Travel tips from A to Z
Climate and when to travel:
Muscat lies on the Tropic of Cancer. Since ancient times it has been numbered as one of the “hottest towns” of the world. In the 14th century the Arab geographer Abdul Razak described the climate as follows: “The heat in Muscat was so great that it burns the marrow, the sword melted in the sheath and the precious stones in the handle burnt to coal.”
In summer (May – September) the temperature rises to 50°C and the humidity to 95 per cent. Strong, hot winds blow over the country from the interior of the Arabian peninsula, ripening the dates on the palm trees. The dark brown mountains surrounding Muscat store the heat and even at night the temperatures barely sink below 40°C. In summer life here only becomes bearable with air conditioning fitted in almost all homes and vehicles.
From October to April the temperatures and humidity are bearable; the climate is comparable to a European summer. The best time to travel through the country is between November and February. The temperatures are between 20 and 30°C, the air is dry and clear, with only rare rainfall. The average annual precipitation in the mountain region is about 100 mm.
South Oman, on the other hand, is a favorite destination for tourists from the neighboring Gulf states from mid-May to September. During these months the monsoon brings cooler, moister air masses with it, which are blocked by the mountains of Dhofar. Mist shrouds the country and the temperatures reach 35°C, there is a steady light drizzle, and the countryside along the coast of Salalah is decked in a green carpet.
During this season many Omanis from the extremely hot North retreat here. Western tourist generally visit Dhofar in the warm, dry winter months when the air is clear, the seas are calm and even northern Oman has moderate temperatures. The average annual precipitation in southern Oman is 400 mm.
Light summer clothing is adequate in Oman the whole year round. To have suitable "winter dress" in Oman, it is enough to have a pullover. Rain wear is normally not needed.
Clothing should, however, not offend the countrywide Muslim sensibilities. That is to say shoulders, upper arms and knees should be covered and clothing should not be figure-hugging. Light, bright, long summer trousers and wide cotton shirts are ideal, also serving as protection against the sun.
The correct bathing dress for men is Bermuda shorts, and for women single-piece swimsuits. Bikinis are only allowed at private hotel swimming pools. Apart from on swimming beaches you should remain completely dressed – please show respect for the country’s customs by sticking to this rule.
Every Omani, whether man or woman, carries a head covering when outside of the home. This is not just a matter of fashion but in this climate you would be wise to follow suit. The intense sunshine in Oman is easy to underestimate. Protection against the sun, sunglasses and sun cream should be vital parts of your holiday packing.
The usual footwear is open sandals. When making trips into the countryside you should wear ankle-high leather shoes.
Oman is nowhere nearly as rich as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, but it is also not a poor country. Any foreign workers convicted of a crime are immediately deported. Thefts and other crimes are extremely rare but you should not lead anyone into temptation by a too showy display of wealth.
The electricity grid is fed with alternating current of 220/240 Volts, 50 Hz. The sockets are three pin as in Great Britain
The extreme sunshine in Oman can not only lead to bad burning but to increased perspiration which leads to large losses of fluid and to subsequent salt and mineral deficiency. These losses must be made up for by frequent drinking. It is reckoned that when it is hot each person should drink three liters of fluid every day. Omanis often sprinkle a little salt in their drink, regardless of whether it is water, cola or fruit juice.
You can also take mineral concentrates from a health shop with you; however it is both simpler and cheaper to take to the time-honored custom of the Omanis and eat 20 dates every day, which will supply all the minerals your body needs.
In cases of bad sunburn you should cover the affected areas of skin with wet cloths. Preventive protection against the sun is the best option; the local custom is to have a break in the middle of the day and avoid the midday sun. Sunglasses not only provide protection against the sun but also from fine particles of sand which can all too easily scratch the cornea. This can result in the most unpleasant eye infections. Before the trip it’s a good idea to obtain an antibiotic eye cream from an eye specialist.
Travelers often catch colds; this is usually as a result of the air conditioning in restaurants and hotels being turned up too high. Either raise the thermostat setting yourself or ask the staff to do so.
In the coastal waters of Oman poisonous jellyfish appear now and again. The chest area coming into contact with the stinging cells is dangerous and can be avoided by wearing a T-shirt when swimming. If you do come into contact with stinging tentacles do not rub the area as you may be working invisible cells further into your skin, making matters even worse! Wash the area thoroughly with white vinegar and seawater (do not use fresh water!). Allergic reactions should be treated with antihistamines and if in doubt please visit a hospital.
There are no regulatory vaccinations that you have to take before a trip to Oman but it is recommended to be vaccinated against hepatitis A, typhus, diphtheria, tetanus and poliomyelitis; for the last three a booster shot is normally sufficient. Malaria has been successfully campaigned against over years but still exists in the regions of Sharqiyah, Dhofar, Dhahirah and in wet areas. These have been designated “moderate” risk by the Institute of Tropical Medicine at Tübingen. In other parts of the country the risk is minimal. Simple preventive measures directed against mosquitoes, especially the anopheles which is active at night will significantly reduce the risk of malaria. These are: wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use insect repellent creams and sprays and fumigating sticks (mosquito coils or, as is the custom in Oman – burn frankincense); use mosquito nets and make sure the windows and doors are secured against mosquitoes. To prevent an infection you can take a chemo-prophylaxis which must be started a week before or at the latest as soon as entering a malaria area. In case the need arises there is the so called standby therapy: in cases of suspected malaria where no doctor is on hand a therapy can be self- administered: 3 tablets of Mefloquin (Lariam), 6 hours later 2 tablets, and after another 6 hours 1 tablet. This “self treatment” should only be carried out if there is no chance of getting to a doctor!
It is very important that the symptoms should be correctly interpreted – not every fever is a sign of malaria! It is recommended that before making a journey you visit a doctor to any vaccinations necessary.
The official language of the government is Arabic. In the Capital Area, larger places and on the Batinah coast almost everything, from items on the menu to road signs, is written in English. Many Omanis in these areas speak good English. The majority of guest workers from India and the Philippines are employed in the service industries and trade, and so here English is used more than Arabic. Other languages frequently encountered – as a result of ancient trading ties and the course of history – are Urdu, Hindi and some- times also Swahili.
The country’s currency is the Omani Rial (OMR) which is divided into 1000 Baizas. The currency is convertible with the ex- change rate tied to the US dollar and is thus affected by the same fluctuations. The exchange rates given here are only to be viewed as an approximation:
1 OMR. = 2,6008 US Dollars
1 OMR. = 2,32 EUR
1 OMR.. = 2,4192 sfr
There are Bank notes to the value of:
200 OMR., 100 OMR., 50 OMR., 20 OMR., 10 OMR., 5 OMR., 1 OMR., ½ OMR., ¼ OMR., 200 Baizas, 100 Baisa. Coins are seldom used. There are coins for 50 Baisa, 25 Baisa, 10 Baisa und 5 Baisa.
Euros and Swiss Francs can be exchanged at current rates at the bureaux de change at the airport or also with the currency dealers in Mutrah.
Banks will generally take US dollars of small denomination notes. US traveler’s cheques can be used but can be very time consuming as their authenticity has to be checked.
However nowadays almost every town in Oman has ATMs which will accept Visa or Mastercard. These credit cards are widespread throughout the country and are accepted by a number of shops, restaurants and most hotels. Other credit cards that are widely accepted are American Express and Diners Club. If you have a cash card, such as the ec-card, belonging to the Maestro system you can withdraw money from ATMs using your normal PIN number.
Islam allows believers of other monotheistic religions to visit a mosque for purposes of prayer. However, as tourists are generally more motivated by voyeurism than spirituality, their presence is not welcomed in Islamic houses of God. Spectators disturb the prayer services of believers and can even, under unhappy circumstances, render the prayers invalid; most mosques make this clear with a sign saying "for Muslims only".
The single exception is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat and the Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Salalah which can be visited by non-Muslims on Islamic workdays (i.e., daily apart from Thursdays and Fridays) from 08:00 to 11:00.
If, on religious grounds, you wish to visit a place of worship, you may go to the churches in Muscat. You will be able to pray undisturbed by curious Omanis. The interiors of Ibadi mosques are not decorated and not especially worth seeing. The attitude of Ibadis to places of worship is similar to that of low church protestants: the less distraction, the better for prayer.
With the exception of installations belonging to the military, or oil companies, the airports and ports which are marked with "No Photography" signs, there are hardly any official restrictions on photography in Oman.
Generally it’s best to try and capture the beauty and variety of the country with the senses and impress them on the memory; photography has only a limited ability to convincingly capture the magic of the country. The fleeting moment, the wealth of scents and sounds in the air, the vast dimensions of the landscape can be better captured by the memory than with a camera.
If you want to photograph people, especially women, or their property, please ensure that you ask their permission in advance. If an Omani expressly forbids photography, this wish must be respected and it can easily escalate to disputes which can quickly end in police intervention. Video cameras are still relatively unknown in this country, and their use excites even more excitement and irritation than that of cameras.
Be careful at the airport! Although you may not notice the signs, photography here is strictly forbidden. If you break this rule you can reckon with having the film removed from your camera.
Good film material can be found in the Fuji Photo Centres at Muscat and Salalah. The film best suited to the extreme light conditions in Oman are the less sensitive films (for example 18 DIN/50 ASA) with a large range of contrast. Film material is often cheaper in Oman than in Europe.
During the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan it is forbidden to eat, drink or smoke in public between the hours of sunrise and sunset. This does not apply to people who are ill or traveling, or children under the age of twelve.
During this period the whole country becomes an alcohol free zone, including the hotels and the mini bars in the hotel rooms. The restaurants will not serve alcohol but are still open during the day for hungry non-Muslims, as are many of the grocery shops.
Opening times begin later in the morning. The exact beginning of the fasting month and the holidays are subject to the local observations of the moon and are only definitively announced shortly in advance.
The waters around Oman, with their abundance of fish also provide an excellent habitat for various species of shark. As the supply of food along the coast is plentiful and the depth of the water near the sandy beaches of the North is shallow, sharks are seldom encountered here.
Up until now no incidents with sharks are known. Nevertheless to be on the safe side you should avoid swimming with open cuts; wearing flip flops or sandals on the beaches with their sharp shells and rocks is therefore advisable.
Because of the relatively small numbers of tourists, no real souvenir industry has developed in Oman as yet. However this is no cause for regret as genuine mementos that are original and very typical of the land can be found among the goods on offer in the souks.
Amongst these are the embroidered caps worn by the men, silver jewellery and textiles as well as various incense burners and special frankincense. Spices make particularly good mementos, their excellent quality allowing you to treasure your holiday long after it is over.
If you wish to buy original Omani handicrafts and at the same time would like to help local craftsmen try the Omani Heritage Gallery (Tel. 24696974, open daily except Friday from 9:30 to 13:00 and 16:00 to 20:00) in the Jawharat al Shati Complex in Shati al Qurm. The shop is special in that it is non-profit making and the proceeds go to supporting local craft industries. Here you can buy beautifully weaved textiles from all over Oman, as well as silver jewellery and pottery from Bahla and Dhofar.
Omanis have cultivated a refined sense of smell and love all kinds of aromas. However most of them do not consider cigarette and cigar smoke as pleasant stimulants of the senses. Smoking is rare and never practiced in the houses of non-smokers or as an accompaniment to a meal. In Ibadi households smoking is forbidden, as also in all of the small restaurants throughout the country.
As a rule restaurant and hotel bills contain a 17 per cent service charge and tax. An additional tip of between 200 Baisa and 1 Omani Rial is usual in the service sector; exceptions are bus and taxi drivers, not however the tour guide.
In Oman there are two types of toilet: the western-type WC and the Arabic squat toilets, which you also find in southern regions of Europe. In hotels and shopping centers there is usually a choice of both. The use of toilet paper is not everywhere the norm.
Cleaning is done with water and the left hand – if you are not happy with this it is always best to carry a loo roll. The left hand is thus regarded as unclean and should never be used for eating; if you are left-handed exceptions will be made, but you should make it clear to everyone that you are left-handed. As in domestic circles it is usual for everybody to eat from a common plate, others can easily be put off their food!
In Oman not every restaurant has a toilet, although most petrol stations do.
Tap water in the Capital Area is of drinking quality and tastes alright although up to 80 per cent comes from the large seawater desalination plant at al Gubbrah.
Most people drink Omani mineral water from the two large companies Masafi and Tanuf.
The desalinated service water is used for watering green areas and private gardens. Houses that are not yet connected up to the water mains are supplied by tankers, which one often sees on the road. Blue tankers transport drinking water, green transport water for service water and yellow for sewage water.
Georg Popp and Juma al-Maskari
What makes this travel guide so special? This book is a product of the long-term personal friendship between the authors, Mr Georg Popp and Mr Juma Al-Maskari and their continuing fascination with the Sultanate of Oman. Combining their insights from European and Omani perspectives, they have produced a guide which is as much about culture and history as it is a practical guide for planning your itinerary.