One key to having a rich cultural experience when traveling to a new country is getting out and being among the local people to experience what their lives look like. In Oman, few places encompass daily life better than a local souk, or open-air marketplace.
The souk (pronounced “soo-k”) is a long-held practice over centuries that originated from caravans traveling through the desert and setting up camp outside cities to sell their goods. These caravans often brought luxury items, such as silks, spices, jewelry, and even exotic fruits and vegetables.
This tradition continues in Oman today, and whether you visit Muscat, Nizwa, Salalah, or Sohar, we want to make sure you have a guide on how to make the most of your time in an Omani souk.
MASTERING THE LOCAL SOUK
A visit to the souk will leave you with a deeper appreciation and understanding of Omani culture. And if you consider our little pieces of advice, you may also leave with some great souvenirs and local goods at a good price.
1. Try something new.
Souks are a fantastic place for discovering new and interesting items that you can’t find at home, and the best way to experience it is to jump in and give it a try. Whether trying a traditional hat or shawl, tasting an unknown spice, smelling the exotic perfumes, or even chewing a piece of frankincense resin (it has renowned health benefits), many shop owners will be excited to share their goods with you. Some may even offer you a cup of tea or coffee, simply wanting to share some of their famous Omani hospitality with you.
If you find a shop owner that speaks good English, feel free to ask them about where their products come from or about the cultural and historical significance of them. Omanis are very proud of their culture and love to share it with interested visitors.
2. Be ready to barter.
In some cultures bartering is considered disrespectful, but to Omanis bartering is an age-old pastime between shop owner and customers within a souk. Since most items are not labeled with prices, an attentive merchant will usually tell you the asking price when they see you eyeing a particular item.
A standard bartering practice is to secretly decide what price you are willing to pay, then offer a price below that. Often the seller will counter with a higher price than your offer, but still lower than his original price. Feel free to say if you find the price unfair, and expect that they say the same to you. If you’re unsure whether his asking price is fair, look around at similar vendors and compare prices. This will give you a general idea as to a standard price and assures that someone is not increasing the price simply because you’re a foreigner.
At the end of the day, bartering is a fun experience that adds to the adventure of shopping in an Omani souk. One thing to keep in mind, however…
3. Don’t be afraid to say “no.”
Nearly every vendor in a souk will vie for your attention and business, and it can be a little overwhelming at times. Just remember: you don’t have to talk with every person. It’s completely fine to say “hello” to shop owners who greet you (particularly if you are the same gender), but it’s also perfectly acceptable to ignore a shop if it has nothing of interest. This isn’t considered rude or even uncommon, and in any souk, it’s almost a necessity to keep moving along. If you want to acknowledge someone but still communicate that you’re not interested, the gesture of placing your right hand over your heart shows a polite “no, thank you.”
If you find yourself in a bartering situation where you feel too much pressure to buy, you can use the Arabic phrase “la, shukran” to say “no, thank you.” If you find yourself pressured beyond that (which is unlikely in Oman), simply thank the vendor for his time and walk away. This can also be part of your bartering strategy, and may convince the vendor to offer one final low price on the item you wanted.
THE MOST POPULAR SOUVENIRS
Your trip to Oman will be one to remember for years to come, and there are five especially unique items to Oman that will surely remind you of your time here immediately.
Frankincense and Incense Burner
Oman is known as the Land of Frankincense, so burning this tree-sap incense at home will make you feel as if you’re back in the Sultanate. Buy a kilo of the resin drops, a medkhan (incense burner), and some charcoal discs at any souk and you are ready to make your home smell like that of an Omani.
Dulla Coffee Pot
Found in every Omani home and used to serve the coffee unique to Oman, a dulla is a beautiful and functional addition to any home in the world. In the souk, you will find dullas of every size—from a pendant on a keychain to a full serving set (which includes small coffee cups, tea cups, and saucers). Metal, plastic, and ceramic versions are available in many colors and patterns so your Omani dulla can match the design of your home.
Every day in Oman you will see Omani men wearing their traditional long white robes paired with colorful hats called kuma. Wear it on your head as intended, display it on a shelf, or flip it upside down to use as a basket. These hats come in a wide variety of designs and will be a fantastic addition to your collection of unique items from around the world.
Camel Milk Beauty Items
Oman has a vast camel population. and in recent years companies have developed natural beauty products from camel’s milk as a way to promote its health benefits. An Oman-based company, SACRA Soap and Body, sells 100-percent natural, non-toxic, locally sourced beauty products that feature camel’s milk and frankincense, two of Oman’s greatest offerings. You will also find camel’s milk soaps in specialty shops in the souks.
The former capital of Oman is famous for the walls of its fortress and weekly livestock auction, but returning home with souvenirs of a 1,000-pound brick or a young goat would be tricky. Instead, you should purchase a piece of Nizwa’s famous pottery. The locally-fired earthenware comes in many shapes, sizes, patterns, glazed in any color or left unglazed for an original terracotta look. Nizwa Souk has a wide selection, and you are sure to find a piece that suits your home perfectly.
THE SWEETEST SOUVENIR: DATES
It’s not likely that you will leave Oman without eating a date. A staple of an Omani diet, they are also a popular souvenir—perhaps the sweetest souvenir.
People have eaten dates for thousands of years in the Arabian Peninsula. These fruits are eaten dried or fresh and are a healthy source of carbohydrates, fiber, and protein. Many people in Oman eat dates on a daily basis, typically enjoying them with coffee creating a balance of sweet and bitter flavors.
Not simply just a tasty, healthy food, dates are part of the religious culture as well. During the month of Ramadan, dates are often eaten with a glass of cold milk to provide energy for a day of fasting. And dates or date honey are important ingredients in many Omani sweets. One of the most well-known dishes in Salalah is qatmeem. A mixture of dates, nuts, and local butter cooked together and spread into a pan, this sticky confection is eaten with a spoon as a special Ramadan treat.
How to Eat a Date
In Oman, dates are typically enjoyed after the midday meal or around sunset. To eat a date appropriately in public, put the entire fruit in your mouth and remove the pit using your teeth. Then spit the pit into a tissue and keep it beside your plate. You can use your fingers to remove the pit before putting the date in your mouth, but this is typically only done in the presence of family and friends. If strangers are present, it’s more appropriate to keep everything contained in your mouth and a tissue.
In Oman, dates are eaten in odd numbers as a religious practice. To be culturally appropriate eat 1, 3, 5, or more odd numbers of dates at a time. You will impress local observers with your cultural awareness.
Dates make a wonderful gift for your friends and family back home. Find kilos prepackaged for travel at any souk or grocery store and serve them with coffee when you return home.
The most popular kind of date enjoyed in Oman is called a khalas date. The word “khalas” means “finished” in Arabic. Once you try these dates, your search for the perfect variety is finished! Khalas dates typically come from Saudi Arabia and are medium-sized, reddish-brown, and sticky. They are sold dried, in sealed packages with date honey, or with sesame seeds for a unique flavor.
Look for dates that are not too light or dark in color. If buying dates by weight, ask the shopkeeper for a sample to find the flavor you like best. Some people like the added sticky sweetness of date honey, while others prefer the drier varieties of khalas dates.
You can also buy fresh dates, known as rattab. These are picked in early summer in Oman and are considered an acquired taste. Look for ones with soft, brown sections for more sweetness, or all-green ones for more tartness.
To preserve dates at their peak flavor, Omanis typically keep them in sealed glass containers at room temperature. They will last longer if stored in the refrigerator (and can even be frozen), but they will lose some flavor quality.
In Oman, dates are considered good for one month after purchase; after that, they will be discarded or used for animal feed. You won’t get sick eating dates older than this, but in a land of date palms, such as Oman, people are more particular about the flavor of their dates.
But don’t take our word for how delicious dates are. Contact one of our travel experts today and come see for yourself how many unique varieties of this fruit can be found in Oman.