Muscat, Oman - Why I Hated It and Will Never Go Back

Muscat, Oman – Why I Hated It and Will Never Go Back

Last fall, I met an Omani man at my guest house in Delhi, India. When he learned I was a travel writer, he began to gush about Oman. “You must go! It is so beautiful. Muscat is gorgeous and people are so friendly.” I was sold. I added Oman to a list of Middle Eastern countries to visit this spring.

I arrived in Muscat, the capital of Oman, on a balmy March evening on the heels of visiting Dubai in the UAE. I’d thoroughly enjoyed my time in Dubai and, if reports I’d read on the Internet were any indication, I’d be even more wowed by Oman.

A walk along the Corniche passes between this rocky promontory and the giant incense burner perched on the hillside, which is a nod to Oman being the world's major producer of Frankincense

A walk along the Corniche passes between this rocky promontory and the giant incense burner perched on the producer of Frankincense

My first inkling that Oman might not be all that I hoped came a few minutes later. The driver of the taxi who met me at the airport started asking what I wanted to do in Muscat. I replied that I’d begin by taking the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus in order familiarize myself with the sprawling city. “Oh no! You don’t want to do that. It’s really expensive and you have to wait a long time between buses.” His warning was quickly followed with a sales pitch. He could show me everything I needed to see in half a day and it would cost only $65.

Clock Tower in the Central Business District of Muscat, Oman

Clock Tower in the Central Business District of Muscat, Oman

I wasn’t interested. As a photographer, I often need to wait for the right light, or for crowds to clear in order to get the best shot. As a writer, I must be able to roam at my own pace, soaking up the atmosphere, talking to locals, and musing over story angles. Being tied to a tour where I’m allowed 15 or 20 minutes at each stop simply doesn’t work. I politely declined, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Trapped in his vehicle, I suffered the hard sell all the way to my hotel.

Entrance to the traditional Souk (market) in the Mutrah neighborhood of Muscat, Oman

Entrance to the traditional Souk (market) in the Mutrah neighborhood of Muscat, Oman

It was late and I was exhausted by the time we reached my hotel. I wanted nothing more than to fall into bed and sleep for ten hours. But my room fronted on a six-lane highway and the traffic noise was so bad I knew sleeping would be impossible. I asked for and was given a second room…which had a balcony with sliding glass doors that would not lock.

As a solo female traveler, I have a few non-negotiable rules for staying safe. One of them is never to stay in a room where the doors won’t lock. Once again, I asked for my room to be changed. The third try was even worse. The room reeked like a dead animal and there were dark brown spots on the carpet the size of dinner plates. I’m sure the Filipino staff hated me by that time, but I had to demand a fourth room, which was finally acceptable.

In Old Muscat, a mosque is framed by one of the 16th century Portuguese forts that once guarded the harbors

In Old Muscat, a mosque is framed by one of the 16th century Portuguese forts that once guarded the harbors

My experience did not improve over the next five days. I began in Old Muscat, where the only interesting sites among a sea of whitewashed buildings were the Al Alam Palace and two 16th-century Portuguese forts. None of which were open to the public. With everything closed during the midday heat, streets of the old town were deserted. The only sign of life was four Omani men wearing the traditional Omani Dishdasha, an ankle-length white caftan, and round embroidered caps known as kumma. They strolled slowly down the middle of the street, eventually disappearing into one of the brilliant white palaces. Little did I know this would be the closest I would ever get to Omani culture.

The Corniche is a 4-mile long walkway between the Mutrah area of Muscat, and Old Muscat, the original site of the city

The Corniche is a 4-mile long walkway between the Mutrah area of Muscat, and Old Muscat, the original site of the city

Dejectedly, I turned my back on Old Muscat and headed back down the 4-mile Corniche. It was a beautiful seaside walk, but as in Old Muscat, everything along the way was closed. I arrived at the Mutrah Suq just as the market was opening for the evening and ducked inside to wander its cool narrow alleyways. Like any other market in the world, merchants hawked wares ranging from gold to spice to pashmina shawls. But every single one of the shop owners was an immigrant. I met friendly Pakistanis, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, and even Nepalis. But not a single Omani was to be found.

Shop owner in the Mutrah Souk hawks his goods

Shop owner in the Mutrah Souk hawks his goods

On day two I fended off multiple pushy taxi drivers, found the Big Bus stop, and sat down to wait. The bus arrived fifteen minutes later, but I wasn’t allowed to board. A cruise ship was in town and the company was busy shuttling passengers back to the ship. When the next bus finally arrived, it did an “abbreviated” route that ignored some of the stops shown on the company’s website.

We were well past the beach by the time I realized the driver had skipped it. My only option would have been to go all the way around and wait for the next bus. By that time it was too late. Even if I took a quick stroll on the beach and grabbed a late lunch, I would miss the last bus back. And a taxi back to the hotel would set me back another 25 bucks.

The stunning Swarovski crystal chandelier in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

The stunning Swarovski crystal chandelier in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

My Big Bus ticket was for two days, so I set out early the next morning. I was beginning to suspect that there was little to see or do in Muscat, and the Big Bus tour quickly confirmed my worst fears. Strangely, the two most visited sites, the Muscat Opera House and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, were not even included on the route. Unlike the hop-on, hop-off buses I’ve taken in dozens of other locations around the world, this one was a total rip-off. I did manage to see the mosque when a lovely French Canadian family at the hotel invited me to accompany them in their rental car. Good thing, too, because the taxi driver I’d hired to take me didn’t show up.

A palm-lined beach along the Corniche in Muscat, Oman

A palm-lined beach along the Corniche in Muscat, Oman

For the remainder of my time in Oman, I decided to focus on day trips outside of the capital city. I’d read about jeep tours in the surrounding Sahara-like dunes, off-roading through rugged mountain scenery, and wadis where hidden emerald pools offer opportunities for a cool dip. I tried my favorite go-to booking site, GetYourGuide, and even Viator, without success. Not only are tours in Oman extremely expensive, the minimum number of participants for any tour was two people. As a single person I would have had to pay double, even if other customers joined the same tour. The cheapest option was $250 for a half-day trip to a wadi. I just said no.

Dining along the Corniche in the Mutrah area of Muscat, Oman. The only choices are a few expensive restaurants or these "fast food" sidewalk cafes.

Dining along the Corniche in the Mutrah area of Muscat, Oman. The only choices are a few expensive restaurants or these “fast food” sidewalk cafes.

I spent my last day wandering around the Mutrah area, eating horrible fast food and trying to meet locals other than taxi drivers. The only Omanis I found were squatting on the sidewalk in front of a sand pit, playing an ancient game known as hawalis. The chess-like game involved moving a series of pebbles among four rows of holes dug in the sand. The men refused to acknowledge me and even my requests to take a photo went unanswered. Lacking denial, I snapped the photo. I stood there a while longer, trying to decipher the rules of the game, but their snub made me increasingly uncomfortable. I later learned the centuries-old game, which is just as incomprehensible as the local culture, is exclusive to Oman.

Omani men play Hawalis, a board game where stones are moved between four rows of cups dug in the sand. This version of the game is said to be exclusive to Oman

Omani men play Hawalis, a board game where stones are moved between four rows of cups dug in the sand. This version of the game is said to be exclusive to Oman

Others may wax lyrical about Oman, but the only friendly people I met were immigrants. And the countryside may indeed be beautiful, but since all the tours were exceedingly expensive, I never saw it. There is no published information about bus routes and no rapid transit. Even renting a car is problematic. My new French Canadian friends told me horror stories about getting lost in the interior on roadways completely devoid of any directional signs. Oman doesn’t have a clue how to handle tourism. Until it does, I can find lots of other places to spend my money.

39 Comments on “Muscat, Oman – Why I Hated It and Will Never Go Back

  1. Barbara, Thanks for your brutal honesty. How rude of those men to ignore you! Rudeness is right up there with the worst of sins!

  2. The experience may not have been good but really enjoyed your photos. My article about Arunachal Pradesh in India and the Hornbill Festival will be published in International Travel News in June. Check it out and hope you enjoy it. I took 1500 photos in 18 days.

    • Hi Audrey – you’re as much as a photo addict as me! I also end every trip with thousands of photos. Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed them.

  3. Nice article, Barbara! I also like to experience the country I’m visiting, day by day, without too much research ahead of time. Everyone visiting a country will have different experiences, that’s a given. Additionally, some people like to travel by staying at an ‘all inclusive’ frying on a beach somewhere, while others like to travel to more exotic places, experiencing life day by day and getting to know the culture in the country they’re in…you can’t knock either way….it’s people’s personal preferences. Consequently, if one person prefers to research their heart out before travelling somewhere and another doesn’t….well, that personal preference also…no one should be chided for their personal preference! A-n-d…renting a vehicle?….I prefer not to drive also in the countries I visit as I feel it’s too risky (will that provide a different travel experience than those who rent?…yes, and I’m OK with that…lol) Keep writing, Barbara…I enjoy reading your blog!!

    • Thank you so much Crystal – you can’t possibly imagine how much that means to me.

  4. This is a really great post and I appreciate your honesty about your experiences. The hard sell in the taxi on the way into town after a long flight sounds super-annoying.

    One thing I wanted to point out though… just because people are immigrants doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting or worthwhile getting to know! They are also locals and have the most fascinating stories and viewpoints because they have a different life to compare to the one they are living now.

    I know you probably didn’t mean to imply that immigrants aren’t interesting – but that’s the way it sounds in your post!


    • Hi Jane: You’re absolutely correct about immigrants, and I did not mean to imply that they aren’t worth talking to. In fact, I spent a delightful hour chatting with a group of Filipino men who were fishing off the rocky coast. They’d worked all over the Middle East and sang the praises of Oman, saying that it was the best country to work in. Apparently Oman has much better laws to protect workers than other countries in the region. I’ll have to go back and re-read and see if I can’t change that somehow so that I’m not giving a poor impression that I didn’t mean to.

  5. I have no opinion on Oman in general or Muscat specifically, since I have never been there. But I do have to wonder at the things you found to be problematic. Did you do NO research before your trip? A two-minute check on Google informed me that many/most Muscati businesses routinely close for about three hours during mid-day. Why did you not know this before setting out to discover the city and adjust accordingly? Why were you apparently surprised at the price of hotels and other things? It\’s not like this information is hidden. Of course, not every location is going to be to everyone\’s taste. Perhaps I will dislike Oman as much as you when I finally see it for myself. But at least I won\’t go so unprepared. I will do some basic research and find out what other travelers did, how much they paid and what they thought. Then I will go have my own trip.

    • Hi Donna: Yes, you and I apparently have very different travel modes. You are correct. I do very little research before any of my trips, and that’s on purpose. I don’t want to arrive in any destination with expectations. That way, my experiences are usually richer, and that adds richness to my writing. I obviously wasn’t surprised by the price of hotels, since I had booked my hotel ahead of time. As for the tours, I knew how much they were ahead of time, but it was only when I tried to book that I discovered the vendor’s ridiculous policies about doubling the price for solo travelers, regardless of how many people joined the tour. I hope your trip to Oman is better than mine.

  6. After reading this article, I first have to say, that I’m, sorry it didn’t work for you. I love it here in Oman. I’ve been living in Muscat for 4 months with one month left to go and from day one I was connecting with Omani’s. Finding a hotel can be tricky, and yes, they are expensive here. But I’d think if you are going to be a travel writer you need to learn to do your homework. homework. Oman and muscat are especially safe places and there is no need to fear traveling
    here, even as a woman being alone.

    As you say in your article, for photography you want to take your time for the right light and with no people or cars to interfere with photographing. Well, I have to ask why didn’t you rent a car?
    You would then have the freedom to drive when and where you want. There is plenty to do in the city for a few days but to get the real feel for the culture you need to get out of the city and go into small villages. Hanging out at one tourist venue, the suq in Muttrah, is not where you meet and experience the locals. The mountains, wadi’s and small villages outside of the city are loaded with wonderful photo opportunities and contacts with Omanis. You don’t have to go far. Beaches in Yiti, the hot springs and old ruins in Gahla are near by and there is lots to take in.

    There are a number of Omani restaurants in Muscat…once again do your homework.

    Going to the beach is not that difficult; the entire city is next to the beach and it is accessable for the public everywhere, for miles and miles with endless opportunities for picnics and shelters open to the public and, there are many Omani’s on the beach. I have met many while walking alone on the beach.

    Sorry it didn’t work for you but I don’t think it’s fair to blame Muscat, Oman for your poor choices. The people and culture are here in Muscat. You missed out and I’m sorry for that;
    because you have now blamed Muscat for your lack of adventure and research.

    • News flash Ruby. I AM a travel writer. And have bee doing it successfully for more than ten years. I never said I was fearful – I’m not – and I never said I had any problem finding a hotel. As for planning, that is something I don’t do on purpose. Too much planning gives me expectations, and that is not good for my writing. I make a conscious choice to arrive at a destination without much in the way of plans, other than perhaps a hotel reservation. This allows me to take advantage of experiences that come along, which would be impossible if all my time was planned. I also never rent a car, preferring public transportation, as it usually allows me better interaction with locals. I’ve done this in 81 countries and hundreds of cities, but rarely have I had such a frustrating experience. I wish it had been different.

      • I have to say that I think Oman is very safe and is a peaceful country. I feel safer here than in the States. Very little crime here in Oman. Just want those out there who are reading these comments about Oman, it’s safe here. I spend much of my time here alone walking through all sorts of areas in the city and on the beach day and night. And have always felt safe.

        • Hi Ruby. Thanks for mentioning this. I also felt completely safe in Oman.

  7. Thank you for being honest about your experience. Will think “twice” before we travel to Oman (which we were considering for 2018).

    • Hi Mark: If you’re going to rent a car, and if you’re not traveling solo, you’d avoid many of the issues that bothered me, so maybe don’t write Oman off entirely. But I wrote the article because it’s an honest overview of my experience, and I wanted others to know the downsides. Thanks for your comment.

  8. Hi Barbara, I stayed for a few days in Oman with my wife last January and found it really enjoyable. We had a rental car and found it’s the best way to go around, as roads are all in great condition, especially the freeways. We even got lost and stuck in a narrow alley inside the Shi’ite neighborhood, but all the Omanis there were very helpful (and every one spoke English). With a GPS unit, I think it would be very hard to get really lost.

    It’s true that Muscat doesn’t have much to see, except for the Grand Mosque. We went instead to Wadi Shab (an easy 2-hour drive along the freeway) and hiked inside it, then to the Wahiba Sands area, where we spent a night in a bedouin camp, and onto Nizwa and the mountains. We finally took a flight to Khasab and spent a couple days in the Musandam area, doing a jeep tour of the interior and a dhow cruise along the fjords.

    While it’s true that most of your interactions will be with immigrants, we found Omanis to be generally friendly and open to tourists, but then again it’s still a traditional, patriarchal society in many ways.

    If I had the opportunity, I would go back and explore more of the mountains, the desert and the south.

    • Hi Ugo: Happy to hear that you enjoyed Oman. I just have no interest in renting a car. I prefer public transportation, which in Oman, was difficult because of the lack of information about schedules, prices, etc. I spoke to others who rented a car and they, too, enjoyed the country more than I did. And I also think I would have had a better experience if I’d gotten out into the country, but sometimes, I just have to stand on principle about the single traveler supplement.

      • It’s interesting you find it rude. Often times men don’t speak to women, especially older men out of respect to their own wives and to the woman addressing them.

        As for the single supplement as a tour operator it’s not possible to offer the same tour to a solo person as it is for a couple or more travelers. Because your costs are more. I do agree if they had others booked on the tour they should extend the normal price but if you’re going alone the vendor needs to charge it as a business; to cover their costs and make a small profit.

        • Hi Amanda: Interesting take on why men wouldn’t speak to me. I hadn’t considered that, ad of course, every one of us has baggage from our own cultural norms. As for the tours, I do understand I’d have to pay the two-person minimum if I was the only participant. What aggravated me was their unwillingness to only charge me for one if others ultimately booked on the same tour. Also, unlike in other locations around the world, there was absolutely no disclosure of this on the tour aggregator sites that I often use. In fact, I found the wording very misleading.

  9. I had the best experience in Oman. Got to meet a lot of Omani locals who were so friendly and down to earth. I would love to go back there.
    Btw, i have been to Dubai and Abu Dhabi twice but never had the chance to chat with the locals unlike in Oman where locals were so approachable.

    • Hi Sarah: It’s really interesting to me how different our individual experiences can be. For me, travel is all about the people in the places I meet, and it was unfortunate that I found it so impossible to connect with Omanis. Good to hear that you had the opposite experience.

  10. Wow, I’m so sorry. I lived in Oman for six years and think about it almost every day in the six years since I lived there. I can’t wait to go back with my family over winter break this year.

    • Hi Shawna: I guess that’s what make the world go round. It’s a good thing, in my opinion, that we all like different things.

  11. Thanks for the warning. Always good to know the places to stay away from.

    • You’re very welcome, John. Oman might not be the same for you, but I really feel I have to share my experiences honestly.

  12. What a shame you didn’t have a better experience. I found the opposite to you as far as meeting local people and experiencing the culture goes. In the Emirates I struggled to find anyone who wasn’t an foreigner, but in Oman I found the Omanis and expats mixed all the time and I had no trouble meeting local people. Of course, because of the culture, it was mostly men I met (all who were extremely welcoming and friendly with no other motive than to be hospitable). I rectified this by finding the women’s room at the Sultan Qaboos mosque and spent several hours chatting and drinking tea with the women there. I was fortunate to stay with a friend and so only got to experience hotels on quick look rounds or visits to the bars, but my impression was that Oman is a high-end destination and to stay somewhere decent probably does cost a lot. But the rest of the prices I found really reasonable. Taxis were never more than a couple of dollars (even though my friend lived quite far out) and food was good, but quite cheap. There isn’t really an ‘Omani’ cuisine same as there isn’t an ‘Emirati’ cuisine, but there was plenty of Indian, Lebanese, Western, etc food. I would love to go back and explore more. It’s such a shame you didn’t have a good first trip, but please don’t write it off.

    • Hi Anne: I also found the woman’s room at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and spent a lovely half hour there speaking with one of the local women. It was the only bright spot in an otherwise dull and uninteresting trip. Of the 81 countries and hundreds of cities I have visited, I’d have to rank Muscat near the bottom of the list, so I won’t go back. Too many other fascinating destinations to choose from. But I do appreciate your viewpoint and am glad to hear you had a different experience.

  13. I think you don\\\\\\\’t see Oman, and i never believe you.. from where you bring this story? when you come again i will take you free. and i will show you Oman.

  14. Thank you for this candid write up. It is all too common for people to wax lyrical about a place even if they really hated it.

    I was considering Oman as a bucket list location, but will remove that in favor of Jordan! As an older female, I trust your judgment and trip reports.

    • Hi JB: As you can see from the other comments, lots of people really loved Oman, so maybe don’t completely write it off. Just know that it’s not going to be a place where you will have much interaction with locals beyond those who are being paid to serve you. And be prepared for the high prices. For me, there are just better places in the world.

  15. Interesting that there can be such contrasting views. I didn’t hate Dubai, and loved seeing the amazing architecture, but found it a false, almost non middle eastern place. Very easy to navigate and set up for tourists of course, but expensive and very touristy. Haven’t really thought about Oman before, but like you Barbara as a lone traveller, safety, value for money as a single user and ease are fairly high up on my list of requirement. I do want to visit an Arab country (only been to Dubai and I really don’t think that counts, it was almost like Arab Disneyland to me!). Maybe Jordan?

    • I can recommend Jordan but best if you have a guided tour hols because of the distances to be travelled from one site to another.

    • Jordan is on my travel wish list, Val, for sure. And I was going there after Israel until I suffered some dental problems and had to go back to Thailand for surgery. But one of these days for sure…maybe that’s somewhere we can meet up?

  16. I have been to Oman once,I was fascinated by simplicity and natural sights…The prices vary .you get what you pay for…The people are hospitable and generous.I enjoyed the Omani cusine.

    • Hi Amna: Other than fresh seafood, I never found ANYTHING that could be considered Omani food. Wish I had – it would have made my visit better.

    • Where u from?
      U r most welcome to Oman again and again

      Would like to know about ur experience in Oman in detail

      mujawars at msn dot com

  17. Hi.. I am from the States and this is my second trip to Oman… I personally loved it and I am relocating. It’s not for everyone. If you are into the glamour and glitter of Dubai you won’t be amused by the simplicity and nature of Oman. As a matter of fact, I’m sure that it is almost impossible to see the culture of Dubai because it is an international area and much like the Las Vegas of the Middle East. My experience in the hotels is that you get what you pay for. I had an experience similar to yours when I stayed at a cheap Delhi hotel. Oman can get expensive unless you do your research. And yes, if you are a solo traveler, maybe Dubai is better.

    • Hi Zayd: Appreciate your comment. Dubai was pretty glitzy, and I admit that many, many of the people I met there were also immigrants. But even having said that, I still felt that Emirati culture was so much more accessible than Omani culture.

  18. Really surprised that your visit was not that enjoyable. Personally I have been twice and found the Omanis to be great hosts generous and very helpful. Cheap it is not but I did a little research before my first visit to get a feel for that. The forts were splendid and good value the wadis were not only fun but an experience that should not be missed. From my visits I gathered some great images and they provided some good copy too.
    The UAE and Dubai it is not which I happen to think makes it more interesting as a country. Add in sailing fishing and some excellent hotels its a great option as so many countries in the Middle East are somewhat out of bounds these days. I would go back tomorrow!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *