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.

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