What’s different in Iran?

We encountered a few curious things in Iran, things we would not see in our own country, New Zealand. Of course the language, the landscapes, the food and the people are different, as they are in every country. I might get round to writing a post about the food one day and some of the differences I touch on in my various blogposts. But here are some things I can think of that stood out for me as ‘different’ in Iran, that I haven’t already mentioned elsewhere. They aren’t exactly travel tips more travel insights, but they didn’t fit any other section of the blog so here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Traffic safety

On her mother’s lap in the back of the car.

Traffic safety is not taken nearly as seriously as we take it at home. In NZ we get updates on the national news whenever there is a fatal traffic accident. In Iran every 19 minutes someone dies on the roads. 🙁 More depressing facts about road traffic accidents in Iran here.

Those on motorbikes rarely use helmets.

Seatbelts it seems are optional except if there is a camera or police check. When we entered a car and automatically reached for the seatbelt, several times drivers told us not to worry. Of course we put them on- I couldn’t imagine being in a car without one on, especially in Iran with the rather crazy driving.

Most children don’t travel in approved child seats; babies are held by a passenger, sometimes even the driver, whilst driving!

A Dad driving with his much loved daughter!

A Dad driving with his much loved daughter!

The driving is difficult to describe- it has to be experienced! Antony loved it- quite the adrenaline rush as cars come at speed from all directions but somehow avoid crashing into each other. We couldn’t figure out the rules they adhere to but it seems to work generally speaking. I wouldn’t advise tourists to drive themselves in Iran though.

Crossing the road as a pedestrian felt more dangerous than being in a car. Pedestrian Crossings are not what you think. Do not expect cars to slow down or avoid you when crossing the road – they won’t. It is best for the foreign tourist to shadow a local when crossing the road. It can be a very dangerous undertaking! 

In the photo below you will see quite possibly the largest Iranian man alive, along with his 2 children on the front of his motorbike and his wife holding a baby on the back. I couldn’t believe my eyes! No helmets, toddlers and babies on motorbikes… you’d never see this in NZ!

5 people on a motorbike!

Iranian style people mover… 5 on the bike in the middle.

2. Random things for sale on the street

20160322_134402Who needs a shop or a market place when you can set up your wares on the side of a busy road? I’m not talking your horse manure or extra apples in bags by your farm gate (this you will find in NZ). Here we saw cute toy pandas, clothes, tents, shoes, vegetables… all kinds of stuff for sale on the road.

Also seen on the street, near a bazaar in Hamadan, baby chickens dyed all different colours (see picture on right). I’m not sure if this was in honour of the recent Noruz (New Year) or something offered year round. The colourful chicks were all huddled in a box with some plastic over them, poor little things.


Roadside sales in Dezful.

3. Daily reminders of the Iran-Iraq war

Signs like these are EVERYWHERE... reminding people of those who died in the 1980s Iran Iraq war.

If an Iranian produced tv station was on in a home we visted, it seemed that there was always something on the tv about the Iran Iraq war.

Streets everywhere were lined with large signs with photos of those who’d died in the war (see right).

There were monuments commemorating the war. Posters and paintings all over the country about it.

You would think it happened recently, not 30 odd years ago… it is as though people are not allowed to move on. It is constantly in your face. I would be interested in how Iranians feel about this actually as for me it was quite depressing, signs of war and of this sad past everywhere, every day. It must have an impact on national identity. (Any Iranians reading this feel free to enlighten me in the comments!)

Monument about Iran Iraq war, Hamadan.

Monument about Iran Iraq war, Hamadan.

Even in the smallest of rural villages there were signs with the photos of those who died in the Iran Iraq war.

Even in the smallest of rural villages there were signs with the photos of those who had died fighting.

At the port, Hormoz Island.

At the port, Hormoz Island.

4. Political Posters

We were at quite a family-friendly event in Qazvin, where there were large puppets dancing, stories narrated, things for children, food etc. It was a nice holiday type atmosphere. Then amongst all this was a temporary display set up with a lot of very graphic posters. The message is pretty clear even if you don’t speak Persian!



Although the message is clear from the government, we didn’t encounter any hostility or ill feeling towards Americans or Israelis amongst the Iranians we met.

5. Ayatollahs

Pictures, paintings, murals, posters etc. of the first Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Komeini, and the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei abound all over the country. No doubting who’s in charge…

At Hormoz Island Port.

At Hormoz Island Port.

In Shush.

At a mosque in Shush.

in Kandovan Cave town.

Building wall in Kandovan Cave town.

Imagine if we did this in New Zealand… with John Key plastered all over the place?! Slightly different in Iran of course as these guys were not elected as primeminister/ president of the country. The ‘Supreme Leader’ as the name suggests is above the elected parliament, and leads the Guardian Council, which has all sorts of powers.

6. Controversial Goldfish

The celebration of Noruz – Iranian New Year – takes place in March and is the most important holiday in the year. There are many traditions that go along with it, including arranging seven symbolic things on a table, called the Haft Sīn. While goldfish are not one of these seven things, they appear in many Iranian households at this time of year.

Goldfish are however controversial- some argue that they are not part of true Iranian tradition, rather they are from Chinese New Years celebrations. Some say that Iranians should boycott buying goldfish, for as many as 5 million of them die during Noruz. Others say they shouldn’t be boycotted but more education and care is required from the suppliers, transporters and buyers.

The goldfish sellers looked busy at the markets so I don’t think the animal rights activists were winning.

Purchasing Goldfish in Ahvaz.

Purchasing Goldfish in Ahvaz.

7. Ta’arof

There’s a culture of Ta’arof where people might initially refuse to take payment for goods or services – but they really do want you to pay, you just have to insist about 3 times then they will take the money. Don’t leave the shop thinking it’s your lucky day 😉

I thought I knew about taroof but after buying a pair of sandals for Antony in a shoe shop in our first week in the country I was offered a pair of shoes as a gift. I initially refused but the shopkeeper insisted and found my size so I thanked her and took them, not wanting to offend ( I didn’t really want the shoes!) Afterwards someone told me this was probably an example of ta’arof…She was offering something that really I should have refused a few more times. So she didn’t really want to give away a pair of new shoes and I didn’t really want to take them, but we didn’t want to offend each other so I ended up with some slip on slightly high-heeled shoes that I soon gave away. Oh dear! Ta’arof is a bit confusing for the foreign visitor!

8. Banks & ATMs

ATMs and banks in Iran were often beautifully decorated with mosaics or patterned tiles. We saw SO many banks in Iran. They seemed to be everywhere. We couldn’t get over how many different ones and how many branches there were. Although debit cards are in use all over the country and you can easily find ATMs, they do not accept foreign cards, so they are of no use to the traveller!

If you plan to go to Iran you must bring all the currency you think you’ll need & more for emergencies (in Euros or USD) as your credit card will not work. Do not be like the Italian tourist we met who arrived without cash presuming his credit card would work to withdraw local currency on arrival. Lucky for him he met an honest Ukranian guy who was about to go to Dubai then re-enter Iran again on a new visa, so he took the Italian guy’s credit card and pin number and withdrew cash for him in Dubai and returned shortly after, cash in hand.There are reputable exchange places everywhere (don’t exchange too much at the airports as like anywhere in the world their rates are not usually as good as in the city) . We never had a problem getting a good rate for our USD and in the end got used to carrying lots of cash around. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of Rial! ($1 USD = 31,600 Rial.)

ATM in Esfahan & Bank in Yazd nicely decorated.

ATM in Esfahan & Bank in Yazd nicely decorated.

9. Taking photos – especially selfies

Iranians take more selfies per capita than anyone, I’m sure of it! I had never really even seen a selfie stick used in NZ but they are everywhere in Iran. Although people take selfies at home, they often do so discretely. I have been places in Iran where Iranians have taken photos of themselves in front of every sculpture or room or artefact on display, with lots of people around to witness this. They did not seem to think it was odd.

I couldn’t believe one woman’s number of photos as we walked around a palace in Tehran at a similar pace. I spent time looking at the things we’d paid money to see. She spent time looking at herself in the camera, adjusting her pose, her hair, her scarf, her facial expression in front of things that I doubt she even really looked at. Whilst selfies can be fun and Antony and I take them on occasion, I could not imagine having an entire album of a visit to a palace where every photo features myself in the foreground!

I am actually embarrassed to take selfies in public and I think a lot of New Zealanders would be the same. It’s different if there’s two of you or a group, but by yourself – shame! A lot of kiwis wouldn’t feel comfortable if others were around, to look at themselves in their camera, adjusting their poses and taking their time to get the right selfie as Iranians seem to do with ease. Or maybe it’s just me?

Iranians love taking photos, selfies or otherwise, and we were often asked to have our picture taken with locals- sometimes people we didn’t even know, like in the photo below. That’s me in the green scarf, posing with various high school girls who wanted their photo with me.

Girls taking photos with me, Kerman.

Photo time, Kerman.

Once we were walking past a bakery in Tehran and the baker asked us if we had a camera and requested that we take his photo. Kind of unusual as he didn’t want me to send the photo or anything… I guess he liked the idea of being in someone’s photo album! This love for photos is great for the traveler as it means most Iranians are happy for you to take their picture. I love the memories that photos help bring alive so am grateful I could take photos easily of those we met.

Baker who asked us to take his photo

Baker who asked us to take his photo

10. Laundry

20160328_201627OK so I haven’t ever got laundry done in a hotel in New Zealand but I am pretty sure it is quite different to our experience. First time we tried it, at our hotel in Yazd, we ended up with quite a few clothes that weren’t ours. I recognised them as belonging to the Germans we’d met and who were drying their hand-washing on the roof so promptly returned them.

Next time was in a hotel in Tehran. I had told the receptionist that I didn’t want the clothes dried in a drier but rather hung up. I realised this would take longer to dry but we were there for a few days. Well our washing was returned, all folded in plastic bags. Funny thing was it was still wet!

11. Rubbish

Unfortunately there was rubbish everywhere in Iran. Having just come from NZ where it is rare to see rubbish lying around anywhere except near an overfill bin, this was a real shock for us. Perhaps there isn’t decent infrastructure for recycling, for getting rid of rubbish, I don’t know, but it certainly was a problem the country will need to address. The whole culture seemed different- like it was acceptable for kids to just drop their candy wrappers on the street, for people to just throw away things they’d finished with, wherever they were. (We later encountered this culture and rubbish problem in Armenia and Georgia too but not to the same extent). It was a shame that littering even occured at beautiful natural or historic sites.

Just a few metres from Esfahan’s famous Naqsh-e-Jahan Square was a whole lot of rubbish. At least this looks like it is organised in some way- perhaps cardboard recycling was taking place?


Esfahan – recycling?

12. Subway Sellers

Bra seller on the metro, Tehran.

Bra seller on the metro, Tehran.

Travelling on Tehran’s metro was an interesting experience. People, mostly Afghan children – but also adults, come wandering through selling chewing gum, selfie sticks and whatever else they think might be popular. I explored Tehran by myself a few times so rode in the women’s carriage. Here women were selling scarves, bras, underwear, all manner of things and people were very interested in their wares.

13. Tourist prices

There are increasing numbers of foreign tourists coming to Iran, especially now you can get a month’s visa on arrival at the airport very easily. I was surprised however to read that in 2015 Iran had 5.2 million tourists (according to the Tourism Affairs Dept.)! That’s a lot more than New Zealand gets per year… mind you, with arguably the friendliest most hospitable people on earth, good food, an incredibly safe country, excellent cheap transport between cities, beautiful diverse landscapes and 19 Unesco sights (more than anywhere else in the Middle East), of course I can see why Iran is so popular!

Despite increasing numbers of foreigners to the country, we mostly saw Iranian tourists, not foreigners, at tourist sights. Iranians are great travellers in their own country.  This stood in contrast to our visits to some of NZs key tourist sights before we went to Iran. There (Hobbiton & Waitomo Caves) the guides and all the visitors seemed to be from other countries.

Also worth knowing is that there are usually different prices listed for attractions or sights. A cheaper price for Iranians, more expensive for foreign tourists. This didn’t bother me as it makes great sites accessible to Iranians who may not have as much spending power as a foreign tourist. In most cases the ‘foreign price’ was comparable or cheaper to what you might pay in Europe for attractions. Sometimes money would be going toward preservation or restoration work or improving the site, then it felt ok to pay what may otherwise have felt like quite a bit of money… especially when it was 10 x or more the cost of an Iranian ticket.

What did annoy me a bit was that there wasn’t much of a standard when it came to pricing. To get into a historic home or school with not a whole lot to look at was priced the same as an amazing UNESCO site like Persepolis, where you could spend hours. Prices had recently increased over all attractions in Iran it seemed. We had the ticket guy at the Yazd water museum apologise profusely about this recent increase, although the price there was reasonable – not as much as many other places and there was lots to see and well presented information in English. Anyway some prices have justifiably increased but others were unfairly high for what they offered.

The mosques (for example in Esfahan) were amazing but also cost quite a bit to see. If you wanted to see 3 or 4 of the famous ones suddenly you’d spent a lot of money! This is unlike many parts of the world where churches and monasteries do not charge (but welcome donations). We felt that the price asked for the National Museum in Tehran was too much so decided against going in. That was a pity to miss out but we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay for yet another (expensive for the budget traveler) entrance fee. At home we have some incredible museums that are free… perhaps we are spoilt!

14. Garlic Shampoo

All kinds of shampoo was on offer but garlic shampoo really made me smile! I don’t think it’s possible to find that in New Zealand. I wasn’t game enough to try it!


15. Makeup & Nose-jobs

Iranians are beautiful people, inside and out. They take great pride in their appearance. I don’t think it is necessary but the women seem to wear a lot of makeup and it is popular for both men and women to get nose-jobs.

I am not a make-up wearer- I have even given up plucking my eyebrows. I really can’t be bothered looking in the mirror for long in the mornings getting myself ready for the day. Although most NZ women do wear make up, it is subtle, not too obvious. I think in our culture it’s good to be beautiful but not to look like you’ve spent ages in front of the mirror trying to get beautiful.. women in NZ tend to go for the more natural look. The same cannot be said of the majority of Iranian women!

One host's make-up table

One host’s make-up table

In NZ if someone wants to get a nose-job they wouldn’t tell many people. Altering any part of yourself with plastic surgery is not something to be proud of or share with those other than your nearest and dearest. It is something you’d do on vacation, quietly without making a fuss and hope no-one will notice enough to ask you what happened. In Iran, people wear plasters on their nose to indicate they’ve had a nose job, even when they haven’t had one apparently! It’s almost like a status symbol.

Guy with nose-job evidence proudly taking a selfie!

Guy with nose-job evidence proudly taking a selfie!

16. The weekend

Fridays are the ‘weekend’. For schools it seems to be Thursday and Friday. Many people work 6 days a week, with only Fridays off.

Well that’s enough for now. It goes without saying that the dress code is of course also different in Iran than at home, but we knew that from the outset. I didn’t mind wearing a scarf and conservative dress while there.

If you’ve been to Iran, I’d love to know what other things struck you as quite different than your own country. Feel free to leave a comment 🙂





  1. I must say I was very surprised when I finished reading this. I must confess that your observations and judgements as a foreigner are all true, every little bit of it! Not everyone can catch a country’s culture this much vividly in such a short time. Bravo!

    1. Thanks Mehrdad! These are just a few observations that didn’t quite fit in under my other blog posts. There is still much to learn about Iran and Persian culture… in fact I am back in Iran now and learning lots!

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