Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: ZS754 DMM-RUH Y 737 seat 17F

Dammam‘s King Fahd Int’l is no less than the largest in the world by land area and the terminal itself is scaled to fit, with arrivals, departures and check-in sprawled across four levels and gates numbered from 10 to 125 — perhaps somewhat excessive for an airport that serves under 3 million pax in a typical year. Opened only in 1999, it already looks rather old-fashioned and virtually identical to RUH, which dates back to 1983. We’d arrived a good two hours before flight time, and at the Sama desk we received sequence numbers 001 and 002, our window seats ticked off by pen on a sheet of paper with an airplane diagram.

Our safari chicken consumed (rather tasty!) and planes spotted (EgyptAir plus Saudia, Saudia, Saudia, Saudia and more Saudia), we crossed through security (shoes bad, water bottle no problem) in search of the al-Fursan lounge’s wifi. Alas, unlike RUH and JED they didn’t have one here, so I had to content myself with editing offline. Only after sitting for half an hour did I realize what was so eerie: the airport was incredibly quiet. No crowds of rushing people, no crying babies, no trolleys, no announcements, just silence halfway between a tomb and a library.

Eventually, though, the area near the gate started to fill up and not one but two Sama planes rolled up, and boarding started precisely on time.

We weren’t supposed to be on this plane in the first place: Trsqr had booked us on Saudia, but that reservation fell through for unclear reasons, and he managed to snag some cheap last-minute tickets on Saudi LCC Sama instead. The downside was that the flight time was a good three hours earlier, but on the upside, this now completed both my trinities of all major Saudi airlines (Saudia, Nas and now Sama) and all major Saudi airports (RUH, JED and now DMM); now I just need to figure out a way to fly on Al-Khayala.

My first impression on boarding the aircraft was quite positive: the seats looked new and spiffy, in blue/gray leather with embossed “Sama” logos in Arabic, and surprisingly decent seat pitch, a little better than Nas (trip report). On closer inspection, though, it’s clear that the aircraft wasn’t new (yellowed panels here and there, old-fashioned warning lights, etc), it’s just that the seats have been thoroughly refurbished. The plane was almost full, and the only empty seats in sight were those next to Trsqr and myself. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Sama’s crew had both Filipino and Arabic members, but the uniform was even more conservative than Saudia’s: the women wore a dark blue scarf wrapped around the entire head, revealing only the face, a featureless dark blue coat with a pink shirt underneath, and — the only un-Islamic touch — tight dark blue pants. Reasonably stylish, yes, but attractive, hardly.

The safety demo was run through at warp speed in both Arabic and memorized-by-rote English of the variety that would be indecipherable if you hadn’t already heard it a million times. Flight time was announced with admirable precision as 42 minutes, then stretched out to 45 minutes after ATC kept us waiting for a bit. Once we pushed back, we headed straight to the runway, and the captain got a running start by revving up the engines while still in the turn, straightening out the plane as we picked up speed and took off.

As we took off I spotted one of the more eerie sights I’d seen in Saudi: a series of abandoned farms in the middle of the desert, with dried-out circles where the irrigation sprinklers once rotated and both roads and buildings already half-swallowed by dunes. Just a tiny reminder of how artificial virtually everything in Saudi actually is…

As promised, it was a short flight and the crew didn’t even bother running the drinks cart, instead just walking down the aisle themselves and filling the few orders. Before long, we started our descent, complete with the sequence of tight turns that seems to characterize any arrival at RUH, and touched down smoothly. Back in the Dead Center of the Kingdom…

Bonus: Trsqr’s review of the same flight on FlyerTalk!

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Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: SAPTCO bus to King Fahd International Airport, Dammam

Public transport in Saudi Arabia is about as developed as you’d expect in a country where oil costs $0.10 a litre, so it was with no small astonishment that I spied the sign for an airport shuttle service at Dammam‘s little SAPTCO bus terminal. We were at the terminal already and the next hourly departure was in 20 minutes, so why not give it a shot? After all, it was Friday afternoon and the noon prayers were droning on outside, meaning that absolutely nothing was open.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Saudi if life was that easy. Nobody seemed to know anything about the service except that it was “out there”, accompanied with a dismissive wave of the hand towards the sign sitting forlornly in the middle of a broiling parking lot at high noon. The appointed time came and went with no sign of the bus and we were already figuring that we’d take the taxi instead if it didn’t show up soon… but, some 15 min behind schedule, one of the guards waved to us and, lo and behold, there was a big gray bus with a “DAMMAM-AIRPORT” sign, disgorging a load of passengers.

To the mild astonishment of the conductor, we hopped aboard the bus, and so did a Filipino guy (who, as it turned out, worked in Saudia catering at the airport). We set off almost immediately, only to stop again almost immediately as the conductor got off at a market for no obvious reason. He came back in a few minutes and another guy boarded the bus, riding along for a few city blocks until he requested to be dropped off.

We zigzagged our way through Dammam’s suburbs, and then again, for no immediately apparent reason, the conductor stopped the bus, collected our 12 riyals each for the ticket, then beckoned us outside, pointing at the restaurant and saying “Safari! Safari!” I knew the word musafir, “traveler”, and as soon as I remembered “triconsonantal root” I understood what he meant: he proposed that we get some lunch to travel (to go) from the restaurant, so why not? Odds are it would beat airport food. The appearance of two khawagas was obviously the social event of the week for the restaurant staff, who crowded around us with queries of ameriki? and murmured with satisfaction on heading finlandi in response. Another 12 riyals later, half a chicken with a ginourmous vat of rice and the fixings had been procured, and we headed back on board.

We finally got on the highway and proceeded to zoom through vast expanses of honest-to-goodness desert, complete with sand dunes, Bedouin tents and herds of camel munching on shrubs in the fierce heat. The first sign we saw said “AIRPORT 20 KM”, and Trsqr wondered just what was so wrong with this particular chunk of flat, featureless desert that they had to build it so much further on.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Manama, Bahrain

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.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Saudi-Bahraini Transport Company, Khobar to Manama

Up at 10 AM the next morning, we demolished the complimentary fruit basket in lieu of breakfast and had the hotel drop us off at the SABTCO station. We were in luck: there are only six buses a day, but the very next one had free seats at SR50 a pop (~US$12) and was leaving in half an hour. Although it wasn’t exactly a bus: the Khobar-Bahrain service uses little minibuses seating perhaps 20 and pulling along a dinky little trailer for luggage. As we waited, a very flash Ferrari in full racing regalia drove up and dropped off a lady clad in an expensive-looking abaya, who joined us onboard.

Bahrain, literally “the seas”, being an archipelago, we had to avail ourselves of one of the greatest feats of Saudi-financed engineering, the 20-km King Fahd Causeway. It really is quite an impressive piece of work, and thanks to turgid immigration procedures, we had plenty of time to enjoy it. First Saudi exit immigration, with a single bored-looking officer stamping passports; then Saudi exit customs, who waved us through; then Bahrain entry immigration, where we forked over another SR50 a pop for visas and my officer would have forgotten to actually stamp me in if I hadn’t reminded him; and then Bahrain customs, which X-rayed our bags just in case we were, say, importing porn, alcohol or drugs from Saudi.

And, after the better part of two hours spend on Passport Island, we were free to go. The Ferrari was waiting on the Bahraini side, and the girl in the abaya, now freed from her veil, climbed into her beau’s car, and they zoomed off for a weekend of debauchery. Our driver also gunned it down the highway and in no time flat we’d been dropped off at Manama’s Lulu Centre, where we tested out exchanging Saudi riyals for lunch and got back a spray of funny Bahraini coinage in return.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Train 9, First Class, Riyadh-Dammam

As a bit of a train buff, I tried my best to google up some info — any info — about the services of the Saudi Railways Organization before our trip, but virtually none was forthcoming, and eventually it was Trsqr who did the (considerable) legwork of reserving tickets. He rustled up the number of Dammam‘s train station from somewhere and got an Arabic speaker to proxy, and it turned out that even the SRO website’s schedules are inaccurate. There was, however, still an evening train from Riyadh to Dammam, it just left an hour earlier, and there was availability in all three classes: Second, First and the delightfully named “Rehab”, which I’m told is always patronized by Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears on their visits to the Kingdom. Second cost SR60, First was SR75 and Rehab was SR130, so we opted for First and showed up at the train station half an hour before departure.

Like most governmental buildings in Saudi, Riyadh‘s train station is improbably huge, especially given that it caters to all of four trains a day. All passengers were subjected to a quick security check, and the guards in proper TSA style even demanded the removal of beep-inducing footwear, but at least liquids were not on the no-ride list.

SRO doesn’t assign seats, but finding two seats wasn’t a problem — although we were shooed out of the front-facing ones, these being reserved for families, and kicked back into the rear-facing bachelor section. “First Class” hardly qualifies as luxurious, but neither was there much to complain about: it was clean and the seats were reasonably comfy, with tray tables and a token amount of recline. Second Class seemed to be much the same, with slightly narrower pitch, while Rehab had big leather seats and roof-mounted TVs featuring the latest in Islamic programming, and their pax also get to use the VIP lounges at the stations. Snack carts equipped with an ever-dwindling array of plastic-packed pastries, chips and drinks rumbled through every now and then, and the cafeteria car offered more of the same.

The problem with riding trains by night is that there’s nothing to see, especially when the line passes through the vast emptiness of central Saudi. It was supposed to be a 3:45 trip, but that much time had already passed by the time we finally pulled into Hofuf, much of it alternatively sitting or crawling through the desert at a siding while we waited for the train in the opposite direction. (The entire Saudi network is single-tracked.) It was thus past 1 AM when we finally pulled in Dammam, five hours after we left.

Dammam’s terminal is an exact carbon copy of Riyadh’s, to the point that I couldn’t help wondering if this was all some colossal prank and we’d somehow missed the train turning around and returning to Riyadh… but no, there was a tang of salt in the air, and a lunatic cabbie (is there any other kind in Saudi?) careened us into the Holiday Inn Al-Khobar in no time.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: A Multimodal Escape to Bahrain

One sunny day I found myself in Riyadh with a weekend to spare, and as luck would have it, fellow Wikitraveller and Flyertalker Trsqr was in exactly the same predicament. It was school holiday season in Saudi Arabia and flights to sensible places like Jeddah and Abha were packed tighter than the Jamarat Bridge on 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, so fuelled by a champagne-and-cigar binge in a giant disco ball suspended 240 meters above Riyadh, we eventually settled on visiting that den of relative iniquity known as the Kingdom of Bahrain, taking the train out and the plane — my first flight on Saudi Arabian LCC Sama — back in via Dammam.

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