burj khalifa dubai united arab emirates
Travel With Alex: Intro to World Travel

Dubai 101: The 24 Hour Layover

To Dubai or no to Dubai? That is the question. This Middle Eastern city is quite the metropolis and has millions of people who pass through it on a daily basis. Many of those are travelers laying over as they go from one flight to another.

concrete high rise buildings under blue sky
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Truth be told, Dubai is a playground of wealthy tourists who have a “spend like there’s no tomorrow” attitude. It can feel a bit overwhelming. In addition, Dubai is a city of imports, there’s not much much homespun culture. The souks remind me of Istanbul. The skyscrapers make me think that it’s a desert version of New York City. The water parks and beaches are a dryer, but just as hot, substitute for central Florida. The fountains are only rivaled by Las Vegas. In other words, Dubai is a city of improvements on others.

Shop in New Dubai

Get ready! Get set! Shop! If there is one thing that Dubai does well, it’s malls. The malls, more than 15 in number, sell everything from couture to Krispy Kreme. But perhaps more than the amazing array of storefronts are the spectacles that promise once in a lifetime experiences. The Dubai Mall promotes not only one of the largest aquariums in the world where you can swim with sharks but also a VR Skydive experience that let’s you feel every bit of the drop from the top of the mall’s famous neighbor, The Burj Khalifa.

It is not out of the ordinary to see kids will certainly enjoy driving a penguin pal around the skating rink with Nanny while moms whisk off on Bentley golf carts to the couture wing where designers have fresh off the runway fashions ready to be fit. I have never seen so many fashion houses willing to be seen in the same place as Dubai Mall. The Krispy Kreme’s hot donuts sign can be found on the lower level in the international food court.

Chill Out!

Meanwhile, not to be outdone, The Mall of the Emirates wants you to cool off at Ski Dubai. In true Dubai fashion, malls are meant to be indoor amusement parks for the uber wealthy. It’s fun to take a glance at what the ultra exclusive circles find appealing but it is certainly not destination worthy.

The Burj Khalifa

The crowning jewel of Dubai is best seen from the Dubai Mall’s Apple Store Terrace. Simply follow the one way line and look past the incredibly large dancing fountain (shows are periodical in nature) and look up. There, gleaming in the desert sunshine, is the tallest building in the world.

Old Dubai

Not much exists of old Dubai. When the small coastal area became a professional middleman in international trade, an economic boom overwhelmed what was there. It bloomed in every direction from palm shaped islands to tall skyscrapers leaving very little of its past left. However, past all the shiny skyscrapers and drab looking store fronts are two gems that don’t take too much time to explore. They perhaps, give a little bit of insight into old Dubai.

The Souks

Quite a few souks exist in the old quarter and are worth exploring if you’ve never been to one before. I must say, after the bazaars of Istanbul, they pale in comparison. The over eager shop keepers do their best to get your attention and the pre packaged spices are definitely an import from other parts unknown. The walk through the gauntlet of stores can be fun and rather picturesque. Plan to spend no more than 30 minutes for just a walk and some pictures. Add in a bit more if you plan to haggle and purchase.

The Dubai Museum at Al Fahidi Fort

Out of all the sites you might visit, this may be the closest to giving you an authentic experience in the UAE. Here at the fort, storytellers and guides do their best to show off their hometown pride. The entire venue takes about 2 hours from start to finish and will leave you with a reasonable knowledge of this city of contrasts.

outdoor fountain at a mosque
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Dhow Water Cruise on Dubai Creek

The man made Dubai Creek twists it’s way through this oasis to give the visitor plenty of water views. One way to enjoy and see a bit more of this metropolis is to take a cruise on one of the more traditional boats docked close to the Souks. There are plenty of options including dinner cruises and simple ferries. The choice is yours!

city skyline during night time
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Beachside Dubai

Desert or not, Dubai firmly sits on the coastline of the Persian Gulf. And the city has taken every opportunity to ensure you enjoy it. Look for water parks like the Aquafun Water Course and plenty of thrills like the speed boat rentals from OdySea Dubai. If your timing is right, Dubai offers simple beachside enjoyment so you can take in the sun as you take in the view of this ode to wealth and prosperity.

photography of woman walking on seashore
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Getting Around

For a simple layover, I suggest the hop on hop off bus that will take you from mall to mall and out to the beach by the bullet shaped Burj Al Arab.

For more on what’s happening and a complete calendar check out Dubai’s fancy schmancy website by clicking here.

Travel With Alex: Intro to World Travel

Thailand 101: Enchanting and Controversial

Thailand. A country of extremes. A place where chaos reigns in big cities and beaches calm the soul with beautiful vistas. This South Asian tourist mecca layers itself with many personalities. Some are bright like Buddhist temples and floating markets. Others are a bit darker like the animal tourism industry or places called Sex Street. So, how can we travel to Thailand and find the right balance of vacation fun and broadened horizons? Let’s dig in!

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Lay Of The Land

Thailand has more coastline than Florida. In fact, it would take about 20 hours to drive from North to South. It’s safe to say that a typical two week holiday won’t let you see the entire country. The country is anchored by three famous hot spots. To the north is Chiang Mai, to the south is beachy Phuket and smack dab in the middle is Bangkok.

Lilies at the temple
Temple

Thailand’s Beaches

Nestled between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, Thailand prides itself on some pretty spectacular beaches. The winner of this beach beauty pageant is Phuket.

Pattaya used to be the beach of choice decades ago but now turns its worn eye toward more industrial needs. That industrial emphasis has taken its toll on the tourism industry here. Yet, due to its close proximity to Bangkok, Pattaya it seems to hang on.

Conversely, Phuket seems to be the darling of them all. While it has been in the news a bit because of over tourism, the Phuket area enjoys the bulk of the tourist influx and, therefore has a far better infrastructure to support those numbers.

The Icons

  • Half Buried Buddha
  • Marine Research Center
  • Gibbon Rehabilitation Center

The Experiences

  • Lay on the beach
  • Phangnga Bay
  • Thai Village

Bangkok

Exotic and chaotic. Those are the first words that come to mind as I think back to Bangkok. Each intersection seems like a starting point of a great migration of cars, trucks, motorcycles and tut-tuts. Intermingled in all of it a precious temples and markers of real heritage. Plan at least three days to see all that Bangkok has to offer.

Reclining Buddha
The Famous Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Alms
Giving Bhat to the temple in 100 little pots
Reclining Buddha
Learning about the Reclining Buddha
Outside the Grand Palace
The Grand Palace: Sleeves and long pants only here!
the architecture of Thailand
Thai temple architecture

The Icons

  • The Grand Palace
  • Wat Pho
  • Wat Arun
  • Dusit Park

The Experiences

  • Floating Market
  • Daily Alms
  • Chinatown
  • Thai Massage
temple kitty
A temple resident with a human do no disturb sign

Chiang Mai

About 700 KM to the north lies this second city of Thailand. While still chaotic and perhaps overwhelming, Chiang Mai has a certain gentleness to it that can not be denied. At a fraction of the size of sprawling Bangkok, Chiang Mai offers quite a few unique experiences.

The Icons

  • Wat Phra Sing
  • Wat Chedi Luang
  • Doi Suthep–Pui National Park

The Experiences

  • Warorot Market
  • Bo Sang Village
  • Yi Pang Lantern Festival
Monks walking

Animal Attractions

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Asian animal attractions, and for that matter attractions everywhere, are under great scrutiny. They are being scrutinized more and more as to the care they give and the purpose they rely on.

There is an undeniable curiosity about animals. Let’s face it, the bigger and more furry, the more we as a global society are attracted to them. At the top of Thailand’s attractions are tigers and elephants. Much has been reported about the treatment and conditions in which animal tourism in Asia and it’s not without merit. So, what is the right call? I think that it is possible that some attractions have the animal’s best interest in mind while others are far more interested in lining their pockets. Take these three examples:

Elephants taking a shortcut through the water

Sriracha Tiger Zoo

The Tiger Zoo was a cacophony of sounds and sites. To one side, was a fenced in gazebo with a pig, a dog, and a tiger chasing each other around in circles. To the other, the scorpion lady was covered in creepy crawlies. Straight ahead was the tiger nursery. About 100 juveniles were in “playpens” they eagerly awaited the visitors who they knew had milk to feed them. The place had the feel of a day care facility. Lessons were hastily given as to how to hold and feed these little ones. Once visitors have a chance to interact with the little ones, they were shown through to a circus like ring to watch the older tigers.

There were a lot of interactions with other animals- elephants, monkeys, snakes. They all were happily posed around visitors. I’m not sure how I feel all these years later about this particular venue. Maybe the correct word is uncomfortable. I guess I will leave the evaluation to wildlife experts.

Tiger Zoo Nursery
In the nursery
Tiger Zoo
With a newer resident, this elephant trotted over to us. She seemed very happy to hang around us.

Pattaya Elephant Village

For a different Thai experience, look toward facilities like this. The village is home to retired working elephants that seem happy to be in the peaceful patch of jungle. The village wants to allow these elephants to feel useful and educate visitors with the history of the role elephants played in this part of the world.

When you visit the Village, there are several animals to see and a few experiences to enjoy including an elephant ride. I felt like the elephants were given their space to roam the pathway at their own pace and I even saw the establishment change out an elephant that started showing concerns with one that seemed eager to participate.

One thing that surprised me was the wonderful lunch that was provided. Sitting under a lovely pavilion with that same soft music playing, local women had plate after plate of probably the best food I ate in the whole country. My feeling here was one of relief.

Retired elephant
One of the retired elephants who strayed a bit off the path. No one seemed to mind and he eventually joined back up with our group.
Thai musician
Lovely music played at the “base camp”

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Contrasting the two options above, this sanctuary seeks only to educate rather than blend in entertainment. Here, don’t expect to ride an elephant. Instead, visitors are encouraged to understand the natural habitat life of elephants. From half day tours to week long volunteering opportunities (look to “adopt” a friend for the week and literally handle all of their needs), this sanctuary is the future of animal tourism.

Thailand is known for flowers
Flowers grown and picked for offerings

While the sanctuary invites visitors in, it’s with caution. You are there to learn. There to understand how these gentle giants need our protection and there to understand the massive amount of work it takes to maintain the sanctuary itself.

Many of their packages come with meals, add on tours, and other options to make your time memorable. But then again, do you need much more than a baby elephant laying on your legs to be completely fulfilled?

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
elephant play time!

That Famous Bridge

One quest you may be interested in is the bridge that spans the Khwae Yai River. Known because of its infamy on the silver screen. The dark history of what happened on the Burma-Siam Railroad is sad. You can learn more about it by visiting the bridge that sits just over 100 KM from the capitol.

The Bridge over the River Kwai

The Mekong

In Thailand’s northeast, the Mekong River is king. This area perfect for nature enthusiasts, is known for its small villages, colorful festivals and impressive temples, this area may be the perfect area to enjoy many of Thailand’s treasures. Food for thought…

Thailand's Mekong River
One of the slow boats down the Mekong.

Two Thailand Tales

When I think back to visiting Thailand, I realize that I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m not too pleased with myself that I didn’t realize some of the travel choices I made weren’t the best. The Tiger Zoo comes to mind. I also was not prepared for having drivers who shuttled us down Sex Street without giving a second thought to the fact that I had children in the car. I was not the best traveler then and I learned lessons to make me better.

On the other hand, I loved Thailand for all of its gentleness. In fact, it’s that amazing aura that my kids remember most. I recently asked them about their favorite moment from that trip, and they all recall our time seeing the Reclining Buddha. It wasn’t the elephants and tigers that first pop to mind. Instead, they remember the moment we gave them each 100 Bhat.

There, at the reclining Buddha, 100 small pots are lined up. The goal is to say something you are grateful for at each pot wile you add a coin. As you move along, the soft ching-ching sound relaxes you. What a powerful way to start kids understanding the power of gratefulness and meditation. This was what they remember most.

Moments like this make Thailand a destination that is worth exploring again and again.

Buddha
anonymous tourists showing us passports on street on sunny day
Babcia and Yia Yia!, Notes on Planning and Packing, Travel With Alex: Europe 101, Travel With Alex: Intro to World Travel

Passports 101

So, you’ve done it! You’ve thought and thought for years about it and now you’ve decided to take the plunge and make the commitment! Hooray for you! You are going to get your passport! It will open you up to a literal world of experiences and you won’t regret it. TGC is here to walk you through the whole process with a couple of facts, a couple tools, and, as always, a couple of stories. So, sit back with a glass of wine or a cup of tea, let’s get to traveling!

anonymous tourists showing us passports on street on sunny day
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Listen in to our conversation about passports on our podcast! Babcia and Yia Yia Travel The World is a great way to get all kinds of travel tips. Click here to listen to this episode and more!

Did you know?

  • Only 25% of Americans make the effort to apply for a passport so you are in quite an elite group of travelers now.
  • Passports really expire 90 days before the date in the book. Be prepared to reapply early!
  • Passports are held by the bursar on cruises. He or she has the responsibility of getting your passport stamped and legal in every port.
  •  The Real ID Act which looks to take hold in October 2021 requires you to have your personal documents updated and reviewed by your state. Once done, you get a star on your driver’s license. If you are looking to travel and haven’t done this yet, know that your brand new passport will work just as well (even when flying domestically).

The Basics

Everybody who gets a passport has to start with that same first step: applying to The State Department! For most, applying is pretty straight forward. Simply use the online application, gather your documents, get photos taken, and make an appointment at your local post office. The cost is about $165.00 in a check made payable to The State Department. A few weeks later, you will have your fancy new passport in your hands.

teal fujifilm instax mini camera near white ceramic mug
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Birth Certificates

There is one part of the application process that scares me. One of the things you have to send along with your application is your official first copy of your birth certificate. To set you at ease, be sure to look in on how the USPS has been faring and opt for an upgraded method of delivery if the post office machine seems to be lagging at all.

My best friend applied for an expedited passport in order to enjoy some time at Niagara Falls. She would up missing all of her Canadian time because her birth certificate was not accepted by the State Department! It turned out that the birth certificate she had been using for decades turned out to be an unofficial copy from an area notorious for giving the State Department fits. Finally, she got her passport 4 months after she had first applied.

Your Passport Choices

A standard passport has plenty of pages to gather stamps around the world is works perfectly fine. There are a few other options including a double thick book and a passport card. I’d leave those to the business travelers!

person putting a passport on bag
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Global Entry?

First, evaluate whether you need global entry or TSA precheck, keep a few things in mind. As technology develops, lines in smaller airports are usually less than 20 minutes. Use this app to check in on the airports you are going to use to see if TSA precheck is really needed. Global Entry includes the TSA pre-check service. Global Entry is basically the passport version of the Fastpass.

I once raced my mother through ATL customs. She was on Global Entry and I was using Mobile Passport (the link is below). We both emerged from the process at the same time. The only difference? My option was free. All in all, it could be money better spent in other areas of your trip.

Passport Safety

One option to keep you connected is the STEP program. By registering with the Bureau of Consular Affairs, you can keep up to date on any advisories related to your destination and have a direct connection to the government if you are in need of help. It can be handy especially in more “exotic” locations.

Don’t put your passport in the pocket of your airplane seat! In fact, I was once in Dubai connecting to a flight to Greece. Sure enough, just as I took my last step off the plane, I realized that my passport was back in the seat pocket of seat 34D! Unfortunately, it was too late to backtrack and I had to wait for everyone to disembark then hope that a nice flight attendant would be kind enough to go check. I almost missed my connection! Lesson learned! Never-ever put that passport down when you are gathering your things!

Never hand over your passport! I was crossing the border between Zambia and Botswana. So, our driver had gotten us right to the Zambezi River and then turned around and asked for our passports. A sticky situation! While not wanting to offend, I also didn’t want to hand over my official identification to a complete stranger. What to do? I politely asked what he wanted to do. It turned out that he simply wanted to cut the line by going to the back door of the passport office. I asked if I could walk with him. He was delighted! Issue avoided. Lesson learned! Look for the polite way out.

Check out these fun passport resources!