When people realize I run a travel blog, the usual questions of "where have you been?" or "where are you going next?" immediately follow.
So when I reply that I'm visiting the Middle East (not Dubai or Egypt) on my next solo trip, Singaporeans have been quick in offering a few sets of responses. "Siao ah (crazy)? Going there to join ISIS?" Or, "isn't it dangerous? What on earth do you expect to find there besides deserts and terrorists?"
Paphos Castle, Cyprus.
But is the Middle East truly a region fraught with danger? And could most locals possibly be members of ISIS with a kidnapping agenda with the end goal of stringing me up in an orange jumpsuit on live TV? Traveling in the oil rich Middle East isn't cheap. Would I be wasting good money to see nothing but sand and dust?
I really wanted to find out.
The ancient port of Byblos, Lebanon
The "Tree of Life" Bahrain
The Kuwait Towers
Aphrodite Rock, Cyrpus
(Nah, this doesn't count. They turned me away at the Iraqi border crossing)
So there you have it. Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Cyprus. Not your typical Egypt or Dubai kind of Middle East, but the kind that this blog has become known for, the quirky, "Singaporean-less" kind of Middle East; just the way I like it.
On airfare alone, I spent a total of $1,662 SGD, 7 flights in all. It could be done cheaper if you don't mind connections. Despite my reputation for traveling "less expensively", I insist on direct flights and don't mind paying more to cut down on unnecessary travel time.
I flew to Dubai by Emirates, next to Bahrain, then Cyprus by Gulf Air (who lost my luggage for over 6 hours). From Cyprus, I flew Middle East Airlines to Lebanon, and then to Kuwait; finally back to Dubai by Jazeera Airways for my return flight to Singapore by Emirates who decided to lose my luggage as well (the 2nd time on this trip).
For Singaporeans (those not trapped like a frog in a well at least), you'll be glad to know getting a visa for these countries won't be an issue. Queues are short (lack of tourists apparently), Visa is available on arrival for both Bahrain and Kuwait and cost less than $10 SGD each. We don't need a visa for Cyprus and apparently Lebanon (our Ministry of Foreign Affairs said a visa was necessary but the Lebanese immigration just let me through. Saved $25 USD here)
What's There To Do/See?
Lebanon, is bordered by Syria and is a recipient of "overflows" from the occasional "ISIS related" activity. The current situation in Lebanon is pretty interesting though. Hezbollah, an Islamist militant group (basically a terrorist organization) with an military more powerful than the Lebanese Army, controls a number of territories in the country, and even has seats in the Lebanese Government, (imagine the SDP or WP in Singapore with an army stronger than the PAP controlled SAF)
Sounds like a nightmare I know. But that aside, Lebanon is probably the most amazing country to visit in the Middle East. In fact its capital Beirut, was once known as "The Paris of the Middle East".
Visit The Ruined Port City of Byblos
Byblos is one of the worlds oldest cities, dating back as early as the stone age. With civilizations upon civilizations built upon it, the modern Byblos is a mix of modern influence built upon a city of ruins. This city is amazingly well preserved in a "touristy sort of way", with cafes built into ancient stone walls overlooking the port and providing an amazing view of the Lebanese coast.
Almost the whole of Byblos is an archaeological site in itself; piles of old rock for the men to climb on, and within the stone city, the Byblos Souk (bazaar) promises an excellent shopping experience for the ladies. For some family fun, there are countless "captains" waiting with their boat should you desire to sail out of the port for another view of Byblos. Singaporeans with their love for spending on cafes and shopping would most definitely love Byblos.
Explore Jeita Grotto; the longest cave in the Middle East
The limestone caves of Jeita Grotto are one Lebanon's biggest attractions. After paying an entrance fee of roughly $12 USD, a cable car brings you right up to the upper caves. The caves are pretty impressive, apart from the fact that is pretty annoying to keep having to "sneak photos" of the caves because photography is "not encouraged" (apparently because tourists used to climb on the limestone for pictures).
An underground river flows through the lower caves, and part of your ticket price includes a short river ride through the caves. I couldn't pictures of the underground river here, because I got told off by another tourist who was annoyed that I was taking photos and she couldn't (she surrendered her phone at the entrance).
Wander about Beirut; the "Paris of the Middle East"
Beirut is by far the most fascinating city I've traveled to in the Middle East. Part of the city lies in ruins (preserved of course), the other half is as modern and opulent as it gets. Half the city reeks of poverty, (most locals have to work two jobs a day to get by) and the other half? Condominiums, yachts, and super-cars around every corner.
Many Singaporeans have the impression that (Dubai aside) the Middle East is a run down part of the world and therefore, things can't be expensive. Beirut certainly isn't cheap though, far from it (compared to Singapore).
The average monthly wage is a low $300-$600 USD per job, and lets just say a Starbucks or Subway costs at least $6 USD pretty much similar to what it costs in Singapore, which is crazy. An authentic Lebanese meal cost at least $10 USD. I had one of those, and decided I was better off having burgers and fries, which cost $3-4 USD and was easier on my wallet. In relation to what the locals earn, the cost of living in Lebanon is anything but cheap.
In the day, most of Beirut is a labyrinth of streets, I needed the MapsMe app to successfully find my way about the city. At night, the city comes to life. My hostel was 5 minutes away from Armenian Street, the "pub street" of Beirut. If I got lost, all I had to do was follow the blaring loud music and bright lights and I'd find my way back in no time.
For lonely singles hoping to "score" a date, Beirut at night is the place to be. The pubs are filled with lonely backpackers, most of whom have not seen home for months (or even years). Anyone without even a single attractive bone about their person should score after a few drinks after the alcohol and the loneliness sets in.
Be charmed by the "Rawness" of Tripoli
If you google Tripoli in Wikipedia, the first thing that pops up on your screen is a "Travel Advisory Alert" in bright red warning of the danger when visiting Lebanon's 2nd largest city because of its proximity to Syria. Keeping a low profile is advised.
Tripoli had more of a raw charm about it and none of the touristy/metropolitan feel found in both Byblos or Beirut. While I wouldn't go as far as to say I sensed a "danger vibe", lets just say Tripoli felt "very local".
The Souks (bazaar) are one of Tripoli's main attractions. Anything from low quality Rolex watches, to fashion apparel, to Lebanese soap, or even gold jewellery can be found in this part of the city. Tripoli is also known of it many "mobile coffee-shops" which can be found pretty much around any corner of the city.
Arguably, the biggest attraction in Lebanon would be the impressive ruins of Baalbek, near the Syrian border in Hezebollah controlled territory. The folks at the hostel had gone just the day I arrived. I was alone and was advised by the hostel reception and my taxi driver that visiting Baalbek alone might not be the best idea. Which was a real pity, because everyone else who went said it Baalbek was astounding.
Kuwait I found to be a total opposite of Lebanon; probably the most "uninteresting country" in the Middle East. Oh, and let's just say the locals are the most arrogant among all the Arabs I've ever come across. There are modest Arabs (like those in Oman) and the "Kuwait Arabs" whose brains have been addled by an overdose of oil and oil money.
I decided to visit Kuwait because I was fascinated by its role in the "Gulf War". I really wanted to visit the country Saddam Hussein had invaded, and drive along the "Highway of Death", perhaps check out the remains of an abandoned Iraqi tank left behind from the 1990s.
I couldn't have be more mistaken about this country.
Drive along the "Highway of Death"
So I rented a car and drove toward the Safwan Border Crossing in Iraq when I was eventually turned away because I had neither a visa nor did I pay to hire a "security detail" for my safety. I didn't see any abandoned tanks and virtually all traces of the Gulf War had been removed, they didn't even keep parts of it around as a memory; disappointing.
Surprisingly they haven't had contact with many Chinese which is weird because I've come across PRCs (Peoples Republic of China) in every single country I've traveled to. In Vanuatu or even in the mountains of Lesotho I've come across "Chinese run grocery stores". When the Arabs saw me at the Kuwait - Iraq border, they exclaimed "You are Chinese?!?!", with an incredulous look on their faces.
The Kuwait Towers & City
Kuwait City itself is as "Dubai like" as it gets. Weird buildings, overpriced restaurants, and loads of Bangladeshi/Indian/Pinoy workers hired by the local Arabs who pretty much view and seem to treat them as "modern day slaves" hired to do the jobs beneath their position paid for by oil money. The locals? Well, they do go for regular morning jogs along the park connectors by the Corniche and enjoy the sea view as they settle down for a Starbucks breakfast.
I struggled to find anything remotely interesting in Kuwait. "Arrogant Arabs" I saw plenty of though.
*Disclaimer* Most Arabs I met were decent people, it's just those in Kuwait who need to get off their high horse
Bahrain is a tiny island country in the Persian Gulf, almost unheard of as a tourist destination, and visited by almost nobody. You'd struggle to find a Singaporean who could point out Bahrain on a map <