Kuwait

Before coming to Kuwait I had a negative stereotype, this was because I once flew with Kuwait airlines from London to New York and it was a really crappy experience with a really rude member of staff. I remember that on that flight the sound on my entertainment did not work, I was trying to get the attention of the steward to see if there was something they could do, but they kept ignoring me. Once they finally came I explained the problem and he replied, ‘I know, I know it does not work, I work here”. WTF, seriously, I just had no words to reply, but this just gives you an idea of how the service was and this was consistent on the way back. I remember sitting next to some girl from India who said, “and imagine this is the premium part of the flight from New York to London, by the time I’m going from Kuwait to India they might just be throwing the food at us”. So funny. But the point was I know I had this stereotype and that this was ridiculous as it was just because of a few rude people on a flight and you can’t judge a country on this. Other than this my only reference when it comes to Kuwait is the images I remember as a child when Saddam Hussein invaded, annexing the country into Iraq and sparking the Gulf War. The main image in my mind is always the oil fields that Hussein ordered to burn. I remember this being a huge international disaster, but I think also gave us an image of why the Western nations cared about Kuwait in the first place, after all, Kuwait is meant to hold 10% of the worlds oil reserves, which must also be linked to why the currency is the highest in the world.

Visa Office

So I arrived in Kuwait city by late afternoon and from the minute I got there I was confused. I knew I needed to apply for a visa on arrival, I tried applying online for the e-visa, but this proved not to be simple. Flying in I could not see any counter or where you could get the visa, also people are not really speaking English. After some time I found out that you need to go to a counter on the second floor, which is where the departure is. In most airports, it’s not so simple to go between floors, but here it was just a staircase. Walking around I eventually found the office. There I went to the counter and the person said to me quite directly, “Your first time Kuwait, or you come many many times”? As direct as it was I was amused by how they said this. While processing my form they said that my name was too long, so on my visa form they wrote my first name as Se and my last name as Si, the entertainment just was not ending for me, but they gave me the visa straight away, so I was not bothered. I went back downstairs and passed through immigration without a problem.

After immigration I was in the main lobby of the airport and tried like normal to find an information desk, but either there was not one, or no one knew where it was. Next, I wanted to see if I could get an Uber, but it was not in operation in Kuwait. Later I would learn they have a different app called Careem that works just as well. I was not aware of this yet so just had to battle it out with the airport taxis. The fair from the Airport into the city was 8 Dinars, which is about £20, this is when I would learn just how expensive and high this currency is. Just before leaving the airport I took 30 Dinars, with is about $100. Kuwait has the highest currency in the world, it is not the most expensive country, but it is hard to know where to shop if you are not from here. In Bahrain (which has the 2nd most expensive currency) It was the first time I saw a ½ Dinar note, here in Kuwait, I saw a ¼ note, so crazy.

At the Kuwait Towers

I had just come from Bahrain and found it to be really warm and inviting, whereas here in Kuwait I found people very direct, which for me felt a little rude. The first night I just wanted to rest and would explore in the morning. The next day I started with breakfast downstairs, which was great to be on during this month of Ramadan. Then I started to look at what I wanted to see in the city. The number one place on trip adviser was to go to a shopping mall called the avenues. I always think that it sucks to go to shopping centres while travelling as they are mostly the same, but I was with my wife and she needed to buy something for her brother while we were there, so this was the first destination. To my surprise it was really nice, they had made the centre look like some shopping street you might find in Italy, unlike other shopping centres it looked really classy and well done. So when you have a dry and dusty environment and a temperature of 40+, it makes sense that this place is rated high. Although sadly for us because it was Ramadan it was really empty and all the eating and drinking places were closed. But it was still pleasant to walk around and on reflection was the nicest place to visit.

 

The Avenues Shopping Center

After shopping and seeing the Avenues, we went back to the hotel. For my wife Aini it was too hot to go out, it was 44 degrees C, but I wanted to go and see the Kuwait towers, as this is the main landmark of the city, and I guess the country, so I thought why not walk through the city so I can see things on the way. It took me about an hour and despite the heat was a pleasant walk. Some of the buildings are very impressive from the outside, but around them touristically there is nothing to see. The streets were a little broken up in most areas and were not as pristine like I had seen in other countries in their area, but I am sure they are looking a hell of a lot better than in Iraq.

 

Abandon Cars

It took me an hour to get to the towers and the most interesting thing for me on the way was what looked like a car graveyard, It made me wonder what had happened, was this a scrap yard, or just a dumping ground? Who knows! Getting closer I walked along the beach front, the tide looked like it was quite far out and I could see a lot of black rocks on the beach, there was also a subtle smell of fuel in the air and I could see some oil rigs in the distance.

At the point were the Kuwait towers are there is a water park and some eating places, again because of the time of year everything was closed and it felt like a bit of a ghost town, but I am sure at other times of the year it must be quite pleasant. I went up to the towers to see how much it was, 3 Diner for the view, or 11 with a buffet meal, but just as I asked I realised that I had not brought enough cash with me, or a card, oh crap, but luckily I had my phone which was set up with a card to get me a taxi back. Oh well, I think I have seen enough towers. But having seen pictures, like in most places that have towers its great to go at sunset to get both views, and if you think it is worth it take the buffet. But I had seen there was a vegan place on Happy Cow near my hotel that I wanted to check out, so this was the next destination. Close to my hotel, there was only one restaurant that was fully vegan which is called Ginger, it was very nice and has a range of Asian and European food. After dinner it was already late, we had a little look at some of the stores on the way back to the hotel, and then we hit the sack.

Al Shaheed Park

The next day was my last, and the only other thing I knew that I could visit was the Al Shaheed Park which is really pretty and a great place to take nice pictures with the cityscape in the background. The park is very pleasant to walk through, there are some nice water features and it’s great to see the greenery in this dry place. However it was midday and the sun was beating down on us, so we headed back after just about an hour. There was just a short amount of time to see some local markets before we had to head to the airport to leave.

I would say as a tourist there is very little to see and do in Kuwait, but if you are living or stationed here you will have time to get to know people and find the real culture in the people, which is much harder to do on a short trip like what I did here.

Bahrain

I was leaving from Bali Indonesia and heading to Bahrain and needed to fly with 2 different companies to get here. As I arrived at the airport in Denpasar I saw that my flight to Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia was cancelled. This was a nightmare as the flights were separate so I would not be covered if I missed the second flight. So I need to be in Kuala Lumpur by 15:00 and Air Asia offered to put me on another flight, but this would not get me in until 19:00. I was not sure what to do, I saw that the same company (Sri Lankan Airlines), who I was meant to fly with to Bahrain was also flying from Singapore at 15:00, and Air Asia had a flight leaving from Bali that would get into Singapore by 11:30. So my thought was like this, I would take the flight to Singapore to see if we could change the flight.

I got into Singapore and after a bit of running around the airport, I went to the Sri Lankan airlines desk to see if they could help and put me on this flight to Bahrain. They agreed but I would be charged $750 for the change of the flight. This, of course, was ridiculous as a new ticket was only $250, so I just had to buy a new ticket which I did and flew that night. The new flight was with Oman Air and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of service and the plane itself. The flight was really smooth, staff were great and even without requesting in advance a vegan mail was available as one of the ‘normal’ options, so this is a big thumbs up from me. For sure I will use them again.

Me by the Manama Waterfront

Because of the change of flight, I was due to arrive at 21:00, but I did not get in until 03:00 in the morning the next day. Getting through immigration was simple and they seemed very keen that tourist were coming to the country. Before heading to the hotel I stopped to pick up a Sim Card, which just made my time here even easier. Taxies are your best option here and at this time Uber is running without drama. So having a SIm Card just makes that hurdle a little easier. By the time I arrived at my hotel, it was almost 5 in the morning, so I just hit the sack and slept as much as I could.

Later in the afternoon, I woke up about 10 am and headed down for the breakfast. I always worry how this is going to be and what vegan options will be available. One of the staff asked if I would like some eggs, I explained I was vegan and he seemed to take this as a challenge for what he could create for me. After a few minutes, he came back with two types of beans and some kind of crispy fried potatoes. Wow, additional to this I had a bunch of pita bread and a ton of hummus.

I had really filled my boots at breakfast and I was glad for this, because we were here during Ramadan time and this is enforced in law, meaning that there was not one café or place to eat open until after 18:00, so I had a full belly and was good for the day.

If I am honest there seems to be little to do in Bahrain and Manama (the capital). Like some of the other Gulf countries I have been in the general recommendation is to go to some of the malls. To my luck, the largest mall in the country was across the road from where I was staying. I thought as it is close I would walk despite it being +40 degrees C. As I went to cross the street there was a massive fence that stopped you crossing the road, so I had to walk down to the end of a small highway and go all the way around. It was only about 20 mins, but in the heat it was something.

Manama’s busy highways

The mall called City Centre was quite big, but nothing special in today’s standards and especially if I compare it to the Dubai Mall. After an hour or two of walking around the mall and wondering what I was doing here, I popped into Carefore, picked up some juice and snacks and headed back to the apartment.

At the apartment, I had a little look at my Happy Cow app to see what was on offer. I could see two places, the one that looked the most appealing was called Plant Café but was about 15 mins away on the other side of the island, but why not. I called an Uber which was about £10 to take me there. The place was very small, but I could see they were making a real effort to make it quite fancy. There seem to be quite a few options on the menu so I decided to take one of their burgers which was made from beets and potato. As nice as the presentation was, the food was not great which was a real shame, but they did have some Matcha ice cream for dessert and this was delicious.

The café was in a small mall with very few shops around and seemed a bit dead, there was also nothing around the mall either, so there was nothing left to do but to go back. After a long drama of trying to get an Uber back, I finally arrived back at the apartment.

Bahrain Trade Centre

The next day I was having a quick search on Trip Adviser to see what were some of the points of interest. I know I wanted to see the world trade centre, just to get a picture, and then to see a bit of the waterfront. So It was a quick breakfast and then off to see some sites. I jumped in an Uber again and headed to Moda Mall where the Trade Centre is, but from here it was hard to get a picture of the building. I asked where is the best place to photograph the building, and was advised from across the street where the waterfront is. Again like the city mall it was a bit of a mission to cross the street and took me about 20 mins walking by the highway. Getting to the waterfront it seemed quite pleasant, but as it was so hot there was no one around and nothing to do. It was kind of nice in one way that I felt I had the place to myself. After getting my snap of the building I headed back to Moda Mall. The Mall was really dead and nothing to see other than fancy shops, so boring. Ok, so what more to do I thought, it seemed that another point of interest was the Bahrain museum, so I headed there.

Bahrain Museum

Getting to the museum it had 15 mins until it closed, damn, but the guy on the door let me in for free and I just took a quick run around to see what was there. I’m not really a big museum person, it seemed fine, but not much to write home about. After this I thought I am out of options, so thought stuff it, and headed back to the hotel to grab my stuff and then on to the airport.

My general impression was that it seemed like a very practical place to live. Like the countries around there are loads of malls with cinemas and other types of indoor entertainment, but as a tourist for me, it was kind of boring. As you try and collect more countries you end up in some obscure places that are pleasant, but not really having much for tourists. Pretty much everything is expensive, and like the countries around their currency is really high, at this time 1 Bahrain Dinar was 2 British Pounds, they even had ½ Dinar note, I had never seen a ½ note before, so this was interesting. I would say if you are looking at a job here, or Kuwait, Qatar etc, come and do it. If you can get on with the culture and make good money the standard of living is great and as 50% of the population are immigrants from India or the Philippines, pretty much everyone speaks English. Also, local Bahrainis are really friendly and seem genuinely happy to have you in their country, this makes a real difference for me.

My only frustrating feeling is that I would have like to have stayed with, or spent time with a local family to really understand the people and the culture better. I later also learned that I know 2 people living there, so note to self, post on FB to see if you know someone in the country before you go.

South Korea

Getting to South Korea was a long flight all the way from Chile, the flight transit in New Zealand which in itself was a twelve-hour flight, then after a few hours in Auckland it was another twelve hours to Seoul.

We arrived in Seoul at night and right from the start I could see we were in a very modern and well functioning country. Just getting through the airport and onto a bus going to the city was fast and efficient. The airport bus was clean, spacious and had WiFi and only took us about an hour to our hotel, where the bus dropped us right outside. Our hotel was in Gangnam and was close to Gangnam Square. The hotel was great and was also equipped with a small little kitchen, however it seemed that our options for buying food were not great, we did not see any large supermarkets close to us, and the only thing around were little mini markets which sold mostly instant noodles and some types of mystery meats on a stick, as a vegan I was for sure passing on this.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

After a night of much-needed sleep, I woke up in the morning and wanted to explore the local area. I took a walk around the area close to the hotel to get an idea of the location and soak up some of the sights and sounds of the city. Then going down into the metro we bought a T-Money card, these cards are available in all the subway stations and make it super easy to pay for the metro as well as allowing you to pay for buses, taxies and even allows you to buy some items in shops and restaurants, so efficient. We made our way to Myeong-dong which is one of the main shopping streets in Seoul, it was really packed with a lot of activity going on, but that can only be expected in a city of over ten million people. Aini (my wife) saw a sign for a cat café, she is crazy for cats so this was our first port of call. The café was in a small building on the top floor and seem to be a part of an organisation that supported cat welfare. Going to the café you pay an entrance fee which also gives you a free hot drink. It seemed to be a friendly run place and there were a number of cat lovers coming to check out the place and hang out with the cats. After this, we just walked around the streets again just to soak up the sights and feel the city, but it did not take long and we had become lost, but this was not a bad thing as it took us down some small back streets allowing us to see some quirky little places on the way. After some time we came across an information kiosk where we tried to get some orientation and work out how to get back to where we were staying.

On the second day, our plan was to buy the Hop-on, hop-off bus to give us some orientation of the city, and we spent most of the day riding these and getting an idea about some of the different neighbourhoods in the city. The city was far bigger then we expected so we quickly discovered even though we were spending a week in the city we would only see some small portions of it. After finishing one of the bus lines we jumped off near the city hall and went to the Insa-dong area to look for some lunch, this was a very pleasant area with lots of small little stores selling various quirky items, this was definitely the cool hipster area of the city. On route, we also discovered the Chenggyecheon stream that runs through the northern part of the city, which is really pleasant and a real escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. After lunch, we rode the buses again and did not get back to our hotel until about eight o’clock. So yes, far bigger than we expected.

Time for some Korean tea

The next day I walked about the Hanok village in Bukchon which is a traditional and picturesque part right in the heart of the city. However, the residence of the home seemed to be in real conflict with their promotion. Just Google image Seoul and chances are this area is one of the first images you will see. Residence seemed to be in protest about this with signs around the village in multiple languages telling tourists they are not welcome. In contrast to this, there are a number of local businesses in the area that rent traditional costumes to tourists, to the village is full of people walking around in these costumes trying to get the perfect Instagram shot. Also if you rent these costumes it gives you free access to some sights like the palace which was my next destination. The palace is beautiful and took a few hours to get around, also a real barging at only 3,000 won ($3). This was the same for all the museums and places of interest, they are either free or very cheap, a real plus. While walking around the palace I also got the chance to watch a traditional music performance and found a small traditional tearoom that serves tea, this was a real treat, the tea ceremony will cost you 5,000 won ($5) per person, but if you like this kind of thing then it is worth it.

On the next couple of days, we went to see some of the Confucius and Buddhist temples in the city. It just so happened that while we were their residence of the city was celebrating Buddha’s birthday, so their temples were alive with action and a bunch of ceremonies taking place, which we were allowed to sit down and take part in. I would say from all the temples my favourite was Bongeunsa which is in Gangnam.

At the train line going to North Korea

Additionally the day before leaving we took a tour to the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone), which is one of the most dangerous and fortified borders in the world dividing North and South Korea. We were picked up in the morning and taken by bus to three locations with a guide. As you cross into the DMZ you are taken to three locations, the first shows you the end of the train line in South Korea and how the line is set up and ready for reunification. The second was to one of the tunnels discovered by the South Korean military, which were created by North Korea in a suspected plan of invasion, and the last is to an observatory station where you can see two villages on both sides of the border as well as a glimpse of North Koreas third largest city Kaesŏng. Sadly the tour did not take us to the Joint Security Area like I thought. These are the famous blue huts that you see anytime there are images of this border. If you come to Korea and are hoping to see this, this tour takes a month to plan and requires special permission from the UN. Follow here to read my reflection on Korea and the border.

All in all, Seoul is an incredible, modern, large and well functioning city, you can easily spend a week here and the different neighbourhoods cater to different crowds, so do your homework before you come.