The Fulbright program encouraged us to explore cultural activities within our host country and to travel and explore other countries in the region. While in Singapore, I have been able to visit Thailand and Malaysia and have an Indonesian trip upcoming. I’ve been to India and want to delay visiting Vietnam until Audrey and I can explore together over an extended period. Singapore is a small island, so locals travel often outside the country on holidays and Changi airport is a wonderful starting point for any journey. Singapore Airlines has a reputation as the one of the best in the world. They can charge a premium for that recognition, but also need to fill seats like any other airline, so they have an active discounted fare webpage that I keep my eye on.
Last spring I discovered a cheap fare to Dubai. It’s a seven hour flight that promised to take me to another world. It was just $400 round trip, compared to close to $2,000 from SFO. I jumped at the chance and asked Christine and Diem if they wanted to come along. They both agreed and we booked it for the end of our program here. We knew going in that it would be during the holy month of Ramadan and we would likely experience the end of the month, known as Eid Al-Fitr. I say likely, because the official end is determined by a cleric and is based on the sighting of a new moon.
It was a wonderful flight and we arrived at our hotel in the early evening. We booked rooms at the gorgeous JW Marriott Marquis and were instantly impressed. The rates were low as this is the end of tourist season. The Marriott is the (2nd) tallest hotel in the world with 77 floors and two towers. Architecturally it is stunning. We enjoyed some pool time, delicious meals, and the incredibly helpful staff. The hotel also offered shuttle service to the Dubai Mall, about 10 minutes away.
The Dubai Mall is the second largest in the world based on size. It contains over 3 million square feet of floorspace with 1,200+ stores. I’ve never seen anything like it. Singapore has a love affair with malls, but this is over the top. The mall, of course, attracts tourists with its very western stores, but also locals to cool off. Inside you will find an Aquarium, an actual dinosaur skeleton, a 22-screen movie theater, and a fashion walkway that leads to three stories of ultra-premium fashion related stores. The kind with guards at the door.
We first visited during Ramadan and it was nearly empty. Ramadan is the holy month of fasting and reflecting. Muslims do not eat nor drink while the sun is up. They eat a shared meal before sunrise and after sunset. The restaurants in the mall were either closed, or had thick, black curtains pulled across their entrance. Out of respect for those participating in Ramadan, food preparation, or people eating food is not allowed. Even drinking water in public is not allowed and we had to slip into the restroom to quench our thirst. We also visited the mall after the end of Ramadan and it was packed with people. Everyone gets 3 days off, so all the malls were full.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) consists of 7 emirates that were once small sheikdoms. They share a common government and Abu Dhabi is the capital. It is also the largest region and has the majority of oil reserves. Dubai also has a “small” reserve, but it is running out. This explains their push for tourism and investment. Everywhere we went, massive condos were going up and inside every mall were salesmen and women. About 9 million people live in the Emirates, but that includes a staggering number of non-residents. I have heard and read of several figures, but somewhere around 90% of the people here are not citizens. Citizenship is incredibly difficult to come by and it includes perks like paid vacations, weddings, education, household expenses, and income. Yes, citizens do not need to work in a western, “traditional” sense. The majority of non-citizen residents come from south Asian countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
We took the tourist “big red bus” around to get an overview and then ventured out on our own. I signed us up to explore “Old Dubai” with a wonderful tour guide who took us to visit traditional “souks,” or markets. We saw LOTS of gold of all carat, incredible spices like Iranian saffron (I bought 20 grams), and textiles. We visited an art center that showcased local artist’s work, and had a wonderful shared meal with our guide and tour mates. We had a late flight back to Singapore and the hotel granted us a late checkout so that we could “freshen-up” a bit. After sharing one last pot of tea, we headed off to the airport and caught a redeye flight home.
Despite the incredible June heat (108 degrees F), we were all impressed with what we saw and experienced. The people were wonderful, the sights spectacular, and the food amazing. I look forward to returning with Audrey and exploring more, including a trip to Abu Dhabi. The best time to visit, according to the locals, is October-March when the temperature range drops to an average of 75 degrees F. August is the worst with temperatures hovering around a stroke inducing 120 degrees F. Enjoy the photos!