Israel (מדינת ישראל) is a small yet diverse Middle Eastern country with a long coastline on the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a small window on the Red Sea at the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba).
Israel was established as a state for the the Jewish people, following the Second World War. Israel is considered part of the Holy Land (together with areas of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories). The three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all have historical ties to the region. Israel thus contains a vibrant modern history and culture, based in part on the diverse, immigrant origins of its inhabitants returning from the Jewish Diaspora. These aspects make Israel a fascinating destination for many travellers and pilgrims.
For Singaporeans, many of us have a warped perception of Israel as a dangerous place to visit because of the frequent news reports of conflicts in the Middle East. When I told my friends and family that I was travelling to Israel, the most common comment I get from those who have not been there is that I should be very careful for my safety.
The worries are unnecessary.
I had a great one week stay at Israel, thanks to the wonderful team from Dig Israel who hosted me there. For the uninformed, Israel is a safe place to visit (excluding the West Bank and Gaza Strip which are not tourist destinations). It is like many other cosmopolitan cities around the world, but with it’s own quirk, diverse culture and people. I will share more about my Israel trip in my subsequent blog posts.
This post is to share some travel tips for Singaporeans who are planning to visit Israel on your own without going through a package tour:
1. Israeli currency – New Israel Shekel
This currency is not easily available outside of Israel, but fret not, you can go to any money changer in Israel to do the exchange. There are counters available at the airport too, but the service fee or “commission” they charged are quite steep (about S$10+ depending on how much you change). The fee varies from one money changer to another, hence get a few quotes before settling on one to change. The fee charged is a flat fee, hence try to change as much currency as you need just once.
2. Singaporean Passport
If you are holding a Malaysian passport, sorry, you cannot enter Israel. For Singapore passport holders, we do not require a visa. However, request for the Israeli custom officers to stamp on a special piece of immigration paper available at Israel airport instead of stamping directly on your passport. This is because an Israel passport chop may cause difficulties getting into and/or be refused visas to Islamic countries, such as Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan for your subsequent travels.
3. Clearing Israel Custom
The security check is really tight when travelling to Israel. I find it fair enough as it is for our own safety too. You will be asked some profiling questions at the luggage check-in counter travelling to and from Israel. Some of the questions may get a little personal – eg. I was asked questions like why did I only took leave from work one week before my trip; asked to recount my day by day itinerary during my stay in Israel; went through some of my personal photos in my digital camera to check if what I said about my itinerary was true; reasons why I travelled to Malaysia since I been there twice this year and also whether I know anyone there. The questioning may take quite a while and will make some people uncomfortable. My advice is just to answer as honestly as possible if you have nothing to hide. Do not lie to speed up the questioning as they are very thorough and you may end up having to tell another lie to cover a previous harmless lie, increasing the chance of being exposed as a liar and getting detained. You will get to fly. Be patient.
Do not take stuff like soil from Jerusalem and salt from the Dead Sea to pack home on your own. All baggage going out of Israel are screened and opened up for checking. Do not pull stunts like these. Do not take photographs of the security counter and officers either.
The ultra-orthodox Jews are easily identifiable with their curly side burns, black suits and tassels. Tourists like to take pictures of them because of their interesting appearance which we are not familiar with. However, do bear in mind that they are not animals in the zoo and as much as you would get pissed off with strangers taking random pictures of you, they feel the same way too. Do accord them due respect and try not intrude in their personal space.
6. The Sabbath
Be aware of the Sabbath: from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, train and bus services are not available in Israel (except in Haifa, Nazareth and Eilat, and limited sherut services – shared taxis). Unless you have a car, or are willing to pay for a taxi (not shared), if you’re day tripping on a Friday, you should start thinking about how to get back by noon at the latest, and you should plan on staying near your lodgings on Saturday. Attractions, shops and malls are also closed during the Sabbath. I made the mistake of staying for an additional day in Tel Aviv during the Sabbath and ended up wandering the streets alone with nothing to see or do. I also had to specially advance book a taxi to the airport.
7. Gay and Lesbian Travel
Israel is one of the most “gay friendly” countries in the world. Seriously. All three major cities (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa) have an annual “Pride” parade, and the annual Love Parade in Tel Aviv gets cheering spectators too. Look out for many hotels, cafes and restaurants with rainbow flags hanging outside. These are all gay-friendly places.
Israel is not a cheap country. I find it more expensive than Sydney and the United States in terms of food, lodging and shopping. On average, a meal cost around S$20 for a simple meal at a cafe. A bottle of 500ml water cost around S$5. Taxi from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv one way cost about S$100.
Street food is safe and clean. Israeli cuisine is as diverse as the population which makes up this gastronomic country. Food in Israel is generally of a very high standard. I really enjoyed the food during my stay. Not tipping in sit-in restaurants that have waiters is frowned upon, but is accepted for signalling atrocious service. It is standard to give 10%-15% (or more for exceptional service). 20% tip is considered generous.
Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel. Hebrew is most commonly spoken. 20% of the population are Israeli-Arabs who speak Arabic as well. English is the most popular foreign language. Israelis study English in school from an early age, and it is commonly understood in Israel. Nearly anyone you meet on the street will be able to communicate with you in English. All street and road signs (and many others) have English names, as well as the Hebrew and Arabic names.
Ten easy tips! Have a safe and fun trip to Israel!