A beginner’s guide to travelling the Middle East

‘Gap Year destination’ might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the term ‘Middle East’- in fact ‘travel’ might not be either. What many people don’t realize is the wealth of incredible things to see and do in this part of the world. Yes, the region has some issues but they tend to be isolated- just as you wouldn’t avoid New York City because some neighbourhoods are sketchy at night, I encourage you not to lump this diverse and complex place into a single (avoidable) category.

So why should you go? Here are a few good reasons…

Things to do-

– Get lost- In windy souks (markets) all over the region- the sights, sounds and smells are amazing. Sacks of colorful spices and dates are crammed up against Persian carpets, cases of flashy gold jewelry, handcrafted wooden chessboards and the occasional butchered camel (the best one is in Damascus, Syria and has been around since biblical times).

– Visit Cities- There are some incredible metropolitan cities to visit in the Middle East. Take Tel Aviv for example. It was voted ninth-best beach city in the world by National Geographic. Tel Aviv hotels are in an abundance so you’ve got plenty of places to stay when visiting the city.

– Eat- Fresh kebabs, warm felafel in pita bread, garlicky hommus, delicious grilled things on sticks, pink olives, turkish coffee in tiny cups, sweet mint tea, pistachio and orange blossom sweets… need I say more?

– Explore History- play Indiana Jones in the stunning hidden city of Petra (Jordan), wander through a genuine crumbling Crusader castle perched perilously atop a hill in Syria or see whole Roman cities, like Palymra (Syria) virtually untouched in the desert.

– Relax- Float and read a magazine in the Dead Sea (but don’t get it in your eyes- it burns…) or alternate between laying on a sunlounger and diving the some of the world’s best reefs at a beach resort like Dahab (Egypt)

– Play- Go rock climbing, sandboarding, quad biking or camel riding in the cliffs and red dunes of Wadi Rum (Jordan)- the place Lawrence of Arabia called home.

– Have a spiritual experience- This place is the birthplace of many of the world’s faiths- religious or not, hiking up Mt Sinai (Egypt) to watch the sun rise with pilgrims from all over the world is not something you’ll ever forget.

There are a few common misconceptions I hear over and again- that the area is dangerous for travelers, that alcohol is forbidden, that foreign women must wear a burka at all times, that people are intolerant. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The people in nearly every area I’ve been to have been helpful, polite and keen to talk to me. Alcohol is available in most cities for foreigners (Beirut has a huge club scene) though locals generally abstain. As a female traveler, I dress respectfully (no cleavage or bare thighs/shoulders) and that is all that is needed. Men in Syria and Jordan tend to be very respectful toward foreign women and would not dream of touching you (even shaking your hand). Egypt however has a totally different culture and I would excise considerably more tact and caution there. Following the lead of several Russian tourists and sporting buttock-revealing hot pants will certainly attract plenty of unwelcome attention!

That being said, for the inexperienced organizing travel in some areas can be a little tricky, especially at borders. But there are a number of good companies who run budget tours, many for 18-25ish/Gap Year age bracket and often overland/camping style. You still get a genuine experience but someone else negotiates with the border guards, points you towards the best falafel stalls and finds knowledgeable local guides. The Jordan-Syria-Lebanon-Egypt route is a popular one and I would recommend Kumuka’s Road to Damascus or similar. Many also like to tack on Turkey at the beginning or end.

A few tips for those going it solo…

– Look into visas well in advance, and note that many countries in the region will not accept you if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport (but there are ways around that).

– Aim for Spring or Autumn…you may be in the desert, but it still gets pretty damn cold! Pack a good coat and all the wooly accessories if you’re planning a trip in December/January.

– Travelling during Ramadan (a Muslim religious festival and month of fasting , usually August/September) can be a little inconvenient as many things close during the day.

– Hostels/backpacker style accommodation is more prevalent in larger cities- Amman, Damascus, Beirut and beach resorts like Dahab or Sharm el-Sheikh. Booking over the internet for smaller towns is very difficult. Rooftops are often hired out as cheap sleeping places in summer.

– Budget-wise the area is generally pretty reasonable but varies across countries- budget for substantially more in Jordan and Lebanon, while Syria really is dirt cheap and Egypt depends on steering clear of the big tourist centers. The entrance fee to Petra (Jordan) is notoriously pricey, but well worth it.

– Learn the Arabic numerals! Their digits are different to ours- but there are only 9 of them to learn and it’s well worth being able to read prices or at least jot down a number for someone who doesn’t speak much English.

– No matter where you are, a simple ‘Al salaam alaikum’ (a universal blessing/greeting) will always go down well.

To judge this place without seeing it is not just small minded, it’s a waste of an incredible travel opportunity.

This guest post was written by Fiona Soper who is a life long traveler. Currently she is trying to find creative excuses to balance travel with her PhD, brushing up on her Arabic and dreaming of Oman.

12 Comments

  • Tran

    October 27, 2010

    Can’t wait to see the Middle East. Thx for posting!

  • Victori Hughes

    October 27, 2010

    Really useful and inspiring information, Fi. The Middle East hadn’t really been a place ‘on my list’ but your article has inspired me to look into it more. Thanks!

  • Cass

    October 27, 2010

    Love your work Fi!!!!

  • Krista

    October 27, 2010

    Thank you so much for this post. You’ve answered several questions I’ve had and laid to rest some fears. One day I hope to visit, explore and delight in the amazing places you’ve described. 🙂 In the meantime, I’ll keep reading about them… 🙂

  • Seat Vacations

    October 28, 2010

    Thank u so much for the tips!! its really help people who wants to go to middle east:)

  • Natalie - Turkish Travel

    October 28, 2010

    An excellent post. Makes me want to get around the middle east now. I have never ventured further then Turkey but would like to see the wonders that are there. Lots of historic places in the middle east, so i have heard.

  • Jaime

    October 28, 2010

    This is by far one of the best post I’ve ever read telling people why we should visit The Middle East. I plan on spending a big chunk of my time from my RTW trip in this area. I am so excited & can’t wait.

    When I mention to people I am going to TME they react so negativly & think I am crazy. Thanks for writing this & putting it out there that its okay to travel through the Middle East!

  • Rebecca

    November 1, 2010

    This is a great post! I’ve been learning Arabic for about a year now so am DYING to go to the Middle East soon. But for those who may never have considered the ME or have some misconceptions, hopefully this opens some eyes!

  • Erica

    November 2, 2010

    I dream on Egypt… I WILL go there one day.

  • Travel Middle East

    November 29, 2010

    The Middle East is great to travel not only because of the sights but because the people must be some of the most hospitable in the world.

  • alj

    December 2, 2010

    The Middle East is an awesome backpacking destination and way more accessible than people often think. Think carefully before backpacking around Eastern Europe without considering the overland Middle East adventure. Here’s a 4 week itinerary for Istanbul to Tel-Aviv overland.

    http://roam-the-world.com/backpacking-ideas/Middle-East-Itinerary.php

  • Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World

    December 5, 2010

    Thank you for this post. The Middle East has gotten such a bad rap. Even though I’ve never been there, I can’t wait to check out Jordan (and maybe Syria) and area on our RTW trip next year.

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