The Bahraini capital Manama reminds me of Abu Dhabi: they’re both smallish and filthy rich cities on the Gulf, relatively liberal by Gulf standards, have city centers dating to the 1970s but with huge amounts of construction now adding modern skyscrapers into the mix, and have virtually nothing in the way of attractions. Bahrain‘s unofficial symbol is the Pearl Roundabout, which is, you guessed it, a roundabout which has a large statue of pointy things (supposedly dhow sails) holding a pearl aloft. Yay?
Hotels in Manama are ridiculously priced (US$300 and up), so I’d exchanged 25,000 Priority Club points for a night at the Crowne Plaza Bahrain. The remarkably clueless reception, though, wasn’t having any of it — they refused to acknowledge the existence of my reservation until I dug up my laptop and showed it to them, and then kept us waiting for half an hour out of spite, eventually giving us a room waaaaaay at the back of this sprawling complex with a lovely first-floor view of a pile of bricks.
The pool was being repaired with paint fumes and drilling noises, which didn’t do much to improve its concrete-and-Astroturf charmlessness, but there were two consolations. First, real live women in bikinis, and second, the tower counter also did a brisk trade in cold beer. I’m not a huge beer fan in general, but there are times when a Corona with a wedge of lime hits the spot, and this was definitely one.
The hotel reception continued to be obstructive, huffily telling us to go take a taxi and find out when we had the temerity to inquire after bus schedules instead of just taking their chauffeur service back to Saudi the next day. As it turned out, our choices were to leave at either 9:30 (d’oh) or at noon, which would have cut it a little too close for comfort for our 4 PM flight, so we regretfully picked the earlier one. Then to the National Museum, which was closed for a private function, so we opted for an aimless amble down the rather pleasant Al-Fateh Corniche, culminating in an ISO standard Arabic meal of hummus, tabbouleh, kebabs and Ali’s mom (as I insist on calling om Ali, the Arabic version of bread pudding) by the waterfront.
And then back to the hotel, which (according to Wikivoyage) hosted the Harvesters, one of the most popular nightspots in the city. Indeed, the place was packed, with both Westerners and Saudis — many in full thobe-and-guthra regalia — quaffing down frothy brewskis. (I was tempted to take a picture or two, but somehow I had the feeling that they might not have appreciated it.) The mere availability of alcoholic malt beverages didn’t quite seem to explain the crowds, but the mystery was solved soon enough when the Filipino band launched into their second song. The all-male musicians were joined by half a dozen Filipina singers strutting around in skimpy tops and tight little hotpants, and while it soon became clear that they had not been selected for their vocal talents, nobody seemed to mind very much.
Next morning, we hit the hotel’s fairly decent breakfast buffer, which also hosted well-signposted “Pork Items” section for all us Westerners pigging out. After yet another fight with hotel reception, who now wanted to charge us extra because we had two people in a twin room (you don’t say?) but were yet again defeated by my laptop and its Reservation Confirmation of Doom, we headed out to the bus station and proceeded to repeat yesterday’s trip in reverse, with only two differences. First, Bahrain immigration had managed to screw up Trsqr’s entry into the Kingdom somehow and held him for nearly 30 minutes while trying to figure out their own paperwork (it’s a good thing he had the visa receipt!), and second, this time we drove straight past Khobar into the singularly uninspiring sprawl of Dammam.
So all in all, how was Bahrain? Well, despite beer, bacon, bargirls and other unmentioned decadences like movie theaters and Fashion TV on the telly, I can still sympathize with a friend of mine who was stranded there working for a year — it really is small, and would get boring pretty fast. On the upside, it certainly makes a nice change of pace from Saudi, and I might even consider a second trip someday.