This island country is a small Arab monarchy in the Persian Gulf. The population is roughly 1.3M or so, of which 700K are non-nationals (there is a big Indian population here, along with the usual service crowds, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Nepalese, etc). I first heard of this country during the World Cup soccer qualifications, South Korea and Japan would almost always rape them apart (scores ranging from 3 to 5 against 0 for Bahrain) and via some Saudi ex-coworkers, they would go to Bahrain for the weekend to commit all sins (eg. drinking alcohol, massages, happy endings, you name it). Bahrain does produce oil, have a military supported by the Saudis, imports almost everything and has a Formula One track.
Upon arriving at the airport, I was fortunate enough to be picked up by my wonderful couchsurfing host Mubinaz. Mubinaz is from India, but his family has been living in Bahrain for more than 15 years. He showed me around his neighbourhood, in the southern part of Manama called Umm Al Hassam. It was a working class neighbourhood with mixed nationalities. I thought Bahrainis were hard to find there, but that was not a problem. There were many Bahrainis owning shops and walking along the street. It’s not the same as the UAE, where you will rarely meet a local. Mubinaz and I had tea, got introduced to his friend Ferose, and spent the night talking about religion, Bahrain, India and more.
The next day, I went for a nice walk around Manama while the two were working. The main attractions were within 10km radius and thus, walking was feasible, but I do not recommend it in the heat. I have been on the road for long and accustomed to the hot weather, but make sure to apply a LOT of sunblock. Initially, I was going to go downtown on a public bus, but after 45 minutes of waiting (it was supposed to come every 30 minutes), I had enough and entered a Indian curry store next to the bus stop. It was literally a whole in the wall, but this place was packed with Indian expat workers, which was a good sign.
I washed my hands, sat down and was trying to get hold of the waiter. I wanted to get the menu, but the waiter showed up with my plate of meal. To my surprise, this place only had one set meal and it was with fish, a couple of curries, vegetable and dessert. The food was mediocre for me, but perhaps for the Indians, it must taste great. I was unable to eat with my right hand like the locals, so I opted for a fork and spoon and the cost was only 700 fills ($2 USD). The no menu meal reminded me of the times in Seoul. There used to be a Kimchi Chigae (spicy cabbage soup) store right across one of the hotels that I frequented during my business trips. Likewise to this curry shop, some Korean restaurants only have one dish in house and I recall my co-worker telling me that he sat down and the Kimchi Chigae just popped up before ordering. It must be a terrifying experience for something to pop up before ordering, but at the same time, if you don’t speak the language, that is what you get. After all, that is the fun part of traveling.
Since I did not get on the bus or perhaps, I missed the bus while I was eating, I walked to Al Fateh Grand Mosque. It was a 25 minute walk in the heat, but the roads were well made and there was a proper pedestrian path. The mosque is named after the founder of Bahrain, around 6500 square meters, accommodates up to 7000 worshippers, and the dome on the top is the largest fiberglass dome in the world weighing 60 tonnes.
After visiting the mosque, I walked again for another 45 minutes to get to the city center. There was nothing interesting along the way except for cars on the highway and little stores as I got closer to the center. I finally found the souk (market) area and was excited to eat all the dried fruits again. One thing I love about the Middle East is the abundance of dried fruits everywhere.
The souk in Manama center was pretty darn big! It sells almost everything except for animals and humans. As usual, I had to get my dates crave and ended up buying more dates than I needed for the entire 3 days! I was like a little kid in Disneyland. I ended up eating all kinds of dried fruits that the vendor provided for sampling. The Ajwa dates were excellent and I also love the Mabroom. Yummy! I ended up buying 500 grams of Ajwa and ate about 1/5 of the bag before arriving home. Keep in mind that dates can be a good source of sugar, but they have very high calories so only eat a few.
I moved along to the downtown area, which had some high skyscrapers, buildings being constructed, a waterfront, and a few high-end hotels. In general, there was not much to see. There were a few forts in Bahrain, but I ended up only seeing one.
One night, I went to an Internation (internation.org) event and befriended some expats and had one of my most expensive beer in my life at $13 USD. I am not a big fan of beer, but the only other beer that was more expensive than this one was in Oslo and Geneva. NOTE: if you are an alcoholic or would like to stop drinking, go to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Alcohol is completely banned in these countries, but can be purchased in the black market for an absurd price.
In the evenings, I hung out with Mubinaz and Ferose, played FIFA Soccer and ate at local restaurants. The local restaurants have the usual middle eastern flavors ranging from grilled meats, kebabs, hummus, tahini, and the works. Most of them were not very expensive and you can get a decent meal from $5-10 USD.
Overall, Bahrain was not as expensive as I expected. The country was extremely affordable when doing the local things and if you stay away from alcohol. Besides, working in Bahrain means no income taxes. Thus, it could be an opportunity to save cash while working as an expat. I believe three nights were more than enough to see the Manama area, but if you plan on seeing the other parts, expect to stay a full week. I recommend squeezing a weekend in there to see what the nightlife is like. The visa fee was not cheap at 25 Dinars ($67 USD) for me, probably similar for most other nationalities. If you like drinking, make sure to grab a bottle of liquor at the airport, since it will be double in town.
Lastly, avoid Bahrain during the Ramadan period.
Other useful information below:
Downtown souk-this is a massive area right in the smack middle of the city and has everything from dried fruits to stationery to cooking supplies. You can pretty much find anything except for animals.
Grand Mosque-is the largest and the official mosque. Its area spans 45,000 square meters, out of which the building itself covers 20,000 square meters. The main prayer hall is 72 metres (236 ft) wide on all sides, has teakwood doors, and has lighting provided by 144 windows.
Walk around the city center near the souk
Bahrain Fort a.k.a. Qal’at al Bahrain-is an ancient fort and a former Portuguese military fortification in Manama, Bahrain.
Visit the islands–there are many small islands (don’t expect to see something like the Caribbeans). The beachfront on the airport island is supposed to be nice.
People – Bahrainis, Indians, and the expat communities. The Bahrainis on average are not as wealthy as the Kuwaitis or Qataris… I suppose. If you can, try to meet a local Bahraini. I did not meet one.
Transport-A taxi from the airport will cost around 4,000-5,000 Fills to Manama. I am not sure if there is public transportation from the airport. Within town, the bus costs 500 Fills for a ride.
Sleeping-checked online and did not find any hostels. There were smaller no-name hotels starting around $50 USD per night.
Food-not as many fast food chains as Kuwait, but eating local will keep more money in the wallet. Local meals can cost anywhere from 800 to 2000 Fills. There was a wide range of international restaurants. Alcohol is only provided at hotels and will put you down at $13 a beer. The hard stuff costs a few dollars more for a shot. There are special liquor stores in the city center, but best to purchase at duty free at the airport.