'Same, Same, But Different,' Oman Is Both Familiar And Exotic

Local anecdotes familiarised me with Oman's untapped side, which is all about its commendable evolution and intriguing camaraderie with India
Muscat, Oman
Muscat, OmanShutterstock

"Same same, but different." Our guide, Saed, repeated this phrase as we traversed Oman for seven days, deciphering the analogy between New Delhi-Muscat and learning about former Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said and his modern-day Sultanate. Dotted with evenly painted houses and well-connected roads, the Middle-Eastern nation is a tale of "Oman Across Ages," also the name for its newly inaugurated museum, which depicts its transition from the Stone Age to the Modern Age. 

My interactions with tour guides and locals made me realise the impact of the late Sultan Qaboos, regarded as the 'Architect of Modern Oman.' The development works undertaken under his rule call for the respect and admiration he has earned from his people. Nasir (another guide) told me there used to be just three schools and one hospital before 1970; however, under his reign from 1970 to 2020, Oman transitioned from a near-medieval society to a modern country and emerged as one of the wealthiest Arab countries in the world.

Accompanied by five women, as I travelled through Oman, I saw it through the eyes of locals over fascinating discussions on culture, lifestyle and governance.

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, OmanShutterstock

If you are an Indian, no matter where you are, a "Chaiyya Chaiyya" is all you need to break the ice. Saed shared how much he loved Shah Rukh Khan and his iconic songs. It made me realise the global impact of the brand "King Khan" and how cinema journeys through borders and bridges gaps. 

I also familiarised myself with the local culture and learnt "Yala Yala" (let's move) from Nasir every time he reminded the girls to pause their selfies and move ahead.

Tracing Oman

Evening cityscape view of Muscat, Oman
Evening cityscape view of Muscat, OmanShutterstock

With a population of over forty lakhs, Oman's diverse landscape has deserts dominating its central region; mountain ranges springing along Al Hajar and a thriving coastline. The Gulf of Oman forms the Musandam Peninsula's coastal boundaries, disjointing it from the Persian Gulf to make way for the Strait of Hormuz. This unique geographical blend also affects the climatic conditions, hot and humid along the shores, pleasant temperatures across mountains like Dhofar and Jebel Shams and flash-flood prone in areas like Snake Canyon. I felt the temperature shift in Wakan village, in the lap of the Wadi Mistal mountains, which dropped to 16 degrees at night. Contrary to the blazing sun of Muscat, it was all windy and pleasant here. 

Our group posing in front of the Grand Mosque, Muscat
Our group posing in front of the Grand Mosque, MuscatHimakshi Panwar

Elevated at about 2,000 metres above sea level, the way up to Wakan was a roller-coaster, making me nauseous. But the verdant views were worth every bump I experienced while riding to the village. The curved roads and narrow gorges took me to my home state, Uttarakhand, and reminded me of Saed's 'same same, but different' catchphrase. The picturesque lodge where our group stayed for the night complemented the scenic vibe of the place. The owner told us to hike the nearby 1.5 km trail that had 700 steps. As we ascended, the terraced gardens, adorned by coconut palms, introduced us to the Arabic flora, giving us picture-perfect clicks at the cliff. 

On our return, we were served "Karak Chai" to beat the bone-chilling winds. Inspired by the Indian "Kadak Chai," the Omanis have reimagined the tea with condensed milk and ingredients like saffron, mint, clove, ginger and cardamom, setting another example of the "same same, but different" parallel between the two nations.

For dinner, we were served "Shuwa," a flavourful rice delicacy served with different meat varieties: lamb, mutton, chicken or camel. Later, for dessert, we were suggested to try Omali, a regional pudding and Omani Halwa, a sweet, gooey cake flavoured with saffron, cardamom, ghee, nuts and rose water.

Our team having brunch at a heritage restaurant in Muscat
Our team having brunch at a heritage restaurant in MuscatVarsha Singh

If Wakan was a nature retreat, Misfah was a historical postcard. The 300-year-old village has abandoned houses, some even from the 17th or 18th centuries. Coated in "sarooch" (clay), these houses have been converted into cafes or souvenir shops. Walking through its rugged lanes, I discerned a European charm in the architecture.

The tall buildings, arched balconies and finely crafted windows established Oman's Portuguese connection, which ruled the region for trade purposes. What intrigued me the most were the clay pots hanging in the front yards of the old-fashioned houses, where water was stored to keep it cool. Interestingly, the pottery tradition in Oman goes back to as early as 2500 BC. Its oldest souq (market), "Nizwa Souq," is known for clay souvenirs like pots, wall hangings, and other decorative pieces.

The Aromatic Heritage


"Kayfa Halish," (how are you) a perfume store owner in Muttrah Souq asked me. Before I could inquire what it meant, he asked if I were an Indian, introducing me to his Kerala roots and the vast presence of over 6 lakh India expatriates in Oman.

Running the shop for 14 years, Shabnaz sells Oud perfumes made from the resin extract of the Agarwood tree (Aquilaria malaccensis), imported from Assam. He generously shared a secret with me, "the cheaper the perfume, the lower its concentration of fragrance oils." It made my search for an authentic and affordable perfume bottle convenient.

Frankincense is another must-buy in Oman. Extracted from the bark of the Boswellia sacra tree, the perfume represents the country's aromatic heritage, known to manufacture the world's finest "luban" (the local name for Frankincense). And if you have enough money, drop by Amouage, a high-end perfumery famous for its high-quality fragrances.

Tour guides (from L-R): Talib, Nasir and Saed
Tour guides (from L-R): Talib, Nasir and SaedAvneet Kaur

Fragrances are highly prized in Oman. Even during my stay at different hotels, a rose water-soaked hot towel was presented as a welcome keepsake, helping me rejuvenate after a tiring day. The locals also told me they need to smell good and ensure they buy at least ten perfumes monthly. Besides perfumes, you can always shop for knick-knacks in local markets where bargaining is easy.

Mutrah Souq
Mutrah SouqJahidul-hasan / Shutterstock

Tradition And Technology

Oman's tourist hotspots left me mesmerised with their blend of technology and tradition. With Arabic interiors and a multiform theatre that can be transformed from an opera house into a concert hall using a button, the Royal Opera House in Muscat is a perfect specimen of grandeur and innovation. From the outside, it gave me the impression of a castle; however, as soon as I entered the grand hall, everything from seating to stage space was high-tech and hydraulically movable. 

The Grand Mosque is another beautiful gem to admire. With the world's second-largest carpet gracing its Italian marble and the second-largest chandelier embellishing its ceilings, the mosque is a testament to the Sultanate's magnificence. The guide also enlightened me on how they have taken inspiration from our Taj Mahal to make the mosque dome, which has been constructed using Indian sandstone. Among its other significant monuments are Jabreen Castle and Al Hazm Castle. Built around 1675, Jabreen was a royal palace of the Imam, considered a distinguished authority and the head of the community in Gulf countries.

Jabreen Castle
Jabreen CastleShutterstock

The castle's rock-hard wooden doors are made of mango wood from India. Its painted ceilings left me curious about how many days the masons took to inscribe sinuous figures like the "God's Eye," designed to watch over the Sun and the Moon Hall at the castle. The brilliant tricks of defence, like narrow passages within fort rooms to transfer food, the date storeroom or the secret stair to trap the enemy, were equally mind-boggling. Likewise, Al Hazm was another residence of the Imam, with a prison, mosque and a Madrasa. Inside these castle battlements are impressive sights like open-air kitchens with Falaj — ancient water channels that have helped Omani civilisations battle water challenges due to less rainfall.

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