Dubai: Cheap-Thrills You Shouldn’t Miss

Dubai has a reputation for being a city of extravagance, and is the least backpacking-friendly country I have ever been to so far. A lot of people are afraid to visit not just because of cultural differences but also for fear that it would be too expensive. However, like any other city, travelling in Dubai can be as expensive or as affordable as you want!

Targeting to become the number one destination in the world for luxury tourism, Dubai is currently the 4th most visited tourist destination in the world. Whereas it’s true that in order to enjoy the fancy Dubai, you need to spend a lot of money, there are actually loads of affordable or free activities to do! 

Hit the Malls

Unless you are planning to splurge on shopping, there are lots of free entertainment to do in those big malls. Here are some of the malls which I highly recommended to visit but do take note to dress appropriate (if not, you might be asked to leave by the security guard). And yes, these malls provide free wifi too!

The Dubai Mall

Who wouldn’t be curious about the biggest mall in the world?! I’ve been there 3 times and every single time I discovered new stuff within the mall. Apart from window-shopping from 1,200 retail outlets, this is one good place to avoid the heatwave and keep yourself entertained for a whole day.

Happiest thing to do is shopping at the World’s Largest Candy Store!

Without paying for ticket, you can still enjoy marine view from one of the largest suspended aquarium in the world

Meet DubaiDino, a 155 million-year-old dinosaur skeleton

Who doesn’t fancy colorful brollies?

Who says you can’t ice skate on desert land?

This is not just another arcade 

It’s a 2-stories themepark with 9 rides & 250 games!

No money to enjoy fancy dinner? You can still enjoy fancy dances outside those restaurants

If you look long enough, you might have an illusion these men are really falling

Walk across to Souk Al Bahar to see how the rich indulge in fancy meals

Nearest Metro Station: Burj Khalifa/The Dubai Mall Station

Mall of the Emirates

If ice skating on the desert land doesn’t impress you, how about skiing, snowboarding and penguins encounter? In order to enjoy 365-days of Winter, Ski Dubai Resort was built in this mall with real snow!  

Nearest Metro Station: Mall of the Emirates

Ibn Battuta Mall

Ibn Battuta

Being the World’s Largest Themed Shopping Mall, Ibn Battuta Mall has 6 themed-courts which designs are inspired by some of the countries visited by the great Moroccan Berber explorer, Ibn Battuta. I was totally awed by the architectures and interior designs of the whole mall.

Chinese Court (Exterior)

Chinese Court (Interior)

I thought this is a Chinese restaurant….

Not just a buffet-style restaurant

You can play arcade games at the same time!

India Court (Exterior)

India Court (Interior)

Egypt Court (Exterior)

Egypt Court (Interior)

Persian Court (Interior)

Tunisia Court (Interior)

Andalusia Court (Interior)

Even its hotel is so unique~

Nearest Metro Station: Ibn Battuta

Captivated the Largest Choreographed Fountain

Just right outside The Dubai Mall is Burj Lake which offers the tallest performing fountain in the World. The Dubai Fountain runs daily in every 30-minutes from 6:00pm to 11:00pm. 

Nearest Metro Station: Burj Khalifa/The Dubai Mall Station

Awed by the World’s Tallest Structure 

Instead of paying a premium price to go up Burj Khalifa, why not watch it from the bottom for free?

Nearest Metro Station: Burj Khalifa/The Dubai Mall Station

Discover the Rich Culture of Dubai

Escape the skyscrapers of the city center and travel back in time with a trip to “the other side” of Dubai. The original town was built along the Dubai Creek and that area still maintains an authentic feel with traditional wind towers, bustling courtyards and maze of winding alleyways. You can explore the whole of Old Dubai in one day by foot.

Diera Old Souk

Deira Old Souk is Dubai’s largest and oldest market. Its narrow alleyways are full of treasures: traditional spices, gold, and perfume side by side with Chinese electronics and plastic toys. Do you know the World’s Largest Gold Ring is on display in one of gold shop at Gold Souk? Remember to look out for it!

Najmat Taiba (Star of Taiba)

Nearest Metro Station: Al Ras Metro Station

Bastakiya Quarter

One of the oldest residential area in Dubai, which was destroyed during the 80s to build an office complex. However, thanks to a preservation campaign, the project was stopped and the houses restored. Nowadays, traditional Arab Gulf buildings and homes stand along its streets.

Night time

Nearest Metro Station: Al Ras Station

Dubai Museum

Al Fahidi Fort houses the Dubai Museum. For only 3 dirhams (Less than USD1), the museum gives you a great summary of the UAE’s history, from before the black gold times. The exhibits are a bit low tech considering Dubai’s modern whizz bang image. Life size dioramas depict before the discovery of oil. 

Nearest Metro Station: Al Ghubaiba or Al Fahidi Stations 

Heritage Village

Get to learn the different styles of the traditional local life ranging from coastal, desert to country and mountain life. The village displays many types of buildings made of stone, palm fronds and also tents. 

Nearest Metro Station: Al Fahidi Station

Dubai Creek

Skip the expensive boat tours and take an abra across the Creek for 1 dirham between Diera and Bur Dubai. In Deira area, there are two stations, one near the Spice/Gold Souk and the other one near Riviera Hotel/ Deira Twin Towers. On the opposite side, there are two stations as well: one near the Textile Souk and the other one near Bur Dubai bus station.

The only tourist on the boat

Sunset from abra

Take a Monorail to Man-made Island

You don’t need to stay in this 5-stars aqua themed resort in order to visit the Palm Island. The cheap-thrill here is to spend a small amount to take a monorail across and enjoy the view. A return ticket for monorail ride is AED25 (USD7)

Getting there: Unless you are ready to spend on taxi, getting there by public transport can be a bit tricky.

Take Metro (Red Line) to Jumeirah Lakes Towers or Dubai Marina and change to Tram (Orange Line)

Once alight at Palm Jumeirah station, you will need cross a overhead bridge (there was no signage so I asked around)

You will only see this until you arrived at carpark

Get Lost in the Largest Flower Garden

Dubai Miracle Garden is the Middle Eastern city’s latest mega super project. It has the record in Guinness Book of Records for having the longest wall of flowers which will give a new landmark for Miracle Garden and for the City of Dubai, which is believed to be the leader in diverse and cultural tourist attraction. 

What a unique entrance! Fee: 30AED (USD8)

Burj Khalifa made of oranges

Getting there: Take Bus 105 from Mall of Emirates (outside Metro Station), 5 Dirhams (USD1)

Sunbathing at Free Public Beach

There are many private beaches in Dubai, but public beaches such as Jumeirah Beach and JBR Beach are free! Any style of beach wear here is normally acceptable; however nude or topless sunbathing is not allowed. In addition, alcohol is not allowed on the beaches and men should be advised that certain days at beaches are ladies day!

Marvel the Street Arts at JBR Walk

Jumeirah Beach Residence (also known as JBR) is a luxury residential area with waterfront view. I was lucky to have a friend staying in this area, allowing me to indulge in this extravagant lifestyle. 

View from balcony

Cruising on Dubai’s water

Apart from getting around via Metro, you can get to attractions on water as well! The Dubai Ferry can be a great option for tourists as it enables them to see the city from the sea and get a view of some of the most popular parts of Dubai including the Burj Al Arab and the Palm Jumeirah. 




So, here’s my cheap thrills done over my 10-days stay in Dubai. Do leave your comments below if you have done others and would like to share with others! (=

 

Iran: Things You Need To Know Before Going

Without a doubt, Iran is one of the most fascinating, friendly and exotic countries you will ever visit. In this guide, I will share with you everything I had experienced which hopefully able to help you to explore the country like a breeze~~~

Visa

Starting February 2016, visas-on-arrival will be issued at airports for citizens of 180 countries.  As such, travellers are able to obtain a 30-days VOA easily without having a Letter-of-Invitation like before. For ladies, your passport sized photo need to follow Iran’s official Islamic dress code and wear a head scarf.

Main airports to get your visa:

  1. Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA)
  2. Tehran Mehrabad Airport (THR)
  3. Mashhad Airport (MHD)
  4. Shiraz Airport (SYZ)
  5. Tabriz Airport (TBZ)

If you are travelling by land, you can only get your visa from certain borders. (This, I had not done it)

However, be prepared to have a list of phone numbers of the hotels/hostels where you’ll be staying for your entire visit in Iran. (I randomly picked a budget hotel and told the officer I am going to stay in Tehran throughout) Also, it’s mandatory for you to have travel insurance when travelling to Iran. If you do not have, you will have to buy one on the spot in the airport. (Just get a cheap one from your flight package will do!)

Malaysian passport got free 14-days visa. Additional 10 Euros to extend to 20-days. (I learnt about this the expensive way)

If you are wondering why my visa doesn’t have a photo…that was because I didn’t wear a headscarf in the picture! However, the officer was kind enough to give me a pass. Do take note that only US Dollars and Euros are accepted to pay for your VOA.

Unfortunately, citizens of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, India, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Somalia, the United Kingdom, and the United States need to get consular visa, and need to get an authorization number before applying for a visa.

If there is proof of entry to Israel in your passport, you cannot enter Iran. This also applies if you have land border entry/exit stamps from countries neighboring Israel. 

Internet & Mobile

In Iran, most of the major social media networks and many websites have been blocked. Therefore, you must get a VPN before going into the country as getting a VPN may become more difficult since VPN websites as well as app stores are blocked. (Whatsapp is banned, so you may need to download Telegram to communicate with the locals.)

An Irancell SIM card is 200,000 rials (about USD6-7), and 1GB of data is 100,000 rials. Wifi is not common in Iran. Even if you stay in hostels where wifi is provided, the speed is intolerable slow. So, do consider getting a SIM card if you need regular internet for Instagram, Snapchats or Facebook, etc.

Currency

Foreign credit/debit card are not accepted in Iran, so forget about ATMs or even paying for hotels. Remember to bring more than enough money for your stay in Iran. Money changers are easy to find (Just look for small shop which sells jewelry or has foreign currency pasted on the window). US Dollar, Euros and British Pounds are the most widely accepted currencies. And never ever change your money in banks! 

Prices stated for goods are given in toman, not rials. 1 toman = 10 rials. The locals will also use abbreviate: for example, if someone tells you something is “5”, they mean 5,000 toman/50,000 rials. It’s confusing at first, but you will soon get the hang of it! Just add an extra “0” to figure out the price in rials. Luckily, people in Iran are very honest, and will let you know when you’re making a mistake. 

Foreigner price for attractions is usually 6-8 times the local price. You know, it’s pretty easy to disguise yourself as local if you are an Asian, especially for ladies! Of course, I usually went in with my CS hosts which make things easier. Otherwise, you may try going in with a local, and have them buy your tickets while you hide.

Dress Code

Guys: No tank-tops and shorts. If you want to visit an active mosque as a non-Muslim, ask first if it is okay to look around.

Ladies: Dress modestly in public is mandatory. Ladies travelling in Iran need to dress according to the rules of hijab:

  • A headscarf to cover your head. Big cities like Tehran and Esfahan can show your hair, whereas places like Kerman and Hamadan it’s better to cover your head completely. 
  • Long-sleeved loose fitting top that covers the butt. Cardigan and 3/4 length sleeved shirts are fine. Colorful clothing is definitely allowed!
  • Pants or dress that go down to your ankle. Skinny jeans are fine!
  • Sandals are allowed!

It is perfectly fine to take off Hijab at people’s house. You can always follow the women in the house if unsure. 

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Culture

Persians are not Arabs. Iranians are very firm on this, and are offended if you mix the two. Apart from curious on where you come from, Iranians like to know about your religious too. Most of them I had talked to are open-minded towards other religious. However, you still need to be sensitive about your views on Islamic beliefs. One thing I believe for sure: Iran is definitely not a country in war like what others think.

Everywhere closes on Fridays! Fridays are considered the holy day of the week. Mosques are closed on Fridays for non-Muslims to visit as well. For officials, working days are Sundays to Thursdays instead of Mondays to Fridays. For restaurants and tourists attractions, they will only be opened after 4pm on Fridays.

Like Singapore, tap water is safe to drink unless stated otherwise! There are plenty of water fountains on the streets in cities, so you can actually save money from buying bottled drinks. Iranians also prefer drinking tea over coffee. Instead of putting sugar into the tea and stir, try the Iranian way by putting a cube of sugar into your mouth and sip the tea! I enjoyed having a cube for every 2 sips, imagine the amount of sugar intake I had in Iran!!

Being an Islamic country, it is a common knowledge that man and woman do not touch, not even a handshake. So, for a lady to greet the man, just place your right hand over left chest and do a small bow. For lady to lady, you can do handshake, or even hug and give pecks on both cheeks!

Hospitality

Iranians are among the friendliest and most hospitable people in the world! You will be welcomed on every corner, people will want to take pictures with you, and it is very common you will be invited to a total stranger’s house. I think I’ve visited more homes in Iran than I did in my home country!

Iranians love treating foreigners. As a budget traveller, doing Couchsurfing in Iran is a real advantage because most of the times my hosts pay for everything! The best part about Couchsurfing in Iran is that once you stay with a host, you not only get to know their external families but even their friends! During my 3-weeks stay, I had not eaten a meal with the same group of people even though I may stay with a host for 4-days. Can you imagine the number of people waiting to meet you when you are in a foreign country?

As much as Iranians are generous people, however you do need to watch out of  tarof. It is when someone offers something out of courtesy, not because they want to. As a golden rule of thumb, always offer to pay three times. If the person still resists, the offer is legit. So far most of the locals I’ve met are truly sincere with their offers!

Nevertheless, do not take Iranian’s hospitality for granted. Do prepare some small gifts from your country if you are planning to meet some people there. Simple things like postcards or small denomination bills of your home country are good enough. For me, I had brought over a Polaroid camera and gave them the films of us to keep for memories.

Couchsurfing in Rafsanjan – Hosts and their friends

Couchsurfers in Kerman

Couchsurfers in Shiraz

Guide from Couchsurfing in Shiraz

dinner with family from Esfahan

lunch and a day-trip with family from Esfahan

Transportation

The taxi system in Iran can be incredibly confusing. There are private taxis and shared taxis, open doors and closed doors. The worst part? None of the taxis have meters. So, be sure to settle for a price before getting onto a cab. Most of the drivers only know simple English or no English at all. To make communication easier, you can either: 1) screenshot the photo of the attraction you would like to go, 2) have your hosts/hotel receptionist to write the destination/ address in Farsi (Persians) on paper and you just show to the driver. 

Almost every city and town in Iran is connected by bus. Long-distance buses are cheap and relatively convenient to get you around the country. I had taken mahmoomly (normal) buses from city to city. For me, the leg space is spacious enough to put my 45l backpack and my legs comfortably with reclining seats. It only costs 250,000 IRR (USD 8) for a 10-hours journey compared to the VIP bus which is about 500,000 IRR (USD 15). The best part is, snacks and drinks are provided!! (even better than flying budget airlines!) 

Bus stations are known as terminals to Iranians. Big cities usually have several terminals so you may ask your hosts/receptionists which terminal you have to go for your next destination (usually CS hosts are kind enough to help you get tickets beforehand and drive you to the terminal). When you are at the terminal, just follow the sound of hawkers shouting the name of the city you want to go and you can just purchase your tickets on the spot. Tickets are all written in Farsi, but not to worry too much! You can just ask any locals around and they are willing to show you which berth to wait for your bus. 

Bus ticket

Berth to wait for the bus

Mahmoomly bus

Spacious leg space (maybe ’cause i got short legs)

Cheap bus and still come with snacks and drinks!

 

I hope you will find this guide useful for planning a trip to this exotic country. Feel free to comment and ask any questions if you have any doubt. (=

Hamadan: Probably the Most Ancient City in the World

Hamadan is believed not only to be among the oldest Iranian cities but probably one of the oldest in the world. Laying in a temperate mountainous region where the north and northeast of the province are influenced by strong winds,  Hamadan is in fact one of the coldest cities in Iran.

My initial plan was to head to Yazd after Esfahan followed by Kashan. However, along the way I was told by some locals to visit Ali-Sadr Cave in Hamadan if I got the chance. I’m a cave-mountain-jungle kind of girl so this got my curiosity. Up until I reached Soffeh Bus Terminal, that I made a decision to bus to Hamadan. 

It took about 7-hours from Esfahan to Hamadan. As we are approaching Hamadan, the weather was so much colder. It started to rain and was so windy I wouldn’t be surprised if trees being blown away. I was quite amused as this was the first time seeing rain after 2-months in Middle East! 

By now, I left with about USD100 (starting budget: USD250) to last me for another 4 days. Hamadan is indeed a very old and quiet town. Since I didn’t plan to come here, I did not do much of research as well. I did not know where to stay, how far is the cave to the city and if i would have enough money or not. The only thing is know was that I wanted to go to the cave. 

Using google translation, I approached a group of taxi drivers to drive me to a cheap hotel in town. They discussed among each other for awhile and asked me to follow one of them. It’s a 30-minutes drive and costs me USD3. The driver brought me to Ordibehesht Hotel which located right in the center of town for USD15 per night. 

The hotel receptionist only can speak few simple English words. I believed there are hardly any tourists visiting this old town. He told me that from town to the cave will take about 2-hours drive and cost about 80,000 tomans (USD25) for one-way trip. The entrance to the cave would cost about USD10-USD15. Without needing to do any math, I knew I have not enough money to do it.

Accommodation: 15 x 2 = USD30

To & fro cave: USD50

Entrance fees: USD15

Bus back to Tehran: ~ USD10

Food: ??

Taxi from Tehran bus terminal to Airport: ??

In my mind I was thinking: No, I am not coming here and not doing the cave! 

And so, I went to search for my emergency cash which is SGD100. I’m not sure if it’s acceptable but gonna try it anyway. I asked direction to money changer from the receptionist and hoped for the best.  

In the center of this town is a roundabout, there are 7 other deviations for you walk into from the roundabout. Each street and alley has its own name but all look the same to me. I shown the street name the receptionist wrote for me and asked around, but different people pointed different directions to me. Nevertheless, while trying to find a money changer, I began exploring other nearby attractions as well. 

Center of roundabout

Alavian Dome – Back view of the place as it was closed

Great Jame Mosque

Old building structure in Hamadan

After loitering on the street for 3 hours (and unable to find my way back to the hotel but luckily I got the name card), I still can’t find a money charger. Hungrily, I settled my dinner with biscuits and fruits. 

Next morning, I decided to try the local bank opposite the hotel. I knew the rates would be much lower but what other choice would I have? Unfortunately, the bank refused to change the currency with Singapore dollar because there was no exchange rates listed in their system.

I went back to the hotel and told the receptionist I no money to do the cave. He made some calls and told me a money charger will come here and change with me!!! I used XE currency app to show the money changer the rate between SGD and IRR. He did his own calculation and offered me 200,000 tomans (USD65). Honestly, I would accept any amount as long as I could go for my cave trip!

The next plan was to bargain a good price for cab. I tried my luck by asking the receptionist if it was possible to have cheaper rate to drive me to the cave because I am really really poor now. So, he called his uncle and he offered me 70,000 tomans (USD23) for 2-ways! 

Ali-Sadr Cave

This 70-million years old cave is the largest water cave in the world. There are no living creatures in the cave’s water and its temperature is 12 degrees Celsius. The water is so transparent that one can see to the depth of 10 meters with the naked eyes and ordinary light. 

The natural entrance to Ali-Sadr cave (sinkhole) has been made accessible by stairs and concrete walkway. After that, the rest of the cave can only be covered by manual-paddled boat (Pedlo) by the guide. Water level can be as deep as 14-meters, thus life jackets are issued to a guests upon entering the cave. It took me about 2.5-hours to finish the cave.

Ticket to the cave

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The crew (left) and a passenger (right) sitting in front from have to paddle for whole boat to move 

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Met a local girl from Tehran

and a group of uncles from Korea who thought I am a Korean

If you do not wish to stay too far from this main attraction in Hamadan, the is a Tourism Complex which offers basic amenities. There is a 27-room hotel, 10 wooden villas (single and double beds), a restaurant, handicraft shops, a mosque, a parking lot and a park for children.

 

 

Esfahan: The Hidden Jewel of Middle East

Esfahan is the third biggest city in Iran located 414 km south of Tehran (7-hours) and 481 km north of Shiraz (8-hours). This 2500 years old city used to serve as Persia’s capital from 1598 to 1722.

I took a night bus from Rafsanjan to Esfahan which was a 6-hours journey. My CS hosts offered to pick me up at 7am at Soffeh Bus Terminal, and so i waited patiently for them as I arrived early at 6.30am. It was so unexpectedly cold in the morning. An old Iranian woman offered me a cup of hot tea while I was sitting on the bench😇 At 6.55am, I sent Tohid a text telling them I’ve arrived. No reply. At 7.15am, I decided to give him a call. No answer. I tried again 5-minutes later, the result was the same.🤔

As much as luck has been on my side in finding good hosts, it is always a must to have alternatives 😎 I waited for another 30-minutes and after which i hopped on a cab and on my way to Seven Hostel (known as Ibne Sina Hotel). Due to low peak, I got myself a 2-bedroom with private bathroom for USD13 per night 🤗

Front of the Hotel

Entrance before entering to reception

Lobby/ Reception area

Dinning Area

Bedroom

Tohid called me at 3pm, apologetically telling me that they had overslept and ask me where am I. 3pm!! 🙄 By then, I had planned my itinerary and also looking out for hosts for next couple of days. He sounded very sincere and feeling real sorry. Eventually, I decided to accept their hospitality and allow them to fetch me to their house in the evening.

And so, Tohid fetched me from the hostel at around 7pm. As we drove pass the city, I then realized there are so many cars in Esfahan. The streets were brightly lit and everywhere seemed to be congested with traffic. Upon reaching the house, I had quite a shock. After visiting quite a few Iranian families, I have an understanding that Iranian women tend to dress conservatively when receiving their guests. However, this did not apply to Tohid’s wife 🤔 I thought maybe, they are more open-minded in the big city. 

Despite being a young wife, Tohid’s wife made delicious dinner for us. I believe it took a lot of effort to do coloring for the rice and made it presentable.

Zayandeh River

After dinner, Tohid drove us to the city and wanted to show me the “beach”. We drove along the Zayandeh River and stopped at one of the bridges.

Si-o-seh Bridge, also known as the Bridge of 33 Arches, is one of the bridges which went through modern constructions. It is 298m long and is a popular dating spot among Iranian couples. Due to Summer season, the river had more or less dried up.  

brightly lit street

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popular dating spot

river drying up because it’s Summer!

Next day, I was unable to go out early because the couple woke up so late, again. Tohid offered to bike me to Naqsh-e Jahan Square since it’s on the way to his honey shop. Iran has a funny traffic law. Women cannot ride bike on her own, but can sit on the bike as pillion without a helmet 🙄🙄🙄

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Naqsh-e Jahan Square

Known as Imam Square, the square is situated at the center of Esfahan City. Surrounded by the building from Safavid era, the place is now one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The Shah mosque is situated on the South side, whereas its opposite is Keisaria gate opens into Esfahan Grand Bazaar. West side of the square is Ali Qapu Palace, and Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque on the Eastern side of the square. 

nicely manicured landscape

big fountain in the center of the square

Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque

Shah Mosque

part of the bazaar

Dinner was hosted at Tohid’s in-laws family. As the whole family has no clue to converse in English, and Tohid’s English wasn’t that great so the translation was really bad. Throughout the dinner I only mingled with the kids and the adults talk among themselves 😐

Next morning I was being awaken by Tohid at 8.30am because he needed to go visit his bee farm. I was kind of annoyed because he should have given me a heads-up after spending a whole night with his non-English speaking friends till 4am! 😒 Still, I hid my annoyance and quickly wash up and went out with them. 

suit up for the bees!

honey making in process

After visiting the bee farm, Tohid told me he was going to be busy but he had arranged another friend to meet me. I was like….ermmm okay….? 😶

Turned out I had an enjoyable day with the family! 🤗 I had a good conversation with the two teenager kids and learnt about their open-minded views of being an Iranian. The mum cooked sumptuous lunch and drove us to Julfa area where the Armenians live.  

this family is so open-minded that the ladies do not even bother to wear hijab when taking photos

parrot pet

Vank Cathedral 

courtyard of Holy Savior Cathedral

inside the church

in memorial for those who died in Armenian Genocide

I am grateful to have met this family. They are probably the best reason to make my stay in Esfahan worthwhile. After spending a day with the family, there was no news on when Tohid is coming to fetch me back. (And it was already 10pm! 😞) They helped me called Tohid and it seems like there was a small argument. 😥 

In the end, they had to fetch me back to Tohid’s house which was 45-minutes drive away. I felt real bad to be such a burden 😞 When I got back, I could see that they were actually preparing for picnic night 😤 And so, I made a decision to tell them I’m leaving Esfahan tonight. I am pretty sure they were surprised but relieved that i’m leaving. 🙄

 

 

 

Kerman: A paradise in the heart of desert

Kerman is one the oldest cities in Iran. Not only it is the largest carpet producing and exporting center in Iran, but also a large producer of pistachios on the world market. Kerman is considered a paradise for paleontologist due to its abundance of vertebrate-fossils from different geological eras.     

I took a 7-hours day bus ride from Shiraz to Kerman. My CS host, Abozar, picked me up at the bus terminal in the evening just right before Iftar (the evening meal when Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset). Abozar told me that tonight’s Iftar will be a feast as his wife’s family will be coming over to his place. I was pretty excited about it as it is my first Iftar with an Iranian family! 🤗

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Bus Terminal

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The bus ticket which I don’t understand a thing

I was greeted by Abozar’s shy and petite wife, Maryam, at the house as she does not speak English. She started serving me mint tea and zoolbia bamieh (Iranian sweets and it’s one of my favorites!) I tried to help with dinner but she made me sit and switched on Korean drama in Farsi. 😱 As the family starts to make their way into the house, I was introduced by Abozar to them. As expected, they look at me curiously and too shy to talk to me. Only when an 11-year old boy came to converse with me in English and the fun starts.

I soon came to realize that having a meal with Iranian family can be very very filling. 😓 The different dishes were been laid on the carpet and everyone will sit on the floor to eat. There will be rice cooked with saffron (a kind of spice from flower), bread (which looks like naan), chicken/beef/mutton (usually one will be fried or grilled and the other will cook with gravy), salad, mint leaves for you to chew with the food, yoghurt drink and pudding!

After the feast, the women will clear the plates and do the washing whereas the men will be discussing about current affairs. Tea and fruits will be served once the dishes are being done. Fruits served in Summer are mainly cherries, peach, apricot, rock melon, watermelon, cucumbers and apples. When everyone is done with the fruits, it’s time for ice cream! 😮 By now, it’s usually around 12am-1am. By the time back to home is around 3am+ and Maryam will start prepare for breakfast and after that go to mosque to do her prayer. I’m somehow glad that I was here during the Ramadan period to experience another kind of lifestyle from the norm.

Dinner!!

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Abozar’s brother

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Maryam and me!!

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with the Iranian kids

my “bed” for 4-nights

I spent another three days staying with Abozar and Maryam. When he was working, I spent the day time with Maryam at her parents’ place, helping to do some housework or babysitting the kids while the adults are doing their prayers. One of the days  I went to explore Ganjali Khan Square, one of the biggest covered bazaar in Iran and Ganjali Khan Mosque which built in 1007 A.H. At night, they will bring me to other relatives house for Iftar.

Ganjali Khan Square

love the smell of spices

fruits and veggies

Ganjali Khan

Ganjali Khan Mosque

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On my last day, Abozar took leave from work and drove me out of Kerman to visit nearby counties. We first visited Shazdeh garden which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mahan and further up to Rayen to see waterfall.

Shazdeh Garden, Mahan

Located in Mahan, 35km Southeast of Kerman (approximately 45-minutes drive), Shazdeh Garden is the ninth Iranian Garden registered on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. As the name suggested in Persian, the garden was once the Summer residence of a prince. The entrance of Garden consists of a two-storied building which the second floor was used as living quarters and for receiving guests. The entrance fee to visit the garden is 200,000Rial.

the road to Mahan

pools in a terraced fashion

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entrance of the garden

the prince’s residence

taking a break under shelter

Rayen

After 2-hours exploring Shazdeh Garden, we drove another 45-minutes to Rayen. Rayen Waterfall as the “River of Gold” known, is one of the attraction and the most beautiful and glorious mountain routes in Kerman province of Iran. 

I was pretty amazed by the cool weather in this small town despite being located near the desert. Abozar told me that this area will snow during Winter. Imagine desert and snow, how cool is that!! 😱 There were families from other cities drove all the way up here to escape the heat of Summer, and I believe the mountainous scenery and cool weather made the drive totally worth it.

Rayen Waterfall

On my last day, Maryam packed biscuits and fruits for my journey to the next city. It is a tradition for Iranian as host to prepare food for their leaving guests. Abozar drove me to the bus terminal as I will be meeting my next CS host from Rafsanjan there.

Rafsanjan

Simin and Hossein drove about 1-hour with their 9-months old daughter to Kerman just to pick me up back to Rafsanjan. 😇 Honestly, there are nothing much to do in Rafsanjan but I chose to make this detour to “take a break” from the long trip. This couple is so awesomely sweet and I really enjoyed my 3-days stay with them. 

Simin took me to her French lesson where we had so much fun. I was enjoying myself being lost in the languages of Farsi and French, while Simin trying to do translation in English for me. The lesson was on facial features and the teacher wanted us to describe each other features. I only remembered just laughing throughout the whole lesson. That night we went to Simin’s uncle place for Iftar which was a 45-minutes drive from her house. It was a very small town with no mobile signal.

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overly cute baby, Reha

what we did in french class

On the following day, Simin was inviting her friends over for Iftar. We went grocery shopping during the noon driving around from one shop to another (’cause there isn’t supermarket around the area) to find the ingredients need for dinner. By the time we reached home, Hossein ended his work and started preparing the dough for pizza! I helped to dice the vegetables for the pizza, and entertained Reha while the couple busied themselves in the kitchen.  

home-made Iranian pizza

non-alcoholic beer

Iranian friends

and more friends!!

Simin and Hossein’s friends whom I met were from university so they were able to converse English with me. They are very funny and open-minded Iranians whom I enjoyed talking with for hours. Through them I got to learn about the younger generation’s thinking of living in Iran. I understand that Simin is very active in Couchsurfing because it is not easy for them to travel out of the country. With such kind hospitality, I am definitely going back to visit them again. 

Cost breakdown:

  • Bus from Shiraz to Kerman: 150,000 Rial (USD 4)
  • Food: Free
  • Accommodation: Free
  • Shazdeh Garden: 200,000 Rial (USD 6)

 

Female Solo Travelling in Iran

Soaring mountain ranges, stunning mosques, palaces and ruins from different eras provide architectural wonder, while brilliant bazaars adds colours to shopping culture, making Iran an irresistible destination for travellers. Even before touching down, the view from the plane is just so00000 breathtaking 😍😍😍

Iran was one of the countries included in my Middle East backpacking trip during Summer. When I told my friends about it, their reactions will be like: “Why must you go to such dangerous place?!”, “Is it even safe?”, “What happened if you got kidnap?!” 😱 and the funniest i got was “Is your boyfriend crazy to allow you to go by yourself?!” 😂 All I could reply was: “but Iran is considered as one of the safest place in the World!”  However, without a doubt, I made Iran a “must-go” destination. 😎

I flew from Doha to Tehran, and took a 13-hours night bus to Shiraz. Surprisingly, the bus ride which cost less than USD9 was spacious and it comes with food and drinks! After that, night buses became my main transportation travelling from city to city in Iran. Judging from the curiosity of the locals, I am pretty sure not a lot of foreigners using this mode of transport to travel around here. 😬

While planning my trip to Iran, I had read so much online forums which stated that applying visa in Iran is a hassle. There will be tons of documents to be submitted and be prepared to wait for a few hours if you didn’t settle the paperwork online. To play safe, I had paid USD68 to apply a 30-days visa online and settled whatever paperwork that needed to be submitted. Upon reaching the airport, not only am I one of the few tourists, but I also being informed that with my Malaysian passport, I can easily get 15-days visa-on-arrival for free! To further add salt to my wound, i was told that I can extend the visa to 21-days with only USD12!! 😪 I wondered why didn’t they inform me about it when I submitted my stuff to the embassy…

Sim card can be bought once you exit the terminal. I do not know how much because my Couchsurfing host bought it for me and he refused take my money. Similar to China, Iran cannot access to Facebook, google, and some other apps so you will need to download VPN app to bypass the network in order to use those apps. For me, I depended a lot on Google Translation to communicate with the locals who speak Farsi (most of them can’t speak English well unless you are at big cities), and also Google Map to make sure the transport I am taking is on the right track. 🤗

To be fair, like many other countries, solo female travellers attract attention in Iran too! (Throughout my three weeks in Iran, I only saw a few travellers in groups of 3 or 4, did not see any female solo traveller, and none of the Asians 😶) Iranians are known for their incredible hospitality. Even with their limited English vocabulary, they will start approaching you and try making conversations. The locals are helpful and eager to help if I’m appeared to look lost. Even when walking around the bazaars, the vendors treated me with respect and I’ve never felt pressurized to buy anything.

If you are planning to do some shopping in Iran, be sure to bring enough cash to sustain your whole stay which include accommodations, food and others. I left with USD250 for Iran after traveled to Dubai, Qatar and Oman. Foreign credit cards are not accepted in banks for withdrawal or used in hotels. USD, Euros and British Pounds are the common currency used for exchange to Iranian Rial (the locals called in Tomans, 100,000 Rials = 10,000 Tomans). I would highly suggest you change to change some money at the airport. 😉

Couchsurfing is illegal but not blocked in Iran, and it is really working very well in the country! And it will save you a lot of money as the hotels in Iran are pretty expensive. Some of the cities I stayed in backpacker hotels, whereas some I stayed with CS families. I am lucky that most of my CS hosts are pretty awesome, making my stay in Iran so much comfortable.

My stay in Iran was during Ramadan period, meaning the Muslims will fast during the day and will only start eating after their evening prayer. Fancy to learn the culture, I woke up early to have heavy breakfast, and fast during the day. However, as it was Summer with the weather incredibly hot in Iran, my hosts always urge me to at least drink water, fearing that I will fall sick. The best part about Ramadan is that I am always invited to friends and relatives house for their sumptuous dinner!! Iranian food always come with sweets, black teas and lots of vegetables! I think I will never get sick of Iranian food. 😇

Iran is officially an Islamic Republic, so the very important part on female dressing is to have your hair, arms and legs covered at all times. If you happened to forget, the hotel’s receptionist will remind you before you walk out of the hotel. If your scarf fell off from your head and didn’t realized it, there will be nice Iranian women who come forward and help do your headscarf properly. (YES! It happened a lot of times to me, so i learnt to bun up my hair high up and letting to scarf to drape over it). 

Despite there are websites and forums telling you about strict dressing for females in Iran, it is not very true. You can dress as colourful as you like! In cities like Tehran and Isfahan, ladies wear scarves which only cover their hair partially and bright colours long dresses and tunic. Skinny jeans and tights are allowed but be sure you wear your tunic long enough to cover till knee. And it is okay to expose your feet so it’s perfectly fine to wear sandals! 👡

Stay tune for the next few travel blogs as I will share with you in details on places of interests in different cities I’ve visited in Iran! 😋

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