The quiet town of Palmyra

The bus rolled into Tadmor, or as most know it as Palmyra, a little over 3 hours after it left the Harasta Pullman terminal in Damascus. Taking local buses is always fun and tricky if you don’t speak or understand the native language. The final destination wasn’t Palmyra and even if it was the bus driver was calling it Tadmor. Palmyra is a small town and I still wasn’t sure if it had a bus station? I guess a good street map (LP #fail) complete with important things like where the bus stops would have been helpful. We’ve adapted to LP and other guidebook fails by now, so we had to just go with it, use our brains and harness our powers of perception.  So what we knew was the bus must be stopping soon since it’s getting close to the scheduled time of arrival and I see two others travelers getting ready to leave.  It’s highly likely that we are on same Syrian LP/Routard trail.  We also start to get ready to spring from the hot bus.   The bus stops, we thanked the bus driver and chose a direction which hopefully led into town.  We then found a safe place to get a quick look at the crappy LP map but it didn’t matter because no one seemed to want to bother us with questions like “Do you need any help?”  “Where are you staying or need to go? ” “I can drive you!” etc.

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The town didn’t look like much as we started down the road.  Mind you – up to that point,  we still hadn’t seen any ruins.  We did manage to easily find  the Ishtar Hotel and reserved a room for 3 nights.  We weren’t in a hurry and figured Palmyra can be completely covered in 2-3 days.  The idea of staying in a clean hotel and being able to see the ruins and the town at what ever hour really appealed to us.  The museum is also supposed to be fantastic but the hours are a bit erratic.

We pretty much checked in, got something to eat,  made a plan for the next morning and got to bed.  The ruins the next day there was only us, the camels and their Bedouin caretakers at 7am.   We didn’t come by many other travelers while visiting except for a french couple we met while wandering around the ruins the first day.  We ended up dining together the next couple of nights.  It always fun sharing travel experiences, swapped stories and travel itinerary tips with other like-minded folks.  It was what social networking was before foursquare and twitter entered the travel realm.

Palmyra is one of those towns that many backpackers skip over because of lack of time or faith that the travel forums take away from them.  They do put too much merit in the rants and negative banter found online. I saw them too but I know that people love to talk more when something upset them or didn’t hold up to expectations.  I was really turned off after reading a very biased description on the Wikitravel website.  According to its author,  Palmyra has not worth visiting and if you do “The ruins themselves can be covered in less than 2 hours (unless you are an archeologist or particularly educated in this field of study).” Palmyra is unfairly compared it to Las Vegas of all places and basically says most travelers should just skip it. Maybe we didn’t see any signs of this because it was off-season or we were just very different travelers? Don’t know and Don’t care.  These scathing remarks about a place which is listed  UNESCO World Heritage Site makes me only want to try to find out why they hated it so much.  I still don’t know the answer to that one. I thoroughly enjoyed just about every minute of the little time I was there and I have never taken an archeology course.

Most people who visit are a part of a bus tour and stay at The Dedeman Palmyra or the Zenobia Cham Palace which are both very large hotels situated just outside  to the ruins parameter. Most tours are pretty quick to get in and out of this area, so they really don’t seem to get in the way of independent travelers. The couple of tour buses that did pull up seemed to be in and out in a half and hour.  It was pretty hot with the temps being around 100 F most days.  Walking around this large open site was amazing because of its scale. There’s no entrance fee, if you wanted a guide you would have to arrange for one  and camels were ready to go but we were never asked to take one.

So, in Palmyra there’s no bungee jumping, night life or party hostels (in June 2008 at least).   It’s a great place to spend time  wondering the ruins and trying to imagine what it was like here a couple of thousand of years ago.  It wasn’t hard for me to imagine it being a thriving caravan trade center full of people, working camels, palm trees, rivers and water estuaries just as history says.

So, here are some random tips on Palmyra:

Camping in Palmyra: There is an interesting place to stay and camp right inside the ruins next to The Temple of Bel. It’s called Al-Baider and is run by the Bedouin who rent out the camels. There’s no website and the only information I found online was a discussion about it on the LP Thorn tree site.

The Palmyra Museum: It’s a well maintained museum and a great place to visit in the heat of the day. The hours vary but in general it’s closed in the middle of the day for an hour or so and admission is around $3-4 USD or 150 Syrian Pounds. The ruins are best seen early and late in the day. So go early, get some lunch/tea, see the museum then finish it off with a sunset over the ruins. I guess that goes without saying.

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