The fallacy that Iran is a treacherous nation to navigate holds no water as soon as you meet its people. Warm smiles, curious questions, even the odd invites to homemade meals by someone you have just stumbled upon on the street are prevalent when you’re a foreign face. It is easy to understand this lavish hospitality from the cultural standpoint—Iranians believe that guests are gifts from God and should be treated as such.
The national pride among Iranians is mainly founded in the country’s historical legacy. After all, the land presently occupied by the Islamic republic was once home to one of the most illustrious civilisations. Much of the influence of the Persian Empire and its other notable successors remains alive today in the form of 21 (and counting) Unesco World Heritage-listed sites. Whether roaming the imposing ruins of Persepolis, Shush and Choqa Zanbil or former royal residences such as the Golestan Palace, retracing the footsteps of some of the most distinguished figures in history will fill you with awe and admiration.
As enchanting as Iran’s many ancient kingdoms are, the architectural inheritance has enriched the country. These include the crumbling mud-brick houses of Abyaneh, the lofty wind towers of Yazd and myriads of manicured gardens that are the very picture of paradise on earth. But it is the city of Esfahan that has truly accomplished the tour de force. The former capital has long been dubbed ‘Half of the World,’ partially due to the magnificent bridges, mosques and palaces that form its crux. The Naqsh-e Jahan Square is one of such wonders to behold.
It requires little power of observation: glazed mosaics, carved stucco, patterned brickwork and calligraphy are a few of the key components of Iranian monuments. They reflect not only the mixed bag of cultures that have thrived on this vast plateau for millennia, but a people with deft hands and strong artistic inclinations. Stroll through the bustling local bazaars for live demonstrations of Iranians’ creative endeavours that extend to disciplines like carpet weaving, pottery and miniature painting. What’s more, these traditional handicrafts make good souvenirs for loved ones back home.
Iran’s diversity does not stop at its cultural landscape. Its geographical landscape is just as varied and complex. Five times larger than Malaysia, the country encompasses rolling deserts that are punctuated by massive mountain ranges while bordering both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. With a surfeit of mountains to climb and ski, deserts and valleys to trek, alternatives are extensive for travellers thirsting for more than colourful domes and minarets.
A legal ban on alcohol and bars has not undermined the Iranians’ social life one bit. If anything, it has only fashioned the soaring popularity of tea-houses that already came to prominence after the 15th century. In these chaikhanehs—as the natives call them—members from every walk of life converge. Over strong black tea that is customarily served with rock sugar and confections unique to each province, visitors discuss politics and swap gossip. Unequivocally, these establishments are the best spots to sample not only a taste of Iran’s national beverage, but its collectivist lifestyle.
Following the brokering of the landmark nuclear deal, Iran is set to be the newest tourism heavyweight on the block. Easing of visa rules, an upgrade of infrastructures and launch of flights to Tehran have all but made the journey to and within the cultural treasure trove pleasant. Thai Airways is one of the few international airlines that recently jumped on the bandwagon, flying four times a week from Bangkok. For more information, visit ThaiAirways.com.
Key points to remember when travelling to Iran:
- At the time of writing, Malaysian passport holders can enter Iran visa-free for vacation travel of up to 15 days.
- Dress modestly. While a chador is unnecessary, women travellers are expected to wear headscarves and cover at least the back of their heads.
- International credit cards are generally not accepted. Be sure to bring sufficient cash in US dollar or euro.
- Internet censorship is relatively strict. To get around it, install a VPN on your device before arrival.
- Avoid the thumbs-up sign, it is considered an obscene gesture in Iran and might land you in hot water.
(This story was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Malaysia Tatler)
Also don't miss out the 5 must-see places in New Zealand's North Island.