Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bahrain (3). The South

Our third day in Bahrain was going to be our final one and we wanted to go South, into the desert, to see some interesting and a little bit out of the beaten path places.

 We started driving South and still in Manama, we stopped to see the Souq Al-Khamis Mosque, which is supposed to be the first mosque ever built in Bahrain, from 692 AD. Unfortunately, we could not get into the mosque, because it was closed at that time, but we could still have a glimpse on the beautifully old minarets. We could also have a look inside from some cracks in the fence/wall.

The next stop was the burial mounds in A'ali. This is a UNESCO World Heritage and spand a vast area around this city. There are so many burial mounds... it is an intriguing view, considering those are tombs and there are still dead people in there!

Further South, we went to the Riffa Fort, a nice fortress on top of a hill overlooking a large desert area. Next to the brownish fort, there was a white old mosque with very interesting architecture. Really simple and functional.

(The main photo of Riffa Fort got somehow lost... I will post it when I am back home, so please come back for the update! Sorry for the inconvenience... bla bla bla...)

Riffa was full of Bahrain flags and posters supporting the authorities. I wonder if the authorities are using those to gain supporters or if they are trully supported by the people in this town! Riffa is completely out of the tourist areas (if there is something like that in Bahrain!) and local people were really curious about us. We had lunch in an extremely cheap local restaurant and they were very surprised and delighted we had chosen their restaurant.

After lunch, it was time to get lost in the desert, in the far South, and the first stop was the Oil Museum. Yes, there is such a museum in Bahrain! Bahrain does not have large oil reserves. They have actually specialized in refineries. This makes it possible for them to take advantage of having oil rich neighbors! However, they have some oil fields and the museum explains the history behind them with many details. The man in charge of the museum was a very nice guy and even invited us to stay in his place the next time we go to Bahrain!

The museum is next to the first oil well in the island. This is what it looks like. The photo is not the best, but the desert at 2pm is not the best place to take photos...

The landscape around and South of the museum is pretty similar: lots of oil fields! We had never seen any, so it was pretty interesting!

In the middle of the desert and the oil fields, there is a rarity, the Tree of Life: a nice tree which is the the absolute middle of the desert, where there is zero water. And the tree seems to be thriving! The tree itself is not so spectacular, but it is definitely interesting to find it in the middle of the scorching desert.


It is also interesting to see the reaction of people at seeing such a tree: everybody tried to climb the tree! It was weird to see parents climbing the tree while their children looks at them and took their photos. Therefore, people watching was a highlight in here.

The Tree of Life is really in the middle of nowhere and indications are non-existant. Lonely Planet or wikitravel have some indications how to get here. However, as the previous day in Sar, I think it is possible to not find it even after looking for it for a long time. Traveling in Bahrain by yourself can be a little bit frustrating sometimes. Of course, we did not find the tree immediately and we drove around for a while. We even got in the middle of some illegal car fights... two cars faced each other, accelarated and before crashing they started spinning... and chances were they crashed anyway. They used very old cars and just destroyed them this way. There was even a crowd watching "the event". They were actually using the main road. Stupidly, I somehow got caught in the middle of it and had to cross the battle field twice... I got really scared the second time... I think the guy in front of me considered I was challenging him and he started spinning as I approached. Not the best situation when on a rental car and with your wife and your baby son!!!

After that scary situation, we could find the tree and eat ice cream to relax and then, we went to the beach (Al-Jazayer beach) to see the sunset over the sea. Overall, an interesting day.

This post ends the series of posts about Bahrain. We visited Bahrain last December (Dec '11) as a side trip between UAE and Oman, which were our main Xmas destinations. Overall, Bahrain was an interesting place and it was very different from the other two countries. It also feels poorer than EAU, which makes it more authentic. Sites to visit are not amazing, but they are enjoyable and worth going. And we could talk to lots of Saudi people without going to the almost out-of-limits Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it is a recommended destination for 2-4 days if you have some time to spare once you are in UAE.

In summary, these are the places we visited in Bahrain.

View Al Jazair Public Beach in a larger map

Monday, December 17, 2012

Bahrain (2). The North of the island

After visiting Manama in our first day in Bahrain, we decided to rent a car and see more of the island country on our own wheels. I could bargain really hard and get a very good deal for a 2day rent from a local dealer: 18 dinar or less than 4500 yen for a nice car.

After getting the car, we set off towards Qala'at Al-Bahrain, which is maybe the most interesting sightseeing spot in the country. It is an archeological site whose history spans almost 5000 years. The first constructions date back to around 3000 BC and the last one was a fort built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. The place also has nice views of Manama skyline in the horizon and a nice history museum with artifacts found in the area.

The different ruins belonging to very different ages are next to each other and interesting contrasts can be seen: a centuries-old mosque structure, together with a 16th-century Portuguese fort and a modern city skyline in the background.

The fortress is actually pretty empty, but has many chambers we can get in and turns out to be an interesting place to wander around.

The second visit of the day was about archeology too. We continued driving towards the NorthWest and went to the Barbar temple, a pretty destroyed temple which was built around 2000-3000 BC. Only a few structures are left. Compared to the previous site, this one was a little bit of a disappointment, althought the archeological value may be also high...

More to the NorthWest, in the town called Sar, we came in touch with what political uprisings in Bahrain in the last year had been about. We were driving along the road and suddenly, the road was partially blocked with broken furniture. I did as the car before me did and dodged the blockage to find a really broken road with big fires on both sides and lots of people. As I drove along, there were some guys with covered faces putting up another road blockage on the other side of the road. It looked like protests were going to start at any moment, so we were lucky enough not to be caught in the middle. After passing that point, we could hear lots of police cars, etc... Just in time.

We had gone to Sar in search of one of the most particular burial sites in the island, some honeycomb chambers. Bahrain is famous in archeology because there are thousands of burial mounds. However, this kind of tombs are pretty unique in this area. Even though I asked locals and tried hard, it was impossible to find them. We did not have much time left for the day, so we just decided to give up on them and go to the next place we wanted to visit: King Fahd Causeway.

 King Fahd Causeway is a road in the middle of the sea which links Bahrain and Saudi Arabia by means of many long bridges. It is a toll road and foreigners without a Saudi visa can go as far as the border, which is around half way in the road. The border area is a small island with some restaurants, customs and immigration offices and a high observation tower, which is the main tourist drag. From the tower, we can see the road getting lost in the horizon and the crowds trying to come back to Saudi.

Another interesting thing to do on the way to the middle of the sea is to watch people's behavior as they come back to Saudi Arabia! Saudi Arabia is an ultraconsevative muslim country and Bahrain is a very open-minded one. Alcohol, prostitution, etc are legal in Bahrain. Many Saudis come to Bahrain just to taste the forbidden fruits. However, when they come back home, they have to be careful not to bring along any proof of the weekend they have just enjoyed... the result is there are many cars stopped on the sides of the highway whose passengers are throwing bottles of beer, magazines, etc into the sea. Not the best way to treat the sea and keep it clean, by the way.

Sorry for all the light reflections in the previous photos... Actually, the tower glasses were kind of dirty and in addition, they are tilted in the perfect angle to make it impossible for photographers to take decent photos... ;)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bahrain (1). Manama and Muharraq

- To the Al-Fatih Mosque, please.
- OK, let's go.
- Can you please start the taxi meter?
- No, we do not need meter.
I open the taxi door...
- If you do not start the meter, we use a different taxi.
- OK, OK, as you want...
The taxi driver starts the meter and automatically changes lanes to turn away from our destination.
- Hey, I think the mosque is towards the right, and you are going towards the left?
- This, my country, you don't know this country...
- It can be your country, but the mosque is still on the right...
Naochan starts getting angry and is going to say something. I stop her before she puts more fire into an already heated conversation.
- Naochan, do not worry, let's let him do his job and then, we will see.

After a deliberately long drive to a far away location, the taxi driver goes all around the mosque to the back gate, while I uselessly complain about that. Before he stops, I open the door with the car still moving and ask him strongly to stop. He stops. Now, time for the price. The meter reads 2.8 dinar and suddenly, it becomes 3 (670 yen). It is quite cheap compared to Tokyo, but still, I feel pissed off and do not want to get ripped off by the first taxi driver I use in this country. I ask Naoko to go out of the taxi, the negotiation starts... I tell him that I am not going to pay 3 dinar for the ride and that I think 2 dinar is a just price. I am actually considering paying 2.5, just a little bit less than what he is asking, but I know we will have to bargain, so I start with 2. He complains bitterly and says we are terrible tourists. I tell him he is a shame for his country, trying to cheat on tourists. I give him 2 dinars and put the other half back in my pocket. I am pretty pissed off at this point and I make him know. He asks for money and I tell him I have already payed and he should go. He insists and I mention the police. At that moment, he accelerates and goes away...

Wow, the first contact with Bahrain!!! It was quite a shock after some days in the United Arab Emirates. And it was nice! It really felt like we were actually traveling! ;) Bahrain was proving to be a somehow less tame place than the UAE!

Manama, the capital city is a vibrant city, which still retains some feeling of small town. It is not as big as Dubai, for example, and the downtown area with new buildings is much smaller. It still feels somehow authentic. Manama is also quite liberal and it is full of Saudis coming to the neighboring country to get what they will never get in their own country: chicks and booze. The result is the city can get quite rough late at night when these non-used-to-alcohol guys get drunk. But still, it is a pretty safe place for normal standards.



Muharraq, the old town, is in a small island next to Manama and has some of the nicest houses and wind towers we saw in our trip to the Arabian Peninsula last Christmas. The town is also clearly not rich, and even slightly poor, so prices in shops are pretty good and local food is on offer. This was also new compared to Dubai, the place we had visited before.

Muharraq also has a vibrant art scene and there are several places with modern arab art on display. And some nice restored houses showing how modern Arab houses look like. Pretty gorgeous, by the way.

The already mentioned Al-Fatih mosque was a nice surprise: beautiful mosque and helpful local guides which wanted to tell you about Islam from a moderate non-fanatic point of view, just informative. We learned more about Islam in this place than in the whole trip or in previous trips! The guide was really knowledgeable and his conversation and explanation about his religion was very interesting.

Not far from the mosque, there was another nice surprise, the National museum, with lots of explanations about the country's archeological sites (which are plenty!).

The downtown area has lots of shopping opportunities, with a nice souq and new shopping malls.


Our first day in Bahrain out of 3 was around Manama/Muharraq and was pretty pleasant. And we did not meet any other bad character such as that taxi driver. Actually, people in Bahrain were extremely nice, helpful and reasonable. They did not try to cheat on tourists and instead, treated you as an equal, as a local. That was a nice feeling!