Sunday, October 30, 2022

[RIYADH] Want to Go to the Edge of the World?

Saudi Arabia never really figured that much in any of my itineraries because of the visa issue. When news came out that they were starting to allow US, UK, and Schengen visa holders to come in via a new Visa on Arrival scheme, the pandemic suddenly struck. Years later, the setup resumed. And so, I thought, why not give it a shot? Well, I’m here to tell you that it is indeed legit as long as that multiple-entry visa of yours is valid and has been used at least once. How did the experience go and what are the requirements? Read on.

It is stated as a condition that you have to fly in via Saudia, FlyNas or Flyadeal. Whether that’s strictly implemented, I have no idea. I guess I got lucky that FlyNas is plying the Sarajevo - Riyadh route. Once you deplane, you’ll find a separate signage for Visa-on-Arrival. There were two desks and two ladies assisting. In the middle is a machine resembling an ATM for eVisas. You choose which one you want. The other guy chose eVisa and dealt with the machine. I chose Visa on Arrival and was assisted step-by-step by one of the ladies.

They give you a multiple entry visa valid for a year. The caveat is that they just jot down the visa number, in Arabic, on your passport along with the entry stamp. No official document, whatsoever. Weeks later, I found some Arabic visa checkers at NAIA 3, so I guess this means we’re all good. The visa costs SAR480 (~PHP7,350) which is quite costly if you ask me, but useful if you are planning to turn Saudi into some sort of transit transport hub. You can only pay with a credit card, by the way. Cash NOT accepted.

Once you get the entry stamp from the Visa-on Arrival desk, you then proceed to the shorter fast lane where an immigration officer will just verify the visa number in the system, and then off you go. Uber operates in Saudi Arabia, but is expensive AF. A trip from the airport to IBIS Hotel right across Kingdom Center will cost you a whopping SAR95 (~PHP1,500 pesos) for that 30-minute ride. Other options include taxis. I’m pretty sure there is no train, but I didn’t check if there is a local bus.

The city bored me, even though I enjoyed the lights show courtesy of Riyadh’s rather scant skyline. Post check-in, I crossed the street to Kingdom Center. The mall is huge and full of signature brands yet just so empty. There’s a food court with a not so varied selection. There is an overpriced VIP cinema. And then there’s Skybridge, which takes you all the way to the top of the skyscraper for gorgeous panoramic views. Damage? SAR69 (~PHP1,050). It’s a simple indoor glass bridge. You won’t be killing more than half an hour up there.

Since I am only here for a day and two nights, I decided to book a full day tour the next day to the Edge of the World. If you look at Google Maps, it’s not really that far away from the city center. What makes it a two-hour drive is because the 4x4 SUV you are riding will be ditching the concrete road for the dirt paths of the desert after 30 minutes or so of traveling. The ride alone is an attraction in itself. A short stopover for a meet and greet with wild camels is also part of the itinerary, as long as they decide to show up.

Most tours arrive there at 4:30 PM, giving you ample time to enjoy the scenery and hike before tea and dinner are served an hour later with the setting sun as your backdrop. Gorgeous is an understatement to describe the views. The terrain is otherworldly alright, which is what I imagine Mars’ mountains and ravines would look like. The part of the attraction open to tourists is not that huge. Camwhoring is what will be taking most of your time here, and it’s all worth it. If ever you find yourself in Riyadh, make sure you reserve an entire day for this tourist attraction. You won’t regret it, I swear.

We got back to the city center at around quarter to ten, which gave me plenty of time to head to the airport for my 4 AM flight. All in all, I find Saudi Arabia expensive, but there are many hidden gems to find if you know where to look and if you have the moolah. Otherwise, an entire day of transit should be enough if you just want to cross it off your list. Philippine Airlines flies direct to Riyadh and Dammam from Manila, while Air Asia X just launched their Kuala Lumpur - Jeddah route. Take your pick.

[RIYADH] Want to Go to the Edge of the World?

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