So I’m sure you’re thinking why the heck would anybody want to visit Kuwait. I mean really what’s there? Why go. If I’m being honest (which I mostly always am) my reasons for visiting Kuwait were completely ridiculous. I have a dream of visiting every country in the Middle East. And Kuwait was the only safe one left that I hadn’t visited during my time living in Saudi. I haven’t been to Yemen, Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, but rest assured, as soon as they move from the avoid all travel warning to exercise a high degree of caution, I’ll be booking tickets. Anyways, back in August I had a last week of holidays to use before I left Saudi Arabia in September. I booked myself a relaxing weekend in Dubai with a day trip to Abu Dhabi and on the way back from Dubai I met a work friend of mine from Saudi in Kuwait for a night.
Apart from knowing that Kuwait was invaded by Saddam in the 1990’s, and having seen pictures of the Kuwait towers I didn’t really know much more than that. Oh, and I knew alcohol was banned. Because when a girl lives in the Middle East and loves the taste of wine she knows which countries are going to prevent her from reaching her full potential. But that’s really all I knew. Kuwait borders the northeastern part of Saudi Arabia and is surrounded by Iraq to the west and north of it. The coastal part of the country lies on the Persian Gulf. Here’s a little back history about Kuwait so you’ll know more than I did when I visited….way back in the 1500’s Kuwait was under Portuguese control. In 1613 a town was built on the spot that is present day Kuwait City. In the mid 1700’s Kuwait was a major shipping route between India and Africa. In 1899 Kuwait became a British protectorate until its independence in 1961. It was the first of the gulf coast countries to establish a constitution and a parliament. Things in the region heated up in the 1980’s with the Iraq-Iran war of which Kuwait supported Iraq. After this war ended tension increased between Iraq and Kuwait as Iraq owed a reported $65 billion US dollars in debt to Kuwait. In August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait which led to American forces eventually driving out Iraq in early 1991. Then in 2003 Kuwait was used as the starting point for the American led invasion of Iraq.
So my Kuwaiti adventure started pretty much from the moment my plane landed. I flew from Dubai direct to Kuwait and the friend that I was meeting flew direct from Saudi Arabia. Our planes were due to arrive at the same time and my friend had booked a hotel transfer for us. I was more than a little confused when we landed at the “airport” and there were no other commercial flights there. There were other planes, oddly a Kuwaiti military place and a Canadian military one. But that was it. In my head I was like “hmmmm. This is weird.” So we exit the plane and walk into basically an airline hanger with a small room with customs and an area off to the side that’s immigration. And it’s chaos. There’s no one to really explain anything. And at this point I’m thinking what the hell city am I in because there’s no way this in Kuwait International Airport. As it turned out since I had flown FlyDubai it arrives into this other airport which would’ve been useful to know prior to arriving.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal as this was taking place (because there was nothing else to do and I was feeling overly dramatic). It was like a scene from a bad movie. You land at a dilapidated airport and you’re momentarily confused that maybe you bought a ticket to somewhere you didn’t mean to. You walk into a room that looks like an 80’s office building and line up to take a ticket from one of those paper ticket dispensers they have at a deli. You try to get a sense of what’s going on since no one is giving directions and there aren’t any visible signs. Some people from this flight have done this before so they’re casually telling people what to do. You need to get in a separate line to make a copy of your passport. Then you have to purchase a stamp from a machine that doesn’t give change and only takes Kuwaiti dinar. There is no bank machine but outside of this room is a money changer. So people are trying to change money. Some nationalities need a stamp and others don’t. There’s a typed sheet of paper taped above the stamp machine with some countries crossed out and others hand written in. In pencil. Seems pretty legit. There’s a desk in this 1980’s themed office building. Behind it sit four Kuwaiti officials. Two men and two women. None of them appear to be working. After about 5 minutes the first number is called. There are at least 60 of us waiting for visas. We wait. Suddenly, only two are working. One is walking around chatting on his mobile phone, and the other has taken a cigarette break in what looks like a tiny open bus shelter in the same room that we are waiting in. An hour passes. And we wait. Now only one number is being called at a time. It appears that they are taking a team approach in processing the visas. That way all four look busy but actually very little work is taking place. I question whether maybe they were trained in Saudi, although truth be told Saudi immigration looks lightening fast compared to this. There’s no wifi so fellow passengers just stare blankly at each other and and give the eye raise look that essentially means “hang in there mate.” By this time I’m quite certain time has literally stopped. Every 5-10 min a ding indicates that a new number has been called. After nearly another hour has passed there seems to be some type of urgency set in. Likely there is a group coffee break coming up and they want to get us through. Nope false alarm. One has left to smoke and the other is back on the phone. The room starts to empty out. Eventually, I make my way out.
Here’s where the major lesson of if you have a shitty attitude then shitty things will happen. I was royally pissed off by the time I got my visa. Because my travel mate was at a different airport than me there wasn’t a taxi waiting. No biggie I thought…. I’ll just catch one outside the airport. Wrong. Dead wrong. No taxis. So I had to pay and wait for a shuttle. I can’t recall ever being to an airport that didn’t have taxis waiting out front. Welcome to Kuwait. So I arrive at the hotel and we had planned on spending a little time at the nice pool that was pictured when we had looked up the hotel. Except there are 2 Movenpick hotels in Kuwait and we have booked ourselves at the one that resembles a Super 8 and not the nice resort one we thought on the water. Oh Shit. Things are not going well. This is otherwise known as the snowball effect and things were rapidly rolling from not great to worse. So we had to pull it together. Like real quick! Luckily, I had made us reservations for this weird museum called the Mirror House so we hailed a taxi and off we went. The Mirror House is literally a house that a quirky Italian lady who married a Kuwaiti artist designed. She literally applied mosaic mirror all over the inside and outside of the house over a period of about 40 years. It was awesome. She is a great host and serves you juice and cake and then tours you around the many rooms of the house. As I’ve mentioned she is a very interesting woman and many of the rooms have astral themes relating to zodiac signs, planet earth and the universe. It was fascinating. In the upstairs of the house is an exhibition area paying tribute to her late husband the famous Kuwaiti artist named Khalifa Qattan whose art was quite controversial and addressed many societal issues regarding religion and gender roles. He also had paintings portraying the Iraqi invasion. It was a very interesting visit to say the least, and it was especially so because we toured with 3 Americans and 3 local Kuwaiti girls.
After our visit to the Mirror House we braved the intense Kuwait heat to hail a taxi back to the hotel. The heat in Kuwait can be scorching and pavement is known to melt. Often it has been recorded as the hottest place on earth. It’s also super humid of which I am not a fan. After a bit of an afternoon siesta and a quick shower we caught a taxi to view the Kuwait Towers. These iconic towers were built in the 70’s and partially serve as water towers as well as a tourist viewing platform. There are 3 towers in total. The largest one has a restaurant and cafe and views over the Persian Gulf. The views would be much nicer if the windows were cleaned at all. It was pretty much impossible to get any clear pictures out the windows on account of dirt, but regardless the sunset was quite nice. These towers were damaged in the Iraqi invasion and sustained gunfire and shrapnel damage that was later repaired. From here we went to a steakhouse located in the hull of a traditional Arab dhow at the Radisson Blue hotel. It was super touristy as you can imagine, but the food was decent and we paired our steak with faux cocktails since as I’ve already mentioned alcohol is a no-go in this country.
The following day we did some shopping prior to our flight. We visited a fancy local mall and a couple art galleries. Kuwait is quite different than Saudi Arabia. Women are not required to cover, but obviously it’s culturally appropriate to dress conservatively. Many women still do wear abayas, but many did not cover their hair. Men tended to wear traditional outfits consisting of a thobe or a dishdasha similar to Saudi with mostly white head scarves. It is ok for men and women to interact in Kuwait. We saw groups and pairs of young men and women hanging out and walking and chatting in the malls, and women can drive in Kuwait which is obviously different than in Saudi. Another difference we noticed was that the houses are more open and not fenced in or built like a compound as they are in Saudi. In Saudi you often have to go thru a gate with a high wall surrounding homes so the front door and main floor isn’t visible from the street. Kuwaiti houses seemed more open and inviting which was nice. Kuwait was similar to Saudi Arabia in that there’s not a lot of tourist infrastructure. There’s not a lot of tourist things to do, so for us one night was perfect. Compared to Saudi taxis there were super expensive and not especially easy to catch if you weren’t getting one from a hotel.
There are 9 islands off the coast of Kuwait. We had initially looked into trying to visit Falaika Island as we read that the island had old ruins and that the island had been evacuated during the Iraqi War which made it an interesting sounding place to visit. Unfortunately, when we actually looked into it, it was going to be very expensive to try and arrange a private tour, as tours don’t go in the summer months, and if we tried to take the public ferry we could likely end up stranded unable to get a ferry back. So we gave it a pass. If I happened upon a more reasonable option I’d be keen to go back to check it out. But this time I’d be sure to fly into the main airport so as to avoid a potential second Kuwaiti nervous breakdown!! So there you have it. That’s the low-down on what to see in Kuwait should you fancy to check that country off your list!