What can I say?...I love Egypt! Plain and simple. I was there in October/November ’07, traveled alone for 5 weeks and had a ball!
Through all the chaos, the sounds, the clamor, everything seems to flow in this country. By all rights, nothing should work, given the chaos and disorganization. I faced very little hassle. Some say I was lucky, other still think I’m crazy to have spent over a month backpacking solo in what is largely still a conservative Middle Eastern country.
Tourism in Egypt is primarily still a world of package tours and organized group travel. The solo traveler is not alone though. It’s easy to meet other backpackers along the way to hang out with and maybe share the cost of a felucca trip or desert safari. Egypt has a full range of great hostels and budget hotels making it very easy to travel cheaply.
I did land there with a loose itinerary which I quickly discarded. Started off in Cairo and gave myself a few days there to acclimatize. Read: get used to the heat!.....and after 3 days took off for Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert. I was still sweating buckets, but I didn’t notice anymore. I knew I was ready to step out and explore!
All in all, I had a wonderful time and will definitely go back in the future. There is so much to see and do in Egypt and I felt that I only had time to scratch the surface. Below are just some of my own insights and notes on travel to Egypt. Feel free to ask any questions...
Egypt 101-Day to day
...Bargaining or haggling is unavoidable in Egypt and rule #1 for me is don’t be afraid to politely walk away if you feel the price is too high, or if you feel you’re being ripped off. You can always go elsewhere.
- Hord your small change!...small piastre notes, 1 and 5 Egyptian pound (LE) notes will be your main currency for day to day transactions. On a few occasions, I even went into a bank to exchange a few larger notes. Near the end of my trip, the government issued a very nice 1 LE coin which should help eliminate those ancient, ragged, sometimes damp 1 LE paper notes.
- Skype works well from Egypt and most internet places have some computers equipped with headsets and mics.
-When to baksheesh or not to baksheesh?
That is the age old question in Egypt! How you deal with this issue can make or break your time in Egypt and it’s a topic which has been “flogged to death” on many travel forum’s Egypt pages. My opinion? Don’t get too worked up about it and always keep in mind that salaries are very, very low in Egypt and most ordinary people depend on tips to increase their meager salaries.-Touts
... Some of the more aggressive touts can be incessant and easily ruin a trip to some of the more touristy sites. If I was given 1 Egyptian pound for each time I said “la shukran” (no thank you) I’d have left Egypt a rich woman! A nice smile, a few “la shukran” ’s and walking away combined with just ignoring them if they kept at it usually worked for me. Egyptians have a great sense of humour. I even had a good laugh with a few of the more persistent vendors in Aswan’s souk after 5 of them attempted to sell me the same orange scarf all at the same time! And apparently, I broke Snoopy the camel’s heart by refusing his owner’s persistent offer of a camel ride at Giza...I’m sure Snoopy has since found love elsewhere! Off the beaten (desert) track...
- There’s a lot of conflicting information about arranging travel from Siwa Oasis to Bahariya Oasis through the desert. If any of you want more info, just leave me a message on this forum and I’d be glad to answer any questions. I managed to join 3 other solo travelers and we shared the cost of the jeep and driver. A fabulous trip and amazing scenery along the way. We even happened upon a small camel caravan along the way and had an impromptu picnic with the soldiers at one of the checkpoints along the way.
- Bawati in Bahariya Oasis is the unofficial capital of desert tour operators. I strongly suggest to anyone planning a White Desert tour to make arrangements prior to arriving in Bawati.. The touts here are predatory and will pounce on you as soon as you get arrive in town. Believe me, these guys make the camel touts at Giza and the felucca touts in Aswan look like your fairy godmother! I spent a very tense 24 hours in Bawati trying to arrange a White Desert excursion. Luckily, I found a wonderful guide and had a fabulous time in the desert.-Headscarf debate.
.. being a solo female traveler posed little problem for me in Egypt. I cannot speak for all woman travelers, but I felt totally safe in Egypt. Walking the streets of Cairo at night is much safer than in most European capitals. I did feel a little conspicuous in the desert Oasis towns which tend to be very conservative. I dressed “modestly”...long pants and shirts that weren’t too clingy and tied my hair back. No shorts, no tank tops. The question of whether or not to cover ones hair while traveling in the Middle East is hugely debated out there on the travel forums. In Egypt, the only place where you’ll need to cover your head is to visit a mosque. Though I was allowed into the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo bareheaded which surprised me. There are many Egyptian women, Muslim and Christian, who do not wear headscarves and I found it totally unnecessary when I was there. Trust me, if you’re female, you’ll get more unwanted “attention” if you wear shorts or tight clothing than if you leave your hair uncovered! I traveled to Jordan and Syria a few years back and used the same common sense and dressed modestly.Miscellaneous
- Favorite cheap Egyptian meal : Koshari. A mixture of noodles, lentils, rice, tomato sauce and caramelized onions which is delicious! Abu Tarek in Cairo is, IMO, the best Koshari joint in Egypt, with Safwa in Aswan in 2nd place.
-Favorite night time entertainment: listening to 3 Bedouin guides sing traditional songs by the light of a campfire and a full moon in the White Desert.
- Make use of the tourist office in Ramses Station if you’re having difficulty buying a train ticket. The staff there are very helpful and will even write out a note in Arabic for you to present to the ticket vendor. And believe or not, they don’t expect any baksheesh!
- If the crowds at Giza are a little much for you, I’d suggest heading to Saqqara and/or Dahshur to get some Pyramid action. These sites are much less crowded and IMO, the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur is the most impressive of all as its limestone casing is largely intact.
- If you have a day or two to spare, wandering the streets of Islamic and Coptic Cairo will not disappoint and give you a totally different perspective of the city, its people and its history. There is a free Sufi performance on Wednesday and Saturdays nights at the Whikala al-Guri which is well worth lining up for.
- Contrary to popular belief, restrictions on travel to towns in Middle Egypt have been relaxed lately (see Rough Guide to Egypt 2007) and it’s totally feasible to visit sites like Abydos and Dendara on your own. This way you avoid having to join the police convoys which rarely leave you more than 1 hour at each site. I visited Abydos by taking the train to the nearest town. Got to spend 4 glorious hours at the temple and had the place practically to myself!
- It’s totally feasible to visit Luxor’s West Bank and the Theban Necropolis using public transport and the occasional taxi. Many tourists rent bicycles as well. The local public ferry shuttles locals and tourists back and forth all day long cost 1LE one way). Don’t believe the taxi touts at the ferry landing who say that the only way to and from the Valley of the Kings (KV) is by hiring a taxi to wait for you there. I spent 4 days on the West Bank and made good use of the local pick-up trucks that ply the West Bank’s roads. Note: the pick-ups don’t go all the way to KV. The few times I used a taxi I paid only one way and politely declined that they “wait for me”.
- The Nubian museum in Aswan has some amazing exhibits and is very well organized. A definite must see if you’re at all interested in the distinct Nubian culture of Southern Egypt.
- When booking a Felucca ride from Aswan heading North, keep in mind that you’ll be at the mercy of an often sluggish current and sometimes non-existent winds. Even on a 2 night sail, you rarely make it as far as Kom Ombo so if you’re pressed for time, you’re better off to just take a 1 night sail.
That’s all for now folks...feel free to add on to my long and scraggly list!