Getting the VIP treatment in Iran
Full of welcoming locals and beautiful sights, Iran will take your breath away
With tickets in hand for a VIP bus from Esfahan to Rasht, a beautiful town in northern Iran, I was prepared for comfy seats and Iranian entertainment I did not understand.
But the real VIP treatment I got was something I didn't pay for: A wonderful conversation (thanks Google Translate!) with an Iranian woman, a former maths teacher in her 60s. Within 10 minutes of us meeting, my lap was covered with pomegranates, oranges and a stray lemon (for my kebab meal from the bus company). We exchanged numbers and stories and she offered me a stay in her home.
That is Iran for you - full of surprises and warm hospitality.
Couchsurfing, a popular hospitality service that allows locals to host travellers for free, is very active in Iran.
By the time I left the country, I had received almost 60 messages from Iranians inviting me to their homes. And during my trip, I stayed with and hung out with locals who made my trip unforgettable.
This may come as a surprise to those who only know Iran as one of countries on the "Axis of Evil", a perception popularised by former US president George W. Bush.
However, in recent years, Iran has enjoyed a strong presence on many travel bucket lists.
To cater to an increasing demand, AirAsia offers direct budget flights to the capital Teheran for less than $600.
Tourism figures have doubled in the last year, but it is still void of tourist trappings - for now.
In Teheran, there is the hip neighbourhood of Darband, which lies at the foot of a popular hiking trail. It is dotted with teahouses, cafes and restaurants - almost all of which offer hookah (or shisha).
- Due to sanctions imposed on Iran, you can’t use credit or debit cards so make sure you withdraw enough money. For mid-range travellers, 50 euros (S$76) a day should be enough.
- Taxis are cheap but cabbies tend to rip tourists off. Always bargain down to at least 70 per cent of their asking price.
- Travelling between cities is easy and cheap (around 20 euros). Take the VIP buses from bus stations.
- Women must follow the dress code and wear a headscarf at all times in public spaces. They should also wear loose-fitting shirts that cover their bums.
It may be an uphill walk, but the best, most secluded spots are found further up along Darband where you can sit on carpeted platforms right next to a waterfall.
Hijabs are compulsory for both locals and tourists in Iran. However, many in Teheran take the law as a guide - merely covering up a little of their hair.
At Darband, I saw women letting loose, with the safety of seclusion, taking off their headscarves to show off their coloured hair, piercings and tattoos. They leaned on their boyfriends' shoulders and displayed affection freely.
While Teheran is Iran's cosmopolitan city (complete with very modern pollution), Shiraz is the nation's cultural capital, known for its stunning mosques, gardens and literature.
I headed out to The Tomb of Hafez, the most celebrated Iranian poet late on a weekday evening to find it packed with locals.
Some were taking selfies, laughing in one other's company, others were sitting on the ground in circles reading aloud Hafez's poetry.
Within 10 minutes of us meeting, my lap was covered with pomegranates, oranges and a stray lemon. Jennifer Dhanaraj, recounting a meeting with a friendly iranian woman during her trip to the country
I was invited to join one of their circles.
One of my new friends told me that along with the Quran, many Iranians keep a collection of Hafez's works at home.
I may not understand Farsi, but I have since gained an appreciation for Hafez and his musings on love.
Iran has many beautiful mosques but Shiraz, in my opinion, has the most stunning ones.
Traffic can be crazy in Shiraz and I found myself seeking refuge and peace in the mosques and gardens for hours.
One of the most popular mosques is the Nasir ol Molk Mosque, otherwise known as the Pink Mosque.
I arrived before 7am and I was treated to a kaleidoscope of colours filling the small room as the sun rose.
Remember to look upwards when you are in any mosque or bazaar in Iran.
It is likely that the ceilings may take your breath away with their intricate carvings and colours.
Equally breathtaking is the city of Isfahan, the most beautiful city I have ever been to.
At the centre of Isfahan is the magnificent Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, also known as the Imam Square.
Surrounded by two grand mosques, a huge bazaar and several teahouses, it is easy to spend an entire day here.
The best activity is to do as the locals do: Sit down and have a picnic, an activity commonly seen throughout Iran wherever there is a patch of grass.
At the square I saw artists at work, teenagers gossiping and horse carriages taking delighted families around the square.
After Imam Square, I took a leisurely walk along Isfahan's famous bridges. These include Siosepol Bridge and Khaju Bridge, both of which are gorgeously lit up at night.
The bridges form a perfect backdrop for a date as the arches are often occupied by older Iranian men singing beautifully in groups - romance clearly not lost in translation. I saw local couples snuggling up in the arches of the bridges.
Once you have explored the three main cities in Iran, it is worth going up north to explore some of Iran's beautiful nature.
Masuleh is a village where houses are built into the mountainside and where the streets are built on top of the roofs.
There is nothing much to do there except hike and drink copious amounts of tea and non-alcoholic beer, but it is still worth spending at least a night there.
Close by is Rudkhan Castle, a challenging two-hour hike through dense forests and up a mountain.
The view left me speechless, although it may also have been the exhaustion.
Iran is full of beautiful sights, cities and mosques but it is undoubtedly the people and their warmth that will lead to me back to the country again.