If you’ve never even considered travelling in Bahrain, I really don’t blame you. Neither had I until very recently. I mean, I hadn’t even heard of it, let alone considered it as a travelling destination until I met my boyfriend Alex. He grew up there as an expat kid and some of his family still live out there. So, as I’m a grown up now, I decided it was time to spend Christmas away from home and meet the family.
Now, as a traveller, I couldn’t resist trying to cram in some sightseeing along with the family festiveness, and who better than my bloke to show me the sights. After all, he used to live here!
So here’s my guide to travelling in Bahrain for the first time.
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Where / What is Bahrain?
If, like me, you’re having trouble placing Bahrain on a map, it’s a small island off the coast of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in the western section of the Persian Gulf. It’s a funny little place, with a real mix of Arabs, Western expats and South and Central Asian immigrants an is known for being the playground for Saudi seediness (they come over and use it as their ‘playground’ at weekends… if you catch my drift).
I really wasn’t expecting much from Bahrain as a place. For the first few days I couldn’t see anything at all that I liked. Near where we were staying in Juffair was an ‘American Strip’ with Burger King, McDonald’s Shawarma Express, and all number of awful tacky restaurants. At weekends (Fridays and Saturdays), the Bahraini equivalent of a chav-fest begins, with kids on motorbikes revving their engines and chav-mobiles driving by with their music and bass turned up to unimaginable levels.
I was seriously unimpressed.
Also the road system here is ridiculously confusing, with no clear signage and the worst driving I’ve seen outside of Cambodia, but driving is the only way to get around as public transport is unreliable, crowded and seriously smelly. It looked as though there was nothing to do here but go shopping in the massive malls. Kind of like a Dubai but 15 years ago (I visited Dubai in 2007 and did not like… one bit). A kind of soul-less desert, which time forgot. For the first few days I was imagining what I was going to write about on my return to the UK. I even came up with a blog title: Where Culture Comes to Die. I know. Pretty scathing review, right? Well luckily for me (and for Bahrain), my opinion did change.
Discovering the cultural side of Bahrain
A few days into my trip, we hired a car and embarked on a road trip, with Alex showing me a few spots of interest. It was liberating to have our own car and be able to explore at our own pace, rather than relying on taxis. We criss-crossed around the capital of Manama and its surrounds, with little idea of where we were going, thanks to a new (and very confusing) road system. At one point, we almost drove into the causeway leading to Saudi Arabia. That would’ve been an epic fail as it’s illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. I know. Backwards.
So if you’re planning a trip to Bahrain, allow me to recommend a few places of interest.
The Ahmed Al Fateh Mosque
Also known as the Grand Mosque, this was easily the best things about my time in Bahrain (I do bloody love architecture). It was beautifully designed, humble and truly eye-opening. It’s also free to enter and gave one of the most friendly welcomes I’ve ever had from a tourist attraction, let alone a place of worship. I’ve written a full blog post on this, for more detail click here.
The Pearl Roundabout area – symbol of a struggle
The Pearl Roundabout recently symbolised the hope of the Shia Muslim majority to gain more say in the way the government is run, but unfortunately the demonstrations in 2011 were the catalyst for a government crackdown in which dozens were killed by the Saudi army. The Pearl Roundabout was destroyed and the entire area surrounding it closed off. Today a road has been built over the top of it, and the whole area remains spookily empty. I don’t recommend trying to get in there (the army will have a few questions for you), but a drive over the area provides a haunting reminder of the civil unrest which so recently happened here.
Another point on this; there are quite a number of army check points around the suburbs of Bahrain. We accidentally drove into one where there seemed to be some kind of anti government protest happening. best advice here is to leave as quickly as you can and avoid places where people are congregating as it’s not unknown for petrol bombs and other missiles to be thrown at cars. It’s rare but it does happen so it’s better to be safe in these situations, I believe.
Visit the souks
Selling everything from scarves to spices (and weird little cow toys), the souks in the centre of Manama are definitely worth a visit to pick up a bargain or two. Bahrain is famous for its pearls and 24ct gold (which is very yellow in colour if you like that kind of thing), so make sure you practice your bartering skills on these local treasures. I managed to pick up 3 handmade silk scarves for the equivalent of about 8 quid so just keep walking away and they will chase you down to make that sale! However – ladies beware! If you are western, you will be stared at. I purposefully toned down my very blonde hair before going to Bahrain but it made no difference at all. The men there love a good stare. Just make sure you’re dressed modestly and ignore it, and all will be well.
Visit the Camel farm of Janabiya
Always a crowd-pleaser, camels are just about as Arabian as it gets, and whilst passing a huge area filled with palm trees, we couldn’t help but stop to find out what it was. It turns out it’s a camel farm owned by the king. It’s marked as private property, but don’t worry about that – drive right in and ask if you can visit. They’re very friendly there and it’s actually fine for tourists to visit.
The king keeps the camels, we were told ‘just because he can‘, as a man might keep a flock of chickens or a herd of cows. They aren’t used for anything in particular – not racing, meat or milk, but just for a bit of a laugh! (As you do).
The camels are pretty friendly and although they are tied to their posts, they are allowed to roam freely in the grounds too. For a couple of Dinars ‘tip” (read: bribe), you can even ask to interact with them. Win!
Take a walk around Bahrain Fort
Dating back to 2300 BC, and containing remains right up until the 18th century, Bahrain Fort is an archaeological site which has been excavated slowly over the last 70 years. It has been designated a UNESCO World Hetitage Site, and is now a protected area. Some parts are just ruins in the ground, but the most exciting part of it lays with the massive castle-like fort which still stands strong. We had some fun running in and out of the various rooms and little nooks, and looking out over the moat, and pretending that we lived there, but you might be a little more grown up than us and just enjoy it for its beautiful architecture. Entrance is free.
Soak up the history in the Qal’at Al-Bahrain Site Museum
If you like old relics and bones, then this place has got your name written all over it. Giving a thorough history of Bahrain’s occupation through time, and the way each civilisation lived (and died), it’s an eye-opening passage through time. The museum is conveniently located right next door to Bahrain Fort (see above), and for a few Dinars, you can spend as long as you like learning and soaking up the culture. Believe me, it’s good.
Pick up a bargain at A’ali pottery shops
They sell nothing but pottery (and some weird swing chair things??) in A’ali, and somewhere with that amount of stock needs to sell those bad boys. And they do – very cheaply too. Get your bartering hat on again and head towards the Saudi border, and take lots of scarves to wrap your new purchases in. We bought a beautiful earthenware tagine pot which we intend to use fully over the next few months (see middle picture). Is it sad that I’m really excited about that?
Visit the Forbidden Pork section in any supermarket
OK, it’s probably just me but when I saw that there was a cordoned off area for pork in a Bahraini supermarket, I got excited! As Bahrain’s religion is Islam, and pigs are considered as dirty meat, this must be kept out of sight from the majority of shoppers. But it feels just so wrong, yet so right to wander into a giant refrigerated room full of ham, spam, bacon, sausages, pork chops and rolled joints. I even found the world’s largest pork pie in there. Fantastic.
Getting to Bahrain
I flew with Qatar Airways (London, via Qatar), which was the cheapest airline over the Christmas period. You can also fly direct with Gulf Air or British Airways.
Where to stay
My experience of Bahrain was a mixed one for sure, but I managed to find some great little gems along the way. Although politically unstable and a little shady in places, as long as you’re sensible and take care of your own personal safety, there’s no reason why you won’t grow to love this little island. I’m getting there. Maybe my next visit to catch up with the family will make me love it more.