Lamu Old Town
Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved example of Swahili settlement in East Africa.
The town has retained its authentic building fabric up to the present day, with cultural influences from Europe, Arabia, and India. As a conservative and closed society, Lamu has an important religious function with annual celebrations and is also a significant centre for education in Islamic and Swahili culture.
Community Perspective: aimlessly wandering around the old town seems the thing to do.
Map of Lamu Old TownLoad map
Ignore my pictures.I tried to get the collage to do LAMU but that didn't work after all so now it's like a Central America facade every town spells out. It should really be "LAME" though.
I flew in from Nairobi which is almost daily. You can also fly from Mombasa and Malindi, with a few other smaller towns as less frequent opens. I was originally going to drive up to see things on the way but the mainland town won't be safe for your car and you'll waste money hiring it for that long anyway, not to mention then drive back down south to return the car. When you arrive by plane you get on a ferry (public is 200sh at 2024 rate) or a private boat for 500 especially necessary if you staying at Shela. Usually a hotel will arrange meetup. Staying at Lamu has several choices. The seafront hotels are a safe bet and they have restaurants too. I stayed at a smaller one that was still clean and spacious. I am not sure I want to recommend staying in Lamu though. As a foreigner you are going to spend more time in Shela as that's where the restaurants are, bars and it's much cleaner. The prices on the island are higher than the rest of Kenya but that seems normal. Shela, by the way, is very touristy with Maasai vendors, boat and motorbike rentals and all the entertainment you are looking for. There is nothing in Lamu. If you stay there then you'll just go to Shela for all your activities.
Well there's one activity you will do in Lamu: look at the old town. The buildings you see on arrival aren't the old town. The parallel road, "highway" they call it, has Lamu fort (now a museum) and beyond that is the old town. You'll notice by narrow walkways, coral walls and the old style buildings. Coral walls are no longer allowed but the originals are still there. I actually do like these buildings. Many have been bought by foreigners (mainly Europeans) who often leave them empty. Think if the Hamptons but the owners only come once a year for holidays. Some owners turned them into hotels. I find it a bit shocking one can buy the heritage but so be it. While these houses are nice, the walkways are not. In principal they are and in Greek seaside towns they have this also but what Greece does not have is the smell and crowds. There is smelly drain water running through everywhere. Many people walk around and perhaps by donkey as well. The donkeys also roam free so they poo and pee wherever they want. I later asked the guide taking me around what he wants improved in Lamu and instead of the obvious "hygiene" and "plumbing" he mentioned wanting more tourists!! You will definitely not attract Chinese tourists with this smell! I did enjoy walking around in the heat for 2 hours (obviously couldn't go into the mosques) but once is enough.
Many things here reminded me of Zanzibar but the stone town was not as smelly and dirty. I can also see by the investment foreigners made to their purchased houses that this could all look marvelous if taken care of. Sounds elitist but having an impoverished old town doesn't make a good site.
There is an Maulidi Festival once a year and thousands of muslims come from other African countries to take part in it, sleeping on top of mosques if necessary. This "African Mecca" is important to them.
Lastly there is a small concern with water supply because the old town doesn't have decent wells. The electric pump wells are in Shela and while the regional government could easily arrange Shela being water supplier for Lamu it seems the elitist southern town is more important to them too, reeking in money from tourists more than Lamu does (even though Lamu is the main attraction to us world heritage travelers).
In August 2016, I flew on Airkenya Express from Nairobi to Lamu. I ignored at my peril the admonishment on Airkenya's ticket to only travel with soft-sided luggage. Airkenya apparently runs an ancillary business selling soft-sided luggage to tourists as they immediately offered to sell me a duffel bag, in which I repacked my belongings, and they stowed my hard-sided suitcase until my return. (I ended up donating the Airkenya-branded duffel bag later in my trip to the guide who accompanied me during my visit to Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, so it was money well spent.) Lamu Airport is located on an island across the channel from Lamu's old town, and ferries await arriving passengers for the 10-minute crossing. I stayed at Subira House, which was built 200 years ago by the governor of the Sultan of Zanzibar (http://www.subirahouse.com). Due to Lamu's proximity to Somalia and some recent incidents, there were very few tourists in Lamu and I was the only guest at Subira House. The highlights in Lamu were wandering around the old town, visiting the Donkey Sanctuary, which works to improve the health and condition of Lamu's principal means of transport (https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/project/lamu), and eating and drinking at Peponi Hotel in nearby Shela village (http://www.peponi-lamu.com).
Lamu is an own world, little planet by itself. Time runs slower, the heat forces You to a slower path. The streets so narrow that no car can pass, but still, look out not to be overrun by a donkeytransport. Its like Africa 100 years ago, with some mix in of the 21th century. People of all tribes can be seen in town, if lucky even half bare-breasted Maasai-woman may walk down the beach front, with all her traditionel jewellery around her neck. Bearded black arabs with their "Fez", totally black muslim woman with only their eyes visible and less conservative swahili woman with their colourful dresses add a special touch to street life. Now, in may 2005, there are few tourists and the beach-boys try every trick to get a little busyness off You. Tell them very clear "sitaki" ( I dont want") and then "salama" (go in peace). Dont take a map in Your hand, otherwise You have instantely a crowd of young men arround you offering help, You ount get rid of them! But the ambiance of the town is unique - its the place to shoot those pictures one uses for this expensive high glance calendars, the place where lovers pass hoeny-moon, as we did ....
Other than for its population of 5,000 donkeys roaming the narrow streets among kanzu-clad men and women in flowing buibui robes and 40 mosques, Lamu looks like any other ancient Islamic town. The only motor vehicles in the ancient centre are a Land Rover belonging to the District Commissioner and a tractor owned by Lamu County Council.
Yet Lamu is a Mecca of sorts. More than 20,000 Muslims visit Lamu annually to mark the holy Maulidi Festival that also attracts tourists from East and Central Africa, Europe, North America, the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East every August.
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