I couldn’t have been the first one to visit Iran, but I was one of the few to come back with a film which showed the world how it really was. Within hours people were sharing my film across every continent and it clocked more than 20,000 views in one week (close to 200,000 so far). Iranians, especially those away from their home, thanked me for showing the Iran that they have always known. Not as the terrorists you see on the news or the villains in the movies, but as the gentlest and friendliest people you will ever met. I am about to raise your expectations sky high. And the Persians will still find a way to exceed that, the moment you meet any one of them.
Iran is the safest place I have ever travelled in
And this, coming from a Singaporean, says a lot. I travelled alone, taking long distance and overnight buses across cities and I never felt safer out of the many other countries I’ve travelled in.
They have the most beautiful sights that most of the world has yet to see
When I was in Italy, I found more Canon cameras than Italians. And here I was, in Shiraz, the sole visitor of Nasir al-Mulk, otherwise known as the Pink Mosuqe. It was a photographer’s dream come true. And what I saw in my time in Iran was far more brilliant and magnificent than anything else I’ve seen in Europe, Russia or the Americas combined.
Iranians are famous for their hospitality
Never again will you be the recipient of such unconditional kindness from strangers you had just met on a bus/alley/bazaar. All you need is one Iranian friend. And he or she will change everything you imagined about travelling. So if you ever meet an Iranian who invites you to his or her country, you must drop everything and go. And that’s exactly what I did, 2 hours before the plane took off for Tehran, almost 2 years ago.
I was based in Dubai when the opportunity was offered to me. Tickets between these two places are relatively cheap – plenty of budget options. I bought my ticket in the Dubai airport from Mahan Air but it’s actually a lot easier to book one from Flydubai. A return ticket between Dubai and Tehran can be as cheap as 200 USD. There are many Iranian airlines like Mahan Air, Iran Air and Iran Aseman but you may have a problem buying a ticket without an Iranian credit card. That’s a pity because Flydubai doesn’t go to Shiraz from Dubai, which is a route I recommend (to travel south to north of Iran, instead of the other way around).
For Singaporeans, just look for the Visa sign when you arrive in the airport. The visa upon arrival shouldn’t take more than half an hour. When I was there, there was only an Asian couple before me. There’s a form for you to fill in and you can put your hotel name as the sponsor. I paid about 80 USD for my visa.
It’s not difficult for other nationalities as well. My Iranian friends have hosted plenty of Europeans, Americans, Australians and Asians over the years. In fact, the first tourist I met in Iran was an American woman.
More information here
Some airline staff who are not familiar with visa guidelines may stop you from boarding. That happened to me. Just explain that you will apply for a visa upon arrival.
Women will need to wear a headscarf covering their hair in public. The long sleeved tops should end below their hips and pants or skirts need to be ankle length. I didn’t have any appropriate attire myself but Iranians are usually very tolerant and forgiving towards foreign visitors. I did manage to find something in Tabriz – the pink and purple tunic in my photo only cost me 2 USD.
I took long distance and overnight buses between cities on my own. From Tehran, it was a 9 hour overnight bus ride to tabriz. The coaches were air-conditioned and very comfortable – they even had a TV and fridge with free bottles of water. Usually there would be at least one employee in the ticket station who speaks English.
Iranians are one of the most well educated people I have ever met. That said, it’s still useful to learn a few Persian phrases to break the ice with the locals. I will have a separate post on that.
Iran has one of the biggest communities on Couchsurfing. Partly because it’s so difficult for Iranians to travel – they do so by proxy. Although I had joined Couchsurfing a year before I had only hosted people. It was in Iran when I surfed for the first time. It was an amazing experience – my hosts introduced me to their extended family and their parents even drove me to Shiraz from Isfahan by car for four hours, after which they insisted that I stay with their relative. Eventually I got them to relent but not before they accompanied me to my next destination – basically hand delivering me between hosts in the two cities.
Online currency exchange websites do not apply to Iran. It has such a closed economy that foreign bank and credit cards do not work in their country. You need to bring enough cash to last you through your entire trip. everything is generally quite cheap in Iran though. Dinner in a restaurant is typically less than 3 USD.
If you are using Couchsurfing, remember to set up a profile independent of Facebook if you don’t have a VPN. Facebook is blocked in Iran so if you can, remember to install VPN into your mobile devices. You will need that when you want to post that shot of yourself with your new best friends on Instagram.
A 3-4 star hotel in a city is about 40 USD while a luxury hotel in Tehran like Espinas Hotel is only about 150 USD a night. A Singaporean told me about his recent stay in Firouzeh Hotel in Tehran and how the manager there was very active in linking foreign visitors up, making travel easier. A great starting point for your travel in IRan.
Amazing. I loved it so much that I ordered Persian food the day I returned to Dubai. Don’t leave Iran without having Koubideh Kebabs (a kind of minced meat kebab made from ground lamb, beef or chicken) and Faloodeh (a cold dessert consisting of thin vermicelli noodles mixed in a semi-frozen rose water syrup). After a while my friends started throwing in the word “Faloodeh” randomly into our conversations just to make me react.
In my subsequent posts I will talk about where to go in Iran. Or that list of useful Persian phrases I promised you. Or that time when I found a personal shopper in a Shirazi mall. Stay tuned!