I have a lot of friends that have told me so many wonderful things about Dubai. It’s a very popular rest and recuperation (R&R) spot and transit hub for American contractors working in Afghanistan (and I have a lot of friends that are just that). I just finished my forth overseas tour and when I was told our route back home would take us through Dubai (we always used to travel via Doha, Qatar), I was really excited to spend some time in this city I had heard so many great things about.
Unlike most worldwide tourist spots, I didn’t have a big list of places I knew I wanted to see. When I thought of Dubai, I only thought of the indoor ski slope, man-made islands made out to look like palm trees and the world, tall buildings, and fancy cars. When I travel, I am definitely more into soaking in the culture, seeing historic sites, and meeting locals that characterize life in the place I’m visiting.
I flew commercial from Bagram Airfield (OAI), Afghanistan, into Terminal 1, Dubai International Airport (DXB), United Arab Emirates. Arrival and customs were a snap, minus the very long walk. What I was most surprised at was the lack of shops after passing customs. I had really hoped to look into cash exchange options and a cheap, unlocked GSM phone for my next three weeks of international travel. Instead, there was a short gauntlet of rental car kiosks and only one money exchange booth. I walked outside and was barraged by people asking me if I needed a taxi, but re-entered the terminal only to find two coffee shops and one store. Not finding what I needed, I walked back outside and turned down a few taxi offers. A guy asked me what I was looking for and I mentioned I needed to change money. He said, “Follow me, I can show you.” Me, in a moment of being disoriented and a bit tired, reluctantly followed him… straight to the parking lot where he offered to take me to much better cash exchanges. I saw what was happening and said, “No no no, that’s not what I’m looking for, but how much for a ride to my hotel?” He said 35 dirhams (about $10). That sounded reasonable enough so I accepted the ride, not wanting to walk all the way back to the terminal. I don’t recommend doing this… I later read that it was illegal for him to even offer (not that it seems to matter in Dubai). The reason I say that is I was frequently offered rides to a ‘fun time’ where I would he knew a Korean to massage me and ‘sex’ me as he said. I told him I wasn’t into Korean girls and please just take me to my hotel. The driver, like most of the people I met in Dubai, was from India, but spoke pretty decent English.
I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a hotel before an upcoming two weeks in Europe. I asked around with my friends and most said pick any 4 or 5 star hotel in Dubai. So I picked one of the cheapest 4 star hotels on Expedia. I considered a hostel, but after four months in Afghanistan, I was really interested in a comfortable bed, nice shower, and a bar. In Dubai, almost every bar is inside of a hotel as local laws do not allow for alcohol in other public establishments. I chose this hotel because it had an Irish Pub and not a night club (not the scene I was looking for on this trip). The hotel was located in the Deira neighborhood, an older section of the city. If you’re looking for the modern, exciting parts, I recommend Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Beach, or the area around the Dubai Mall or Mall of the Emirates. The area surrounded Deira had plenty of restaurants, shops, and access to the city’s metro, but it was a bit further away from most of the key attractions of Dubai. I’ve never really stayed in many true 4-star hotels, but I’d say the Metropolitan Deira was equivalent to a Washington D.C. area Marriott, Radisson, or Hilton. It had a comfortable bed, a desk, chairs and a table, clean restroom, restaurants, Irish Pub, and roof-top swimming pool with hot tub. What I did not like was the lack of free WiFi. On Expedia, the listing for deluxe room (which is all that was available when I booked) stated WiFi was part of the room cost; it was not. It cost 60 dirhams for 24 hours of access (approx $16) per device. On top of that, even after asking about it at check-in, they didn’t tell me I needed a confirmation code just to log-in from the room, so I had to call back down to the front desk to get that number. Also, on the second morning, the cleaning staff took my toothpaste, toothbrush, and hair gel that I had left on the bathroom counter (I’m positive it was mistake and they thought I had checked out or something), but the front desk was very apologetic and even rushed me a new toothbrush from the house cleaning staff. Other than those minor setbacks, I thought the room was very comfortable and everybody that worked there was very friendly! I did not try any of the restaurants on the premises nor did I swim in the pool or make use of the in-house day spa. What I liked was the easy walk to the metro, proximity to the airport, and the very reasonable rates.
How did I spend my 40 hours in Dubai?
Dubai didn’t have the historical and cultural appeal that I look for in a city. It is still an amazing city and many fascinating man-made marvels. I liked the intersections of culture (I encountered Arabs, Indians, Iranians, Burmese, Philippinos, Brits, Americans, and Australians in my very short visit) and that almost every single person I met spoke English. That being said, spending time in Dubai is going to hurt your wallet. Almost everything worth doing in Dubai costs money. I wasn’t willing to spend it, so my experience will probably not sound as fun as others’ stories.
The first evening I went immediately to the Irish Pub in my hotel and ordered a Guinness. It was a bit watered down so I didn’t even finish it. I took a very long walk along Dubai Creek, checked out the merchant vessels unloading countless boxes of goods on the Dhow Wharfage. I walked over to Al Makhtoum Rd and walked up past the clocktower up to the Deira City Centre mall. I spent most of the evening walking around this massive mall and left buying only a cheap, unlocked GSM phone to use on the rest of my travels. I took an exciting taxi ride back home where a van side-swiped our taxi and the driver let me out a few blocks from my hotel while he argued with the van driver. I spent the next few hours at the Irish Pub in the hotel having a great conversation with an Indian ex-Pat local and a traveling Brit having a few pints while his wife rested upstairs.
The next day, I had lofty plans… to ride the metro to the museums, the two new, big malls, and the world’s tallest building. I walked to the nearby metro station, purchased a full-day transit card for 14 dirhams (approx $3.81) and took the metro to the Dubai Mall. If only I loved shopping or had things to buy and room left-over in my bag. But no, there was nothing I needed to buy, and I wanted to keep my backpack as light as possible for the upcoming Europe trip. I wandered the mall for a few hours and took pictures of the beautiful waterfall and indoor ice skating rink (which was not as impressive as the one at Lotte World in Seoul, South Korea). One thing you should not underestimate is the walk. From the metro station to the mall entrance is a respectable 1.3km walk through an elevated hallway. Then the mall itself adds a lot more. The south-side exit to the mall takes you to the extravagant Dubai fountain just outside the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. The fountains only run at night so I missed the show, which in Dubai literature is comparable to Las Vegas’s famed water fountain at the Bellagio (both designed by WET Design). I also didn’t go to the top of Burj Khalifa so I can’t note the views… I would imagine seeing Dubai’s man-made islands would be quite amazing from above (I guess this Google Earth view will have to suffice). So to be quite honest with you… by now I was exhausted. I walked around the base of the building and headed straight back to the hotel to nap, pack, and get ready to head to the airport.
There’s a lot of Dubai that I missed…. here’s 180 of them from TripAdvisor. I know this wasn’t a fair assessment of the city, but with only 40 hours and being dead tired from our complex travel procedures out of Afghanistan, it was all I had in me. To be honest, most of what the city was offering did not intrigue me much; that’s a personal bias of course. I can see a lot of value in this city for young party-going types, family vacations where money is not a concern, or people fascinated with travel. If Middle Eastern or Arab culture is what you’re after, I’d recommend Morocco or Egypt before UAE.