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When I first announced I would be travelling to Kuwait, I came up against some pretty strong opposition. Family and friends alike urged me not to go. Throw Kuwait into a game of word association, and Iraq comes back at you time and time again.
It's taken me quite some time to write this review, and it's come out lengthier than I would have liked. I've tried to edit it down, but every section I've written feels relevant to anyone visiting Kuwait for the first time. Bearing in mind that Kuwait is no ordinary tourist destination ... there is no nightlife, alcohol is illegal ... removing anything quirky and personal would leave it coming up short. If you wanted 18-30's and cocktails on the beach, you'd be heading to one of a hundred tourist-ridden destinations. Kuwait is a country burdened by the stigma of a war, struggling to remove itself from that era, and begging to be given a chance to prove that it's more than just a vast expanse of sand.
I was prompted to write this review due to seeing other, older reviews on Kuwait, written from the perspective of people who worked here, and describing the country quite negatively.
I'm prepared to believe that Kuwait was a different country altogether just a few years ago. I see changes and forward progress each time I visit. You won't find anything to rival the beautiful and structured, but slightly forced architecture of Dubai, but what was knocked down by the Iraqi's has largely been rebuilt. I can't comment on the Kuwait of 2001, but I can say that, to me, it's the strange combination of old and new rubbing along together, that make my time here so interesting. The country has evolved quickly, in a short space of time. There's a real mix of the traditional, and new, more modern western influences here. It's to be expected that the opinions of the people here are split as to whether the changes are positive, or negative. That's why I believe my review can sit side by side with the other more negative one. There's something here for everyone, but it won't be everyone's cup of chai. If you ever get the chance, I'd urge you to make up your own mind.
For up to date, country-specific information from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office with regards to your travel safety, visit http://www.fco.gov.uk
***What to pack***
Please see the climate section for weather conditions for different times of year. Women should pack modest clothing. As a general rule, knee length is acceptable. Skirts of this length and cropped trousers are fine. However, when visiting some of the older and more traditional areas of Kuwait, you may wish to wear long trousers or skirts for your own comfort. By all means pack nice shoes, but certain areas of the country have old roads with potholes and are very dusty. It's a good idea to pack trainers or flat sandals. Bikinis are not acceptable, unless visiting a private health club, such as the Hilton, where the beach is private and frequented by westerners. With the exception of the hottest months it is advisable to wear tops that cover the shoulders. Whilst not doing so carries no consequence, it will attract stares from the locals and some disapproval from more traditional Kuwaiti citizens. Tops should also not be too low cut, with no cleavage on display.
My GP advised me that no vaccinations were necessary for my visits to Kuwait. However, various websites list typhoid, hepatitis A and B, diphtheria and tuberculosis as possible recommended vaccinations. There is no risk of malaria in Kuwait. You should visit your GP prior to travel for up to date information on vaccines.
BA flies direct to Kuwait daily from London Heathrow. Currently you can expect to pay around £380 for a return flight.
A temporary visa, obtained on arrival, is required for UK citizens to enter Kuwait. You can't miss the visa desk and the airport staff speak good English.
For non-experienced travellers, or those daunted by the prospect
Pictures of General: Kuwait
I'm crushing your towers!
of navigating the process of acquiring a visa, I would recommend booking a Hala service for your arrival. This can be done by visiting www.halaservices.com and booking a meet and assist service. On arrival in Kuwait, you will then be met at the bottom of the ramp by a person wearing a red blazer with your name on a card. After showing them your passport, they will guide you to the visa counter. You can then sit on a leather armchair, watching other disgruntled passengers queuing for visas, while the paperwork for yours is filled out on your behalf. After that, you will be escorted to the baggage section to pick up your luggage and taken through to the arrivals hall. You can also add a limousine service to take you to any destination in Kuwait. This is actually not a limousine, but a far nicer than average Kuwait taxi. For me, that service, from start to finish, is 17 Kuwait Dinar well spent!
It is advisable to carry your visa with you at all times.
Getting around in Kuwait is quite an experience, and not for the faint-hearted! The driving is the worst I've ever seen. Indicating is for the weak. Giving way to other vehicles is for the weak. The general "rule of big" is in play here. If it's bigger than you, give way. Kuwait has a very high rate of road traffic accidents. Three lanes of traffic are often created where there should only be two. Drivers pull out in front of you, with no more than a foot distance between the cars. Maniacs reverse against traffic on main roads. It really does have to be seen to be believed!
The recommended mode of transport is personal, and depends largely on whether you're more inclined to be a nervous driver, or a nervous passenger.
Taxis are widely available. Generally, you can stand by the roadside, looking like you need a taxi, and one will appear within minutes. Do NOT expect taxi drivers to speak good English as this is rarely the case. You must know the name of the place you are going to. Taxis in Kuwait should use a meter, but they rarely do. It is advisable to ask an English speaking person, such as your hotel receptionist for the name of your destination, and how much you should expect to pay to get there. Taxi drivers in Kuwait often try to charge you more than the fare should be, but are generally just trying their luck. If this happens, you should get out of the taxi, give the taxi driver the fair amount, and walk away. In the collective year I've spent in Kuwait, not one taxi driver has ever continued an argument about the fare outside of the vehicle.
Taking a taxi in Kuwait is a cultural experience in itself. Taxis are generally not the cleanest, and the parcel shelves are decorated with the strangest items, such as plastic flowers and Christmas decorations, regardless of the time of year. My most bizarre taxi ride to date has been one that involved a car with laminated wood flooring. I dread to think what was underneath, but Fred Flintstone springs to mind! As a final consideration on the subject, and one that may sway the brave-hearted not put off thus far, taxis in Kuwait do NOT have seatbelts. I'm not sure why, but those that have the belts have had the clips removed. You have been warned!
As an alternative, hire cars are available from the airport, or from hire car branches throughout Kuwait. These WILL have seatbelts. You should be extremely careful on the roads in Kuwait due to the appalling driving as mentioned above. Expect everyone to do something idiotic, and you'll be well prepared. The advantage of driving yourself, apart from the seatbelts, is that you can, at least, control your own standard of driving.
***What Colour Is It?***
Ok, you're right. That's a ridiculous heading, but try as I might, I just couldn't fit this in any other section.
Ok, so where was I? Ahh, yes ... what colour is it? Well, there's a lot of sand, so it's mainly beige really, except for in the summer ... when they PAINT THE GRASS GREEN!
Yes, really. When the grass turns brown in the hottest month, a little truck comes along and sprays it green again. Now, where else can you get entertainment like that for free?!
Arabic is spoken in Kuwait, although Kuwaiti Arabic is a little like American English, with some differences from traditional Arabic. If you wish to learn some of the language, you should aim to learn Egyptian Arabic. You will be perfectly understood in Kuwait speaking Egyptian Arabic. Most restaurant and shop workers, certainly in the more modern parts of Kuwait, speak very good English, but knowing a few words of Arabic is appreciated by the locals.
Audio books are a great way to pick up the basics in a short space of time, and can be bought on the Internet, and from places like WHSmiths.
I've looked for exact details for this online, and every site seems to vary on the information given. Since I've been in Kuwait in all seasons, I'll write generally, and from experience.
The hottest months are between June and October. At its hottest, the temperature can reach as high as the mid fifties. The hottest temperature I've experienced was 57 degrees centigrade. Published temperatures tend to have 49 degrees as their limit, but this is not accurate. Once the temperature reaches 50 degrees, everywhere shuts and people go home from work, so that never officially seems to happen.
The air is generally very dry with some humidity and occasional sand storms during the change of seasons.
Rainfall in is a rarity, and tends to bring the locals running outside, instead of in.
The summer heat can be very restrictive. You should never go out without a good sunscreen and water. If you intend to visit as a tourist, I would recommend the months of November to April. The weather is extremely pleasant during these months. The days are warm and sunny, and perfect for walking along the ocean front.
***Things to do***
A visit to the Kuwait Towers is a must. These were bombed by the Iraqis and have since been restored. You can go to the top of the towers for a panoramic view of Kuwait, and to read about the history.
The Scientific Centre is a great place to take children. There is an aquarium here, a selection of animals, a nice cafe and a good shop for souvenirs.
Along the ocean-front you'll find basketball courts, play parks, a skateboard course, restaurants, go-karts, an IMAX cinema and several lovely spots to take a picnic.
If you head out towards the dessert you'll see the homes of dessert-dwellers, camel racing, and come across the road sign to Iraq ... about as close as anyone sensible wants to be, but worth a picture. You'll drive down the same road Iraq used to get their tanks into the country. Don't worry; you can't accidentally end up on Iraqi soil. There are a few American soldiers on the border who'll tell you what a bad idea it is!
Also on this road, you will come across the remains of one of Kuwait's satellite communication bases, also bombed by the Iraqis on entering the country. What remains are the carcases of three of these huge dishes. There is nothing to stop you driving right up to them, or entering the bombed-out building, where there is a blend of bullet-holes and child-like graffiti decorating the walls. I went here with a photographical interest. I'm merely passing on the info, not endorsing a visit!
If you wish to visit the Friday market, please be aware that women should dress more conservatively than other places in Kuwait. The Friday market is very traditionally male oriented. You may also witness the slaughtering of chickens, not for the weak-stomached.
You can usually pick up the Friday Times free in restaurants, and a copy of Zoom, a monthly mag for tourists. The latter will have a large coded map of the country and details of any attractions and festivals.
Eating out is fairly painless in Kuwait. There are plenty of familiar names to choose from as well as more traditional eating haunts. There's a Hard Rock Cafe on the beachfront in Salmiya, where you can eat and stock up on souvenirs. Expect your "hard rock" to be slightly on the soft side here though, as Kuwait is only just starting to embrace this kind of music.
In Fahaheel there is a small mall with outdoor and indoor dining, where you can stop for anything from ice cream, lovely pastries from Paul's or a full meal. In the evening, you will also be treated to a dancing fountain display set to opera music.
Diva's, in Salmiya is well worth a visit to sample their Crown Brown desert, a slice of loveliness that has to be experienced. If you're interested in trying the flavoured water pipes, these can be smoked upstairs on the balcony. Tuesday nights here are Karaoke nights. If you wish to entertain yourself, listening to the wailing of certain nationalities who can't pronounce the letter "V" and often, comically, singing completely the wrong lyrics ... or, heaven forbid, take part yourself ... then booking a table is advisable on this night of the week.
Lastly, if you're a non-smoker, prepare yourself for the fact that smoking in Kuwait is a national sport and acceptable everywhere, including in restaurants. Non-smoking sections are available, but if smoking offends you, you may be happier eating outdoors ... not so much a problem in a country with far more predictable weather and hardly any rainfall!
Modern shopping malls are plentiful in Kuwait. I've yet to find something you can't buy here. (Note for the ladies ... make sure you bring an adequate supply of "ladies things". While you'll find a modern selection of these in supermarkets, an emergency trip to the corner shop will soon tell you what it was like to menstruate in the last century! If you do find a shop that sells tampons, you'll find that they're classed as top shelf material, which you'll then have to ask the male shopkeeper to reach for you.)
While there are many modern shops here, including branches of Marks and Spencer's (now affectionately nicknamed "The British Embassy") the prices are generally more expensive than in the UK.
For souvenirs, head to the more traditional Fahaheel. Amongst other things, you'll be able to pick up a call to prayer alarm clock ... and who wouldn't wanted a mouse mat in the style of a prayer rug? Exactly!
The currency in Kuwait is the KWD (Kuwait Dinar) and updated currency conversion can be found on www.xe.com.
Credit cards are widely accepted, though Maestro is often not, in my experience.
ATM machines are plentiful, and can be found in shopping centres, supermarkets and banks.
GMT + 3 hrs
There are many great things to photograph in Kuwait, but it is important to respect the culture here. I would not advise getting snap-happy with the locals without permission, particularly the women. Taking photographs of the police, royal residencies and anything connected with the oil industry is not permitted. The sunlight is extremely harsh, so a polarising filter is a good idea. Don't change camera lenses unnecessarily outdoors due to the sand.
***Other Important Points***
If you are staying in Kuwait for any length of time and plan to use the Internet, it is useful to know that content viewed is restricted in Kuwait. Find a good proxy server to view all content.
If you wish to make contacts before you arrive, it is worth checking out social networking sites. The expat community is large and very friendly here, and there will be someone who'll spare the time to show you around.
Before planning a trip to Kuwait, find out the dates for Ramadan, during which time you will be unable to eat or smoke in public at certain times of the day.
Both pork and alcohol are not permitted in Kuwait, and you should not attempt to bring either into the country.
British Embassy, Safat: +965 259 4320 Irish Embassy, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (also responsible for Kuwait): +966 (0)1 488 2300 American Embassy, Safat: +965 259 1001 Canadian Embassy, Kuwait City: +965 256 3025 Australian Embassy, Sharq: +965 232 2422. New Zealand Embassy, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (also responsible for Kuwait): +966 (0)1 488 7988 Emergencies: 777 (Ambulance)