Many Filipinos do not consider Iran as a travel destination (and, perhaps, the same is true for many nationalities). It may be because of how the country is perceived as a “rouge” state, an alleged producer of “terrorism”. Its closed proximity in the war-torn region of the Middle East (bordering with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the likes) is an obvious discouragement. Being an Islamic republic is enough to create an image of radicalism, suppressed freedom, and threats and insecurities in the minds of people.
I have had a long fascination though about the history, heritage, and culture of Iran (Persia as we knew in our school textbooks). I would always recall my history teachers discussing Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Persepolis, and the ziggurats – all existed thousands of years ago. By all accounts, Iran is considered one of the oldest and richest civilizations.
It was by accident when I knew that AirAsia was already offering flights from the Philippines to Tehran, the capital of Iran. I was checking on the AirAsia app for my next travel destination when Tehran popped up on the list of countries I could select a flight to. It is important to note that I had a bit of hesitation at first in booking this flight because of all the news and stories and travel advisories we hear these days concerning the country and the Middle East. But my passion to explore the unexplored and my thirst for adventure overcame my hesitation and fear. So, in June of this year, I hit the booking button and scheduled a two-week solo-backpacking tour of Iran which concluded this October.
Writing this story now, I could never be prouder and grateful that I made such decision. I consider my travel to Iran as one of the most fulfilling and beautiful trips I have had and will ever experience. In fact, I cannot wait to go back and I am already checking the flights again if there is a promo fare for next year!
Here’s what I did:
Iran permits Filipinos to apply for the visa-on-arrival. With just my ticket I booked through AirAsia, passport, and backpack, I hopped on the plane and arrived in Imam Khomeini International Airport, the main airport of Iran in the capital city of Tehran. It would have a transit to Kuala Lumpur’s Low-Cost Carrier Terminal in Malaysia.
Iran requires a travel insurance for individuals visiting the country. I did not have one so I proceeded to the travel insurance counter in the airport and paid it for 14 euros. I suggest getting the insurance in Tehran airport rather than buying somewhere else since Iran may not consider it.
I then went straight to the visa processing counter (the counters are just steps-near each other – no one will get lost here!). The immigration officer handed off to me a visa form with standard questions about traveler’s full name, birthdate, etc. It also asked for an address and telephone number in Iran. It was a good thing I had these details with me before going to Iran. In August to September, I was already checking on things-to-do, to-go-to places, and made friends with very active Couchsurfing Iranians. There was a Chinese national who had no Iranian address and he was told he would get deported if he would not have the information. I shared my address with him and he was let through as well.
With the visa form with me, I stepped into the next counter to pay for the fees. I paid 55 euros. The Chinese national, who eventually became my travel buddy as we would later discover that we had the same flight details, paid 130 euros!
After the payment, I went back to the visa counter and submitted the visa form, the payment receipt, and my passport (they did not even ask for a photo). I waited for 15 minutes and they gave me back my receipt and passport with the Iranian visa. They allowed me with a single entry, 30-day stay.
The immigration officer did not ask me of any questions. It was very smooth and easy. On my way out to the airport with Chao, my Chinese buddy, we dropped by the money exchange counter (100,000 rials for 3 USD) and also bought an Iranian SIM card with 1GB data (200,000 rials or 6 USD). We got on a cab and paid 700,000 rials (350,000 rials each). The airport is about an hour away from the city center.
I booked in advance a night stay in Seven Hostel in Tehran (website: sevenhostels.com; address: No. 5 Dideh Baan Alley, Fakhr-e-Razi St., Enghelab St., Enghelab Square, Tehran; telephone: +982166960192).
I did not have problems with pursuing the rest of my plans. Iranians are the most hospitable people of this planet! They would offer help even if it is hard to communicate since many everyday Iranians do not speak the English language (of course, be always street-smart as there will always be a bad tomato somewhere). The Tehran subway and metro buses will bring you to many places in the city and surrounding villages. I paid for a daily ticket which cost 70,000 rials (about 100 pesos) and it allowed me to use it for about 7 stops a day. The ticket can be used for both the subway and the buses (which is very efficient and I wish we have the same in the Philippines).
Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many other sites are blocked in Iran. I downloaded the VPN Master app and it allowed me to access the sites without problems. Wifi is not prevalent in the country but are usually available in hotels and restaurants.
Appropriate clothing is enforced country-wide for all, for both local and foreigners. Women need to wear hijab in public all the time. Typical to Muslim countries, sleeveless shirts and shorts are not allowed. Though some women (especially the youth) remove their hijabs at home, in their private spaces. Men do not wear shorts and sleeveless shirts, too. I have not seen anyone on slippers on the streets! Everyone wears casual clothing all the time.
Money matter is tricky. While their official currency is rials, people use tomans. 1000 rials is equivalent to 100 tomans. They are using this for practicality reason since the value of their currency is low and it is a challenge to compute with long numerical value for transactions (1 USD is about 30,000 rials; imagine if you are paying for a 200 USD-worth of item).
It is easy to do personal and DIY tours given the subway, metro buses, and provincial bus terminals. Tickets, including local plane tickets, can also be booked online. Just go to irantts.com and ask your guy from the hotel’s reception or any local Iranian to help you out. The online booking only allows Iranian credit cards so you will have to pay the person who booked it for you in cash. Better yet, go to travel agencies which are scattered in every street.
It is necessary to always carry the hotel/host’s address in Farsi (Persian writing); so, ask your hotel receptionist to translate their address to Farsi for you (usually, they have the hotel business card in Farsi and in English and that should be enough). Taxi drivers easily read the Persian address.
I was able to visit many interesting places in Iran even if I just had a total of 9 full days of stay. I saw a total of 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Iran.
More than the places, I had the opportunity to know a lot of Iranian people and made friends with several of them.
I will always remember Michael from Tehran who was my seatmate on the bus to Shiraz. He was an English major so we were comfortably discussing. Like everyone else, he was curious how I viewed Iran. He joked if I was one of the many tourists who had a preconceived notion that Iranians were terrorists. I said yes and he laughed so loud that everyone on the bus gave him a stare. He was full of character. He was an Iranian Jew and argued against the theocratic form of their government. He argued about the oppression of the gays and women in their society. He wanted his daughter to live a life with as much freedom as men.
Mohamad and his family in Kashan were generous enough to let me and Chao stay at their home for 3 days for a decent fee. We also hired Mohamad and his car to show us around Kashan. Their family was a little bit traditional. Women in their family did not join us during our meals. They were the ones serving us food and they always wore hijabs.
I met Mehran through Couchsurfing and he became my tour guide in Shushtar and Shush. He was a bit modern in his sense of fashion. He said, in Iran, men need to look good to attract good women. Despite that, he was quite passionate about his religious beliefs and patriotic about Iranian government policies.
How can I forget my favorite Fariba and her family in Shiraz?! They were like guardian angels to me. I had a hard time finding a hotel in Shiraz since I did not have access to the internet at that time of my travel and that day was a big Iranian holiday which meant most establishments were practically closed. Fariba was a university mining engineering student and could speak English. She was returning home for the Muharram holidays. Fariba called her parents up and they offered their home for my stay for 2 days. We talked a lot of things during our long commute. Fariba easily got loose on me and shared her fascination of the Western pop culture (which appears to be the trend for Iranian youth). We listened to the songs of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and Shawn Mendes through her mobile phone. She also watched Hollywood movies. She wanted to work abroad because in Iran, women do not get a good job, especially in her field of study. She wanted to do field work in mining but she knew she would not land there and would be constrained to do office job.
I don’t usually write about my travel experiences. My Iran experience is kind of exceptional that it would be disservice to the beautiful country not to let the world know how generous the Iranian people are and how practically easy to go there for Filipinos and other nationalities (with the exception, of course, of the United States, Israel, and other Western countries the Iranian government has political troubles with). I learned that all my biases against this country were unfounded – and just like what I had learned in many of my travels, the news are not really news. There is always a bit of exaggeration and what I felt in Iran is a feeling that it is one of the safest places to go to.
People have different reasons why they travel. I go to places not to escape reality or have some fun. I have been traveling for many years now and I always make it a point that I schedule one or two every year. Traveling is meditation to me. It refreshes my soul and enriches my heart. I don’t know how to explain it better but just to say that it gives me meaning to life. Knowing another person from another country with another tradition provides me some form of happiness.
I have long realized that at the end of the day, however different we may think about ourselves from the others, the only thing each person wants is to live a happy life. We are all the same. And we don’t need to be bad and suspicious to be happy. I have traveled alone so many times and I have witnessed firsthand that true kindness exists in this world. Those who travel alone understand this because each encounter with people you don’t know, with the language you don’t understand, is a test of trust and kindness.
There are moments though that traveling makes me cry. Realizations are heavy stuff to contain. In fact, in every country I have gone to, I have offered each some drops of my tears. It is not metaphorical tears, it is literal cry baby’s tears. I cannot help but release some kind of sadness that I feel for so many people who suffer. And I wonder and I question why they experience intolerable pains in this life. It’s a heavy feeling why – especially the innocent and the young and the old – need to go through such kinds of suffering. It contradicts what I have seen firsthand about the people of different races and cultures. The feeling of helplessness makes me really sad. So I try my best that every opportunity of interaction is a pleasant one.
I’m sure that the people of the ethnic minorities of Myanmar or the untouchables of India are as kind and honest as the people of Laos or Taiwan. I’m sure the people of Syria or Afghanistan are as peaceloving as the people of the Nordic region. I’m sure the people of Cuba or Africa are as hospitable as the people of Iran.
Here in Iran, I spoke to a vendor who was selling carpets in the bazaar of Naqsh-e Jahan in Isfahan. He said, “I love all the people who visit our country. They are kind and respectful and some are funny and impatient and are just being true as humans. I love all of them. It’s how the world is governed that I don’t like.”