I convinced Chian Huey to take me on a road trip again, on my fifth visit to Oman. But by this time, she had been an expat in Muscat for several years, and had acted as tour guide a few times already with various friends who had the opportunity to visit. She was getting bored of visiting the same tourist attractions, and was no longer keen to spend the night someplace other than home.
Ok, ok… a day trip it is then. Not Nizwa, she told me. She was sick of taking guests to Nizwa. Fair enough. I wasn’t too fussed, even though I actually wanted to see the famous Nizwa souk. As a slow travel aficionado, I am quite aware that being detoured to lesser-known spots can be very rewarding too.
“You know, I haven’t been to Bahla,” she mused. She had heard Bahla had a weekend souk too. In addition, there is an old fort in Bahla, for it was an important city of the Omani inner territories.
She looked Bahla up on the map. “Eh, it’s also near this place Jabrin. There also got castle,” she said. On the way back we could stop by another tourist attraction, Al Hoota Cave. And we could also pick up nearby Misfat al Abriyyin if there was time. “You should see this place. Very charming one. It’s an Omani traditional village on the hill.”
She had another idea. She was going to invite a couple of female Omani junior engineers who she mentors at work. We would have a ladies-only road trip, with a little bit of local conversation.
- Road tripping with Omani women
- Dress code in Oman
- Bahla, the witchcraft capital of Oman
- Bahla Souk – or at least, the end of it
- Discovering that Bahla Fort is a UNESCO Heritage Site
- Looking for the Bahla Jama’ mosque; found a chapel instead
- Exploring Jibreen Castle
- Al Hoota Cave
- Misfat al Abriyyin
- Carbon offsetting information to Oman
Road tripping with Omani women
We picked up the local women (I’m gonna shorten their names to Em and Kay) at their homes in the morning.
I looked forward to the trip. From my experience, it is usually a much better experience going on a tour with local women, compared to local men. I find that men tend to stick to the standard narrative (at least to a woman), whereas women will give you a perspective that isn’t normally told. And the gossip is better too!
On their part, Em and Kay hadn’t really visited Bahla as tourists. So we were in good spirits as we set off.
But not before stopping by at a gas station for food supplies – as would be expected from a carful of Asian and Arab ladies on a road trip!
Dress code in Oman
Oman is a conservative culture, whose people dress fairly uniformly (albeit very, very well), even in the capital city of Muscat. That said, I found that dress code expectations are not so much a requirement, but more about social civility.
Omanis are tolerant of foreign clothing; for example, it is not necessary for women to don a headscarf. That said, there is an appreciation for a certain standard of dress. They are an aesthetic people, and vulgar dress is unaesthetic. It’s probably the only culture I’ve encountered where the men seem like they might actually be better groomed than the women!
In terms of what this means for females, the kind of dress that would be considered respectable in Asia (as in, you will be allowed to enter a temple), would be quite sufficient in Oman. If your outfit covers shoulder to below the knee, preferably sleeved rather than sleeveless, this would not be jarring to local sensibilities. If you want to fit in, then imagine you’re dressing with the attitude of a Victorian lady/gentleman, except with today’s fashion. That’s the level that city folk in Oman are at.
Female dress code in the interior of Oman (and conservative cultures in general)
Depending on where you go outside of Muscat, dress norms do tend to get more conservative. Areas of high tourism would not be too different from Muscat. But if you go off the beaten track, some places are still very traditional in dress and social norms.
For example, a very traditional village may not understand the phenomenon of a woman travelling alone. (And their incomprehension may be equally misunderstood by a liberal traveller). To an even greater extent than conservative Asians, Arabs travel in family groups, so it is strange that you would travel alone on purpose. At least a man may be forced to out of necessity, to spare his family the effort. But for a man to travel for leisure without taking his family with him, or for a woman to be out alone rather than have a male family member take care of whatever the task is for her, is strange.
That being said, similar to other conservative cultures, I don’t normally adopt the local female dress completely. The reason is that unlike liberal cultures, conservative cultures usually have a set of rules for in-group members, and a different set for visitors, with the latter being more forgiving.
If you arrive in a black robe and fully shawled, chances are you might be expected to know and abide by all the rest of the social expectations for a local woman, which will be impossible for a foreigner to know, and a recipe for diplomatic disaster.
How to signal you’re a good guest in conservative cultures
Dress is a form of code; it is not so much about what’s ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. It’s more about sending the right signals, to receive the experience you’re looking for. Generally, the reason why this is more a concern for female travellers than male, is a combination of two things: some conservative cultures have very different social rigidity about male vs female dress (female non-compliance viewed more severely than male); and that modern western culture is more lenient on female vs male coverage (western female fashion covers less than male fashion).
So, go for a show of effort to approach the elements of local dress (e.g. if nobody is showing arms, then go for long sleeves and draped shawls), but still being noticeably foreign. What this says is, ‘I’m not from here; please grant me visitor’s rules. I’m a good and respectful visitor, so you ought to say yes.’
I highly recommend having friends from many different backgrounds. This will allow you to consult different worldviews and be able to figure out stuff like this more instinctively.
Bahla, the witchcraft capital of Oman
As we drove to Bahla, Kay gleefully told me that Bahla is sorcery central for Oman. Say what?
Apparently, even though they’re not supposed to as Muslims, there are practicing witches in Oman, and they congregate in Bahla. There is even a Grand Wizard who lives there, in a lone house at the end of a long street. He raises apparitions that look like people, but by now the locals can tell the difference between them and real people.
Indeed, when she told her parents about going to Bahla, she had to re-assure them that she was just going to the Fort, and not anywhere near the witching neighbourhoods!
Black magic vs white magic
Witchcraft is generally frowned upon in Oman, although white magic practitioners are viewed with more respect than black magic. They’re completely different, Kay explained. Even the more worldly Em nodded her endorsement. Black magic is the sihr, she said, using the Arabic word that Muslims worldwide recognise.
Sihr is evil, she said, and told us a story about how a witch who had been wronged by a neighbour exacted his revenge by causing the neighbour to take to howling at the sky at night. There was no way to cure the afflicted woman; other neighbours had to intervene and pressured the witch to lift the curse.
But… what’s white magic then? Is it not sihr?
Nooooo! It is not sihr, it is ilm. I thought that was interesting – she used the same Arabic word that is generally used for ‘knowledge’. It suggests that the distinction to Omanis was not about the method, but about its morality.
Kay went on with an example. A white magician may use magic to move a boulder blocking a public thoroughfare, so that traffic can pass. It is not the same.
Black magic is about controlling others, she continued. Love spells, for example – also sihr. People also often use magic to keep themselves looking young. But you can tell if it’s magic. It looks weird and unreal.
“We have witches too,” I said. In fact, it was an open secret that the wife of the ex-Prime Minister* consults with witch doctors.
Really?? The girls exclaimed in excitement. Let’s see her picture, they demanded. I did an internet search and showed them Rosmah Mansor. Em and Kay nodded sagely. Definitely witchcraft, they pronounced.
Bahla Souk – or at least, the end of it
We had hoped to reach Bahla early enough to see the souk. It was not too late when we arrived, we thought. But, as we wandered into town from the parking lot, it seemed quite a bit harder to figure out where the souk was exactly. There didn’t seem to be a market like in Mutrah.
But there were rows of shops. The buildings were neatly finished, the alleys fairly tidy. Amusingly, unlike literally anywhere else I’ve been, there were far more men’s clothing shops than women’s!
So we browsed the shops that were open, examining curios and antiques. There were traditional clay urns fitted with convenient modern plastic taps! Chian Huey somehow spied a curious contraption, and asked the Omani shopkeeper what it was. Not being fluent in English, the shopkeeper showed us its use; I can only describe it as ‘tiptoe shoes’. (Fast forward to present day and I now have enough diversity in my network to be able to translate the Arabic audio. Find the answer on my Instagram!)
In a sort of close around a tree, we found the closest thing to a traditional weekend market in the form of some goats tethered for sale. Perhaps if we had been earlier, there would be more of a market scene.
Discovering that Bahla Fort is a UNESCO Heritage Site
We doubled back from the souk and headed up the rise to Bahla Fort.
It was certainly a formidable fort, with curving walls protecting its main gate, a commanding sentry tower, and smooth high walls flecked with archer’s holes. An architectural marvel, said Kay. Folklore has it that the construction of Bahla Fort had been assisted by djinn enthralled by Bahla’s wizards, cementing its sorcery image even more.
Now, I hadn’t realised this beforehand, but Bahla Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Bahla is a beautifully constructed fort, large and sprawling, capable of housing a large garrison and supporting craftsmen. We wandered its now-empty rooms and made our way to the parapets for a view of the surrounding area. But the Omani late morning heat soon drove us back into the shade.
Oman’s Christian past
As we explored the keep, I noticed a familiar set-up out of the corner of my eye as we passed through what seemed like a corridor. I stopped short. Hang on, that doesn’t fit.
Letting the others move on, I drew closer to the tall alcove at the side of the corridor. There was something familiar about this shape. Where have I seen this before? Why is it familiar, yet out of place?
Then it hit me. It looked just like the family chapels in English castles. But… Oman is a Muslim country. Could it be a small musholla instead? I examined it more closely. No, a musholla would be flat, due to the nature of Muslim prayer movements. The stepped, curved area looked more like family-sized pews.
There again, there were Christians in the Arabian peninsula at the time of Prophet Muhammad. In fact, the first person to predict his prophethood was his wife’s cousin, a Christian priest. Perhaps the tribes in inner Oman had also been Christian before they became Muslim.
Oh yes! said Kay when I asked her. The Banu Nebhan, who dominated the Bahla region, had been Christian. Indeed, the alcove was a chapel. She then launched into a long – but fascinating – ramble of Omani history, that thoroughly justified my belief that nerdy local women make for excellent tour guides.
Entry fee into Bahla Fort
Despite being UNESCO listed, the entry fee for Bahla Fort was only 500 baiza (about $1.30). I thought this was shockingly affordable, given that Oman is generally an expensive country to visit due to the strong riyal.
I wouldn’t have minded paying more, if it meant that the fort would be equipped with more information displays and guides. Even just going by Kay’s ramblings, the fort seemed like it had a lot of historical significance that was mostly lost on us.
Looking for the Bahla Jama’ mosque; found a chapel instead
When we were done, we tried to look for the Friday mosque. A historically significant building, it’s supposed to be attached to the fort. In pre-sultanate times, during the days when the inner territories of Oman were ruled by Imamates that only nominally recognised the sultan in Muscat, the mosque had been used for the election of the Imam among the regional rulers.
But we could not pick it out from any of the buildings next to the fort. None looked any more special than any other. It didn’t help that there were no signs, which is not entirely surprising since the Ministry of Heritage had shut it to visitors due to theft of mosque pieces.
However, we did discover the remains of an old chapel from pre-Islamic times. There is another building over it now, but a portion of the floor has been overlaid with glass so that you can see the old chapel underneath.
Exploring Jibreen Castle
Our next stop was the nearby Jibreen Castle. Unlike Bahla Fort, Jibreen Castle is more like a castle keep, rather than a proper fortified castle. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re already in the area. Though it is not as historically significant as Bahla Fort, nor anywhere as large, the castle is pretty on the inside and has better exhibits of Omani cultural artefacts.
Like Bahla Fort, the entry fee for Jibreen Castle is 500 baiza.
It’s easy to imagine the luxury of the residential quarters when it was the residence of the local Imam. You could tell from the patterned ceilings, calligraphy inscriptions, and intricate floral motifs on the timber rafters.
The courtroom of Jibreen Castle
A courtroom occupied one of the middle floors. You could see across the airwell into it, but the access is from the corridors on its sides.
The accused would enter from one corridor for his trial. If found innocent, he walks out the way he came. But if found guilty, he leaves by a special door to the other corridor. It is much lower than the other door, so that the guilty must stoop as a first step to penitence.
The Imam’s children would be expected to ascend all the way up to the topmost floor to receive instruction from the in-house tutor. The household mosque was on the roof above.
Near the kitchens, we came across a large store room dedicated entirely for dates. There were drainage grooves around the sections where dates would be piled as food stores. As the dates at the bottom were squished by the weight of the dates above, its syrupy juices would squeeze out. This would be collected in the channels around the piles and then stored for defense.
Yes, I said defence.
Military nerds would of course be aware of medieval use of hot oil as a defensive tactic. In Oman, dates were more plentiful than oils. So, instead of heating up oil to pour onto attacking soldiers, they heated date ‘honey’ instead.
I also thought it was interesting that the cannonball store lies opposite to the women’s prayer area. I wonder if the munitions were guarded by women?
Al Hoota Cave
Al Hoota Cave is a convenient stop between Bahla Fort and Misfat al Abriyyin. It is a cave complex of geological interest, accidentally discovered in the 1960s by a farmer looking for his sheep. Today, it has been properly developed into a tourist attraction.
Is Al Hoota Cave a worthwhile stop on a road trip?
It depends on how much of a geology enthusiast you are.
To get to the cave, you must ride a train up to it, which costs 7 riyal. This is quite expensive, considering that you could visit both Bahla Fort and Jibreen Castle 7 times with the same amount.
Once you arrive at the cave, you will be taken as a group on a cave tour, which was ok. Within, the paths are well-constructed and safe. The caverns are spacious, but photography is not allowed, to protect cave species within. There’s an interesting outcrop that looks like a lion, and a subterranean stream where blind fish can be found. When you return to the visitor complex at the foot of the hill, there’s a gift shop and geology exhibit at the end.
All in all, it’s an ok stop to make if you’re into geology and caves. It could also be a welcome stop if you’re looking for somewhere cool to escape the daytime heat, as it is quite cool in the cavern.
Misfat al Abriyyin
Our final stop was the quaint Omani village of Misfat al Abriyyin, just past Al Hamra. Not too long ago, this village would be considered an off-the-beaten-track location, but it’s becoming more popular with weekenders from Muscat. As far as I could tell, there did not seem to be an imminent danger of over-tourism yet.
The plus side is that the villagers have gotten more used to foreigners, leading to a narrowing of the cultural signal gap that I mentioned above. Chian Huey remarked on it. She had been reluctant to spend the night in the hill village (which I had wanted to do), remembering its closed feeling to outsiders. But that day, the village felt relaxed and welcoming.
Indeed, I recommend devoting some time in Misfat al Abriyyin. There are short hiking trails that wound through the village, as well as longer ones that passed through the oasis farms and down into the wadi. We only had time to try one of the shorter hikes. If I had the opportunity to return, I would definitely spend at least a night in one of the guesthouses to explore the hikes.
I had gone to an oasis during my last road trip in Oman. But while I had passed by several, we never visited an oasis date farm, so Misfat al Abriyyin was the first time I learned about Oman’s local irrigation system.
Like many oasis farms in Oman, the date farms are watered by a system of falaj, a series of irrigation channels made of a straw-mud construction called saroot. The falaj system routes spring water through farms owned by different families.
Interestingly, there was a time share element to this system, to ensure that all families receive a fair share of the water, irrespective of where their farms are located. Different farms are allocated different days for watering. Blocks are lodged in the falaj outlets for the farms not being watered, so that the water passes by and spills out to the farm whose turn it is.
Aside from the farms, the same system routes water to public drinking fountains fitted with brass taps. A common metal cup is left at the fountain for common use. Unsurprisingly, there are strict taboos against contaminating the falaj.
A local product that Misfat al Abriyyin is known for, is honey. There is a local beekeeping business you could visit, where the affable proprietor would show you both the traditional bee houses as well as the modern ones he mostly uses today.
The honey in Misfat al Abriyyin is locally considered to be of medicinal quality – it’s not the kind you’re supposed to mix in with just dessert (although that’s what I did with mine). It is comparable to the way New Zealand manuka honey is used. The taste is not very sweet, and it has a slightly bitter note that isn’t unpleasant (unless you’re used to expecting syrupy sweet supermarket honey).
Getting tea at Misfah Old House is the thing to do here, so we did that to rest after all the sightseeing. The view is fantastic from the roof terrace, such that Em began dreaming about marrying a local man in order to qualify for local oasis land.
But the city calls, and we reluctantly made our way back to Muscat, leaving the inland regions of Oman behind.
Carbon offsetting information to Oman
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Muscat produces carbon emissions of approximately 4,184 lbs CO2e. It costs about $21 to offset this.
* This trip was in 2018, just after the administration of Najib Razak, which was voted out in an unprecedented election following public anger over the 1MDB financial scandal.
Looking for a 1-day road trip itinerary out of Muscat that isn’t Nizwa? Pin this guide for inspiration!