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

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


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
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.

Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Intro to World Travel, Travel With Terri: USA 101

The Tale Of Two Waterfalls: Victoria and Niagara

I was talking with my very best friend the other day and we were reminiscing about a very particular day from a few summers ago. Let me set the scene. My bestie was enjoying a little down time between Summer commitments and decided to take advantage of being close to the great Niagara Falls. She and her husband were hiking on the walkway when her phone rang.

Be sure to join us for the conversation! We are talking about this very topic on our podcast, Babcia and Yia Yia Travel The World.

Half a world away, I expected her to pick up from home. I had no idea that she was at the Falls as I called her from Zambia. My view? The Great Victoria Falls. I was standing just to the side of Knife Point Bridge watching the Zambezi water spill over the top. Who would have ever thought that the two of us would be standing in front of the power of two of the most famous falls in the world at the same time!

waterfalls under blue sky and white clouds
Photo by Anthony Rodriguez on Pexels.com
Victoria and Niagara Falls

Niagara and Victoria

Victoria and Niagara have a lot in common. They both provide a natural boarder between two countries. Both provide immense tourism for their local areas and both leave no doubt that the power of water is an awesome natural wonder on our planet. Moreover, both create moments of inspiration for every traveler that commits to experiencing them. However, it’s here that their two paths diverge.

Way over in Livingstone….

Way back in 1855, one of the most famous first tourists happened upon a place that locals called Mosi-oa-Tunya or the smoke that thunders. He promptly renamed the massive column of water Victoria Falls after his queen. (Ahhh… colonization.) These days, The Falls continue to thunder as they stretch just over a mile across and drop about a football field. They serve as the international border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and Zambia was exactly where I found myself the day of our phone call.

Victoria and Niagara Falls
The smoke that thunders from the upper falls

I was lucky enough to stay at Avani, a lovely hotel resort with free roaming animals and amazing Moroccan architecture. But, the true draw of this particular location is that it is just steps from the entrance to the Falls. The Zambian side of the falls were easily accessible to anyone though the National Park Gate but Avani literally had a back gate entrance set up for its guests making it as convenient as possible. And P.S., it was not the most expensive hotel in the area!

Victoria and Niagara Falls

The Upper and Lower Falls

Without any other exploration except the ride from the airport (I’ll leave that amazing video below), I headed out that back gate and went right to the National Park. As soon as I was through the gate, a wonderful college intern offered to take me through the pathways and tell me the story of this wonder of the world. I live for people like this. People who have no other agenda other than to impart their knowledge to you and make your experience better.

My walk began at the upper falls. My guide, Isaac, led me down pathways and explained the scientific side of things as well as previewing the power yet to come. He reminded me that at night, there are hippos that love this particular spot and one must be careful! I will. I promise. As Isaac continued to lead the way past bubbling water that stretched as far as the eye could see, he pointed out the famous Devil’s Pool. Used by daredevils to get as close to the drop as possible. I had already made up my mind not to take that dip because of the aforementioned hippos and the fact that I can not do a back flip into water.

Victoria and Niagara Falls

Isaac pointed out the visitors that were on the Zambia side had a bit more protection than the ones on the Zimbabwean side who had no safety rails or clear pathways between them and the 354 foot drop. No thank you! 

Victoria and Niagara Falls

While you could already feel the magic of the water in the air, it wasn’t until Isaac showed me the lookout over Rainbow Falls that I got my first glimpse of this massive force of energy. We continued walking around the gorge and into the pathways that become part of the micro rainforest. toward Jack Knife Bridge. This short span gives you one of the best views and ensures you feel your share of the water! It was in this very spot that I called my bestie…

Victoria and Niagara Falls

Meanwhile, in upstate New York…

If Victoria Falls had a little sister, it would be Niagara. Standing 187 feet tall and about half a mile across, Niagara Falls comes in at about half the size of its African big sister. However, don’t be mistaken, this largest drop in North America receives far more visitors. While the days of honeymooning in Niagara Falls are over, lots of fun is still waiting for every kind of traveler out there.

Just like in Africa, Niagara serves as a famous border and has very distinct sides. The Canada side tends to be a better experience while others say that the magic of Niagara lies in its old school American Falls roots. Either way, there are plenty of amazing treasures to experience while you visit. And that’s exactly where Terri was when her phone rang…

Get Ready, Get Set

Terri drove in to Niagara Falls and made a beeline for the State Park. While the surrounding town is not much to look at, Terri says that once you park and get into the actual park, things are well worth your time. With plenty of pleasant and calm walkways, the state park gives you every opportunity to enjoy the falls from pretty much every possible angle. And it’s these walkways that tend to be overlooked the most.

Victoria and niagara
The Maiden of The Mist

Armed with a waterproof bag and a poncho to head for the marquee event, The Maiden of The Mist. Unlike many other waterfalls, Niagara allows its visitors to get behind the falls and see them from quite a different perspective. In turn, making it quite the draw. But, wait! Terri told me that you don’t want to miss out on the Cave of The Winds which, again gets you up close and personal to the water.

Victoria and niagara
On the way to the Cave of the Winds

Terri and I had our laugh and spoke about what we were seeing in that exact moment. Then she continued on her way to The Cave of The Winds with a great documentary and tons of information about what makes these falls so special.

Victoria and niagara
Terri taking my phone call with complimentary waterproof gear. Spoiler alert! It doesn’t work!

Top Of The Falls…

While Niagara Falls is not a foodie mecca, but the Top of The Falls may be a great choice if for nothing but the view. Otherwise, foodies will find better choices like great polish food. Or the famous Duff’s Wings not too far away in Buffalo. And PS- Buffalo has a lot to offer! Another great area is Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown.

Victoria and niagara
The bridge which serves as the customs checkpoint to Canada

From anywhere on the American side, the Canadian side certainly beckons. And Terri agrees! Her advice is to sincerely explore both sides of the falls. Don’t miss out on the different views and experiences that each have to offer. Just remember, you need your passport!!!!

Victoria and niagara
The Fallsview area on the American Side.

Moments when you feel the magic around you and you feel connected to someone who gets it like you do are rare. Terri and I were over the moon to have a chance to connect from half a world away at two of mother nature’s masterpieces.