should perhaps not be compared directly to other summarise on this page or the site.

  • Local poisons for the body: Here's the kicker: Alcohol in Iraq is dirt cheap! If you want a drink, you’ll find a place in Ainkawa, the christian part of Erbil. They have different venues, including some expat venues, local places, hotels etc. (of course, at fancy hotels, the price will be higher). Cigarettes are cheap and plentiful, like in any Middle-Eastern country. There are local places that serve alcohol. These are normally big halls where people gather to play cards, smoke shisha and have a beer. At these places you might see the occasional woman, but not many.

    * Rating: 6.5/10

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  • PetraIntro: It can be easily considered that in common with many places around the world, Jordan doesn't have that much to offer, especially compared to other regional destinations. It is more expensive than Turkey (especially if you add in entrance fees) and its residents are less friendly, but it has one of the world's most impressive sights: Petra. That's all that really needs to be said about Jordan.

    Most would say, Amman needs only a day if just clocking the main sights. Generally experiences of the capital are  better outside the roasting summer months and you can find great cafes, something of a hipster and live music scene, street food and friendly people. Other attractions include both Jerash - as set of Roman ruins (underwhelming compared to the best of the region) - and Wadi Rum - out in the desert and of Lawrence of Arabia film location fame. The Dead Sea is easier (especially for females, but more expensive) in Israel. But then again there's Petra and a comparatively safe Middle East experience away from the crowds and hassle of Egypt.

    It is worth noting that over the years Jordan's, and to some measure its visitors, experiences have been shaped by regional conflicts and the spill-over of refugees into one of the most regionally stable and welcoming countries. It is impossible not to notice the large Palestinian population and in recent years the massive inflow of Syrians. This however causes no immediate problems for travel (okay maybe the odd over pushy taxi driver or vendor) and if anything you get to interact with nationalities you might otherwise not.

    For those of you who don't know the name. Petra, shown left, which was recently highlighted by the ridiculous 'new 7 wonders' campaign, is an ancient stone city. Petra, mean stone/rock in ancient Greek. With two highly impressive stone façades cut into rock faces as seen in 'Indiana Jones'. Coupled with the whole area and a long narrow passage leading up to one façade make it unforgettable. If you have some privacy away from the sometimes large hordes that visit daily, the area is awe inspiring. However, don't expect to find anything exciting inside the façade entrances as in the movie!

    Petra , Wadi Rum and the Dead sea (although vibe and facilities better in Israel). The country is well organised for tourism.

    Jerash (compared to Ba'albeck or Palmyra (or what is left of it)), Aqaba

  • Visa strategy: A 120 nationalities get a visa for a fee on arrival. If you buy the Jordan pass in advance your visa fee (and entry to Petra and loads of other attractions) is included.

    If arriving from Israel or other neighbouring countries by land it might be demanded you have a Jordan pass in advance (stay at least three nights in the country). Reports are that for these land crossings that the visa on arrival is not available anymore without the pass. Note that crossing from the West Bank at the King Hussein ("Allenby") Bridge - where you need to check the situation and will need a visa in advance. The Allenby/King Hussein Bridge (main entry point from Jordan to the occupied Palestinian Territories/Israel) is closed during Yom Kippur and Eid. Opening times are always shorter than normal during imported Jewish holidays. Currently you are not able to get a visa to Jordan at King Hussein/ Allenby Bridge (or use the crossing with an Israeli passport), but can get a visa to Jordan at Sheikh Hussein Bridge (also known as the Jordan River Crossing) which is one hour north of Allenby/King Hussein Bridge.

  • Typical tourist trail: From Turkey (by air) or Israel, to Amman, Jerash and back and/or Jerusalem, Petra then Egypt/Eilat

  • Dangers and annoyances: Dipping in the Dead Sea with a cut you did not know about and creative pricing by taxi drivers in Amman

  • Money: ATMs - currency is the Jordanian Dinar, aka. JD

  • Costs: The JD doesn't go that far, especially with the Petra entrance fee and little rip-offs. US$30-40 a day min.

    Note the Petra entrance fee has been creeping up slowly for years until recently. During 2011 it increased from 40JD to 60JD to eventually an astronomical 90JD by 2013 (1-Day Visitor, overnight is cheaper). With regional issues and a drop in visitors, rates reduced back to 50JD (60JD for 3 days) in 2016. Entry is also included on the Jordan Pass which is only 20JD more than normal entry at the gate. Ref: http://petranationaltrust.org

  • Getting around: Okay buses and mini-buses and shared (service) taxis, don't let them rip you off, ask a local how much they are paying. Service taxis are more expensive than minibuses, but a lot faster and more convenient. The service taxis only operate on fixed routes, so if you ask the driver to deviate from that route be prepared to bargain for a price. Private buses (mainly operated by Hijazi) run from Amman to Irbid, Petra and Aqaba. Minibus services then normally connect smaller towns on a much more irregular service basis (read: leave once they're full).  The best long-distance bus company (aside from mini-buses) is JET bus, which has reasonably priced buses all over the country.

    The Hijaz Railway train travels only short jumps for leisure on holidays and weekends with meaningful routes all suspended. 

  • Guide book: Many good guides, a general Middle East guide is fine. The Jordanian ministry of tourism has excellent information on line.

  • Health: Petra requires a lot of walking, make sure you have sun block, tons of water and even a hat

  • People vibe:

  • Locals: The country has a large immigrant population. Jordanians are really quite nice people, and so are Palestinians (the majority of the country). Other immigrants (Syria, Iraq, etc) are by and large even more friendly than native Jordanians. Both Jordanians and Palestinians are very hospitable and kind, although in Amman people tend to be a little more reserved. 

  • Other travellers: Lots of Australians and Kiwis and some package tourists, especially at Petra

  • Accommodation: Reasonable accommodation, be sure to bargain. Given the bad press of the whole region, there is often an over supply.

    • Hot water: Fine

    • Average cost: US$20-US$25. You can sleep very cheaply on hostel roofs in the summer months or in nearly empty dorms

  • Food: Tons of Western-style restaurants and cafes in Amman, as well as traditional Arab food. The café culture is especially strong in Rainbow Street and both men and women frequent these. 

    • Vegetarians: Can be difficult if you dislike falafel

For not too-expensive independent travel, if you have 3 or 4 friends sharing and are competent at 4-wheel driving, the best way to have a marvellous time in Jordan is to hire an off-road vehicle (with 2 good spare tyres) and head off on desert tracks. It is NOT too expensive to hire a local guide/interpreter to help out; with a GPS and mobile for back-up, you can see a hell of a lot.

There are painted desert castles, lost Roman forts, pink sand deserts, white salt flats with mirages to explore - and much, much more; a lot off the beaten track, and by no means all of it difficult or dangerous to reach, just a little bit rough. Jordan, especially the south, has possibly some of the most varied and spectacular scenery in the world.

One idea is the route down from Petra, through the Araba mountains, on ancient trails to the Dead Sea Rift. It's a dream. - With thanks, Antonia Willis

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Some hassle. All taxis should use the meter by law- if the driver refuses just get out and grab another one. It starts at .25 JD in the day and .30 JD at night. Most trips around the city of Amman are under 2 JD. 

    • Women alone: Foreign-looking women can expect [potential] verbal harassment and stares regardless of how they dress, and all women will probably experience some of this. It is unnecessary (and weird) to wear a head scarf if you aren't Muslim. However the city of Amman is very safe and women should not be afraid to go out alone. 

  • Local poisons for the body: There are some decent brands of local beer and alcohol is readily available, if not cheap. 

    * Rating: Without Petra 5/10 with 7/10

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  • Lebanon flagIntro: Most travellers give what was one of the worlds hottest destinations a miss due to its former bad rap and problems reaching overland (not to mention problems in nearby Syria). Lebanon can be expensive when compared to Turkey and getting to see the mountains and famous cedars without a car is difficult. Beirut is not overly stimulating and a good night out will set you back quite a bit.

    Nevertheless, Beirut truly is the Paris of the Middle East: the most liberal, sophisticated, open-minded place in the region (only place in MENA region with gay bars) with beautiful architecture (bullet-holes included), beaches and people. However, accommodation is good value and the temple and ruins at Ba'albeck are one of the must-sees of the whole region.

    Limited travellers, generally nice people, small distances and easy to use buses mean that exploring and a visit to the Middle East's least visited and most beautiful country is extremely rewarding.

    Ba'albeck and checking out Beirut, especially its nightlife and obvious war damage

    It hard not to mention the effect of the conflict in Syria has had on the country and Beirut. While refugee camps are out of sight for most travellers and the destitute of Beirut have increased (still less than most African or Asian countries), the vibe of the Beirut has changed and accommodation prices have certainly shot up. It is easy to be reminded (as in Jordan) of the number of Syrians in the country and the horrors happening not too far away.

  • Visa strategy: Available on arrival at the border/airport for most (up to 3-months) if passport has no evidence of a trip to Israel. Visa is free if you stay for under a month and come for tourism

  • Typical tourist trail: None, normally a dash to see Ba'albeck with a night or two in Beirut

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Ranges from very cold (in mountains) to very hot. April or May the weather is wonderful. August is really hot.

  • Costs: Pretty good value, but not dirt cheap. Like almost anywhere, Lebanon can get expensive if you want a high standard of living or to live it up

  • Money: ATMs. Can withdraw US dollars in some machines.

  • Getting around: Shared mini-bus or shared taxi

  • Guide book: Hard to find something decent

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Great fun people

    • Other travellers: Very few. As with the rest of the ME (and parts of Africa), the breed of backpacker here is slightly different than normal:, mature 20s or 30s, independent solo travellers being the majority.

  • Tourist factor: 3/10

  • Accommodation: Few cheap places, but a couple of hostels have popped up in Beirut. Recommended is Hostel Beirut, it's a small hostel run by a Norwegian who maintain a quality vibe and information source for the few backpackers who still make it to Lebanon.  The hostel is actually also an NGO investigating the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon. Expect around $20 a night (per person). Another option for the cheapest places in Beirut are over the 'Wash Me' car wash, hard to find (see guidebook). Go to the third floor for friendliest service. Comment Thanks James for the update.

    • Hot water: Fine

    • Average cost: Less than US$30 can be found, which is better value than Damascus in a generally more expensive country

  • Communications: Many 24 hour internet places in Beirut, but not that cheap

  • Media:

    • Books: Lots of imported magazines and newspapers

    • TV: Cable in hotels

  • Food: Fast food and general Middle East eating, not that cheap. Great selection in supermarkets.

    • Vegetarians: Generally okay with a little difficulty.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Taxis beeping at you in Beirut. A much more western society than Syria

    • Women alone: Generally okay, you may be hit on a lot - this is a male dominated society

  • Local poisons for the body: The best place to get a beer in the Middle East

    * Rating: 7/10

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  • Intro: SyriaOman has something to offer most travellers. It is the Arabian peninsula squeezed into one country, with crystal blue lagoons, vast deserts and beautiful mountains. In many ways, the country feels like it's been stuck in history. Muscat, the capital, and the country's only major town, looks like something out of 'Aladdin', and in the Wahiba Sands, locals still live in nomadic camps. Compared with the nearby countries - visa restrictions in Saudi Arabia, price and pretentiousness in the UAE, violence in Yemen - a trip to Oman should be a breeze. The best way to see the country, by far, is to rent a car. It's a very rural country, and many places can be difficult, if not impossible, to get to otherwise. So if you don't have a license, this can possibly be a let-down, especially if you have to share a tour-bus with package tourists from Dubai. There aren't really any 'backpackers' or other independent tourists in Oman, and thus limited to no facilities for this sector. So unless you get a travel partner, you might end up spending a lot of time alone, and travel the country for twice the price (considering hotel rooms and car rentals).

  • Visa strategy: Visa on arrival for most nationals. The process is nice and easy with very little hassle. It costs around $40 and is valid for 1 month.

  • OmanDangers: Virtually none. That being said, this is a Muslim country, and women are expected to dress conservatively. Note: Some areas are prone to flash floods. Beware if camping.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: You don't have to worry about rain, after all, this is the Arabian peninsula. Summers are very hot and humid, while winters are dry and temperate, with hot days and cold nights. This is probably the best time to visit.

The Wahiba Sands! A trip to this vast desert should be on the top of most travellers' lists. Ride a camel, visit a nomadic camp, and look at the stars at night. Oh, and driving a 4WD in the desert is wicked. Nizwa Fort is a cool visit for any history buff. Another highlight is the locals, who are genuinely funny and nice. The Jebel Shams offers a nice and easy trek with an amazing view.

Distances between attractions. This is a major let-down if you don't have a car. For example: Nizwa Fort is nice, but it's the only attraction within hours of driving. And that's not taking into account added time for public transport. The same goes for Jebel Shams; it might be nice, but it's only a one day trek. And it's ages away from anything else. Without a travel partner, you might have to spend a lot of time alone, and the trip will be twice the price. My advice is going on a travel forum to get a partner: I don't have a driver's license, but I teamed up with someone who did, and we went on a road trip together.

Added: Many thanks to Torgeir Holmen for proving this summary and the great photos. It is worth noting that the opinions here are that of Torgeir and should perhaps not be compared directly to other summarise on this page or the site.

  • Typical tourist trail: For backpackers: there is no trail. With the exception of package tourists from Dubai, there aren't any other travellers.

  • Costs: Depends on you, but around US$50 to US$60 per day is advisable (plus car rental). You can go lower, but this could limit your trip because sometimes you don't have a lot of options for accommodation. However, compared with neighbouring Saudi and UAE, Oman is very cheap.

  • Money: Plenty of ATMs in Muscat, but consider bringing cash elsewhere. You can find an ATM at the occasional gas station, but don't count on it.

Even if you are not a big fan of tour packages, consider going on a tour in the sands. There's a handful of agencies online and you can call them from Muscat to set up a time. You will sleep in a nomadic camp in the middle of the desert, go camel riding, 4WD driving etc, much of which would have been difficult to do by yourself (of course, it's possible. Anything's possible with the right attitude). For me personally, this was one of the highlights from all my travels in the Middle East, and is worth a look into.

  • Getting around: By car: The highways are nice and plentiful and easy to navigate. Gas is cheap. The cars come with a GPS system that works pretty well. Don't remember exactly how much it cost to rent a car, but I believe it can be as cheap as $20 - $25 per day.

    • Public transport: Cheap and ok. There is a bus going almost anywhere, but considering the distances and the low population density, this can be a hassle.

    • Hitch hiking: Possible. However, again, the distances and the low population density might make it problematic.

  • People vibe: Very friendly. And they’re a humble people too, so in case you want to be left alone, no one will bother you. There is a huge Indian population that's been there for generations. However, unlike the UAE, they mix with the local population, and they seem to live peacefully together.

  • Other travellers: Very few. Hence, if you actually meet someone, it will feel like the most natural thing in the world to talk to them.

  • Tourist factor: 3/10 - 4/10

  • Accommodation: Hotels and resorts of decent standard with variations in price. Between $20 and $40 for a room. Some room for haggling, but not much. Normally there aren't a lot of options, except for Muscat, of course. Hot water almost everywhere.

  • Communications: Limited internet outside Muscat, but always possible to find if you look for it. VERY slow.

  • Food: Standard mix of Middle Eastern and Indian food. Anything from Roti, curry and chicken tandoori to lamb sticks and kebabs. The fish in Muscat is highly recommendable.

    • Vegetarians: Fine, although it might get boring.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Outside the market in Muscat, you won't experience much hassling. Everyone is very relaxed.

    • Women alone: Not really a problem. But dress conservatively - that's to say, you don't have to wear a headscarf, but try not to dress like Miley Cyrus either!

  • Local poisons for the body: As with Dubai alcohol is not illegal, but sold only in licensed places, which are typically expensive hotels. Away from 5 star palaces in Muscat it's uncommon. If you will be desperate for a drink the best idea is to bring your own into the country when landing at Seeb Airport (where 2 litres are allowable and you can buy on arrival), you are not allowed to bring alcohol into the country by private car. Cigarettes are plentiful and cheap.

    * Rating: 7/10 (however if you are alone and/or don't have the funds to hire a car (or visit during the hottest period) 4/10).

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Warning: Until present problems are resolved, it would be better to visit elsewhere in the region.

For anyone reading this whom was able to visit Syria before the conflict, the disruption to the lives of millions of normal hard-working and fundamentally hospitable people is tough to fathom. The UNHCR estimates over 2 million refugees. For anyone who can or wants to help the details and the appeal can be found at: http://donate.unhcr.org/international/syria
The original country summary has been left for a date when we and others can return.

  • Intro: SyriaOften described as the ugly sister of the Middle East (for current good reasons). Syria also gets its fair share of media attention and normally for the wrong reasons. The country is now wrapped in a bloody civil war and despite being fascinating and welcoming and full of wonders - it is not currently safe and the unfortunately reality is it will be a long time until it is travellers can return. Visa hassle and disappointing cities, made up for by Palmyra, the Crac des Chevaliers (famous crusader castle) and some of the friendliest people in the world. See current state of the country's treasures.

    • Highlights previously....: Palmyra , the Old City of Damascus, Crac des Chevaliers and amazing people.

    • Lowlights: Bigger towns and getting your visa

  • Visa strategy: You really need to get this in your home country, technically only those nationals without an embassy or consulate in their home countries can get one at the border/airport. Visas are possible in Ankara or Cairo, but very expensive (you will need to get a recommendation letter from your embassy) and are time consuming (we are hearing more and more mixed reports on this, some people having no problem in Istanbul - it is up to you to take the chance). Get a multiple entry visa if you want to visit Lebanon (which you should). Passport must have no evidence of a trip to Israel.Syria map - taken from www.bbc.co.uk

  • Typical tourist trail: Turkey to Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Damascus to Jordan or Lebanon

  • Dangers: There are tragically continued violent attacks across the country. Military operations and clashes between protestors and security forces have caused many deaths and injuries. There are of attacks on regime-affiliated targets in different parts of the country and right now it is not safe to visit.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Can snow in Damascus, very hot in summer

  • Costs: Cheap, although getting increasing more expensive, less than US$25 per day outside Damascus.

  • Money: Bank Audi or any Lebanese bank works with American and British bank cards, but the Commercial Bank of Syria and the Syrian National Bank do not allow international bank cards to withdraw money. Most Syrian ATM's just wouldn't give you cash for whatever reason. Advisable to take a good part USD/EUR cash, as mentioned few international ATMs that need tracking down. Changing travellers cheques can be a real pain, you will need your purchase receipts. It is advisable to carry cheques in US Dollar, it is difficult to get cheques in € or even £ exchanged. Good places to change non USD TCs are reported in Aleppo (the CBS branch near Ugarit cinema 1st floor, some 5 minutes walk north of Baron hotel), in Damascus try the branch opposite the Semiramis hotel, (expect to be kept busy for about half an hour - you'll have to pass by 7 persons, on 2 floors, including twice via the manager!). Cheques in US$ are widely accepted, sometimes even at hotels.

  • What to take: USD/EUR cash - get from Turkey/Jordan/Lebanon

  • Getting around: Buses and mini-buses to nearly everywhere - a little rough, but amazing value. Shared taxis also good for international destinations. Additionally there is actually a modern and very cheap train service which goes from Aleppo to Damascus and on into Jordan. Trains are impressively comfortable, but not particularly fast. The train from Damascus to Jordan is very slow, but it's much more comfortable than a full bus.

  • Guide book: Overkill, but good Lonely Planet or Syria chapter in Footprint or Let's Go

  • People vibe: Some of the friendliest people on the planet, their kindness and hospitality will never cease to amaze you

  • Other travellers: Lots of Australians, Europeans and Kiwis. Pretty much a full gamut, except for Americans and Israelis.

  • Tourist factor: 0/10

  • Accommodation: Fantastic and amazing value in Palmyra and Hama. Terrible value and just plain terrible in Homs and Damascus. Between $5 and $10 per night for roof-top beds in hostels (zero privacy) and $30-$40 for walls and private bathroom

    • Hot water: Fine

    • Average cost: US$30

  • Communications: The Internet is in all big cities now, although some sites (such as Facebook are blocked).

  • Food: Limited choice, outside Palmyra. No fast food chains, good pizzas in Damascus. Very cheap. National dishes include kubbeh (minced semolina and meat formed in balls and stuffed with minced meat, onion and nuts) and yabrak (vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced meat). Falafel in Syria is very distinct and excellent (especially Aleppo).

    • Vegetarians: Okay

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: None, apart from people continuously being friendly and not leaving you alone at times

    • Women alone: Dress very conservatively, having your own headscarf might be an idea to save money hiring them from mosques and in remote areas. However this is nothing like Iran and no ultra-conservative dress is required or enforced.

  • Local poisons for the body: For booze head to the Christian quarter in the Old City in Damascus or Aleppo and there are a couple of hole in the wall bars and liquor stores. Also, the new Duty-Free shop at the Syrian border on the road from Beirut to Damascus has the cheapest everything - beer for fifty-cents a can, and cigarettes at US$5/carton. As per Middle Eastern culture, everyone smokes.

    * Rating: 7.5/10

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Miss at your peril -Turkey 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Recommended Easy
  • Aya Sofia - IstanbulIntro: Turkey: where Europe and Asia meet, the best of both worlds and one of the best traveller destinations on the map. It is big and diverse, has amazing sights, cities, history, beaches, cheap prices, a great bus system and it is as easy living comfortably on the beaten track as it is to be in a town where no English is spoken and the culture is unique.

    Turkey has a significant divide, the west, where most travellers and package tourists hang out and the east which is much more like Asia. The east is more remote, requires major bus travel and is much less civilized meaning everything written below needs reassessing.

    "...one of the best traveller destinations on the map" - I can only agree, especially the East and Kurdish provinces for sights, scenery and hospitality. - Thomas

    The deserted East, Cappadocia, Istanbul, Butterfly Valley (near Oludeniz), Mosques in Istanbul and Edirne, to name but a few including most of the coast (apart from really developed areas), ruins and natural wonders won't disappoint.
    Don't miss the East, Van and north-eastern mountains and anywhere that gets you a little of the beaten track.

    Tourist damaged, tacky beach resorts such as Bodrum and long distances especially if heading to Iran or the Caucasus. There maybe plenty of fastinating history attached to Gallipoli and Troy, but the actual sites don't offer much. Over-zealous males in beach resorts trying to latch onto foreign females is a common complaint.

  • Visa strategy: You need to apply on-line at www.evisa.gov.tr in the same way as you get a USA visa before travel. If you cannot we understand you can still get with some minor hassle on arrival, but at a higher price than on-line (where you pay with credit card). Prices of on-line visas are 20US$ and 30US$ on arrival for USA and most of Europe. Australians and Canadians pay 60US$ online and 70US$ on arrival. You can normally pay in GBP, USD or EUR, but USD is normally best/cheapest option. The tourist visas have good validity and can be extended no problem. There are two different visa types. With a single entry visa, you can enter Turkey only once and stay up to three months. A multiple entry visa, on the other hand allows you to enter and exit the country more than once within one year period specified on your passport and you can stay in Turkey for three months each time.

  • Typical tourist trail: Istanbul to Troy, to Ephesus to Oludeniz to Kas to Olympus (amazing Chimera) to Cappadocia.

  • Dangers: Enjoying yourself too much. Some terrorism and heavy army presence in Iraqi and Syrian border areas.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Very hot in the summer, too cold in the winter. Visit late September or Spring.

  • Costs: The whole country is excellent value for money, although without a doubt getting increasingly more expensive. Good value still remains, notably outside of peak tourist seasons and away from touristy coastal areas. It is worth noting that the Turkish Lira is one of a number of rapidly developing nation currencies that has significantly strengthened against western currencies and to find the very best value you have to head to the east of the country.

  • Money: ATMs

  • What to take: There is some good trekking in the north east of the country that will need camping equipment if you are up for it

  • DistancesGetting around: Fantastic bus system (some buses big, some small), not so good trains. Ferry travel to Greece is expensive considering you can actually see the islands! Dolmus are small stop-anywhere mini buses. If you want to go to rural areas where inner-city buses don't run, you will need to locate the dolmus stand relevant to your destination. There is a limited rail network, but buses are easier, cheaper and faster.

    Good tip: When taking buses, especially at night, walk around all of the operators and ask to look at the passenger lists to quickly gauge how full the bus is and whether you will have room to stretch out. Bear in mind that options are great and jumping on bus after bus is easy. For example there is one crowded over night bus from Istanbul to Cappadocia a night, but simply take any empty bus from Istanbul to that region and get off at Asksaray after a good nights sleep with loads of room to stretch out. Then pick up a bus to Goreme (heart of Cappadocia) no problem.

During the high season-usually from May till October, there areseveral regular ferry services between these Greek Islands and Turkish towns. Ferries depart from around six Greek islands to around ten ports in Turkey.

Ferry The busiest, most convenient Turkish ports are Bodrum, Marmaris, Kuşadasi and Çeşme; - those in Greece are Rhodes, Kos, Samos and Chios. Departure times change frequently but it is safe to say that ferries usually depart Turkish towns in the morning and Greek Islands in the afternoons. Typically you need to reserve the day before. Ticket prices of course vary and port tax often forms a big part of the cost of the trip.

  • Guide book: Many. The Lonely Planet is good. Asia Overland by Trailblazer is also an excellent resource, but not an all-out guide (it is also out of print!). An excellent web-resource on Turkey is www.turkeytravelplanner.com

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: A little jaded in the very touristy coastal areas, but on the whole a fantastically welcoming friendly people with a tradition of hospitality that really means something

    • Other travellers: A wide range from round-the-world tripping Australians and Kiwis to Club 18-30 package holiday teenagers

  • Tourist factor: from 10/10 to 2/10 - it's a vast country with plenty to explore, especially in the north east

  • Accommodation: Great widespread choice of accommodation. More basic in style the further east you go

    • Hot water: Fine, in some traveller beach colonies shower water is salty

    • Average cost: Under US$15

  • Communications: Widespread internet (in west)

  • Media:

    • Books: Some book shops in Istanbul, but generally expensive. A few book exchanges and daily foreign (especially English and German) newspapers available in tourist areas. English tabloids, not such a good read, are printed in Greece daily, so ready available on same day in coastal package resorts.

    • TV: Some English news channels, plenty of cinemas

  • Food: Great choice, great Kebabs and always at a good price

    • Vegetarians: Normally okay

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: There are a few touts and lots of carpet sellers, but they are not anything like their counterparts in Egypt or India

  • Women alone: Dress conservatively, you will probably constantly be looked at and hit upon with bad lines.

    TurkeyE-mailed comment: Turkey is indeed a gem, and I met some very kind and friendly people there. The eastern end was my main focus and I would say, go! As a solo female traveller I didn't get hassled at all - it felt safe to say I was travelling alone (against practically all advice I've read), and in fact that caused people to look after me even more. Incidentally, on long-distance buses in Turkey, a woman travelling alone will always be seated next to another woman, or will have a seat to herself. I dressed conservatively (covered my arms and legs; no low-cut tops; and I wear a bandana/headscarf anyway when I travel, for convenience); I also avoided eye contact unless asking directions etc., as Turkish women seemed to do. I was stared at a lot, particularly in the eastern towns, as I am clearly a foreigner, but (perhaps because of my clothing and behaviour) I did not experience any sexual harassment or feel uncomfortable (though I used my common sense, e.g. did not wander round the streets at night in small eastern towns). I've taken the advice on packing light - I tried out a 35L daysack for 2 weeks in Turkey - and it made travelling a lot easier. Now I've gone ahead and bought a proper 35L bag with a frame, for use on all my non-camping trips. - Hannah

  • Local poisons for the body: Getting a beer outside touristy areas can be difficult. Most adults smoke, expect to second hand smoke about twenty a day. Although you can probably get away with second hand smoking only maybe half a dozen cigarettes now that they have banned smoking on all the public buses.

    * Rating: 8.5/10

Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel' - This whole region is a treasure chest, great people, great sights, easy transport. Apart from other flashing stars on this page: Petra, Istanbul and Ba'albeck should not be missed. Don't be put off by news headlines - check the facts. The Middle East is top drawer, reasonably safe and very hospitable.

Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours).

M Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

"Before you criticize someone, first walk a mile in their shoes. Because then you will be a mile away and have their shoes!"