Bargains abound at vibrant souks

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2005, 12:00am

Rich in heritage, Bahrain offers something for everyone

IF YOU LEARN only one sentence of Arabic, it might well be: 'Take me to the souk.'

Bahrain is known to most Hong Kong travellers as a great place to change planes on the way to somewhere else. As one of the most important aviation hubs in the Middle East, Bahrain International Airport is home to Bahrain Duty Free, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar expansion that increased its size and broadened its product ranges. There are now more than 45,000 items to choose from.

Bargain-hunting at the shops in the airport is fun, but a stopover in the country is far more rewarding. There is so much to see and do - and buy - that Bahrain makes an excellent destination in its own right and deserves a few days if not a week.

Start your visit to Bahrain by asking your driver to take you to the nearest 'souk', which is Arabic for marketplace. The country's largest souk is in Manama, the capital. There you will find an explosion of colours, sounds and aromas in the alleys surrounding the Central Market, which was completed in 1978.

The displays of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, nuts and spices clearly put Hong Kong's wet markets to shame. Leading department stores compete with tiny stalls for business.

There is all manner of jewellery, stones and precious metals at the Gold Souk, a two-storey structure with more than 80 shops. It is important to keep in mind that Bahraini gold is generally 21 carats and is worked into an infinite number of styles, running from traditional Bedouin designs to contemporary European styles. Craftsmen can produce pieces to order so bring pictures and drawings of what you want and agree on the price before placing an order.

If you are into high fashion, you will find silk, cotton and wool materials in various textures and colours at the cloth souk.

If looking for something specific bring along a photograph or sketch. The many fine tailor shops can make a new suit or dress at a fraction of what you would pay in Hong Kong.

Coffee is more than a beverage in Bahrain - it is a ritual. Make sure to sample some during your visit to the Manama souk or the many others that dot the country. You might even want to buy a coffee pot (dalla) and some small coffee cups (finjan) to take home as souvenirs.

While Bahraini souks offer a fascinating glimpse into the country's traditional way of life, locals and visitors are increasingly heading to the air-conditioned shopping malls that are springing up across the desert landscape. With large department stores, upscale boutiques, food courts and entertainment facilities, they stand among the world's best.

The oldest, Yateem Centre, was completed in 1980. Others include Bahrain Mall - one of the country's newest and best - as well as Seef Mall, the largest in the Upper Gulf, Dana Mall, with 75 outlets, Al A'Ali Complex, built on landfill just west of Manama, and Marina Mall, adjacent to the Central Market in Manama.

However, there is more to Bahrain than shopping. As the Arab world's only island state, the kingdom - which comprises 33 islands - offers a wealth of historic and cultural sites to visit, as well as fine dining, great nightlife, horse riding, golf and diving.

One of the first archaeological relics you will notice is Arad Fort, near the airport. Little is known of the fort's history, but it has undergone extensive restoration and is beautifully lit up at night.

Excavations reveal that there were dwellings at Bahrain Fort, north of the main island, dating from around 2800BC.

Numerous forts were constructed on the site over the years. The last was built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century.

Overlooking Riffa Valley is Riffa Fort, which was built in the 17th century. It was completely rebuilt in 1983 and affords stunning views of the surrounding landscape.

The Al-Khamis Mosque is one of Islam's oldest remnants in the region. Its foundation dates back to 692AD, but it has been rebuilt at least twice - once in the 14th century and once in the 15th.

The Barbar Temple was discovered in the 1950s and appears to have been constructed in the second and third millennia BC. Included are three stone-built temples and a sacred well. Built in 1938, Alfadhel Mosque, in the capital, is a relative newcomer.

Manama is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East. Fine dining ranges from Arabic to Indian and Chinese. Nightlife is also surprisingly varied.

There are pubs and discos, karaoke lounges and clubs with live music.

How to get there: Gulf Air maintains a hub at Bahrain International Airport. The carrier flies there from Hong Kong daily via Bangkok.