You all know that Saudi Arabia is slowly rolling out tourist visas this year. However, it’s not your ordinary tourist visas as the first phase will involve tourists agencies. Every tourist should go through tour agencies and should be a part of a tourist group. Most of you might see this as a restriction but believe us when we say you’re better off having legit tour guides from legit tourist agencies in Saudi Arabia than DIY-ing your way through the Kingdom. You are at a huge advantage by availing of tour guides. We found that the hard way when we went to Abha last week. But that’s for another blog entry. We’re also still coming up with our entry on the Top 10 Reasons Why Be A Tourist in Saudi Arabia. We’re getting there, folks. Honestly, we want to be as honest as possible and it’s been an ongoing discussion among my friends those reasons. Realistically, the Top 10 will be cut down to Top 5. Haha.
Anyway, I can’t believe I haven’t written about Al-Ahsa in the blog yet. We went there last November on the invitation of Al-Ahsa InterContinental Hotel and we had so much fun discovering the little oasis that could. I made a Youtube video on it in our channel but I think a write-up should be done for posterity’s sake. The Pink Tarha blog is your guide so right now, let me guide you to the top activities you should be doing in Al-Ahsa.
Al-Ahsa is one of the governorates of Saudi Arabia. It’s a mere 2-3 hours away by train (read our train experience here) or car from Riyadh, the capital city. The term ahsa means the sound of water underground. Which is a proper term for a place known for being one of the largest oases in the world with date palms. It has more than 1.5 million palm trees! Wow, there are probably more palm trees in this area than in the Eastern province, haha. I kid. Al-Ahsa is pronounced as “Alhasa” and its capital is Hofuf. Will it surprise you to know that this oasis has been nominated to compete for the title of the Seven Wonders of the World? Iam, and most people probably would. It’s easy to overlook Al-Ahsa and it’s true: when people travel to the Eastern province, they will probably go to Dammam and Al Khobar during weekends or holidays and they often bypass Hofuf and Al-Ahsa entirely. Well, that’s a shame because this oasis rich with nature’s gifts, heritage and culture is a huge gem of the Eastern province. It’s worth a weekend trip.
1. Try your hand at pottery.
The Dougha Handmade Pottery Factory is one of the oldest pottery centers in Saudi Arabia. Pots, flasks, vases, vessels, etc. are made here by a generation of potters that started with Dougha Al Garash, a well-trained master potter who taught his sons and grandsons the wonderful art of pottery. Pottery is a skill for the patient and creative, indeed. The process starts from getting mud in a place called Manabit. The mud is then mixed and formed into various shapes and sizes. When I first saw the mud in one of the rooms, I thought it was nothing special. It takes the hands of a potter that turns it into something extraordinary. The Dougha Pottery has a store where various traditional products can be bought. There’s the zeer (water cask), gharsha (cooking pot), mibhkar (incense holder) and other handicrafts like huge fans and hats.
One of the men showed us how to make a vase and urged us to try it for ourselves. I don’t know why we were shy to do it but I guess for me, I was happy to just watch him turn the shapeless clay into a more beautiful object. Besides, there was no chance to act ala Demi Moore in “Ghost”, haha. There were some freshly-made vases bathing in the morning sunlight.
Finished products were sold from SR 10 up. I was tempted to bring home a pot but I remembered I only had a backpack with me and I might break it even before I arrive at the hotel. However, it’s always nice to bring a handmade piece of a place with you. It’s a better souvenir than a ref magnet that is probably made in China.
2. Discover the Al Qarrah/Gara caves.
I had a feeling that Gara Mountain was the place Filipinos call “Judas Cave” but it’s hard to believe when you see the development that went into it. I haven’t been to Judas Cave when it was still called that. Probably because I didn’t want to wander off into the rough terrain that will require me to hike, climb, and trek. I’m not an outdoor person. I’m all for caves that are a “walk in the park” and this is precisely what Al Qarrah cave is now. The government developed the Al Qarrah Caves, and the Gara Mountain where they are, to be a tourism attraction as well as a cultural and historical attraction that will reflect the history of Al-Ahsa and the history of the Hajer civilization. While it already lost its ruggedness and mystic, it sure does attracts more people now, especially families with smaller kids.
The Gara Mountain is located 15 kilometers outside of Hofuf. The caves and caverns of Gara Mountain are known for their distinct characteristics: the absence of insects and snakes (salamat naman) and the stable temperature of the caves whether it be summer or winter. It retains the coolness of the caves in the summer and its warmth in the winter. How cool is that? It’s easier to see the inside of the mountain now because they made paths and stairs complete with colored lights that help make the caves more IG-worthy.
The 24,615 sqm area is now known as the Land of Civilization. According to the tourism chairman of the place, it’s aimed to develop the main cave of the mountain and establish a service region which will be a regional tourist destination. The area includes a theater, the Ashaj bin Abdul Qays Mosque, a cafe, some restaurants and parking lots. Entrance fee to the place is SR 30 per person. We were also ushered to the booth of an organization that told us more about the istory of the place. They also showed us the artwork of a renowned Saudi artist who combined Arabic calligraphy and graphics to illustrate some quotes in the Quran. They were all interesting. After that, we walked to the entrance of the mountain. For claustrophobics, this will scare and overwhelm you but once inside, it opens up to a high and wide area where the sunlight streams in steadily.
Do these changes make the mountain less appealing? I don’t think so. I was interested in the history of the place and thankfully, our tour guide was truly knowledgeable. I was hooked with his stories, which I think are more important than the restoration of the place itself. So many fascinating things to learn! There are a lot of caves inside the Gara Mountain but some of them are still closed off because they’re still under renovations. After visiting the inside of the mountain, you can hike to the peak known as Gara Ras. This is the large stone hill in the village of Gara located 52 kilometers northwest of the mountain.
3. Visit the places of culture and knowledge.
It’s not just all nature trips in Al-Ahsa. There are buildings near to each other that tell the history of Al-Ahsa and its people. Up first is the Ibrahim Palace. It was under renovation when we visited Al-Ahsa that’s why we didn’t go there but we heard it’s an interesting piece of history. The Ibrahim Palace represents the main administrative center of Al-Ahsa province. Its architectural style is Ottoman military and houses an old mosque and a big yard. This is looking a lot like our trip in Morocco.
The Bayt Al Mullah, on the other hand, is a house that was honored by the arrival of King Abdulaziz Bin Abdulrahman Al Faisal Al Saud in the Hijri year of 1331. He became a guest of Sheikh Abdul-Latif Bin Abdul-Rahman Al Mullah who built the house in Hijri 1203. Inside was the room where King Abdulaziz slept. The house is decorated with gypsum containing local traditional decorative paintings. This house is an important piece of Saudi Arabia’s history.
Just a few kilometers away is the Al Amiriyah First School, known as the princes school. It was inaugurated in Hijri 1360. A large number of students attended the school including notable princes like HRH Prince Khalid Al Faisal Bin Abdulaziz, HRH Prince Sa’ad Al Faisal Bin Abdulaziz, HRH Abdulaziz Bun Abdullah Bin Jalawi, and more. We had the chance to enter some of the classrooms and the courtyard and it was nice to see where they were educated in the old days.
Without the stories that make the places, you’ll probably just see these buildings as ordinary. Being a history nut that I am, I actually enjoyed learning about the stories of the places. The buildings themselves were like the madrassas we saw in Morocco; it’s amazing that they were preserved for such a long time. They now serve as museums, the bearers and keepers of a glorious past.
4. Buy abayas in the souk.
We’re quite serious, ladies. Buy abayas in Al-Ahsa! They have colorful ones and also designs are unique and beautiful! Reina and I went gaga with the abayas in one of their souks that we bought 2 each. We know we should have bought more. We found abayas in the nicest plum color with pockets (I personally love pockets in my abaya). There were also maroon, blue, pink, beige abayas! Reina bought one that has a unique pattern with lots of colors, and yes it’s an abaya. I mean, we enjoyed walking at the Al Qaysaria Souk but most of the items there can be seen in the Kuwaiti souk here in Riyadh. We were starting to get bored until we came upon the abayas and seriously, it made our night! Haha! They were really affordable. We got our abayas for SR 90 each.
5. Eat dates, and the most awesome Hezawi bread.
Of course, you shouldn’t miss the dates in Al-Ahsa. After all, Al-Ahsa boasts of more than 2 million fruitful date palms with 300,000 trees irrigated by fountains and wells. Yup, Al-Ahsa is the largest date oasis in Saudi Arabia. Quite a feat huh. So it’s a must to eat the dates here.
You should also try the famous Hezawi bread. It’s one of the most amazing breads we’ve ever tried in Saudi Arabia. Our tour guide said that it’s quite a unique bread and it can only be found in Al-Ahsa. We believed our tour guide when we saw the line to the bakery. We watched the guys knead the dough, stretch it and slap it on the deep oven. Dates are added to the dough and it makes it naturally sweet. We love the Hezawi bread with cheese because the sweetness and saltiness of the ingredients combined together make a really yummy treat! Best enjoyed warm!
If you want to see “greens” in Saudi Arabia, you know where to head next! The largest palm oasis in the Kingdom is waiting for you. 😉
You can check out this video we made of Al-Ahsa in our Youtube channel: