Two separate 16 hour layovers. Two full days in Bahrain. From discovering it was the location of the Dilmun civilisation dating back thousands of years, to learning how to play a Middle Eastern form of checkers, to exploring one of its many islands, the sleep deprivation was worth it.
8 things I learnt about Bahrain
1. Bahrain (close to Saudi Arabia and Qatar) is an archipelago, made up of 33 islands. It’s the 3rd smallest Asian nation after the Maldives and Singapore. The main island of Bahrain makes up about 7/8ths of the total area, with two of the smaller islands (Al Muharraq and Sitra) having a lot of industry and residential area, being connected by causeways to the main island. The remaining islands have far fewer people and less / no development. Some are fairly easy to get to with frequent boat connectivity (e.g. Al Dar Island) while others require more planning (e.g. Jarada Island – essentially a sand bar). During one of my 16 hour layovers, I hopped on a boat to Al Dar Island for the afternoon. A completely different vibe to the city (there were just 20 people on the island at the time), I snoozed on a recliner, read on a swing in the middle of the sea, and walked around the island at sunset with a cup of coffee. Who would have thought you could spend a layover doing that in Bahrain?
Sunset in October was at 5:20pm; the hour before this was truly spectacular on Al Dar Island
2. Got a soft spot for sweet treats? Halwa (a sticky, gelatinous sweet made of carrots, milk and spices like cardamom, nutmeg and saffron) takes centre stage here. It’s quite common to sample halwa in shops and even wash it down with a small cup of kahwa (Arabic coffee) before deciding whether to buy it or not. The Showaiter family has been synonymous with halwa in Bahrain for over a century, so I popped into one of their shops in Muharraq. Unlike in South Asia, halwa here apparently uses cornstarch and rapeseed oil (while semolina and flour are popular in the South Asian version).
Sampling milk, fig, saffron & king of halwa in an old halwa shop in Muharraq
3. Breakfast is important and served till about 12pm, with different mezze style dishes, featuring eggs (with beans, cheese or other ingredients), mehiyawa, and luqaimat. On my second day, I went to Emmawash, a traditional Bahraini restaurant open mainly for breakfast, in the Bab Al Bahrain area in Manama. I was curious to sample the mehiyawa (traditional flat bread with fermented fish paste). Together with scrambled eggs and a karak chai, the bill came to 3.4BHD (~ £8). If that wasn’t filling enough, they gave me a whole tray of luqaimat for free! These fried Arabic dumplings, which look like golden brown doughnuts dipped in date syrup, were perfect to satisfy my (enormous) sweet tooth.
4. Traditional Bahraini cafes are fairly ubiquitous in the old parts of town. They generally have outdoor benches with cushions. A cup of chai here is often a fraction of the price of that in a regular café. The cheapest I found was 0.1BHD for a cuppa tea (£0.25). It was here that some friendly gentlemen *tried to* teach me a board game called Dama – a variant of checkers played in the Middle East. I boldly challenged them to a match after learning the rules, and lost in style within 5 minutes.
5. Before the discovery of oil, it was pearls that first made the Kingdom wealthy. At one point (in the 1870s), the precious sea bounty made up for about 75% of the country’s exports. After this industry slowly died down (demand subsided during the world wars and Japan’s subsequent cheaper production of cultured pearls), oil was discovered and took over. Today with oil reserves almost depleted, the country is looking at alternative revenue streams, like tourism and banking. Foreign countries (like the US) also have naval bases in Bahrain, given its strategic location.
6. The capital, Manama, is a vision of modernity like any Gulf capital city with its restaurants, cafes, bars, malls and skyscrapers. But it also has the old labyrinthine Manama souq with numerous alleyways packed with traders selling items from spices to sheesha and jewellery to perfumes. This area is also home to Little India featuring a 200-year old Shrinathji (Krishna) temple, shops with signs in various Indian languages (Malayalam was most common) and copious Indian vegetarian restaurants (the country has a long-standing Indian community).
Venturing onwards to Bahrain’s second largest island lies the older city of Muharraq. Once the regional centre of the pearling industry. Muharraq was also Bahrain’s capital up to 1932. It has a much more classic air to it compared to Manama, with traditional houses featuring thick mud walls and shaded courtyards (ways to adapt to the heat before the advent of air-conditioning). One such house was the Al Kurar House, which has been renovated and is now a small production space for handicraft made by Bahraini women. Looking for sweet shops to buy or sample Bahraini Halwa? You’ve landed in the right spot.
7. While many people may think of Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, China and Ancient Egypt when it comes to the oldest civilisations in the world (4000-5000 years ago), at a similar time, Bahrain was also home to the ancient Dilmun civilisation. Lasting about 2000 years, it was only discovered in the 1950-60s. Evidence being uncovered from archaeological sites shows that it functioned as a trade hub connecting the Mesopotamian (in modern day Iraq) and Indus Valley civilisation (in South Asia).
The subsequent occupiers of Bahrain form a long list that includes Babylonians, Sumerians, Greeks, Persians, Portuguese, Turks and in more recent history – the British. Today the country is ruled by the Al Khalifa family (originally hailing from Kuwait).
8. The Grand Mosque of Bahrain (Al Fateh Mosque) – the largest in Bahrain (holds up to 7000 people) – has free English tours with friendly guides. They are incredible at answering questions you have about Islam, religious practices, cultural views or anything else! The mosque’s interior is also a feast for the senses. You’ll see materials imported from all over the world; Italian marble, Indian teak, French hand-blown glass, Viennese chandeliers.
What does a 16 hour layover in Bahrain look like?
Budget for the day: 33BHD (£77) which covers breakfast (5BHD / £12), return taxi journeys from Manama to Sitra port (10BHD / £23), return boat tickets to Al Dar Island (6BHD/ £14), food on the island (4BHD/ £9), dinner with sheesha (7BHD/ £16) and bus journeys to/from the airport (0.6BHD/ £1.40) with a few karak chais at a local cafe (0.40BHD / £1).
- 0830: Land and take the bus to Manama
- 1000: Local breakfast at EmmaWash in the Manama souq area
- 1100: Grab a karak chai (or two!) at a local cafe and explore the souq
- 1200: Hop in a taxi to the Fisherman’s Port at Sitra and then take the 10 minute boat across to Al Dar Island
- 1400: Read and snooze in the shade on Al Dar Island after padding in the sea
- 1500: Lunch at the cafe/restaurant on Al Dar Island
- 1600: Walk around the island, enjoying the different afternoon views as the temperature cools down
- 1730: Watch sunset on the beach with a coffee
- 1930: Back in Manama (via boat to Sitra Port and taxi thereafter)
- 2000: Dinner at a roadside cafe
- 2030: Sheesha on the streets of Manama
- 2230: Bus back to the airport, ready to fly out
Cafes in Bahrain
Logistics of getting to Al Dar Island
Public Transport in Bahrain
Getting from the Airport to the City
I visited Bahrain in Sep-Oct 2022