Decoding Lebanon – what you should know before travelling

Pictures are here:

Beirut

Lebanon – Byblos, Telepherique-Harissa, Jeita Grotto

South Lebanon – Sidon, Beit Eddine, Deir Al Qamar

East Lebanon – Baalbek, Ksara, Anjar

North Lebanon – Tripoli, Bscharre, Cedars Forest

———-

Lebanon was far away in my destination-to-visit list until I stepped on my feet in Qatar. Even if it touched my memory during my childhood it was because of war – Beirut was synonym to war as was Kabul at that time. Living in Qatar, Lebanon is no longer stranger for me. (No hurt feeling but) Pointy shoes, gel on their head that combed very neatly, dressed to kill, Khan Al Saboun, old Mercedes Benz are among Lebanese attribute associations I get exposed to in Qatar.

So, when we decided to travel to Lebanon on 10-15 July 2011, I’ve got unusual responses, but expected, is it safe? what can you do there? I wish I can have them read Lonely Planet book. Lebanon is in fact rich in culture, history, sights, and activities. I won’t be sorry travelling to Lebanon. If there is one thing I admire Lebanese about, particularly Beirutis, is that their passionate pursuit of the finer thing in life never undimmed  – despite its frequent volatility.

I copy the following depiction from Lonely Planet:

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek‘s tremendous temple to Beirut‘s BO18 and Bernard Khoury’s modern movement, the span of Lebanon’s history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It’s well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East‘s best bits – warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people’s imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it’s also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region’s party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the ‘Paris of the Orient’.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable – and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon’s cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you’ll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

But first,

Visa

In a step to bolster tourism amidst regional unrest, the Lebanese government is now issuing visas on arrival for all nationalities residing in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries as long as they have a valid residence visa belonging to particular categories. The earlier practice required certain nationalities to obtain entry permits in advance of their travel. According to a circular published on the Lebanese General Security Department (GSD) website (http://www.general-security.gov.lb/English/Entrance%20Visas/visa8/Pages/evisa7.aspx), entry visas are being granted to those who fall under the categories of businessmen, directors/general managers, employers, physicians, engineers and lawyers who are legal residents of the GCC.

The validity of the visa will not exceed the validity of the person’s passport and residence. It further states that to enter Lebanon, a valid visa for up to 11 months is granted at the airport, district or frontier office to GCC residents of certain categories.

Nevertheless, I pre-obtained Lebanese visa prior to my departure, through Lebanese embassy in Doha, as the move came into effect later. It only took one day and cost me QR130 per passport for single trip.

Just in case you need to obtain visa here:

–          Lebanese Embassy – Map – Coordinate: 25°20’36″N   51°31’4″E

–          Lebanese Embassy Address: (close to British Embassy)

Doha, West Bay -New diplomatic area – Zone 66 – Street no. 910 – Building 55

Postal Address: P.O. Box 2411

Phone: (+974) 44933330 Fax: (+974) 44933331

Email:  embleb@qatar.net.qa  

Website: www.lebanonembassy-qatar.org

Orientation

Lebanon in Wikipedia and Wikitravel can be consulted for quick orientation, but I’ll summarize here. Lebanon is a country in Western Asia. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west along a 225-kilometre (140 mi) coastline, by Syria to the east and north, and by Israel to the south. The Lebanon-Syria border stretches for 375 kilometres (233 mi) and the Lebanon-Israel border for 79 kilometres (49 mi).

Lebanon in 2002 CIA Map

With such compact area, 10,452km2  (almost the size of Qatar, 11,521km2), it is possible to make several day trips from Beirut for the length of your stay: you can have skiing or snowboarding at noon and back to Beirut in the evening to enjoy beaches. Most large cities are accessible between 1-2 hours for the distance of around 100km.

Beirut – Jounieh               21km, 40m (coastal highway, crowded)

Beirut – Byblos                  39km, 55m (coastal highway)

Beirut – Tripoli                   86km, 1h20m (coastal highway)

Tripoli – Bscharre             62km, 1h15m (via Amioun & Ehden, highway then mountainous road)  

Bscharre – Jeita                                107km, 2h5m (via Dimane & Amioun, mountainous road then coastal highway)

Jeita – Beirut                      24km, 50min

Beirut – Baalbek               87km, 1h40m (mountainous road then flat highway)

Beirut – Anjar                    59km, 1h20m (mountainous road then flat road)

Beirut – Beiteddine         42km, 1h (coastal highway then mountainous road for the last 18km)

Beirut – Sidon                    42km, 50m (coastal highway)

Beirut – Tyre                      73km (not travelled)      

*Distance and travel duration is approximate. Self-drive. Relax driving. Within speed limit. Subject to traffic condition               

Most of Lebanon’s area is mountainous terrain, except for the narrow coastline (1-5km before rising into hills and mountains) and the Beqaa Valley (i.e. Baalbek), which is high plateau between the Mt Lebanon Range and the Anti-Lebanon Range.

Sights, Activities and Itinerary

Lebanon’s location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland has dictated its rich history, and shaped a cultural identity of religious and ethnic diversity (There are 18 state-recognized religious sects – 4 Muslim, 12 Christian, 1 Druze, and 1 Jewish). So, ancient sites, palaces, museums, religious towns are among top sights. To add to this list are beautiful sceneries along the way, seasonal activities (summer beach, summer festival, skiing, winter sports), and culinary adventures. Did I mention shopping?

We didn’t use tour operator at all at this trip instead we hired a car and drove all the time. For reasons: Lebanon is a compact country and all cities are connected by quite good road infrastructure, we always start earlier (7.40am we already hit the road) to cover as many sights as possible and to compensate many photo stops, we can pace the trip to suit ourselves, and lastly one-day trip cost by tour operator for our family equal to car rental fee for 5 days!

Consequently, however, we need to do our homework carefully. Digesting travel guides, browsing travel websites, delving into maps, and compiling coordinates from Google Earth and Wikimapia to input to my GPS. I was so soaked in pre-departure research that I knew before departed where I should park my car in here and there, where to find entrance to the sites, where to walk from parking area to certain location, how many km from here to there, and what is in left and right as we drive or walk.

If you do opt for tour, prepare to spend about 65$-85$ per person per day trip tour (normally include lunch). Nakhal, one of the oldest Lebanese travel agencies, offers many day trip tour options.

Resources:

–          Book: Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon, available online for free in many file sharing websites

–          Book: Globe Trotter – Lebanon

–          Ministry of Tourism: Ministry of Tourism

http://www.lebanon-tourism.gov.lb/  or http://www.destinationlebanon.gov.lb/Default.aspx

–          Wikimapia

–          Lebanon – Wikitravel

Our actual itinerary was:

Day 1 – Doha – Beirut. Beirut National Museum. Green Line. Check-in Hotel. Downtown. ABC Mall. Spinneys Supermarket. Pigeon Rock.

Day 2 – Byblos. Jounieh. Telepherique. Harissa. Aqua Park (Rio Lento). Gemmayzeh. Sursock & St Nicholas Stairs. Downtown

Day 3 – Baalbek. Zahle. Ksara Winery. Anjar. Beiteddine. Deir Al Qamar. Hamra

Day 4 – Tripoli. Bscharre. Cedars Forest. Jeita Grotto.

Day 5 – Sidon. Moussa Castle. Hamra

As you can clearly see from our itinerary, you can cover each Lebanon region in one day trip. Beirut itself actually deserves one full day exploration to properly appreciate the sights.

Sights:

Beirut – the capital and largest city. Beirut National Museum, Downtown, Corniche and Pigeon Rock are among the top sights. Beirut also has a vast array of nightclubs, restaurants and other entertaining places.

Beirut for Children: Planet Discovery (science center), Water Parks (Waves Aqua Park, Rio Lento, Splash Mountain), Museum, Luna Park, Theme Park (Rainbow Island, Habtoor Land), Downtown area

Baalbek – a Phoenician and Roman archaeological site. Roman Temples in the city of Baalbeck are among the largest and most beautiful Roman ruins. Other highlights include: the largest stone in the world, ruins of Ummayad mosque.

Zahle – capital of Bekaa Valley. Ideal for lunch stop when visiting Baalbek

Ksara – Lebanon’s most famous vineyard. Grab free tour and visit their cave

Anjar is a city in the Beqaa Valley home to the unique ruins of an 8th century Omayyad city. The city has  tens of local restaurants where you can enjoy the unique Lebanese cuisine.

Byblos (Joubeil) – another city with plenty of remains, castles and museums . It is a must-see ancient Phoenician city that had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other highlights include: memory of Time fossil shop, wax museums, souk, port, and church.

Jezzine – main summer resort and tourist destination of South Lebanon

Jounieh – known for its seaside resorts and nightclubs. Starting point for Telepherique to Harissa.

Sidon (Saida) – plenty of medieval remains. Sea Castle, Musee du Savon, Debbane Palace, Old City and Souk, Temple of Echmoun, and Khan Al Franj are among highlights.

Tripoli (Trablus) – still unspoilt by mass-tourism. Point of interests include: Citadel, Grand Mosque, Khan Al Saboun, Souk,

Tyre (Sour) – Al Bass Archaelogical Site is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the largest and best preserved Roman archeological sites in the world.

Jeita Grotto, 18km north of Beirut is a compound two separate but interconnected karstic limestone caves spanning an overall length of nearly 9 kilometres (5.6 mi). The cave contains a great concentration of a variety of crystallized formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, columns, mushrooms, ponds, curtains and draperies. It is nominated as one of the new 7 wonders of nature..

Beiteddin One of the most precious Arabic architectural jewels is the palace of Beiteddine. This historic monument comprises of two large courtyards: the “midane”, a vast rectangular place for visitors, and a smaller one for the royal private apartments, with a magnificent fountain in its centre.

Qadisha Valley , in north Lebanon, the “Holy Valley” spreads from Bcharreh to the coast. Classified under UNESCO’s world heritage, its countless caves, chapels and monasteries as well as its luxuriant vegetation transformed it into the most famous natural site of Lebanon. Highlights include: Bscharre (birthplace of Khalil Gibran), Cedars Forest, Ski Resorts, Ehden Nature Reserve.

Activities:

Hiking, Night-Life, Ski, Wine Tasting, Seasonal Acitivities (summer sports, skiing and winter sports), Festival

Budget and Currency

Lebanon is not a thin-wallet destination, but you can work out to maximize your budget and still get the most of it. I am not backpacker traveller so I don’t use many backpacker tips on saving budget (i.e. I don’t use shared taxi, staying in hostel) as I am travelling with family and children.

Indicative cost of travel in Lebanon:

Flight – Qatar Airways – $700 per person round trip

Hotel – Lavender Home, Studio Apartment with kitchenette, inclusive breakfast, in Hamra – $165

Car Rental – $341 for 5 days (Nissan Tiida, 1.6, Auto)

Parking – off-street 2000LL – 3000LL, mall 4000LL (first 3 hours)

Entrance Fee:

                Jeita Grotto – 18,150LL (adult) 10,175LL (child)

                Sidon, Sea Castle – 4000LL (adult) Free (child)

                Moussa Castle – 10,000LL

                Anjar Ummayad City – 6,000LL (adult) Free (child)

                Baalbek Temple – 12,000LL (adult)

                Beit Eddine – 7,500LL (adult) 2,000 (children)

                Byblos – 6,000LL (adult) 1,500 (child)

                Cedars Forest – Donation

                Tripoli Citadel – 7,500LL (adult) Free (child)

                Beirut National Museum – 5,000LL (adult) 1,000 (child)

                Telepherique – 9,000LL(adult, round trip), 5,000 (child, round trip)

Fuel – 34,900LL/34,200 for 20liters 98/95 octane petrol respectively (1,745$ per liter for 98)

Fuel cost – 92,000 (for 5 night stay, almost 1,000km)

Parking cost (between 2,000-3,000LL each. 26,000LL for 5 night stay)

Souvenirs – 4,000 fridge magnet, 15,000LL water in glass globe (don’t know how to call it J )

1.5L bottled water – 500LL

0.5L bottled water – 235LL

Chopsticks Fresh Chinese Cuisine & Istambouli Turkish  – dinner for 4 – 45,000LL each dinner

Falafel Sandwich – 3,000LL

McD and KFC Index:

KFC – Dinner Combo (12,500LL)

McD  – 500ml Water (1,000LL), Choco Cone (2,000LL), Happy Meal (5,750LL)

The Lebanese currency is the Lebanese pound, abbreviated “LBP” or “Lebanese Lira” abbreviated “LL”, which is the most common abbreviation. Its value is kept stable relative to the US dollar, with a value of about LL1,500 to US$1. US dollars however used side-by-side with LL and is widely accepted almost everywhere. Price tags will mostly show these two currencies. Nonetheless, large USD notes (more than $100) are normally not accepted, therefore you are advised to carry only small notes ($50 denomination max). You may pay in USD and get exchange in LL.

Flight, Car Rental, Transportation, Parking & Accommodation

Qatar Airways (codeshare with Middle East Airline MEA) has direct flight to Beirut. Other airlines also offer flights to Beirut with 1 or more stops: Gulf Air (Bahrain), Etihad (Abu Dhabi), Emirates (Dubai), Air Arabia, Iran Air, Royal Jordanian Airlines. Cost of return trip flight is starting from US$500 person for non-direct flight and starting from US$600 for direct flights, all depending on class and seasons.

Flight duration is 3 hour 5 minutes DOH-BEY and 2 hour 50 min BEY-DOH. There is only one international airport in Lebanon and that is Rafiq Hariri International Airport (RHIA), which is located at south of Beirut, about 5-7km from city.

Car rental offices are available on the arrival terminal where you can hire car there. Do keep in mind that some offices only provide services for pre-booked rental. Rental starts from 45$ for small car (from local rent office – City Car – I rented Nissan Tiida 1.6 Auto for 65$ per day – high season), normally rent covers unlimited mileage for rental more than 3 days (or limited to 150km for less than 3 days), insurance coverage (excess 880$). If you want to hire a driver, that will cost about 22$ per day. Additional baby seat, booster seat, GPS, or snow chain can also be requested with fee. They accept our Qatari driving license.

There is no safe, comfortable mass transportation in Beirut other than shared service taxi. Shared service means you have to share the same taxi with other persons travelling in the same direction. Taxis are plentiful in Beirut but they are usually not metered, and heard of ripping off. Hotel may have taxi service with fixed cost (i.e. 10$ from Hamra to Downtown, about 3km). Taxi and service taxi can be recognized by their red-colored license plates. There is however government-managed intercity buses that offer trip to cities all over Lebanon.

As an alternative you can join day-trip tour organized by travel agents. Day trip cost is around 65$ (Byblos, Jounieh, Jeita) to 95$ (Baalbek) per person including lunch.

Hotel for low budget travellers are not many in Beirut. For family traveller, I found that staying in full furnished apartment is a value stay. (Probably 3-4 star rated) Lavender Home’s studio apartment (with kitchenette) in Hamra costed us 165$ (or 600 QR), breakfast and 10% tax inclusive. As usual, low and high season affects price structure. Rouche, Downtown, and Hamra area are where most hotels located at.

Traffic and parking problems become synonymous to Beirut as this city was built and evolved from old cities and inherited small, narrow and short streets with so many intersections. Fortunately many streets in Beirut apply one-way traffic. If you think you have the most advanced pocket parking skills, then try driving in Beirut. The chaotic and unregulated on-street parking making driving in and through Beirut is difficult. Owing to limited off-street parking, one must park on-street in pocket parking style. Bumper to bumper parking is your challenge. If you hear honk then you must have been too long in pocket parking. Parking on the sidewalk is quite common, often forcing pedestrians to walk in the streets. Signals often ignored while hand signals will prevail. Don’t be surprise to see driver’s hand out of window to indicate signal. Lane discipline is almost non-existent with most drivers try to get the benefit of doubt by driving their car in the middle of lane line. There are few cameras installed in intersections. No speed camera observed during my stay. In small intersections crossing red light is quite common. Do anticipate.

Mountain driving is particularly hazardous, often involving 1-car roads in 2 way streets (mostly in non-main route, though for example, line to Cedars from Bscharre falls under this category).

Lebanon’s roads are generally in quite poor condition and there can be massive potholes on busy multi-lane roads.

Language

Arabic is the official language of Lebanon. However, French (second language) and English are widely spoken. Many Lebanese are bilingual or even trilingual. In tourist areas, you can expect people speak English very well. The further you venture out of non-touristic areas then Arabic will prevail as the main language. I usually ask them first “Speak English?” and with broken Arabic tell them that I can’t speak Arabic. Once in Anjar, near Syria border, we were surprised to know that ticketing officer to Ancient Ummayad Complex speaks English very well.

Speaking Arabic, however, put me sometimes in awkward situation especially when visiting non-Muslim cities. Pay greeting ‘Assalamu’alaikum’ without response, later knowing that they are in fact Maronite Christians or Greek Catholic. For these situations, I normally follow with French’s Bonjours. Understand basic French will also do some magic. I once visited Sidon, Musee du Savon (Soap Museum), the guide attended a group of French when I joined the free tour. The guide switched the tour in English, with group agreement after knowing we are from Indonesia. For that kind gesture, I replied in French how kind they are and say thank you. They were all stunned we can speak French.

Signage is written at least with Arabic first then followed by French or English.  When we have a trip to Northern Lebanon, we found that signs and information are mostly written in Arabic and French. Bienvenue a Bscharre.

Safety and Security

Lebanon and Beirut is basically a safe country (theft is a minor problem but random crime is far lower than in most Western cities). Nevertheless basic safety precautions are to be exercised. Their people are very friendly, welcoming and helpful, and you’ll quickly feel safe and at home.

 Travel advices always suggest avoiding areas with potential and historical conflicts such as Palestinian refugee camps, southern Lebanon close to Israel – south of Litani river (pointing out that land mines still remain), and certain area in Tripoli.

Taxi rip-off is on the top list of travel annoyance in Beirut. For that, agree and pay the tariff early before embarking. Otherwise, use hotel provided taxi for fixed cost, though expensive, or rent a car if you can embrace traffic and parking issues.

Essential Travel Info

Time zone                           UTC+2, UTC+3 (summer – end march to end October)

Drives on the right

Country code +961

Electrical: 240V, 50Hz, plug: two round pin is the most common (but you’ll also find Type A. B, C, D, G),

Useful phone numbers: Police: 112 or 911 or 999 Fire brigade: 175 (metropolitan Beirut only) Civil defense: 125 (outside Beirut) The Red Cross (Medic Response): 140 Information: 1515

Indonesian Embassy, Presidential Palace St. Baabda (next to Rumanian Embassy), Telp. 00961-5-924682, 33 50’42”N 35 32’20”E

Qatar Embassy , Ain Al Tinah, +961 1 804256/8, 33 53’0”N 35 28’50”E

QNB, Capital Plaza Building, Ahmad Sawki St, Mina El Hosn Solidere, Beirut, +961 1 377170, 33 54’2”N 35 29’54”E

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