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Photo: timkelley

Matador’s destination expert on Egypt lays out the country’s avoidable attractions…and what you should do instead.
1. Don’t… ride a camel at the Pyramids

Those gaudy pompoms and tassels look rather fetching on the camel, and you couldn’t ask for a more magnificent backdrop for your showoff photos than the Pyramids. The owner will even tell you his camel is free to get on.

It is. It’s just getting off that’ll cost you whatever cash you’ve got. Leaping off an eight-foot-tall camel is no easy feat, and sand ain’t so soft when you land nose first.

Do… ride a camel into the desert behind the Pyramids

There are loads of stables near the Sphinx that arrange trips into the desert. Shop around — prices and the condition of the animals vary greatly.

The best time to go is for sunset. You get a wonderful view of the Pyramids, combined with the mournful call to prayer that echoes through the desert from mosques all over Cairo.

Word of warning: For every leg-splayed hour astride a camel, you’ll spend a day walking like John Wayne.

2. Don’t… take a guided tour of the West Bank of Luxor

There’s a good chance you’ll spend more time touring the alabaster factories than the sights. And even some of the best guides will bludgeon you into indifference with an endless succession of pharaonic “facts.”

Also, don’t bother paying extra to enter Tutankhamen’s tomb at the Valley of the Kings. It’s tiny, incomplete, and entirely underwhelming.

Sure, you can see his shriveled head and feet poking out each end of a grotty blanket. But the portion covering his body is suspiciously flat.

Photo: Mossaiq

Do… hire bicycles and go your own way

Ride through dusty villages and bright fields of sugarcane, visiting the sights you want, at the pace you want.

At the Valley of the Kings, visit the tomb of Ramesses V instead of King Tut. Tremendous colours in there.

3. Don’t… climb Mount Sinai for sunrise

Everybody does this, but it turns what should be a pleasant ascent into a nightmare. You have to get up before you’ve even gone to bed and stumble up a bumpy track in the pitch black while trying to dodge pilgrims and camel farts.

By the time you reach the top, in desperate need of some sort of salvation, there probably won’t be any room for you.

Do… climb for sunset instead

That way you can avoid the crowds and enjoy views of a desolate landscape.

If you arrange it in advance, you can have the local Bedouin cook you dinner and spend the night on the mountain. You’ll wake up refreshed and in prime position to watch sunrise from the smug comfort of your own blanket.

4. Don’t… visit Philae Temple by day

This temple is on an island south of Aswan, and is far too hot and exposed to visit comfortably during the day.

More importantly, flooding caused by the building of the Aswan Dam and the High Dam has washed all the colours away. It’s hard to pick out any details in the harsh sunlight.

Fun fact: After the High Dam was built, Philae Temple was completely submerged. While still under water, it was chopped up and moved to another island.

Do… visit at night for the sound and light show

See the temple blaze against the ink-black sky. The melodramatic story is narrated by “ancient gods and goddesses,” and is simultaneously fascinating, inspiring, and unintentionally hilarious.

Photo: prilfish

5. Don’t… tell your cab driver you’re an atheist

He won’t understand how that’s possible.

There’s a time and a place for enlightened religious discussion, but it’s not when you’re jammed into a Cairo taxi, sweating fumes, and battered by car horns.

You’re already in Hell.

Do… tell him you’re a Christian/Muslim/Jew

It just makes life easier. Anything else will open up a can of holy worms.

When giving directions, end each sentence with “insha’Allah” (God willing). As in, “Turn left, insha’Allah.” You’ll get an automatic 2 LE reduction on your fare.

6. Don’t… smoke Cleopatra cigarettes

There’s a reason why these sexy-sounding little sticks cost only 50 cents a pack. And it’s not, as some would have you believe, because they’re fortified with Vitamin C.

Do… mellow out with a shisha pipe

These water-pipes are used to smoke a sticky, fragrant tobacco that comes in loads of different flavours. Apple is a classic. Unflavoured maasel will blow your head off.

Shisha pipes are best enjoyed in a local coffeeshop over a game of backgammon and a cup of grainy Turkish coffee.

Stroking your beard while exhaling a cloud of smoke makes you look philosophical. Gesticulating wildly with the hose makes you look like a prick.

7. Don’t… try molokhiya (Jew’s mallow)

Unless you really like slurping on a gelatinous green soup the consistency of snot mixed with semen. With added stringy bits.

No, really.

Do… try koshary

This is a carbohydrate bomb made out of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, and tomato salsa, topped off with a potent chili sauce. Sounds gross; tastes great; costs next to nothing.

Also try pigeon, although with extreme caution. Not only is it booby-trapped with hundreds of fine bones, the Egyptian word for pigeon is very similar to that for toilet.

8. Don’t… buy the tourist tat from Khan al-Khalili

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Galabayas embroidered with pictures of Egyptian gods and goddesses.
  • Genuine fake papyrus.
  • Those offensively cheesy t-shirts which say something like, “A camel can go for 14 days without a drink; I can’t!”

And just for the record, if a vendor wants 140 LE for an “onyx” cat statue, and you pay 120 LE, it doesn’t mean you got a good deal. Or even haggled.

Do… seek out genuine, practical souvenirs

You can pick up decent, wearable galabayas at any local market, and good quality shisha pipes from just north of Khan al-Khalili.

Spices, scarves, perfume, and silver are all good buys (though the silver isn’t that pure).

If you must buy pharaonic kitsch, go for a sandstorm-in-a-pyramid paperweight. Now that’s a classy souvenir!

Community Connection

What NOT to do


About The Author

Nick Rowlands

Nick lived in Egypt for six years, working as a tour leader, EFL teacher, city guide editor, and online guidebook writer. He's currently in San Francisco searching for his centre. He (kinda sporadically) blogs at Delicious Chaos, and you can follow him on twitter.

  • Mo-ha-med

    Nick! Molokhiya is awesome! Definitely worth a try!

    • http://www.mikesryukyugallery,com Ryukyu Mike

      Hilariously descripitive; laughing so hard I can barley make out the keys on my typing machine. Outstanding writing and great information for travellers !

      Keep it up; John Wayne and camel farts… Bwu ha ha ha ha ha !


      PS Get the photogs who you got the pix from to paste this URL in their photo descriptions on Flickr. Hint: Everybody gets MORE HITS !!!

      • Carlo Alcos

        Mike, one step ahead of you. We notify the photogs via comment at Flickr that we’ve used their image and include a link back to the article. Thanks for the suggestion anyway!

  • Jaymie

    Nick! That molokhiya description is truly repulsive. Unfortunately, I am obliged to eat it as the “foreign girlfriend” and will now enjoy it even less as I think of slurping on snotty, stringy semen…Thanks for that! Seriously, though, good stuff man!

  • Nick

    Sorry Mohamed, I know it’s blasphemy to say so, but Molokhiya is vastly over-rated! I agree that people should try it though, preferably at someone’s house rather than in a restaurant. (Funny how everyone’s mum always makes *the best* Molokhiya in Egypt…)

    • Nick

      Sorry that was meant to be a reply to Mohamed ; )

      @ Mike – cheers bro, glad you enjoyed it!

      @ Jaymie – if you were British, I’d tell you to lie back and think of Queen and country. Since you aren’t, content yourself with the knowledge that ol’ Molly contains lots of calcium and B-vitamins, and is considered a potent aphrodisiac ; )

  • Candice

    Hahaha Nick, I’m in love with your writing. The camel farts thing made me LOL. Cool advice about feigning Christianity too.

    • Nick

      I totally started out trying to explain my belief systems to people (which is difficult to do if you aren’t quite sure yourself!) but it just lead to too many long, tedious and unproductive conversations. Easier by far to lie (and I’m sure God will forgive me).

      • Candice

        That’s kinda how politics works around here, I totally know what you mean.

  • Matt Scott

    Great Piece,Egypt is an amazing place but there are definately many thing that need to be avoided- for sanity’s sake as much as anything.
    Great piece. Thanks

    • Nick

      Thanks, Matt! Though I think sanity is a hindrance rather than a help if you live in Cairo!

  • Lauren Quinn

    Great to see your work up, Nick. Can’t wait to use your tips one day.

    • Nick

      Thanks Lauren – hit me up if you ever come out my way… I know LOADS of things not to do in Egypt ; )

  • Wes Nations

    Thanks for the great tips — I’m heading to Egypt next year and will put them to good use. But no camels for me — they’re truly the most awkward, painful form of transportation known to man.

    • Nick

      Camels are incredible creatures, and you have to ride one! It’s well worth the pain, and the fact that (if you are male) you’ll never have children afterwards!

      • Wes Nations

        Ok, granted… there are *some* positive benefits ;)

  • neha

    Great piece Nick! Like Lauren said, can’t wait to put some of these tip to use someday, insha’Allah!

  • Hal Amen

    Egypt is on my itinerary shortlist for next year–good travel advice def. helps tip the scales!

  • Sabina

    Ah, Nick, there’s nothing quite as valuable as a true insider’s advice. I’m happy to say I wasn’t talked into hopping up on a camel and then being stranded until I shelled out the bucks to be let off. And I never thought of climbing Mount Sinai to see the sunset instead of the sunrise. That does sound like a great idea. But how do you get back down?

  • Abbie

    Good to know, thanks Nick!

  • Lola

    Soooo can’t wait to go to Egypt now!

    Like Hal, it’s definitely on the shortlist for next year.

  • Amanda

    Great! Love it.
    And totally agree…. except Molokhiya is ok. Don’t mind a bit of snot textured soup.

  • Silke Baron

    I also like Molokhiya, if someone likes okra (Lady’s Fingers) he/she might also like this soup. It is so cheap it is worth trying…and it is good for the stomach!

    About the Mount Moses thing on the Sinai I totally agree. It is really ridiculous what is going on there almost every night…

  • Nick

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone. It’s great to see some of y’all may be coming out to visit next year. (Just don’t make it end of Feb or start of May – I won’t be here!)

    @ Sabina – you sleep up there and walk down after you’ve watched the sun come up; can either go the camel path or the Steps of Repentance

    @ Amanda – ah, the power of nostalgia. Even stringy snot soup tastes good when it’s a few years and a few thousand miles behind you ; )

  • kimayou Meigui

    This was great! It made me laugh so hard and yet I still had enough mind to file these tips away for the future. I like how this is not just a “don’t” list but also tells what is worth doing instead. I can only imagine how many people were stranded on top of an eight foot camel begging to be let down! If anything I suppose it gives a story to tell when showing off the pictures.

    I look forward to reading more of your writing!!

    • Nick

      Thanks for the comments! It is pretty funny to see – If I ever go to a site like the Pyramids, now, I find myself people-watching more than anything else!

  • joshua johnson

    Love this thread and love your sage advice. I sense a Matador field trip…party in Cairo!

    • Nick

      You got it, man!

  • Adri

    Thank you for the great tips Nick!

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  • KB

    Wise words to live by, undoubtedly. I have a funny feeling you’ve single-handedly spared me several such situations!

    • Nick

      No – you still have to get into those situations… that’s the fun!

  • Doug

    Some things you missed, Nick…….DO bike the Red Sea at sunrise, especially Wadi Gemal National Park, DO bike at Mons Claudianus, a Roman quarry above Safaga, DO the jeep and bike safari to Fustat Port Ghalib and Um Hawitat mines, DO bike Safaga – Al Qusayr and visit Sultan Selim’s Fortress…..

    DO bike the West Bank of Luxor and go to al Muhareb Monastery en route to Hotel al Moudira for lunch……DO bike from Esna-Luxor along the Nile……DO bike the Western Desert in Aswan to St, Simeon’s Monastery and ride a camel to the Tombs of the Nobles…..DO bike through beautiful Nubian villages on Aswan’s West Bank…….DO take a boat up to Anakato Nubian B and B up the Nile cataracts for lunch

    DO all of these with Egypt Bike and Sail ….. – I did in May and had a fabulous time!

    • Nick

      He he, you were on the same trip as Lola, I take it! I’m jealous…

  • JF

    Awesome tips! Thanks for the article Nick. I Will be in Egypt for the first time in October… I wonder what they think about Buddhists – or should I just say I am Christian?

  • Nick

    JF – to generalise, Buddhism is not well understood over here. If you want to get into a potentially frustrating discussion about belief systems, tell people you are Buddhist. Otherwise, stick with Christian. Depends who’s asking, and how up for debate you are ; )

  • Sally

    Thanks for amusing read…
    One thing however…I don’t consider shisha pipes as a quality souvenir. :)
    Nor a sandy pyramid paper weight

  • Wildeyes2006

    hi , i am an Egyptian tour guide and i want to tell you if you like apples it doesn’t mean that they are great and if you don’t like pizza it means it sucks coz it depend on your own taste ,same thing for molokhya (the green soup)  may be your experience with it wasn’t that good coz there was a bad cook used to prepare it for you , and by the way it’s delicious if you got it from a professional restaurant or someone who can really cook!!! plus it’s full of iron and very useful .
    secondly: the taxi driver doesn’t know the meaning of word atheist coz he won’t be that fluent in English and the word atheist is a big one for him to understand, plus we do respect and we are  tolerant to western culture coz tourism in Egypt is a big industry and we meet people from all over the world and we do understand that not all the people in the world are Muslim , Christian or Jews  we do understand that there is( Buddhist , Hindus and even godless.)  and also the taxi driver will never ask the tourist what is your religion !!!!thirdly: when you said don’t  hire a tour guide to the west bank , i would say that Egypt is not like any other country specially when it come to Luxor  coz it got a huge temples and the west bank got some temples and also the valley of the king and any tourist needs to have a detailed corret information about those site and he will never ever get a correct one without being with a professional tour guide who has studied Egyptology for years even those information written in the books they are not always right …. and if the tourst doesn’t want to buy any thing he has to tell his tour guide ” I DON’T WANT TO BUY ANY THING AND I DON’T WANT TO VISIT ANY SHOP ” coz at the end of the day the tourist will write a report about everything during his tour and is reported to the agency that arranges the tour for him, and by the way it is right that the best place to buy Alabaster from is Luxor . so all what i wanted to say is every ones experience is his own experience , and what is a dream for you might be a nightmare for me and the vice versa … everyone got a different taste  and that is the contrast of life.  

    • Nick Rowlands

      Thanks for your comment. Bear in mind the article is ever so slightly tongue in cheek, though I still stand by everything I’ve written. 

      To say taxi drivers won’t understand the word ‘atheist’ is a bit patronizing: many drivers speak perfect English / are highly educated. And, I’m afraid I’ve been asked more times than I can remember what my religion is by a driver. Given that it’s a topic I rarely enjoy discussing with strangers, it’s  a lot easier to just pigeon-hole yourself as ‘Christian’ (or whatever) and let it go.

      I agree that Luxor is unique, and that it’s good to get the ‘correct’ information, whatever that is. But I believe the value guides add is debatable (I was a tour leader here for two years, so I am speaking from experience) – it really depends on how much information the pax really want, how they like to digest that info, and what the guide is like. There are good guides, and less good guides. And to say that just because a guide who has trained for x years tells you something it is right is, well, wrong. The meaning and significance of the sites is open to interpretation, many guides say completely different things about the same places, and many are regurgitating ‘facts’ they learned at college some years before and are not involved in active research. But like you said, everyone has their own taste. Either way, the bike ride is awesome.And, for what it’s worth, I actually really like molokhiya…

      • Wildeyes2006

        thank you for your reply , i do respect your point of view even if i don’t agree with it .

  • Kripa Ck

    Awesome write up…Now am all the more excited about my trip to Egypt next month…

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