Touring Muscat with An (Asian!) Expat Friend
No one seemed to mind being sent to Muscat. That alone created a feeling of intrigue in me, for the Sultanate of Oman.
Let me explain.
I work with a lot of international professionals. Some of my work-mates in the office are expats. Some of my counterparts in companies I deal closely with, are likewise expats.
So I'm acquainted with the usual gripes of expats employed by large multinationals who are based in Asia and the Middle East - especially the Westerners.
You see, there are a few countries that career expats tend to view with much more reluctance and concern compared to others. Not just to be based in, but sometimes even just to visit. The causes range across social opportunities, schooling for children, security threats, social restrictions, conservative laws - you get the idea.
But strangely, nobody really minded being sent to Oman. This is true even if I exclude the geologists, who understandably rave over the incredible and incredibly accessible geological formations of Oman.
It was like Oman enjoyed a special bubble of exemption. Even though on the face of it, there wasn't anything in particular that explained it. And this sentiment - or lack thereof - was basically consistent across the breadth of expat origin countries.
So when there was reason for me to be sent to Muscat on a business trip, I was already curious. I'd like a tour of Muscat.
- First Impressions of Oman
- Getting around in Muscat
- First Stop on Our Muscat Tour: Wadi al Kabir
- Next Stop: Mutrah
- The Muscat Tour Continues: Old Muscat
- Essential attractions to round out a Muscat tour
- Optional attractions for a customised Muscat tour
- Muscat Tour for foodies
- Fun tip for your Muscat tour!
- Carbon offsetting information to Oman
First Impressions of Oman
The first thing that struck me when I arrived, was the Omanis themselves.
I watched the customs officer greet a British expat who clearly regularly passes in and out of the country, affably asking after his young family, making small talk as he did his checks.
This is probably going to come out wrong, but that was the first time I'd ever seen a non-Western government official casually address a Westerner with presumptive familiarity - like an equal - without the slightest suspicion that it wouldn't be accepted.
And the first time also that I've seen the Westerner reciprocate without batting an eyelash, in a most neighbourly and candid manner. As if the non-Westerner was white.
Don't get me wrong. I've seen this dynamic often - but up until then, only from a Westerner to another.
And I thought, what kind of magic place is this?
Then my Malaysian brain thought, so that's what it looks like, if you've completely healed from an insecure, post-colonised mindset, and stop subconsciously trying to impress a random Caucasian.
This is the case throughout my time in Oman. People in general - from wait staff to office worker, taxi driver to shop clerk, irrespective of whether they're local or migrant - hold themselves with collected dignity. There was an absence of self-consciousness or defensiveness.
What kind of magic place is this?
What to wear when visiting Oman
I guess I should iron my shirt tomorrow...
I'm not saying that I have a terrible wardrobe. I do clean up well, when I have a mind to. But immediately on exiting the arrival hall, I felt distinctly unfashionable.
How this could possibly be achieved is a mystery to me, in a place where all the men dress nearly identically, and all the women as well! But it was.
It's very strange, because it's not like I'm not used to seeing Arab clothing. We have a lot of Arab tourists coming to Malaysia, many of whom maintain their native dress while touring our country. We also have Arab style clothing enjoying a degree of popularity in Malaysia, among the Malay community.
So it's not about the clothes per se.
You cannot tell if Omanis are wearing designer stuff or not, nor do they tend towards the gaudy. However, they always manage to look put-together, like their robes are perfectly tailored, never looking cheap, draping just right, and always looking pressed.
They seem to always look groomed - men and women. The women, especially, seemed to glide when they walk. (I secretly peered closely at my local colleagues' feet a few times, to try and figure out exactly how they managed this effect). And they wear a relaxed, pleasant expression.
Elegance is an attitude?
This was the other thing that struck me: Omanis are elegant. And they are elegant not in the way that makes you feel excluded. But in a way that makes you feel like maybe you ought to try a bit harder, and feel like maybe you could.
I don't really know how to describe it. It's like taking care to be well-presented, but then seemingly forgetting about it, such that there is no vanity.
Now, everyone who knows me probably knows my dismissiveness towards the notion of 'fashion'. But here is a sense of the term that I can get behind, and see the point of. Where it's not about what you wear, but how. Where it's about achieving a shared effect of beauty and elegance, and not about showing up others.
Getting around in Muscat
During my second visit to Muscat, I was able to allocate extra time for sightseeing after the work part of the trip was done.
By then, a colleague in Kuala Lumpur had moved to become an expat there, so the timing was perfect. My colleague Cindy was coincidentally also in Muscat for a completely different work reason, so the both of us crashed at Chian's place. Chian had most conveniently also gone through the laborious effort to obtain an Omani driver's license, so she was able to drive us around on a tour of Muscat to see the essentials.
Muscat does not really have a public transport system; everybody drives. There are taxis, which you could hire for the day if you want to tour the city. But of course, there's a greater degree of freedom if you have your own vehicle.
For example, you could on a whim decide you would start the tour by going away from the main attractions, to explore a random local market in Wadi Al Kabir, just because you saw it on a map.
First Stop on Our Muscat Tour: Wadi al Kabir
We began our Muscat tour with the offbeat choice of a random local market in Wadi al Kabir.
The interesting thing about this market, is that the parking lot doubles as an informal secondhand car market. This is apparently known to expats in Oman, since if you want to get rid of your car after your work stint is over, all you have to do is park the car here, leave the necessary details, and wait to be contacted by prospective buyers. Apparently this works.
We were quite amused to drive into the parking lot and, while simply looking for parking, be stopped at least twice by groups of handsome Omani young men (because even guys loitering in parking lots show up properly groomed here!). Alas, they were more interested in whether Chian intended to sell the car.
The market itself turned out to be just ok. Nothing too interesting was found - just regular 'pasar malam'* items. However, they do seem to have a wide and cheap selection of the ubiquitous embroidered hat worn by Omani men, the kuma.
I didn't buy one here, but I did buy one later at the Mutrah souk for a friend. The shopkeeper even showed me how to peak the front of it, as was the trending fashion at the time.
Next Stop: Mutrah
Mutrah is a must-visit for any Muscat tour, primarily because of the charming medieval souk. A supplementary attraction is the old watch tower, guarding the coastline. We went to this first, so that we would be in the souk for the warmer part of the day.
The old watch tower of Muscat
Remains of old towers and fortifications are a common sight in Oman. At the harbour mouth near the palace, there are forts looming over the entrance into the anchorage. All over the Omani countryside, you could see a watchtower scattered here and there, perched on the high rocks.
These inscribe a memory of war upon the present-day peace.
This watchtower is by the coastline, at the end of a promontory. We parked, and decided to get up to the top for a view of another tower on a ridge of rock opposite. There was a monument constructed next to it, in the shape of an incense burner, which was clearly new. A set of stairs indicate that it is possible to ascend.
However, during our visit, the monument had only just been finished, and hilltop was not yet open to visitors.
We met a tourist taking photographs at the top of the watchtower, a spry elderly gentleman. He came ashore from a cruise ship currently anchoring at Muscat, which he pointed out through one of the tower's window arches.
The ship was actually quite far from the watchtower, and I was impressed that he walked all that way in the heat. He was the only one of his fellow passengers who decided to come ashore to tour Muscat. You gotta see the places, he said.
Indeed. He must be the sole sane person on the cruise. What would be the point of a world travelling cruise, if you never got off the boat?
Exploring Mutrah souk
Mutrah souk is a great place for browsing Omani crafts, souvenirs, and random antiques.
It is a charming bazaar, with ornately carved wooden panels on the ceilings, stained glass, and clever little windows that let in light at an angle to keep the souk cool in the heat of an Omani day.
I really liked some of the wider inner spaces around a main column, where the multi-pointed star pattern ceilings are beautifully decorated. Not as beautiful as in palaces and mosques, but considering it's basically a market, it's quite lovely.
The souk closes in midday for a few hours before re-opening in late afternoon, so time your visit accordingly.
Although some of the shops now just sell generic souvenir items, there are still many that sell interesting things. And yes, bargaining is normal.
What to buy in Mutrah souk: Perfume & fragrances
Since antiquity, the Arab lands have been associated with the making of perfume. These can still be found in Mutrah souk (not the chemical-laden branded ones, but the more traditional fragrance essence-in-oil kind). There is a great range of perfumes to choose from.
This is a certain fragrance preference that is popular and typically associated with 'perfume from Arabia'. I think most Malaysian Malays know what I mean - we call it minyak atar (i.e. attar), and it is one of the more popular souvenirs brought home by pilgrims returning from haj in Mecca.
However, as we browsed the perfume shops, I found that actually the newer mixes have diversified in fragrance styles. The 'Salalah' style for example, has a much fresher floral note to it than I usually associate with Arab perfumes.
Aside from perfume, there's also a good choice of home fragrances and incense. Aside from personal perfume, 'stuff that smells nice when burned' is the other thing that Arab lands have been associated with since, ever.
In fact, a Christmassy combo that you will find easily in Oman, is frankincense and myrrh in a gold-themed packaging. I mean, real frankincense and myrrh, like literally the chunks of resin. Although they also sell them in processed form as well, e.g. extracted into oil, as incense sticks etc.
What to buy in Mutrah souk: Glassware
I already knew from an earlier visit to the glassmaking Venetian island of Murano, that in medieval times Arab trade was basically the only way for lands in the West or East to get fine glassware. Clear glass was Middle Eastern tech back then, and not made elsewhere.
Consequently, before the Venetians obtained the technology, glass was an item of great luxury in Europe and Asia. Glass windows, for example, were a sign of wealth.
Ever wonder why churches and cathedrals were decorated with stained glass? It reflects how we usually display our most valued art and technology in our most sacred and beloved public buildings.
In Mutrah souk there were a few shops specialising in glassware. Gorgeously coloured and decorated lamps and glass baubles, both new and antique. They were awfully tempting, but common sense prevailed. However, I did succumb to a simple, small blue-stained glass orb. I felt capable of protecting it from breakage in my luggage.
What to buy in Mutrah souk: Arab clothing
The souk is also a great place to shop for Arab clothing. If you felt excluded from the easy elegance of Omanis, and want to take home a bit of the look, you can do that here.
Except if you're a tiny Asian size. There aren't things in tiny Asian sizes. So it was much easier for me to resist the elegant embroidered robes on sale in the bazaar.
What to buy in Mutrah souk: Antiques
However, if I'm honest the types of items that absorbed me the most, were the antiques. If you ask me, these antiques are what give the souk that 'treasure cave' vibe.
I'm glad I was actually already at the souk once before, because I think it would be quite irritating to my friends, to have me linger over random daft things like diving bells and medieval compasses, padlocks in the shape of peacocks and turtles, embossed courier scrolls and military chainmail helmets.
These are the times when I'm glad I'm not rich. Otherwise today I'd have a house full of ornate daggers and astrolabes, and not be able to explain what on earth for.
Instead, I restrained myself to one antique brass compass/sundial combo.
What to buy in Mutrah souk: Gemstones
Now, it's probably no surprise that a country with such obvious geological beauty would know its rocks. Semiprecious gemstones are also something to look out for in the souk, and they're quite affordable.
You could get the rough crystals as display pieces, or as jewellery. Or you can opt for polished beads, which are also very affordable. I got myself an agate bracelet which I later wore to the Maldives.
The Muscat Tour Continues: Old Muscat
The palace of Oman's Sultan Qaboos is in the historical area of old Muscat. Chian took a back route so that we would drive through the hills that loom at the back of the old city.
As she drove to the plaza, she pointed out the features of the houses in the area, which mark them as being original, or more traditional style architecture, compared to the newer areas of Muscat.
An expatriate not in name only.
Chian is the rare kind of expat who moves to a foreign country, and makes friends with local people and is genuinely curious about their lives.
By the time we came, she had even visited a local colleague's family in her hometown far outside of Muscat (rare for an expat in a country with conservative culture). She was even able to roughly tell the difference between Arabs of different origins in the Gulf region, by sight.
Consequently, in a matter of months she was already able to give us details and anecdotes that illuminate the context of Omani life and culture from the perspective of an Omani, not from the perspective of a foreigner talking about it to other foreigners.
For example, an interesting detail about the area abutting the old city, and about parts of Oman, is that there aren't such things as individual land titles per se. Instead, there are tracts of land that belong to one clan, or another. If you belong to that clan, you can simply stake out a spot within this zone and put up a house or farmstead there.
Al Alam palace and square
The Sultan's palace, dubbed Al Alam (roughly, 'the land') is a curious sort of building in that it has a very distinctive blue and gold column facade.
I thought the columns look a bit like golf tees. Perhaps that's why it feels distinctive; I don't think I've seen columns that shape anywhere else.
A wide pedestrian avenue connects to a spacious square that leads to other key buildings. At the far end of the avenue past the plaza is the National Museum.
As we were headed to Wahiba Sands in the afternoon, we didn't linger.
However, here you could explore several museums and walk along the harbour-side, where the Sultan's two royal yachts are anchored.
Essential attractions to round out a Muscat tour
Two other Muscat attractions worth mentioning are the Grand Mosque, and the Royal Opera House. We didn't go to these during our day tour of Muscat, but they should be considered Muscat must-visits, especially if you lean more towards architecture than markets and history.
The Grand Mosque
I still somehow haven't visited the Grand Mosque after being in Muscat twice. However, colleagues who have gone report that it is well worth visiting as the architecture is quite beautiful inside and out. Non-Muslims may enter and there is a tour that takes you around.
Tip: a really good general guide for dressing norms in the Middle East, and mosque visits specifically, is linked here.
The verdict from my colleague who has taken the tour is mixed. On the one hand it's a nice enough tour, but it's sometimes self-contradictory in its narrative. Also, for some reason, she wasn't allowed into the gardens, which I thought was odd.
The Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House is fairly new, and near to the promenade. According to Lucien, another expat friend in Oman, at certain times in the evening, really posh cars would be driven really slowly by the Omani super rich along this promenade.
I naively asked what was the point of driving posh fast cars slowly. All the better for the cars to be admired, of course!
The Opera House itself is a very impressive building. Lucien approves of the acoustics. There are nice cafes and restaurants around it, even dessert-specific ones. At the time of my visit, they were preparing for Oman national day performances, so the military band was practicing in the plaza nearby.
Optional attractions for a customised Muscat tour
Of course, no serious traveller can be contented with seeing only the essentials. Aside from the Wadi al Kabir market, I can make a couple more recommendations.
Muscat fish market
I managed to see the fish market in Mutrah when touring Muscat with a hired car, on a different day. It wasn't a terribly interesting market. Still, it is part of the seafaring side of Omani heritage.
The fish being landed were generally quite large. I wondered how their fisheries were doing, since most fisheries in the world are quite stressed today.
Scuba diving & snorkelling
It is possible to do some scuba diving from Muscat. According to Lucien, it's not so much reef diving, but more for megafauna. I have yet to explore this. I attempted to do so in a subsequent trip, but ended up snorkelling in Daymaniyat Marine Reserve instead.
Muscat Tour for foodies
For one of the nights we were all in Muscat, Chian took us to a proper Arab restaurant. For the other night, we went street food.
Arab food is like the Eastern version of 'meat & potatoes'. Except that it's typically 'meat & grains' - as in, rice or bread. Just like 'meat & potatoes', not a lot of fresh fruit & veg is involved. However, they do meat & grains very well. Omanis are picky about food; if they're eating out, the food had better be as good as home cooking.
Additionally, in recent years the tastes of the city folk have expanded, due to Omanis travelling abroad on holiday and being exposed to foreign cuisine. Restaurants around the swank Al Mouj marina run from Eastern to Western cuisine, and as far as I have experienced, they are all incredibly good. (Still no vegan restaurants, though.)
Is it hard to be vegetarian/vegan in Oman?
Indeed, Omani cuisine is not geared for a vegetarian diet. But when you consider what much of the landscape in this region looks like, it's understandable why culturally the cuisine is so.
There is agriculture in Oman in the Jabal Akhdar (literally, 'green mountain') highlands, as well as the wetter Salalah region. But overall, you get the idea.
Consequently, it can be a bit tough to be vegetarian in Oman (pescatarian is still quite doable; Oman has a fishing heritage). There are Omani dishes which are vegetarian, generally in the form of side dishes. But vegan cuisine, or vegan substitutes for meat dishes, have not yet penetrated Muscat's food scene.
Muscat tour: street dining
Muscat street-side kiosks or 'warung' style is the more common sort of local dining out or takeout experience.
We picked a place for some local Arab fast food. I can't remember which one in the photo it was, but the lamb kebab was tasty. We dined in, but it is also common for people to just drive up and order from the side of the road, and wait for the order to be completed.
Afterwards, Chian took us on a bit of a short walk to a row of shops for dessert!
Muscat food tour: Halwa
We entered a halwa shop, selling the signature Arab sweet. The moment we arrived, we were whisked to a seating area and served some spiced Arabic coffee. Trays of different flavoured halwa were presented to us as samples - with no obligation to buy whatsoever.
Apparently, it is entirely possible - and some people actually do this, which my Asian sensitivities would not allow me to do with a straight face - to drop by after dinner just for some free coffee and halwa dessert. On purpose!
Anyway, what you do with these trays of samples, is that you cut out a small amount to taste. And if you like them, you buy some to take home. I bought a plain dark sugar one, and another with saffron in. If you refrigerate them, they last forever.
Muscat food tour: Dates
The most common fruit available in Oman, is the date.
So I can't omit them in a section on Omani food.
There is a great variety of dates to be found just in supermarkets. Because Muslims often eat them during Ramadan, and because Malaysians like to import other people's food, I already know which ones I like. But it's fun to try them all!
Fun tip for your Muscat tour!
As you travel around Muscat and Oman, have a close look at the shop names. The funny thing we noted was how literal the names are.
There's almost no branding present in the country; the shop sign will literally just say what it is a shop of. Meat shop. Grain shop. Farming supply shop. Carpet shop. Etc.
At best, it might bear the name of the shop proprietor. But no 'branding' as we know it. I really should have taken example photos.
I don't know why but I thought it was awesome and hilarious at the same time.
pasar malam = night market (Malay)
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.