OMAN

Oman

The Sultanate of Oman is located on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East. The country has a stable political, economic and social situation, which is enhanced by the favourable relationship it has with its neighbouring countries. Although Oman is not often seen as being a major port of call for many backpackers, the country is safe and accessible, enjoying a temperate climate, making it an ideal place to visit.

The country offers a stunning contrast of desert, mountains, busy metropolises and beaches, making it attractive to many different types of traveller. Oman has a rich culture and history which is apparent in its architecture and inhabitants' way of life. Islam plays a prominent part in the lives of the Omanis, and therefore women are advised to keep their clothing modest in respect. Although the country is modern and western customs and ideals are taken into consideration by many, you may find that you cannot drink alcohol in many public places.

Currency Omani rial (OMR). 1 rial is made of 1000 baisa.
Time UTC +4
Language Arabic, although most Omanis will speak excellent English. Swahili is sometime spoken in Southern Dhofur region, and Hindi is understood in some areas. Area Code - 968

Climate

The climate in Oman varies from region to region, with the costal areas being hot and humid in the summer months, and the inland being drier. Between May and September there is a strong southwest monsoon in the far south, but in other parts of the country rainfall is usually low and the climate is more even and temperate. Temperatures can reach real highs throughout the year, with 40oC not uncommon. May to August are the hottest months, so it would be best to travel to the country between September and April.

Things to do and see

Although the capital Muscat is referred to as one city, it is actually made up of three smaller cities that have grown together to form one area: Muscat, which is the location of the royal palaces; Matrah, which houses the Matrah Souq; and Ruwi, the industrial part of the city.

If you're looking for history, the Al Jalali and Al Mirani forts are located on Qasr Al Alam Street. They were originally used as prisons when they were built during the Portuguese occupation, but they are now used as museums. Muscat's Grand Mosque is the third largest in the world, and well worth a visit to see the largest handmade Persian carpet in the world and the outstanding crystal chandelier housed there. The Matrah Souq is a maze-like market which sells everything from fish to handicrafts. The Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace is the office of the ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos. It overlooks the harbour, and although visitors are not allowed inside it is worth travelling to the palace just to see the spectacular views it offers.

Salalah is seen as the second city of Oman, and is situated in the Dhofar region of the country. This area is famed for its production of frankincense, which you will find being sold virtually everywhere. The must-sees for this city are Sultan Qaboos' palace and the ah-Hisn Souq, but bring your bargaining skills to this market or better still a local who can let you know what the real price should be. Salalah also makes a good base from which to travel to the ancient city of Zafar.

Al Wusta is the central coastline of the country, but do not expect this to cater for beach visits. Remember that Oman is an Islamic country and therefore it is not respectful for women to sunbathe in public.

The desert interior of Oman is known as the Empty Quarter. You will find some companies offering camel rides or tours through this area, otherwise it remains relatively untouched. Camel racing is a popular sport in Oman and is well worth a look if the opportunity arises.

Oman is dominated by coastline, and with the crystal clear waters of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman this is an excellent spot for scuba diving. You will find many companies throughout the country that offer trips, courses and snorkelling opportunities. The waters can also be used for sailing and boating excursions, and turtle watching is a popular activity.

The vast mountain range of Oman makes it an ideal spot for hiking and you will be able to find companies offering tours or guides to show you more of the area. If you are confident hiking without a guide make sure you tell someone where you are going, take an up-to-date map and any appropriate safety measures.

Travel

Getting into the country
Nearly all international flights arrive into Seeb International Airport (MCT) in Muscat, although some regional flights land at Salalah (SLL). There are no regular boats that bring people into the country, although the port at Muscat is used by cruise ships. The main road entry is from the United Arab Emirates, and when you leave the country you will need to pay a departure tax of 20Dh whether leaving by car or on foot. Entering the country this way is extremely easy, and the border crossing and roads are both trouble-free. You will need to prove that your car is insured in Oman, and have all appropriate documentation and money to obtain a visa. A border crossing is also available from Yemen, but this is a much more challenging experience. There is a crossing into Saudi Arabia, but this is not advised as it enters the Empty Quarter.

Travelling around the country
Buses are a good way to travel around the country as they are cheap, in good condition and provide a good service. Regular buses can be caught between the major cities. For routes and timetables see The Oman National Transport Company website.

Hiring a car is another good option as you get to see more of the country this way and the main roads are in excellent condition. There are a few old dirt roads which make an interesting experience but probably only advisable if you have a 4X4.

Accommodation

Although there has been a recent surge of up-market accommodation to appeal to wealthier visitors there is not a shortage of budget accommodation in Oman. You will not, however, find many backpacker hostels. The cheapest accommodation will be guest houses or homestays which are more common in major cities.

Muscat
Qurm Beach House
Way 1622,
Tel: 564 070,
Fax: 560761

Asas Oman Hotel Apartments this is one of the cheapest places in the capital and would be useful if you wanted to stay in the city for a longer duration. Tel: (0) 92 25714, asasoman@omantel.net.om.

Novatel Seeb Muscat this is the cheapest place to stay in Muscat but the price is reflected in the character and quality of the rooms.

Salalah
Holiday Inn Salalah one of the cheapest available in the city at a reasonably good standard. Tel: (0) 235 333.

Sur
Mecure Sur 3m cheap and cheerful accommodation in the centre of the city, 411 Sur P.O. Box 908

Muttrah
Al Hadow Hotel exceptionally cheap accommodation opposite the Oman House, Tel: (0) 799 329

Sohar
Sohar Beach Hotel Bed and Breakfast is available at this well equipped hotel for a reasonable price. Sallan Road, 321 Sohar, Tel: (0) 843 701

Health care issues

Hospitals are of a good standard in Oman and are well equipped with medicines and qualified doctors. There are public hospitals like The Royal Hospital of Oman, (P.O. Box 1331 Seeb, located in the Al Ghubra area of Muscat) and private like Muscat Private Hospital (Tel: (968) 24583600, Fax: (968) 24501521, Email: info@muscatprivatehospital.com).

Emergency services are also available from this private hospital: Emergency Services (ER): 24583792 or Extension 3792 24-hours 24583790 or Extension 3790 24-hours

Although the public hospitals are of a high standard it is recommended that you take out medical insurance before you travel so that you are able to be seen in a private hospital. In general hygiene and health standards are equal to those of the the west so you should not have many health issues to worry about but insurance will mean you are covered for any unforeseen circumstances.

The main health complaint from travellers stems from the heat and dehydration. Make sure you do not spend too much time in the sun and drink plenty of water. If you travel to desert areas be aware that there may not be any shade for long periods of time so take a hat or some other form of shade. The tap water in Oman is drinkable but many prefer to drink bottled water instead. It is advisable to have inoculations against Hepatitis A and B and Typhoid before you travel. Malaria is not rife in the country and most people do not find it necessary to take precautions against the disease. However, if you are going to be staying in places of high humidity or dense vegetation and are prone to getting bitten it may be worth taking suitable tablets.

Useful Links

The British Embassy, Mina Al Fahal, Muscat 166. Tel: 24609000 (Switchboard), 99200865 (out of hours emergencies). Open Saturdays to Wednesdays 0730 to 1430.