Oh hey there, remember me? Yeah, I know, it’s been a while! I definitely didn’t intend to let two whole weeks go by without blogging, but the end of my Middle East trip turned into a bit of a whirlwind and I decided to go back to my roots and just get swept up in the fun of it all. But now that I’ve landed back in New York (literally today — blame any and all typos on jetlag!) I thought I’d celebrate by kicking off coverage of my Middle East adventures right now. I’m going to keep shuffling between this trip and my backlogged content, just to keep things fresh and interesting. With one long-weekend-work-trip exception, I’m going to be spending the next six weeks in New York state, so expect a deluge of content. Woo hoo!
“So, should I go to Kuwait or the Katy Perry concert?”
Perhaps not a statement that has been uttered many times, if ever, in human history. While searching for flights from Bangkok to Cairo to start my big Egypt and Israel trip, I couldn’t help but notice that it was nearly the same price to add in an extra long layover in a Kuwait, one of the least visited countries in the world.
I did some digging and found that for two nights in a decent hotel (which aren’t cheap in this part of the world), plus the extra flight costs, I could spend thirty six hours in Kuwait for $290USD. But then, on the other hand, there was that Katy Perry concert in Bangkok that I’d been dying to see. I cannot sweep this internal debate I had under the rug like an embarrassing Spotify playlist you forgot to make private. It was a part of me.
In the end, the new passport stamp won. When else am I going to go, I thought?
I arrived late at Kuwait International Airport and was immediately hit with that delicious face slap of “where the heck am I?!” Signs pointed to separate security lines for women wearing abayas and hijabs, people smoked furiously in tiny glass rooms inside the airport, and I waited in line for nearly an hour, confident in my research that Americans do not need a visa to enter Kuwait, before being sent on a confusing scavenger hunt around various strange corners of the airport to get something that looked and smelled suspiciously like a visa. So, if you too are one of the 200,000 visitors per year, don’t just stroll up to immigration and smugly pass them your passport — brace yourself for a bit of riddle solving before you earn the right to enter the country.
My destination was the Ibis Sharq Kuwait, which was in an ideal area and nice, clean and cheap (for the country, anyway) with good 24 hour dining options — my only complaint was the service was painfully slow across the board. And for most guests, the menu will have one glaring omission: alcohol. It is strictly forbidden throughout the country, including at foreign hotels, the first country I’d ever been to with such restrictions.
Despite that new country buzz, I forced myself to bed the moment my room service was finished — I had a big day ahead.
I’d done some very precise planning for my super short time in Kuwait, and once I started my research I was so happy I had — opening times for major attractions were largely erratic, with long breaks in the middle of the day. To try to maximize one single day of sightseeing, I stuck to a plan.
After breakfast at the hotel and taking a cab across the city, my day started with an official tour of the Grand Mosque, which was definitely the highlight of the tiny nation for me. There was some confusion online about which days and times the mosque was open to foreigners, but when I arrived at 9am I was swept into a formal, ninety minute group tour and saw a sign that evening tours ran Sunday through Thursday at 5, 5:30, 6:00, and 6:30pm.
Like the similar tour I’d taken of the Grand Mosque in Bahrain, this one was extremely well-organized and provided a window into the mysterious world of Islam for curious visitors from around the world. After helping the ladies on the tour into abayas lent at no charge, our charming guide showed us all around the mosque and generously answered our questions about her life in Kuwait.
I learned so much! That those intricate patterns on the rug in a mosque actually indicate where the devout should stand when they come to pray, that those praying will always face Mecca, that men and women use the same prayer halls but at separate times for privacy, and that all who touch the Quran must undergo an elaborate cleaning ritual before coming in contact with it.
No time to clean up, and not sure where Mecca is? Fear not, there are apps for that! Whipping out her iPhone, our guide showed us a “Find Mecca” app Muslims can use to figure out in which direction to pray anywhere in the world, as well as a Quran app also used for praying on-the-go.
I found myself, as usual, mesmerized by the intricate patterns, colored mosaics, and rich layering of materials in Islamic architecture. I think I could have spent a day getting lost in these tile patterns.
As I mentioned previously, women will be asked to put on a hijab and abaya to enter the mosque. While I had dressed extremely conservatively to begin with, I actually found it quite interesting to experience, briefly, wearing the traditional garb the majority of women in Kuwait wear every day.
This particular mosque is not playing around — it has a capacity for 5,000 worshipers in the main hall, plus another 7,000 in the courtyard! It is, impressively, the eighth largest mosque in the world, and even more impressively, proudly withstood the Iraqi Invasion of 1990.
We wrapped up at the mosque a bit earlier than expected, and so I decided to walk over to the National Museum, which suddenly looked quite close on the map, and knock that out before the mid-day closing time too. Taxis are metered in Kuwait and drivers don’t try to mess around or give you a hard time, however, they can be somewhat sparse, and I preferred to walk regardless.
The country is quite small and while I ended up taking six taxi rides in my short time in Kuwait (including to and from the airport), two were frivolous and could definitely have been replaced by strolls had I not been wiped from travel. Walking allowed me to get my bearings, have some fun with my camera and experience moments like the city’s hundreds of mosques competing with each other during one of the five daily calls to prayer. (That said, if you’re looking for a reliable taxi driver, I highly recommend the one the hotel kept calling for me, Majed, who can be reached at +965 96655776 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
And I couldn’t have felt safer. In fact, much to my surprise, I barely raised an eyebrow of interest. Considering the extremely low number of foreigners that travel to Kuwait, I expected a barrage of questions and attention but none came.
The Kuwait Lonely Planet chapter I’d purchased warned me that the National Museum of Kuwait had never recovered from the Iraqi Invasion that seemed to have touched every corner of the city. The museum, once the pride of the nation and home to one of the world’s most important collections of Islamic art, was ransacked and and looted nearly clean in the attack.
I walked through in all of ten minutes, but with no entrance fee, I found it worthwhile to show support to the struggling museum, browse its handful of artifacts, and admire the traditional dhow boat out front, a nod to the nation’s seafaring port history.
Next, I made my way towards the city’s Old Souq. In fact, this area is made up of various interconnected souqs each peddling different wares. They all tend to wind down in the middle of the day and heat back up again in the evening, and admittedly I’d arrived towards the end of the morning rush. But I wasn’t interested in shopping so much as soaking up the atmosphere, in which case, mission accomplished.
I tend to get skittish around over-enthusiastic salespeople and rush through but later regretted not picking up a few souvenirs here — go forth and be braver than I, should you visit.
Back on the street, I was tearing through my list of attractions far faster than expected and did a little cheer when I realized I should be able to sneak in the last one in the downtown area right before the mid-day closing time.
Like the National Museum, I knew ahead of time that the Modern Art Museum of Kuwait was going to be an extremely small affair.
However, outside of the Grand Mosque, it was perhaps my favorite downtown find. Another stop with no entry fee, the galleries were modest and poorly signposted, however, the work within them was beautiful and gave a new window into this tiny nation I had such a brief time to get to know.
Having ticked off my entire downtown sightseeing list, I headed back to the hotel to regroup. I’d been impressed by the number of juice shops and grab-and-go healthy food places I’d seen, and popped into one to order a smoothie and small salad to go. While I waited, I chatted to the Filipino employee who’d been living in Kuwait for seven years and gave me some insight into the foreign work force there.
I’d considered trying to make an appointment at the highly regarded House of Mirrors with my newfound freetime, but my jetlag had another idea and I barely emerged from my coma-like mid-day nap. Similar to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens or Utila’s Treetanic Bar or Central Florida’s Whimzeland, it’s meant to be a mosaic masterpiece and I’m sad I missed it. However, with visits by appointment only, you definitely need to plan ahead. With more time still, I might also have visited Failaka Island, gone scuba diving, checked out the new design-forward Habitat Museum, or headed out to the desert in search of a camel ride. The few who had been warned me that Kuwait was boring, but I could have easily filled another day or two.
Instead, I headed straight for my last stop: the iconic Kuwait Towers.
Here, I paid my first entry fee of the day, 3 dinar (about $10USD) to take an elevator to the revolving observation platform of the tallest 187 meter tower. Turns out I was in luck — after years of closure, they’d only recently reopened to the public.
I timed my visit to sunset, but wish I’d arrived earlier to stroll around the beach and corniche, or boardwalk, a bit more. It was a safe and beautiful part of the city. And unlike the other attractions I visited, this one was nearly 24 hours, open from 8am-11pm.
With Saudi Arabia on one side and Iraq on the other, Kuwait intrigued me simply by its location. But upon arrival I found so much more to be fascinated by — a truly conservative Gulf country that hasn’t been swept up in consumerism, like some of its glitzy and glamorous neighbors. A small nation, with a population of over three million, still visibly smarting from an invasion and a war nearly thirty years ago. And a destination that seems to react with a shrug to being one of the least visited countries on earth.
The only other Westerners I saw were a British family who were visiting their father working abroad in Bahrain, a few tourists eating in the Souq, and a large military group at the towers. And to address that infamous what to wear question, if you do decide to join the ranks? You definitely don’t have to go full Arabian Nights like I did — I saw a few women wearing tight jeans and t-shirts. But I figure as a blonde woman traveling alone I’d attract enough attention, and I was happy to break out the baggy layers.
It was hard not to compare my short visit to the similar one I had in Bahrain, which I found had extensively more security, and felt more cosmopolitan, liberal, and developed. My two nights and one day in Kuwait were obviously too brief to form anything beyond passing first impressions of the country, but one thing I know for sure?
It was, without question, better than a Katy Perry concert.
Next stop: Egypt! Would you ever visit Kuwait?