20 July, 2008

Al Mukalla Reviewed

Originally a small fishing settlement dwarfed by Al Shae'her in the East and Broum in the West, Al Mukalla has gradually, and of late - rapidly, grown and expanded and is today the largest city and main trading center in Hadhramout; it has, too, the largest sea port and airport in Eastern Yemen. Like all places, Mukalla has its pros and cons.

General overview:

1. People: Mukalla's people are some of the friendliest and most easy going that one can ever imagine. Always helpful; kind to children and courteous to women. Though very conservative by tradition, most people - both women and men - are lively and love the outdoors and the sea. Mukalla has some of the bluest and in some parts - greenest - sea waters.

2. Crime: I can not think of any other urban center that is almost totally crime free like Mukalla. Violent crime of any kind is extremely rare; and so are other types of evil acts. Except for stray dogs, any time of day or night you can walk in any part of the city without fear. It's that peaceful.

3. Society: Life is simple. And unpretentious. How well off one is and the way one dresses isn't of importance. On the streets, in public places and in the markets - people seem to be the same. This gives Mukalla a very social and communal nature; something that I have never seen in other urban centers out of Yemen.

4. Shopping: Most basics are comparatively cheap. Though, now, most food items have shot up in prices - still, comparatively - food is cheap. Fish, which is of a large variety, is plenty, fresh and cheap; the cheapest can cost 200 Riyals a kilo and the most expensive can cost up to 2,000 Riyals a kilo. While lamb and beef cost on average about 1,400 to 2,0000 Riyals a kilo. Fruits and vegetables too, are plenty and cost little; the most expensive fruits like the kiwi fruit, pineapple and plums - can cost up to 1,000 Riyals a kilo, while the cheapest like bananas and oranges cost about 200-300 Riyals a kilo. Of vegetables, cabbage and okra are the most expensive - at around 200-500 a kilo; while other greens cost less. Grains like rice - which is the preferred food here - are reasonably priced too; a 50 kg. bag of rice costs, depending on the type, from about 9,000 Riyals to about 15,000. A 50 kg. bag of wheat flour, is at about 7,500 Riyals.

Clothes and electronics, though most are not of that good quality, are fairly priced too; there is a variety of children's and men's clothes and they are plenty - it's women's good dresses, shoes and handbags that are hard to find. On the other hand: building materials, pharmaceutical products, gold and honey - are expensive. Too expensive. And the problem with gold and especially honey - is that, it's hard to tell which is of good quality and which is not.

Compared to other urban centers, monthly rents for apartments and houses are reasonable. Average monthly rents for a three bedroom unfurnished apartments, range from 15,000 to 40,000 Riyals; larger detached houses with compounds can cost, depending on the quality - from about 30,000 to 200,000 Riyals. You can buy a flat from about 4 million to 10 million Riyals; and you can purchase a house from about 5 million to over 200 million Riyals. While the price of a small piece of land - averaging 14m x 16m to 20m x 20m - can cost between 300,000 to 6 million Riyals in out of town areas; while some within the city, of the same size, can cost about 50 millions or more. The prices of real-estate, depends on its location. The only mall in the city, which is not yet fully operational, is: Mukalla Mall.

The best places to shop in, are Mukalla old town and Sha'erj. For gold, though expensive now but still comparatively cheaper to outside Yemen - Mukalla old town is the only place to shop. Then there is honey (best shops in Sha'erj): it's said that the best honey and that of the highest quality on Earth comes from Hadhramout; that is reflected in the prices which can range from 2,500 to as high as 5,000 Riyals a kilo. Haggling is normal. Haggle politely. For souvenirs, Mukalla offers very little. Note: the use of charge and credit cards, is still very rare and uncommon here; except for a few top hotels and agencies, most businesses do not accept cards. Cash is preferred and the norm.

5. Educational and Medical services: Of all things in Mukalla, I find these below normal, international standards and a most unlikeable side of Mukalla. Educational centers and institutions, from the preliminary to the highest level are poor in both: the public and private sectors. They are no truly good schools or colleges around. Same goes for the medical centers and facilities: not good enough. Except for a very few exceptionally good private doctors, the public and private medical centers and facilities do not offer quality services.

6. Electricity (220v), Water and Postal services: These services too, though greatly improved in the last few years and even though electricity and water are extensively supplied to all parts of the city, still a lot has to be done. The quality of the services that go with these supplies need much improvement. Postal services have very much improved in the last few years, but they have still a long way to go to reach world standards.

7. Accommodation: There are a number of good hotels - the Holiday Inn, is now called Ramada Hotel - it seems to have been taken over by Ramada Hotels; it is in Khalf, near the sea, is the largest and reputedly the 'best' hotel in the city. Then there are others - Al Bustan Hotel - which is a boutique hotel in the heart of Mukalla;  the Olive Tree Restaurant at Al Bustan, is open 24 hours a day, and serves Arabian and Indian dishes for lunch and dinner; it has too, a coffee shop, an excellent laundry service, a bakery and an antique shop. The Ryboon Hotel is not far from the center of the city and offers a 24-hour coffee shop and free parking; it also has a restaurant that serves local and Arabian cuisines, and a hall for meetings and social occasions. Rooms are en suite, with twin and double beds. My favorite hotel in the city is the Hadhramaut Hotel; it is situated on an excellent site with magnificent views (unfortunately, for sometimes now - Hadhramaut Hotel has been closed). Not far from the Ramadar Hotel in Khalf, there is the cheaper Arab Sea Hotel. For more on accommodation in Mukalla --- refer to the official portal for hotels and for apartments; and TripAdvisor.

Of all the major hotels in Mukalla, I find Hadhramaut Hotel generally the best; it's located on the most spectacular and most scenic site, it has the friendliest of staff, a clean swimming pool and it has a gym and offers very good snorkeling and scuba diving facilities. With all these hotels, depending on the season - prices can range from 9,000 to 20,000 Riyals per night per room. There are many other smaller hotels, which are cheaper. Furnished apartments too, are many ranging in price from about 3,000 to 12,000 Riyals per apartment per day. For more on hotels and apartments in Mukalla, go here.

8. Eating out and Attractions: All the best hotels provide good food, but expensive. For reasonably priced food, the smaller restaurants offer some excellent local dishes - ranging in price from about 300 to 1,500 riyals per meal. Try the Al Salaam restaurants, one near the fish market in Mukalla old town and the second in Sha'erj; though, with expansion, the quality of their services has declined, they still serve reasonably priced food and of good quality. And there are many other restaurants, some hidden, that offer excellent food at good prices.

The sea and Mukalla old town (Al Salaam) are undoubtedly the most attractive sites in the city; and the Khor (canal) in the center of Mukalla, is a big attraction these days. Mukalla's other main attractions are the old Sulatan's Palace, which has a museum housed within it; it is situated in Mukalla's old section. The most visited site by tourists in the city is the old guard post, Al'ghuweizy, which is a short distance from the center of Mukalla, on the way to Riyyan, the main airport.

9. Getting around: The best way to get around the city is on foot; though that can be difficult and uncomfortable during the hot, humid summers. There are many taxis and mini buses around too - all have yellow stripes or marks; the buses - charging between 30 and 50 Riyals per trip - are rather uncomfortable; but the taxis - with yellow stripes, though some do not have the stripes - are reliable and comfortable. Taxis charge between 200 and 600 Riyals depending on the distance. For those who need to self drive, there are a number of car hire agencies - charging about 12,000 Riyals per day, excluding fuel. Al Riyyan airport, which is about 30 km. out of Mukalla proper, offers flights to other main towns of Yemen and flights out of the country; all provided by Yemenia Airways and the low cost no frills Felix Airways. The East African owned African Express, now also operates low cost flights to and from Mukalla.

When moving around, be careful of the rough driving of the public mini buses and most of all - of motorcycles; the motorbikes follow no rules and they can appear from any side of the road. Traffic, as it's, in Mukalla, moves on congested roads, are very noisy and many times do not follow traffic rules. For some visitors, they might find this disturbing; just as they might find disturbing, the garbage and litter lying in many parts of the city.

10. When to visit: The best time for visiting Mukalla, is between October and March; even better, between November and February. These are times when it's cooler, less humid and the sea is calmer. Locals and those from the neighboring regions and countries, flock to Mukalla in July; though still hot and humid, the sea waters around - become cooler and it's said that dipping or swimming in the sea during these times, can heal or soothe many health problems.

For any one who has never been to hot, humid places - completely avoid visiting Mukalla from April to September. It's during these times when it can get extremely hot and humid.

Exchange rates: Check here and here or at the Central Bank of Yemen - for the latest Riyal exchange rates and further updates. When in Yemen, to get the best rate, check with several currency exchange companies like: Al-Kuraimi, CAC Bank and Al Omagi.

Note: This post has been updated in January, 2011

See also: Khor Al Mukalla and other posts on Mukalla  from this blog.