Saudi-Arabia is a country full of beautiful places to visit for those willing to make the journey to get there..While there are regular flights from Riyadh to Abha, we wanted to show my visiting mother as much of the largely unknown countryside as possible, so we decided to go on a road trip around Southern Saudi-Arabia, traveling with an SUV from our hometown Riyadh down to Asir region and the Farasan Islands. The distance between Riyadh and Abha is around 1000km when you drive on the route 10 through Al Kharj. We chose this route because my husband has family in Kharj, but according to the map the road via Muzahmiyah (route 30) the drive would be slightly faster (approx. 8h 30 minutes).
What an awesome way road trips are to explore the Saudi Kingdom! I love the fact that you can stop wherever and whenever you like to check out the surroundings. During our trip it was Eid Al-Adha holiday and my husband had almost two whole weeks off work which we took advantage of. We planned to have the following itinerary: Riyadh-Kharj-Layla-Wadi Al Dawasir-Khamis Mushayt-Abha-Jizan-Farasan…and back. But we ended up improvising and changed plans on the way, (we actually drove to Najran and Empty Quarter too) which makes road trips all the more fun!
In this post you’ll read about the journey from Riyadh through cities of al Kharj, Wadi Al Dawasir, Khamis Mushayt all the way to Abha which is about 1000km total drive. Check out all the amazing things which you can do in and around Abha in this post: Top 10 Things to do in Abha. More about the rest of our road trip in this post: “Saudi Road Trip”
Road trips in KSA are fairly easy to make since the highways are mostly in excellent condition and well, gasoline is basically free. Or at least it’s cheaper than water.
There are affordable car rentals everywhere and we had our eye on a nice GMC Suburban but the agency screwed it up last-minute. So we ended up having to take whatever was left so last-minute: a crappy Land Cruiser. Sitting in the back seat of this so-called vehicle reminded me of the times I road on the buses in the Ecuador mountains. Fun times!
Lucky for me I was assigned the back seat and got to experience the constant rocking, bouncing, grinding and swirling motions of the car to its full effect. We left two hours late from schedule because we had to clean the car after the previous users. Apparently that’s not included in the service here. It might be a good idea to check on this before you rent.
My little girl was only 7 months old at the time we took this trip and she was just such a little trooper. Sat in her car seat for hours without any complaints. We read books, played, watched the scenery and slept in the back seat while my mom was the head navigator in the front, My husband being the only one licensed to drive by Saudi terms (the one with male organ) was the designated driver, although I was dying to drive just a little bit in remote areas.. Which I finally did get to do while driving on a beach on Farasan Islands.
Our journey was so long and I took literally over a thousand pictures so I decided to divide the journey into three parts. All in all it was an amazing, surprising and enjoyable experience. The occasional setbacks and all the hours spent in the car were well worth it!
On our way out of Riyadh we saw many trucks carrying full loads of sheep on their way to Saudi dinner tables. During Eid it’s custom that Saudi families slaughter sheep for the special occasion.
In Kharj we stopped to meet my husband’s great grandmother, my daughter’s great great grandmother! Her eyesight and hearing is a bit impaired and she didn’t expect us but nevertheless welcomed us into her house with such warmth and hospitality.
Births were not registered in Saudi back in the day so she did not now her age but estimated it to be near 90. She had 14 children that lived to adulthood and over 100 grandchildren. Imagine how many great great grandchildren that means!
While we were served tea and fruits by this sweet old lady, she told my husband how she had scolded some family members for not accepting his choice of wife because I was not Saudi. She said the most important thing is who she is and told him that she liked me and my mother. It felt so good to hear this. As the eldest family member her opinion will have powerful influence in the extended family.
We were shown all around her house and she would not let us leave, insisting we stay for lunch. She was amazed to hear we were intending to drive all the way to Abha that day. So we thanked her profusely and continued on our journey. This was one of the highlights of our trip.
This ^ is camel herding for the modern day (or very lazy) Bedouin.
Not much to see for about the next 500km. Read about what happened to us during this part of the trip, the terrifying near-death experience.
Finally we reached Khamis Mushayt, a small city next to Abha. It was very late so we only stopped at McDonald’s for a quick fix of ice cream. I was standing in line at the family section when a Bedouin man cut me in line(what line?). He started asking for a menu and didn’t understand the stuff was all up on the board. I cracked up when he started asking for “gambaari” He wasn’t asking for a drink but SHRIMPS! He kept repeating gambaari, gambaari, jib gambaari!
Dude haven’t you been to McDonald’s before? Mafi gambaari.
We reached Abha in the middle of the night. I recall it being almost 2 am. My husband went to the reception of the hotel we had booked. We wanted a family room with two bedrooms. They had an issue with this. They questioned him about my mother! Who is this lady and would not believe it’s his MIL despite the same surname. The staff told us to go to the police station and get a clearance that we were related! The nerve!
I was pretty pissed off at this point because a) It’s 2 am for God’s sake! We are checking into a family room with an infant, just let us go to sleep. b) if this isn’t my mother than who the heck is it? c) if she’s an unrelated random female why would she be travelling with us? c) if it were our Indonesian maid you would have no issues with her staying with us and d) are you implying that we are up to something haram in your hotel? Yet another example of customer “service” or should I say disservice in the Kingdom. This was the only hotel that asked for proof during our whole trip.
Needless to say, we changed hotels. But not to the above ‘I’m Hotel’-hotel! Duh we can see that you’re a hotel!
Abha turned out to be a very green and colorful city surrounded by lush mountains. Unfortunately very few traditional houses are left in the city. Most had been torn down. We headed out to the Asir National park, such a beautiful place!
Asir National park is famous for its baboons. Some of them were behaving aggressively toward the baby, showing their teeth and making weird noises. Unfortunately they seemed to be accustomed to tourists giving them food. I saw one man feeding them popcorn in order to get better pics!
We bought some delicious honey from this man. The honey was from Yemen and the man from Tahamah.
The winding roads in the mountains had occasionally only “suggested” speeds. Actually it doesn’t really matter what they tell you the speed limit is. Speed limit by Saudi terms means the limit is how fast you are physically able to drive under the specific circumstances. In these roads that would be about 140km/h.
The only time you will see a Saudi man driving 40km/h is when he is checking women out. So much for the suggestion. LOL
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Hello there, I’m Laura, the founder, author and manager of Blue Abaya, the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia established in 2010. Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 69 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia! Having visited all corners of the Kingdom with over a decade of experience, I have a vast knowledge base about travel and tourism in Saudi Arabia.