When I visited Lebanon earlier this year I knew very little about the country. I decided to visit the country on a whim borne out of pure curiosity and booked my flight with no idea of what awaited me!
Two weeks later though, after hitching, hiking, drinking and dancing the full length & breadth of the country, I had become something of an expert on all things Lebanese. Continue reading and you too will soon be something of an expert my dear reader.
Here are Ten things I learned from Backpacking Lebanon…
1. There are 2 currencies!
The official currency in Lebanon is the Lebanese Lira AKA the Lebanese Pound. It has a nice, funky arabic design aesthetic and comes in denominations with lots of zero’s at the end. Whilst the Arabs did of course invent the zero, the Lebanese appear to have gotten tired of counting them so they’ve started using the US Dollar to make purchases somehow simpler. You can probably imagine my confusion when I visited the airport exchange desk and was handed a bunch of US Dollars in exchange for my US Dollars.
Things like bus fares, coffee’s and street food are usually paid for entirely in Lira whereas hotel’s and restaurant meals will usually be quoted in USD.
Initially, I found this system incredibly confusing and it left me convinced that I was been forever shortchanged. After a few days though, I had gotten my head around it pretty well. A very simple rule is that 1000L = $1USD, you can pay either way you like and you usually receive change from bigger bills in a combination of USD and Lira. If something costs 6000L and you hand over a $10, you’ll probably get your $4 worth of change in a combination of $1 bills and Lebanese notes.
2. People live for today
L is for Life and L is for Lebanon and you may well have heard about Beirut’s reputation for hedonism. The “Paris of the Med” is very much the party capital of the arabic world and the city boasts some legendary clubs and a booming bar scene.
In Lebanon I found the population truly lustful for life, living vivaciously with an abundant supply of energy and a seemingly endless supply of cash. Every night, bars and restaurants were packed with people eating, drinking and dancing around tables.
My Lebanese friends told me that nobody in their generation saves money or dreams of home ownership because they simply live in the here and now. Perhaps this is a collective consequence of the long & bloody civil war. Quite simply what is the point saving for a future you may well not live to see and why invest in bricks and mortar when a stray mortar shell will soon tear it into rubble?
Personally, I think we could learn a lot from the Lebanese.
3. Refugees make up a quarter of the population
Whilst the country’s long and devastating civil war has now receded into history, the nation is still bearing the burden of similar conflicts in surrounding nations. Lebanon has long been home to over 1 million Palestinian refugees and the last few years have seen at least a million of Syrian’s pour over the border seeking sanctuary.
With an official population of under 5million, this is putting an enormous strain on the country. It certainly puts things into perspective when I think that my own country the UK with a population of 60 million, has taken fewer than 1000 Syrian refugees…
It is possible to visit Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut & Tyre and Syrian camps around the Bekaa Valley. If you are backpacking Lebanon, you should definitely try should and go. You will learn a hell of a lot and the people will be very happy to see you – particularly if you bring a few footballs or coloured pens for the kids to play with.
4. Lebanon is not an Islamic country
Prior to visiting, I presumed that Lebanon was an Islamic country like its Arab neighbours Syria, Jordan & Palestine. However this is not the case and the last census put the demographical split at about 50% muslim and 50% Christian. Furthermore, the country’s unique constitution established by the French mandate, states that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the House Greek Orthodox and the head of the army drawn from the mysterious Druze religion prominent in the Chouff mountains!
I can’t think of many other countries where representation of various ethnic groups is so deeply enshrined in the political system. That said, whilst the constitution just about holds together, there is widespread political dissatisfaction within Lebanon which has caused a very interesting dynamic. See number 5…
5. There is a state within a state…
Because of the challenges faced by Lebanon’s political system, its official, central government doesn’t exactly have full control of the country. In and around Beirut, you can see Lebanese flags on every corner and army checkpoints emphasising the state control.
Venture into Tyre or the Bekaa valley though and things are a bit different. The red and white Lebanese flags are replaced by the black and yellow flags of Hezbollah and the checkpoints are manned by bearded militants brandishing AK-47’s.
Hezbollah’s role in modern Lebanon in fascinating. They are considered a terrorist organisation by the west and distrusted by a lot of Lebanese. On the other hand, they are credited with ending Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon and they provide social services for the needy in large areas of the country.
The fact that are two regimes operating in Lebanon is especially amazing considering how small the country is. Which takes us nicely item 6…
6. You can ski and swim in one day!
Lebanon is small. You can drive from North to South in half of a day and then East to West in the other half! This means that you can see pretty much all of the main attractions in less than a 2 week visit making backpacking Lebanon very practical.
Despite its small size, Lebanon still packs in some real biodiversity. There are sandy beaches on the coast, vineyards in the Bekaa Valley and snowy mountains at the high point of Mount Makmel. If you have access to a car, it’s easy to start the morning swimming in Byblos’ beautiful blue sea and conclude the afternoon skiing up at the Cedars.
7. It has amazing ruins
The best Roman ruins are not found in Rome. This is simply because after the fall of the Empire, the great structures were plundered by barbarians and the stone used to make far less remarkable structures.
Fortunately though, Baalbek is home to Heliopolis (City of the Sun), the best preserved and most epic roman ruins on the planet. The centrepiece of the site is the stunning temple of Bacchus but the whole place simply has an energy about it. The best bit of all, is that there are hardly any tourists so you will have the place to yourself.
As well as the Roman ruins, in Beirut you can urban explore bombed out buildings and the Qadisha Valley has some haunting rock monasteries dating back nearly 1000 years – some of which are falling into an eerie state of dilapidation. Best of all though is the abandoned train station in Tripoli where you can climb all over bullet strewn locamotives.
8. Food is incredible
In the west, Lebanon is famous for (1) bombs (2) hot girls and (3) great food so you may already know a little bit about this one. Still, to truly get it you need to experience it yourself because in Lebanon I ate like a phoenician king. Lebanese fare varies from kebabs and meat cutlets through to delicious fresh fish onto fantastic vegetarian dishes such as falafel. The best bit is that the Lebanese eat a lot of greens so the average meal is generally very healthy.
My absolute recommendation is to sample the Pomegranate Molasses (“palm-grenade sauce”) which is used in all manner of weird-wonderful ways from a humble simple salad dressing to a succulent marinade for sausages. Food in Lebanon is also best shared with friends and fortunately for you, the Lebanese are very friendly.
9. Getting around is a lotta fun
Public transport in Lebanon is pure beautiful chaos. It functions amazingly well despite their being no apparent order and a battered fleet of busses and sheruts (shared taxis). There are no bus stations in Beirut, busses themselves are not even marked and they seem to stop when and where the hell they like. Despite this, I was never waiting long for a bus anywhere and never paid over $6 to get half way across the country. Basically the trick is to simply wait by a road and the locals will somehow get you to your destination.
I also tried hitch-hiking twice in Lebanon. On both occasions I was picked up by the very first car which passed.
If that all sounds too adventurous for you, then you will be pleased to know Uber cover much of the country but that’s far less fun.
10. It is safe to visit!!!!!
The one thing I did know about Lebanon before I went there was that it was considered unsafe to visit. In truth this reputation is 20 years out of date and I never felt unsure or scared at any point in my trip. Yes there are army and Hezbollah checkpoints, there are bullet riddled buildings and there are refugee camps packed with desperate souls. But as a traveller, you will be welcomed and looked after. I promise.
The only real hazards I found in Lebanon were Beirut’s traffic and the occasional bit of falling rubble from the extensive, ongoing building works which are conducted with a wanton regard for health and safety. Oh, the other big dangers to your health are eating too much delicious food and falling in love with Lebanon forever more!