Update your bucket list with a lesser travelled destination, Iran.
By Jaspreet Narang
There is no way to proclaim Iran as your next holiday destination without causing quite a stir— especially if you are a woman. I got reactions of shock followed by questions like why Iran? Is it safe? What is there to do? And I can’t blame anyone, as the media has done a great job of branding the country unfavourably. As humans, we tend to judge from the outside, but what happens when we go and discover that stereotypes could not be further from the truth?
A homage to Persia:
If you are drawn to places where ancient civilisations resonate through the ages, then you will definitely enjoy Iran. Some of history’s most important figures, including Cyrus, Darius and Alexander the Great have left their marks here. The cities they conquered and ruled are rich with ruins, and walking around Persepolis will carry you all the way back to the glory days of Ancient Persia.
The friendliest country on Earth:
Iran’s greatest attraction is surely its people. When spending time with locals, you’ll often find yourself invited to share a meal in their house. Say yes once a trustworthy friendship is formed, and you’ll experience first-hand Iranian culture; ancient, sophisticated and warm. It is these experiences that will live longest in your memory.
What should be on your itinerary?
An overwhelmingly large country with endless places to visit would require at least a two-week stay. Be prepared to explore all its wonders by going to:
• Tehran (Iran’s capital city): For the immensely chaotic Grand Bazaar; mountain ranges and sunset sighting from Tabiat Bridge; and the glorious Golestan Palace.
• Esfahan: For Naqsh-e Jahan, the second largest square in the world and one of the prettiest mosques; the beautiful handicraft stores with workshops; the region’s delicacy known as Biryani which to my surprise contained no rice; and finally to enjoy some tea at the picturesque Abbasi Hotel.
• Kashan: For a day trip to the oldest village in Iran called Abyaneh; the massive and mesmerising historical houses and hammams; and of course, the serene Agha Bozorg Mosque.
• Shiraz: For an unforgettable day trip to the ancient city of Persepolis; the spectacular rainbow of stained glass and shadows cast by sunrays inside the Pink Mosque (Nasir al-Mulk Mosque); an undeniable art scene; and the hippest cafes and cutest boutique stores littered along the outskirts of the Grand Bazaar.
How do you plan for your vacation?
I knew that Iran would be a trip that required advanced planning, but I never imagined the process to be so excruciatingly difficult. As the majority of online booking platforms are American, many nonchalantly exclude Iran as a country. Yes, they literally refuse to acknowledge the existence of Iran. Don’t believe me? Try searching for accommodation on booking.com and you will find nothing. Another hardship was trying to secure internal domestic flights online. Due to U.S. sanctions, the entire country does not accept any international credit or debit cards. This obviously complicates and hinders all online booking options entirely.
So here are my tips and tricks to ease your planning:
• Hotel booking: Adopt the old-school method of emailing hotels directly.
• Internal travel: Find a trustworthy local travel agent and have them arrange your internal flights. Upon arrival, visit the agent, make the cash payment in person and collect your domestic flight tickets.
• Currency exchange: Take EUR to Iran instead of USD (obviously) and exchange for the local currency in Iran itself. I highly recommend using established banks to gauge the exchange rates, as Iran is currently struggling with a rapidly deflating currency.
• Visa application: Applying for an e-Visa online is easy if you are married or a single male. However, single Thai women will automatically get rejected. I won’t explain this one as I believe in your deductive reasoning skills. So all single ladies should go directly to the Embassy of Iran in Bangkok to apply for the visa.
• Payments: As none of your credit and debit cards are going to work there, make sure you take enough EUR to pay for all aspects of your trip.
The hardships of preparing for the trip proved to be absolutely worth it. I was so positively surprised with encounters and experiences which easily exceeded all of my expectations. I witnessed stunning mosques and minarets, bustling bazaars, serene courtyards and teahouses. I met women as feisty as their male counterparts, including a female engineering professor teaching a classroom full of men. Everywhere I went, I received warm welcomes and friendly smiles. After all, the Iranians are as curious of us, as we are of them.