Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Rip-Off Hostels in Damascus

                                If breakfast is provided by your Syrian hostel, this is what you'll usually get.

When Aud and I were researching for our trip to Syria, we emailed a couple of backpackers hostel in Damascus to ask for room rates.

We emailed Al-Rabie, Ghazal Hotel and Al-Haramain which are all recommended by Lonely Planet and/or Wikitravel under "Budget Accommodation".

However when they replied our emails, their rates didn't seem like budget rates to me.

All of these hostels replied that their dorms were full and suggested we take the rooms for obvious reasons. I thought this was all utter BS, and true enough, the room rates were sky high. For example, at the time of enquiry, Al-Haramain's rates were USD100/pax/night and Ghazal Hotel was 1,500 Syrian Pounds for a double room, wth!

When we were lamenting that accommodation in Syria was gonna cause our budget to blow, Aud found this blog entry that confirmed these hostels were just trying to rip us off.

According to the blogger, Al-Rabie, Ghazal Hotel and Al-Haramain in Damascus have fixed their prices to double of what's written in Lonely Planet. So the writer has warned all other travellers to stay clear from these rip-off hostels.

After reading that blog, we decided to go "Kamikaze", i.e. walk-in randomly to any hostel when we got there.

And to the delight of our pockets, we found many hostels that charged 900 Syrian Pounds (SYP) for a double room with bathroom ensuite. We even managed to bargain the rates down to 800 SYP, which is 400 SYP only per person. Our pockets were certainly screaming in delight!

In my next entry I'll tell you more about the hotels which we stayed in in Damascus and Aleppo.

So the moral of this story is the information in Lonely Planet and Wikitravel is not the gospel truth - the internet is, especially travel blogs written by fellow travellers.

I don't want to speculate whether those rip-off hostels in Damascus paid Lonely Planet to get featured in it. If they did, then Lonely Planet should do the most honourable thing and close shop.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year

I don't feel the Christmassy spirit in the air this year.

Maybe it's because of the stress of an event I'm organising. The event will be held in early January and till today many things are not decided yet.

Despite being the Christmas week, I've been working late this entire week. I also didn't do any Christmas shopping or even browse through the malls to see the lovely deco and listen to the carols. How sad is that ...

I wish I could leave my work behind and travel to Europe to see the Christmas markets there. I've read and seen the lovely pics, and those markets are indeed pretty and charming.

So before I sound like Ebenezer Scrooge or a wet blanket, let me sign off now. I need to go back to work and continue dreaming of those lovely Christmas markets.

Till my next post, Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year ... everyone ...

And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
To kids from one to ninety-two,
Although its been said many times, many ways,
A very Merry Christmas to you.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Review: Valentine Inn in Petra, Jordan

Valentine Inn seems to be one of the more popular backpackers hostel in Wadi Musa, the area closest to Petra. This is probably due to it being mentioned in Lonely Planet that helps to sell its rooms and dorms like hot cakes.

Facade of Valentine Inn

The inn offers travel services like daily return transfers to Petra, tours to Wadi Rum, transport to Amman, etc.

But what sucks about the place are the people who run it, especially the lady boss who runs the place with an iron fist. She's the second wife of the owner, a bitch of the highest order and a racists. From my observations and experience, she tend to favour Caucasian tourists compared to Asians tourists whom she treats like low lifeforms.

Click here to read more negative comments about Valentine Inn posted by other travellers.

Ok, enough about bitchy innkeepers, and let's get back to the story.

We stayed in the 10-bed mix-dorm that costs JD 5.50 /pax/night:

The beds were so close to each other we didn't have any place to put our stuff. A side table for each bed would have been nice.

A guy was sleeping in the bed beside me and his girlfriend slept in the bed that was at the foot of his.

She kept staring at me that I wanted to ask if I had borrowed money from her. She probably thought I wanted to shag her bf cause our beds were so close.

But he snored like a jet plane taking off, and I don't think I wanna shag a guy like that, wth.

There was a common shower in the room for all 10 of us to fight it out.

Bathroom was clean.

If you wanna see Petra at night, you may opt for the Petra by Night tour that costs JD 12 each and you can book it through Valentine Inn. However, a few of the travellers who participated in this came back disappointed.

According to fellow traveller Kana, all the participants would gather at the entrance of Petra and walk together to the Treasury. The entire path from the entrance to the Treasury would be lit with candles.

Upon reaching the Treasury, everyone would be asked to sit down on the ground and local folk music would start blasting from the speakers. Of course the entire Treasury would be lighted with candles and combined with the folk music blasting from the speakers, well ... it adds to the atmosphere.

For some ... it was daylight robbery because they were expecting much more for that price.

As for myself, I was on a budget and therefore couldn't spare JD 12 for something like that. Moreover, visiting Petra during the day was enough for me.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Swimming in the Dead Sea

When I saw that the Dead Sea was going to be the last destination in the day-trip we booked through Farah Hotel in Amman, I didn't want to swim. I thought I would just sit and watch the rest of the people do so. Moreover I didn't bring my bikini.

But Audrey convinced me that since we were already there, might as well take a dip. After all, not many people can say they have swam in the Dead Sea.

So I went searching for a bikini the day before our trip. After much bargaining and drinking coffee with a friendly Palestinian shopkeeper in Amman, I managed to get a made-in-Italy bikini and pair of shorts for JD 6.

After visiting Madaba, Mount Nebo and Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, we headed for one of the public beaches in the Dead Sea called Amman Beach Tourist Resort.

Entrance to the Amman Beach Tourist Resort is JD 15, which is freaking expensive. Moreoever we spent only 3 hours there. If you want to make your money's worth, spend an entire day there! But the risk is coming out looking like a prune, hehehe.


For the cut throat entrance fee of 15 JD, you also get to swim in a pool, and enjoy facililites like showers and changing rooms, which were quite clean.

Nice palm trees, don't you think?

The shore opposite is Israel. If I had the stamina I would have swam across the Dead Sea into Israel. But I would get arrested couse I wouldn't have my passport. And even if I had my passport, it's not valid in Israel :-) 

Now let's talk about swimming in the Dead Sea.

First of all, you've got to remember the 4 important instructions when swimming in the Dead Sea.

These instructions are extremely important that the authorities put them up at the entrance of the resort. Points number 3 and 4 are essential, trust me.

Because the salinity of the Dead Sea is extremely high, the water feels "thick" like sugar water - the kind that Starbucks serves in a small jug for you to add to coffee or whatever beverage you wish. 

You also can't possibly sink and drown. The only way you can drown is when someone holds your head down in the water.

If you have any cuts or open wounds, you will feel a stinging sensation.

And it's extremely painful when water gets into your eyes. If that happens, quickly come out of the water and shower. That is why I underscored Points 3 and 4 on the notice board - protect eyes and mouth from the water, and swim on your back.

That's me literally standing in deep waters. Only in the Dead Sea can I do that.

When I first entered the waters, it took me some time to get use to its thick consistency. And then I started wondering deeper into the middle of the lake (the Dead Sea is a lake, not a sea as its name suggests). Suddenly my feet couldn't feel the bottom and I started to panic!

But somehow I didn't sink. I looked down and could see that I was literally standing in deep waters like in the photo above. So imagine how salty the waters are.

Before we headed home I collected salt rocks which can be found along the shore. These made good souvenirs, and they are free. I always love free souvenirs!

The white powder are salt deposits on the shore of the Dead Sea.

Now I can cross off "Swim in the Dead Sea" from my "been-there-done-that" list.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Petra and the Movies

You must be wondering why did I name this blog post "Petra and the Movies".

Well, for starts, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was partly filmed in Petra.

And recently, even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was also filmed there.

Those 2 movies probably created more awareness about this ancient Nabatean city. But what catapulted its popularity is because Petra has been voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007. So everyone wants to see a world wonder since the previous seven wonders (with the exception of the Pyramids at Giza) has all been destroyed one way or another.

Now coming back to the movies. Since Petra has Indy to thank for letting the world know of its existence, the people pay homage to Indy by naming their shops after him a.k.a. jumping on the business bandwagon. Take a look at these shops:

They even sell hats ala Indy for visitors who want to feel like the famous archeologist approaching the Treasury:

I didn't see anyone wearing any of these hats in Petra though. Maybe they didn't want the other visitors to laugh at them.

And amidst all the hype about Indy, the people have not forgotten to pay homage to other movies as well, like the most popular ship:

But my all time favourite has got to be this:

Guess who? Captain Jack Sparrow on a camel - in Petra!

If you don't know who Captain Jack Sparrow is, you must either:
1) not love movies; or
2) you were living on Planet Mars for the past decade

So now you know why I named this blog post "Petra and the Movies".

If you visit Petra, remember to keep your eyes open and notice all these popular movies, characters and memorabilia. They are all around you; you just need to be observant.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Getting Naked in Damascus - My Experience at Hammam Ammoonah

On our last day in Damascus, Audrey and I went to Hammam Ammoonah in the Old City of Damascus for some … well ... I'll tell you shortly.

Looking for the hammam was a test of our navigation skills as the map was insufficient to pilot our way through the confusing lanes in the souk. Moreover Hammam Ammoonah is located in a secluded lane with no signboards at all. The entrance is hidden behind a pink striped curtain.

We managed to locate it thanks to a guy who pointed it out. Otherwise we would have walked right past it and I won’t be telling you this story.

Entrance to Hammam Ammoonah looks like an entrance to a whore house, no?

When we entered the hammam, the lady in-charge welcomed us and answered our questions. She was dressed in a spaghetti strap top with a pair of black bikini and loincloth (cawat).

We took the package that consists of the sauna, body and leg scrub and massage thats costs 850 Syrian Pounds.

After locking our stuff in a drawer in the lobby area and strapping the key to my wrist, we were given a towel to change into. Initially I wanted to keep on my bra and panties on, but decided otherwise cause I know I’ll end up getting completely drenched in there. So I had on my disposable panties and left my bra in the drawer.

Then we were led into the bathing area which is essentially a common room with huge basins built into the wall containing warm water. Everything was wet and the atmosphere was steamy.

Without saying a word, the lady boss yanked off my towel and asked me to sit on the floor with the rest of the naked and semi-naked ladies. She poured a bucket of warm water over my head and told me to go into the sauna room where Audrey and two other ladies were already there.

That was my first experience of being exposed in public, or in a hammam at least. There was no room for being shy as most of us were clad only in our panties. Sitting in the sauna, I wonder whether women secretly check out each other’s boob size, just like how men check out each other’s you know what.

After about 10 minutes of oozing out toxins from our pores, one by one we were led out to another part of the bathing area where a burly lady was waiting to scrub us. She looked like a contestant from the WWF – WWF as in Women’s Wrestling Federation, and not the wildlife organization. Imagine the strength and power in those arms!

I was asked to lie down on the floor (!) and using a loofah, she scrubbed away really hard, asking me to lift my arms and to turn over after doing one side so that she could get to every spot on my body. It was probably the mother of all scrubs, but I was happy to see the black dirt and grime being scrubbed away.

There were a few other bathers who were getting scrubbed and massaged in the area. And the scrubbers and masseuses sang together in Arabic as their work their magic on the bathers. It was a pleasant sound that added to the warm temperature of the hammam.

After the scrub session, I was given a loofah, shampoo and a bar of soup in a white plastic container and told to return to the first area to wash away all the dirt that has been scrubbed off.

It was difficult bathing with panties on. So I removed them, faced the wall and bathe away in the nude. Who cares if other women were watching ;-) After finishing, I put them back on, sat on the floor and waited for the massage session.

Now, the massage session is nothing like the super relaxing Indonesian or Thai massages. This massage consists of merely rubbing oil all over the body with occasional applying of pressure on certain points. And that’s about it.

And then it was back to the bathing area to wash away the oil and we could then change back into our clothes and relax with a hot cup of tea in the lobby, compliments from Hammam Ammoonah.

Girl in towel must be saying, "Quickly hide, crazy tourists snapping photos of naked women! "

Ceiling in the lobby area.

A fellow traveller whom we met in Amman commented that the experience sounded like how prisoners are being treated in prison, and I think she may be right :-) But going to Hammam Ammoonah was indeed a one in a million experience which I'll gladly do again. After all, we all want soft and dirt free skin. And being naked in public could be liberating as well.

About Hammam Ammoonah

Hammam Ammoonah was built in the 12th Century AD and was it was classified amongst the cleanest public baths in the city of Damascus during the Ottoman period. However, it was probably neglected during later periods.

The owners of this hammam fully restored and renovated this historical place to provide bathers with an authentic bathing experience. Hammam Ammoonah was formerly known as “Hammam Shojaa” until the late 18th Century when it was renamed as its current name.


Damascus – Syria – Baghdad Street
Behind Al Dahdah – Bawabet Al Aass
Tel: +963 11 23 16 414

Opens daily from 8.00am – 8.00pm

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Damascus to Amman by Bus

Travelling from Damascus to Amman by bus is an economical option for budget travellers who are planning to travel between Syria and Jordan. The journey is approximately 3.5 hours long with hardly any hassle at the border.

Tickets must be bought one day in advance from Al Qadam station which is a short taxi ride from Damascus Old City. I don’t think we could have walked there as it looked quite far from Damascus Old City.

A one-way bus ticket from Damascus to Amman costs SYP 500 and we had to show our passports when purchasing them.

There are 2 buses to Amman in a day: 8.00am and 2.00pm. We chose the 8.00am bus cause we wanted to get to Amman when it’s still bright to navigate our way to Farah Hotel where we had reservations.

Al Qadam bus station

The next day we left Al-Kindi Hotel (where we stayed throughout our stay in Damascus) at 6.45am and took the cab to Al Qadam station. We were early and goofed around while waiting for the bus to arrive.

The bus arrived pronto at 7.30am and after loading our stuff into the luggage compartment, we were on our journey by 8.00am.

The bus that took us from Damascus to Amman 

At the Nassib Immigration Passport Centre, we got off the bus to fill up some forms; the usual stuff required at most borders.

Nassib Immigration Passport Centre at the Syrian side

All travellers had to pay SYP 500 for the Departure Coupon. I didn't have enough cash because I didn't expect to pay anything at the border. Didn't do enough research, I guess!

But thankfully Audrey had some Syrian Pound left and we managed to dig up enough to pay for the coupons.

At the Jaber Border (Jordan side), we had to get off the bus again and complete the usual border procedures.

My ticket agent said Malaysians usually don't have to pay for any visa upon entering Jordan. But he was wrong cause we had to pay JD 10 for a Visa-on-Arrival. Damn my agent!

Thankfully there were a few foreign exchange booths beside the immigration office where we changed our US Dollars into Jordanian Dinars.

In Amman, the bus dropped us off at a bus station that was under renovation. There were hardly any signages, so I can't tell which bus station it was. And we were too tired to ask around.

When we exited the station, a gentleman (whom we assumed to be a taxi driver) approached us and asked if we needed transport. He offered to take us to Farah Hotel for JD 1 each.

When he lead us to his car, I thought he was gonna rob us or something cause it was not a proper taxi but a private car. He could sense the confusion and informed us that he's a licensed tourist guide who's been licensed to ferry tourist from the bus station to wherever they wanna go.

Whether he was telling the truth or not, I don't know. But we arrived at Farah Hotel safely, and that was what's important.

Important to Remember ...

If you’re travelling from Damascus to Amman by bus, you’ll need to take note of the following:

1) The bus from Damascus to Amman leaves from Al Qadam bus station in Damascus.

2) A one-way ticket costs SYP 500 and must be bought one day in advance. You’ll need to show your passport and/or other travel documents to the ticket officer.

3) There are 2 buses in a day: 8.00am and 2.00pm and the journey is approximately 3.5 hours long.

4) There is a Departure Coupon (by Sea or Land) that you’ll need to fill up at the Nassib Immigration Passport Centre at the Syrian border, and you'll have to pay SYP 500 when you submit it to the officer.

5) Visa-on-Arrival at the Jasber Border in Amman costs JD 10.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Beware Those Who Suddenly Reappear in Your Life

I'm always weary of people whom I've lost contact with and one day out of the blue they reappear in my life through a phone call, sms or email.

They usually have a hidden agenda, i.e. to sell me some product or service that I don't need.

One day I received a message on Facebook from an old classmate. We added each other on FB a couple of years ago and that was probably the only way we kept in contact - by browsing each other's profile occasionally to see what each of us is up to.

Anway, I didn't have time to reply and after a couple of days I received an email from this same person. She found my email through my FB profile.

This time I replied her email. And her lightning speed reply proved my theory right. Here is an excerpt of her email, complete and unabridged, hehehe:

"By the way, just to let u know that I'm now doing part time in Nu Skin business (heard of it before?)

If you know of some one who is overweight and wanted to reduce or slim down (not only for beauty sake but also for health sake) pls do let me know.

This product work wonders for all my husband family members and they have finally regain their health (high cholestrol, leg pain, etc) without side effects. (no purging like some other products)

As you know being overwight is no good and will cause many complication later in our lives, so pls do let me know if you know of any1 interested to lose wieight.

I attahced some link about TRA (The Right Transformation) and testimonials of my husband family members.

But i think u defintely are not overweight! hahah still slim as ever!:)) That say i saw ur sis, i think she put on weight huh! you can forward to her if you dont mind:) Every gal aims for a slimmer body!

If you need any product for skin care (anti aging is their forte!) then do look for me too! The spa machine is terrific! I'm using it now (just started) , coz i dont go for facial.. (do u?)

and much cheaper than go for facial

** If you would like to hear more abt Nuskin business, do let me know. Once you build your network, the $ is very good:))"

And this was my reply to her:

Dear (Name of Idiot),

Whenever any old friend re-appears in my life after not bothering to keep in touch for donkey years, most of the time they have something to sell. And you've proven my hypothesis correct once again!

When you became a mother, I left congratulatory comments in your FB but you didn't bother to send any note or reply. But now you want to sell me Nu Skin?! What makes you think I'll even bother to meet up with you? Or even to buy your products?

Think about it and please don't contact me again.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Let Your Imagination Run Wild at Kraks de Chevaliers

Kraks de Chevaliers or "Castle of the Knights" is a must-see destination if you're a fan of King Arthur, knighthood or even movies like Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood.

Located about 40 km west of the city of Homs in Syria, the Kraks de Chevaliers was built in 1031 by the emir of Hom. The place was used by Crusader knights and also Islam armies during the time of the Crusades.

Each group that took control of the castle expanded it till its current form which now sits majestically on a hill overlooking the village of Hosn.

When I visited the castle I haven't the faintest idea what to expect. Of course I did my homework and read a couple of reviews. But I didn't expect to come away totally fascinated at how well preserved the castle is.

My only regret was the lack of time to soak in the place. I wanted to park myself in various corners of the castle and imagine myself as a damsel in distress waiting for my knight in shining armour ;-) But our driver only gave us about 1 hour and then we had to move on to Ma'aloula which was a long journey from the castle. Damn!

But I did take many photos which I would like to share with you here, well at least some of it cause there are just too many.

Entrance fee is SYP 150 for foreigners.

The castle is surrounded by a moat which serves as a barrier for invading enemies. In the cartoons, a moat usually has crocodiles in it in case the invaders decide to swim across the moat to break into the castle. But I don't think they had crocs here cause crocs are not native to Syria, hahaha.

The holes in the walls have a special purpose. Look below to see the answer.

Each hole has a small opening for soldiers to look out for enemies approaching from the hills below. I think these small openings also serve as good covers for them to attack these enemies with their bow and arrows. I was thinking of Legolas from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy when I saw these openings. 

This horse stable reminds me of the Mulu Caves in Sarawak, Malaysia which can house 40 Boeing 747 airplanes. I wonder how many horses can this stable hold?

It's amazing how well preserved this castle is that even the holes in the stable walls to hold torches can still be seen.

I can imagine the thundering hooves of the knights' steeds as they ride through this passage.

This is a room above one of the main doors to the castle. Notice the 3 holes in the floor. When the castle is under attack, soldiers pour boiling oil or water through the 3 holes onto enemy soldiers below who are trying to seige the castle. The slit in the floor is where the door is opened by pulling it upwards through the slit.

Stones for catapults.

Moss on the wall is an indication that this used to be a damp place. Well, this is the latrine for the soldiers.

A close-up view of one of the "cubicles" in the latrine. I wonder where does the wastes flow to. Into the moat perhaps?

The castle has many secret passage ways like this as escape routes in case the castle is under attack.

Chapel that was converted into a mosque after the Muslim conquest. 

A meeting room where the knights discussed battles, combat strategies, etc.

Look carefully at the ring of stones in the middle of the picture. It's called The Round Table which obviously reminded me of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

When you enter the castle, guides will approach you and start showing you around. But beware ... these unauthorised guides who are mostly youth from neighbouring villages will ask you for huge sums of money at the end of the tour.

We blindly followed a guide without asking what his charges were, and at the end of the tour he demanded we pay him USD25 each!

No doubt he did a good job in showing us the various parts of the castle, something which we wouldn't have known had we walked around on our own. But USD25 was just too much.

Despite our protests, he refused to relent. But finally we managed to persuade him and he accepted just USD25 for the both of us. I added a SYP200 tip as well. So it's advisable to agree on the price before you start following any guide to avoid any misunderstanding at the end. 

That was probably the only incident that marred my experience at Kraks de Chevaliers.


Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Damascus to Aleppo by Bus - Just Like Boarding a Plane

Travelling from Damascus to Aleppo by bus was like boarding a plane - procedure wise, that is.

First of all, when we got to the Pullman Bus Station in Damascus, we had to get our bags scanned just like at the airport. There was no body search or else I would have laughed my head off. 

I didn't snap any photos of the bag scan machine cause cameras were not allowed in the area. In fact, when we were waiting for the bus to leave, I went around snapping photos. And then a guy who was walking by said it's forbidden to take photos in the station. Weird ... but I think it's a security procedure.

Anyway, the Pullman Bus Station is not a bus terminal in a single building, but rows of shops selling bus tickets, food, drinks and all sorts of stuff.

 Rows of shops at the Pullman Bus Station.

Like a typical bus station from an emerging nation (I'm thinking Puduraya here), many guys were shouting out names of places and trying to get passengers to buy tickets from their counter.

After asking around a bit, we decided on a company whose bus was leaving shortly. A one-way ticket to Aleppo costs 200 Syrian Pounds (SYP) and we had to show our passports.

This is how the VIP bus looks like:

Reminds me of school buses in Malaysia.

Notice the guy standing beside the bus in the pic above. He was the bus attendant who had the job description of a flight attendant.

After the bus rolled out of Pullman Bus Station, he drew all the curtains, and made sure they stayed that way throughout the journey.

 Drawn curtains always makes me sleepy.

He also distributed mineral water and biscuits and went from row to row with a plastic bag to collect rubbish. Just before the bus reached Aleppo he made sure all the seats were in an upright position; exactly like what flight attendants usually asks us to do just before the plane lands.

Mineral water and biscuits are distributed free to all passengers.

I was glad the journey to Aleppo took approximately 3 hours. Otherwise I would have to nurse a numb butt.

When the bus reached Aleppo, we didn't know which station it was or exactly which part of Aleppo we were at because all the signages were in Arabic. Moreover my Lonely Planet Middle East was an old edition with outdated information, fml.

So we asked around and was directed to take a bus to the city centre cause taking a taxi would have costs us an arm and a leg. That 30-minute bus ride was probably one of the cheapest bus rides I've ever sat - flat rate of SYP 5 only.

We got off at the last stop and navigated our way on foot to the clock tower and Sheraton Aleppo Hotel area where we kamikazed our way to Hotel Radouan.
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