I spent a couple of days in Oman last week on the tail-end of my first trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The Sultanate of Oman is very different from its richer neighbors – no tall buildings, most cars are modest Japanese makes and ostentation is frowned upon. Most Omanis practice the moderate Ibadhi form of Islam, distinct from Sunni and Shia, and have a long history from the Sumerians to the Portuguese occupation and they did a bit of colonizing themselves along the East African coast, notably Zanzibar (and you can still see Zanzibaris around). The country is ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said who is revered throughout. He has been using their oil money to invest in other industries, notably tourism.
Oman doesn't feature as a major tourist destinations, which is why it's a hidden gem. Clean, safe with a chilled out vibe: there was none of the traffic or chaos of Morocco or Egypt, nor the hordes of tourists. We hardly heard a car horn during our stay. The people were warm and friendly. We walked a couple of souks with nary a hawker or tout in sight and hardly got solicited by the (mostly indian) shopkeepers.
Some tips and pix from the trip:
- Muscat is one of the sleepiest capital cities I've been to. While it has its history, most of the buildings are new or refurbished giving it a bit of an ersatz feel. There isn't a whole lot to see so a day is plenty. The souk was also pretty disappointing. Since we had such a short trip, we used it as a base and stayed at the 'cheap and cheerful' Nomad B&B, which worked well. It cost 45 rials (about $110), which isn't cheap for a B&B but for Muscat it was good value. Other things like food and taxis are fairly reasonable, however.
- Oman has spectacular scenery. We did a day excursion first visiting the old capital town of Nizwa and seeing its livestock market and then headed into the mountains for some 4×4 driving around Wadi Tanuf. We had Salim, our trusty guide/driver, take us around although many people rent their own 4×4 and do it themselves. Camping is popular and I'd have loved to spend more time there doing that. We didn't have time to make it to the desert (Wahiba Sands) but that ought to also be part of the itinerary. Conde Nast Traveler has a couple of articles that can be used to plan itineraries.
- Do yourselves a favor and hire Salim to take you around Muscat or on excursions. A jolly, burly Omani who picked up English on his own, he is a character and made our trip. He was full of stories and jokes, many of which had great build-up but no punch line, probably as a result of something being lost in translation from the Arabic. But his incredible delivery followed by no punchline made it all the funnier. I will always remember his story about the elephant and the mouse. Best way to reach him is on his mobile, +96899141441, and tell him "Big boss & little boss" referred you (being marginally taller than Rafat, he named me big boss). A whole day excursion in a 4×4 cost about 100 rials ($250) while half day drives in the saloon car are much cheaper. We had him drive us to Dubai (3.5 – 5 hours depending on traffic & the border controls), which cost just 60 rials.
- Watersports and activities are also popular. We went dolphin watching and snorkeling along the spectacular coast around Muscat, but Oman also has fishing, diving and kiteboarding.
While a couple days wasn't nearly enough to properly see Oman, I'm glad I went and would definitely go back.