We went to Syria because it is easy to get to overland from Turkey, we escaped the worst of the winter rain in Fethiye, and we had a great time. But there are downsides as we explain.
There is, however, a downside to the country, in fact there are three: internet access (lack of); unreliable ATMs; and the rubbish which we have already mentioned in a previous article.
The Syrian government censors the internet and officially wifi is illegal (although you can find it in cafes in Aleppo and Damascus). So if you go to Syria resign yourself to using dialup in an internet cafe, and not being able to access youtube, facebook and many other sites.
The ATMs only work some of the time. The most reliable bank we found was Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi which never let us down. However, banks also limit the amount you can take out via an ATM in any one day to as little as 5000 Syrian Pounds (SP) which is about 170TL. You can quickly rack up the bank charges by having to repeatedly take out small amounts. While we were there the TL was worth around 31 SP; the euro 65SP and the £ = 71SP. Syrians are very happy to change Turkish Lira. So if you do go take plenty of cash.
On the subject of money you need to learn the Arabic symbols for the digits 0, 1, 2 and 5. The SP comes in notes of values 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 all of which have Latin as well as Arabic characters on them, but there are also coins worth 5, 10 and 25SP. The 25SP recently minted coins do have ‘25’ on them but older ones, together with all the 5s and 10s only have the Arabic numbers. You will use the coins despite their seemingly small value. One way to practise your Arabic numbers is to look at car registration plates (see picture above) which are all in Arabic as well as our familiar Latin digits. You don’t have to be able to say the numbers, just understand what they mean in writing. When ordering things you can use fingers to indicate how many you want.
The people in Syria are so glad to see foreigners visiting their country, that they all smile and say ‘Welcome’. Apart from in Palmyra, we weren’t hassled at all and had some really interesting conversations with English-speaking Syrians on buses and in cafes.
The historic sites are truly amazing and all so accessible when you compare the travelling you have to do in Turkey to get from Ephesus to, say, Nemrut Dağ. If you’ve been following these Syria articles you can see how many sites we visited in 17 days – and we still had plenty of time for shopping and just generally hanging out in cafes and bars.
If you don’t feel confident about taking local buses to get to historic sites all the hotels can arrange a car and driver for you – and that is also surprisingly cheap. We went as a group of 9 in a people carrier to visit St Simeon’s Basilica and the Dead Cities outside Aleppo (there isn’t any public transport to these sites) and paid 20TL per person for what turned out to be a five-hour trip.
The food is good, the shopping opportunities are excellent – what more can we say?
If you do go to visit Syria, let us know what you thought of it. And we’d be happy to answer your questions about Syria if you e-mail the website.