Travel Tuesdays: Thailand

Thailand was somewhere I had always wanted to visit – the beaches, the culture, the experiences – it had always appealed to me. I am someone who loves to make a list and on my travel list, Thailand had always featured quite high up. Therefore, it was another selling point for my move to Dubai because Thailand was so much closer! So, after some planning, my Dubai sister and I booked up our Thailand holiday and off we went during our Easter holiday in 2015.

We flew from Dubai to Bangkok which wasn’t  a long flight at all and arrived at our hotel in the early hours. Sadly, we didn’t really make the most of Bangkok for three reasons: 1) we flew straight after a long teaching term so were exhausted, 2) we only stayed for one day and two nights and 3) although we set our alarms super early on our one day, we woke up to horrendous storms so we missed out on a huge chunk of our exploration time!

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Nevertheless, when the rain had calmed we were ready to go but as with us, we hit a hurdle straight off – our taxi driver tried to con us BIG time when we had only just left our hotel. We were just lucky that we had done some research into costs etc and promptly told him to let us out which he also fought against for a while too! But as with most things, I believe it happened for a reason because we then threw caution to the wind and braced the tuk tuk! SO MUCH FUN!

We spent our day in Bangkok hopping from one temple to the next – we saw the Lucky Buddha, the Standing Buddha and finished at the Reclining Buddha. We did a lot of walking that day and dodged rain throughout but the temples were peaceful, contemplative and beautiful. We also spent a few hours in The Grand Palace which was ridiculously busy, hot and humid, but with every turn we were faced with yet more exquisite architecture, colour and culture. I am sad we missed out on visiting the floating market and we didn’t manage a night ‘out out’ but we enjoyed what we did and changed up songs to sing as we left – “Bye Bye Bangkok, Bangkok Bye Bye” to the tune of Bye Bye Baby by the Bay City Rollers was our favourite!

Our next stop was Chiang Mai and I have to say, these few days are up there with some of my best holiday memories ever. It didn’t start too well – does it ever?! – as we got to our hotel, Le Meridian, we were excited to spend an afternoon chilling in the gorgeous pool overlooking the city but we promptly discovered the pool would be closed while we were there for refurbishment! Don’t worry, this lead to me working my magic and wangling free breakfasts for our stay which helped us money wise and freed up more spending money for the night market!

Because our pool plans were scrapped, rather than wasting the day, we changed into our exploring clothes and headed out for a wonder. I’d advise having a map with you in Chiang Mai because there are many twists and turns, things to distract you and it’s really easy to lose your way. It was nice to just ‘get lost’ in the city, we discovered the most amazing little temple where a monk was quietly working away at making good luck bracelets which he blessed before he tied them to our wrists – you never take them off, they will fall off when they are ready and technically that’s when you’re good luck begins. That was one of our favourite holiday moments.

We didn’t get dressed up for dinner that night, on our wonders we just found a little local buffet place with ‘entertainment’ in the form of a piano man and singer which was good fun and we were amused all night by the lovely waiter whose job it was to just run around swatting mosquitos with an electric shock tennis racquet! We did however, go back after dinner, shower,change and head out to the night market which started directly outside our hotel.

This was one of the best markets I’ve ever been to, hands down! We had so much fun haggling, finding little treasures, just getting emerged into Chiang Mai life and collecting more souvenirs than either of us had expected! I was able to put my haggling skills I learnt from Sharon in Egypt to the test here and even Catherine was impressed! Haggling makes a lot of people uncomfortable but these market stall holders expect it from tourists and as long as you don’t take the mickey, it is part of the experience! I am so chuffed with the bits I got here (we did go back on the second night too) I think it’s nice to collect things to have in your home that come from places around the world scattered amongst your bog standard UK shop find.

Day two in Chiang Mai was the only thing we had pre booked – a Thai cookery course. If you want to book something like this for your holiday I couldn’t recommend Siam Rice more. A friend of mine recommended it to us and I wouldn’t hesitate to continue to recommend it to others. We were picked up from our hotel and with the rest of the group, taken to a local food market where we had time to look round but also where the majority of our ingredients were collected. We were then taken to the cookery school. We had opted for a full day course although you could do half days too. It was so professionally set up, organised, fun and informative and I have never seen so much food!

It was brilliant because although there were around 10 of us in the group, we could all individually choose which items we wanted to cook from an extensive menu – no problem, no stress – it was fab. The cooking station was set up brilliantly and our teacher had the best sense of humour. The whole day was seamless, effortless fun – we made about 7 different dishes which we ate as we went along and everything was divine, fresh and authentic. We even got a recipe book and certificate to take home!

On our first day exploring we had booked up Day 3 with a company we discovered on our wonders. We knew we wanted to spend a day with the elephants but we didn’t want to go anywhere that didn’t treat the elephants well, we didn’t want to ride them or see them do tricks so the Elephant Nature Park was exactly what we were looking for. It wasn’t cheap but I am SO glad we spent the money. Of course it didn’t run smoothly at first, see the theme here?! – the company forgot us (I know, how could anyone forget us?!) so..more negotiating, more money off and finally we were collected, Lou from Neighbours gave us our video talk on the way and then we spent the best day at the park.

The Nature Park is an extensive piece of land for rescued elephants from all over Chiang Mai. Each herd of elephants had someone attached to them that cared for them – we saw no evidence of chains anywhere, no whips or cruelty, they were genuinely cared for and it was lovely to see the relationships between the elephants and their carers. We helped to bathe them, feed them and walked with them over the land – I’m not the most confident around animals but this day was just so special. They are just such majestic creatures with the most human eyes and longest eyelashes ever to be seen. The lunch provided was all vegetarian and there were package options to stay over at the Park to help more extensively for the care of the elephants which looked like fun too. As we ate lunch, the elephants happily roamed around the land that surrounded us, it was spectacular. We were later shown a heartbreaking story about why the park functions and where the elephants come from – mainly from the circus or rescued from the street where they have been injured or blinded and just left. The cruelty to these animals really was unimaginable.

It was a long day but we both said how special that day was and how glad we were to have got so close to the elephants and look after them. It was a stunning setting and I would encourage everyone to visit here rather than pay a fortune to ride the elephants and support the cruelty. That night we ate out at a local restaurant, explored the market more and finished at a Bar we found on Trip Advisor called Boys Blues Bar which was good fun. Then we packed up ready for our flight to Phuket.

We spent one night in transfer from Phuket to out little island paradise but it was the best transfer of my life! We only stumbled upon the hotel because it was the cheapest we could find and I have no idea how it was the cheapest but oh my goodness I have never stayed in a hotel like it. The Anantara Phuket is top of my list of hotels to re visit. It was probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and the room was just incredible. The room was up on a hill as it was a tsunami risk area so we had buggy rides to get up there which we just had to phone for and we first arrived we were then given a room tour – it was huge! Again, we splashed out a bit here and ate at the hotels Thai restaurant but it was probably one of there best meals of the holidays. We had cocktails that changed colour when you added and stirred things in, rice of various colours and spring rolls to die for! Such a lovely evening. Then before we left the next morning, we had the most amazing brunch like breakfast, all set with the view of the ocean ahead of us. We really didn’t want to leave.

But, leave we did and made our way by boat to Phi Phi Island Resort. When I say heaven on earth it really, truly was. It was just like you see on TV, the blue sea, the flowers in bloom, peaceful, relaxing, picturesque. We spent four days just indulging in relaxation at our swim up pool bar, in the sea – our only choices being, was it too early for a cocktail and whether to spend time by the pool or on the beach! Because it was a hotel, the restaurants were extortionately priced so we didn’t eat one evening meal there. Instead we headed out to the tiny little village just behind our resort which a lot of the holidaymakers did. It wasn’t pretty but it was real Thailand and we loved it, we ate at a different restaurant each night and the food was always amazing, cooked by locals in a traditional Thai fashion the way a country should be experienced on holiday.

The only thing that wasn’t great was our room. It was in desperate need of updating, it wasn’t dirty but they were dated and the air con didn’t work too well – we had lizard visitors in the night and the only TV channel that worked was Nat Geo so we had very educational TV when we were getting ready! But to be honest, like we said, we really didn’t spend much time in the room so it wasn’t a huge issue. Phi Phi was a place I really managed to totally unwind and relax which is needed for us teachers and we really didn’t want the holiday to come to an end.

Everywhere we went we were greeted with such friendly people in Thailand. I now understand why people go back time and time again because I would in a heart beat. I’d love to explore more of the islands and see more of what makes it such a special place. We did do a lot of research before we left which paid off and I would highly recommend doing, also remember to take a guide-book and get maps wherever you go, remember to look after your bags in crowded places and take photos, you’ll want to remember the beauty that is Thailand.

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Happy Tuesday!

#hairlesshannah

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Travel Tuesdays: Dubai

As you may know, I lived in Dubai for two years and loved it. Since being back I’ve had so many requests to give people my recommendations for places to eat, things to see and places to go whilst visiting this emirate of the U.A.E. on holiday. So, I thought I would write my favourites down in a blog so that people can refer to it whenever they like! Obviously these are my own personal preferences, like with everything, people will all have different views and I would always advise doing your own holiday research along with  being spontaneous when you’re out there too.

Bare with me because this is a long blog but hopefully it covers most of what you will need to know when you’re when you’re planning a trip to the sandpit! So here goes!

To start with I thought I’d give some basic info about Dubai, I think it’s always nice to know a little about the place you are going to visit.

  • Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, there are 7 emirates: Sharjah, Fujairah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Qaiwain.
  • Dubai currency is dirhams, you will see this written as AED. Obviously keep checking the exchange rate but at the time I’m writing this it is about 4.5aed to the £
  • Language: Arabic
  • Dress code: Remember you are going to an Arabic country so need to be respectful of their culture. Obviously at the beach or around pools you can wear any swimwear but will need to cover up if you go to the restaurant or anywhere else in the vicinity. In restaurants and malls you need to dress respectfully, normal holiday attire is fine but usually your shoulders and/or knees should be covered OR make sure you always carry a shawl that you could drape over you if need be. It’s always made out to be much stricter than it is in reality, as long as you are respectful there won’t be an issue.
  • Alcohol. Dubai isn’t dry apart from some religious holidays such as Ramadan. You will notice that a lot of restaurants won’t sell alcohol but the majority of them are in hotels and they will be licensed. Bars and clubs will also be licensed so if you fancy a holiday cocktail there are plenty of places so don’t worry!
  • Be careful about PDA in Dubai. Unless you are married you shouldn’t be flaunting it and even if you are married, over the top PDA is frowned upon. As is swearing and rowdy behaviour – this could end in being arrested so just be careful. Remember – this is their country so if you don’t like their rules, don’t go, simple as.
  • Tipping: taxis – most people will round up the the nearest note, so if your charge is 4aed, give a 5 dirham note. I’d advise to use Dubai Taxis as they are all metered and won’t rip you off. If you are offered a Lexus taxi don’t go because they will charge you the world!
  • The working week is Sunday – Thursday as Friday is their holy day.
  • The smoking ban isn’t in place here so be prepared for smoky restaurants, clubs and bars although most have smoke free areas.

Before I start I would suggest looking into buying an app called ‘The Entertainer.’  Make sure you look at the Dubai version. There are different choices, a general one, a health and beauty version and a kids version, the general version will be perfect for holiday goers. You can buy a paper version in some Dubai shops and malls so you could wait to buy it when you’re there so you can physically have a flick through and see if the vouchers are any good for what you want OR have a look on E-Bay as some people sell on the rest of the book after their holiday, just check what vouchers they’ve used before you buy!  You will pay about £70 for it but it contains mostly buy one get one free vouchers that cover some brunches, entrance to water parks and restaurants, Ski Dubai and many other things. The contents of the app changes annually so again, research before you go  but if you consider a brunch will cost say £60 per person, with the buy one get one free for different brunches, the app will have paid for itself before you’ve even done any other activities – amazing!

Brunch

Before I moved to Dubai I hadn’t heard of the infamous brunches. Brunch to me is when you wake up late so have a meal that covers both breakfast and lunch, don’t be fooled – brunch in Dubai is nothing like this!

It happens every Friday in most hotels from around 12 – 4pm. It’s an occasion to get dressed up and head out with your friends to luxurious locations and be bombarded with the most amazing food and drink. YOU MUST PRE BOOK AT LEAST A WEEK IN ADVANCE, you can e-mail most or get your hotel to book on the day you arrive. Basically you will discover the most amazing buffet type setting but it will cover foods from most corners of the world and is of amazing quality. There are some brunches where you choose from a menu and have the food brought to your table but you can order as much from the menu as you want over and over!  There will be music and entertainment and drinks are free flowing throughout.

You pay for different brunch packages, some that include soft drinks, some that include basic alcoholic drinks and then one that covers every drink you can think of! Each have different prices and they aren’t cheap BUT I really would recommend it because you won’t have an experience like this again.

Here are my top 5 brunches:

Lattitude Brunch at Jumeirah Beach Hotel. This was the first brunch I ever went to and where I took my mum and dad on their visit and a couple of friends. It’s a beautiful setting, with a view of the Burj al Arab, there is always a singer and a juggling act which is fun. The food is excuisite and yes it’s one of the more expensive brunches but honestly, you won’t regret it. After brunch is finished, take the lift to the Uptown Bar to continue with more delicious cocktails and a view from above!

Mina A’Salam brunch in the Madinat Jumeirah. This brunch is ridiculous! It is spread over a vast expanse of the restaurants in the Madinat which is one of my favourite places in Dubai. You will do a lot of walking to get different foods but the atmosphere is amazing, music everywhere, entertainment and happy faces! There’s a cheese room, a Mexican selection, live cooking stations, cocktail and alcohol stations – the passionfruit majitos are to die for – and again, it is in a stunning location. I took my brother and his girlfriend and a group of friends to this brunch, one at Easter and one at Halloween. The themed brunches are brilliant fun with quirky additions to the food.

Fork and Cork brunch at Anantara on The Palm. This is probably top of my list! It’s a smaller location but always has a great feeling to it, lots of people, great music and the brunch itself is just – wow! There is less to chose from but the quality of the food is second to none…there is a sushi bar, a chocolate section, you can get candy floss and pic ’n’ mix and pop on a Mexican hat for a giggle – what more could you want?!

Saffron brunch at The Atlantis on The Palm. This is definitely a party brunch, not one I’d take my parents too let’s say! The food is still good but not as amazing as the others but the drinks are fab and like I say, the atmosphere is one of ‘party party!’ They have little extras outside where you can paint and take away your own canvas which is a nice touch! I loved my brunch there but due to the price it was a one time brunch, I’m so glad I experienced it but for me once was enough!

Flavours on Two at Towers Rotana. They call their evening brunches, ‘International Theme Nights.’It’s always nice to have a good night out and even better when a brunch is involved! Check their website as each night has a different theme i.e Italian night, Indian night, British night etc. The idea is still the same, but it’s more low key, it’s in the evening and is a cheaper option. I went there lots and loved it just as much each time.

Out Out in Dubai – my top 3.

Ndulge on The Palm. After brunch on the palm or any brunch really, take a taxi to this club, it is my favourite club in the world! The main section is outside with a bar in the middle although there is an indoor dance floor and bar where you can escape to get some air con relief! Not to encourage drinking at brunch (!) but drinks anywhere in Dubai are expensive so enjoy brunch as much as you can if you catch my drift! The music is brilliant, there are comfy places to chill out and you may catch the odd celebrity now and then!

Societe. There are two locations for this club but both have the same theme – 80’s, 90’s and 00’s music with nostalgic TV shows playing on mute and themed nights at times. The only downside to this club is that it is always heaving and the smoke takes me back to clubbing days in the early 00’s! You’ll come home with smoky hair anyway but here it’s really intense! Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE this place but for me and my lungs I only last a few hours!

Barasti Beach. This is fab in the day for chilling out but the nights here are great fun. They have ladies nights, show sporting events but have great music and drinks and it’s always good fun.

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General Restaurants to visit 

The Cheesecake Factory. Oh my goodness – this is possibly my favourite restaurant in the world! Dubai has several of them in various locations which is fab. The Dubai Mall one is HUGE and has a view of the aquarium but is always packed and you often have to wait. The one in The Mall of the Emirates is right next to Ski Dubai so you get a view of the slopes as you eat which is fun, but I do love the one on the beach front on JBR. I had just assumed this was where you went to eat amazing cheesecake but oh my goodness the menu is extensive and the food is incredible! The portion sizes are just, well, beyond description – big enough to nearly defeat my brother which is saying something! I’d really recommend you visiting and possibly sharing starters, it’s definitely not a three course meal place…unless you get your cheesecake to go which we never did of course!!

Serafina in Souk al Bahar, Downtown Dubai. This is a restaurant you will need to pre book, it’s popular because you can ask for a fountain view table. (See below for why the Dubai Fountains are a must see!) They normally have vouchers in The Entertainer which is good as some items on the menu are on the pricier side. You have to state if you want to drink alcohol as part of this restaurant is unlicensed. Again, this is one of my favourite places because the food and drink paired up with the evening views are worth every penny.

Abd El-Wahab in Souk al Bahar. This is a Lebanese restaurant upstairs from Serafina and again you will need to book in advance! I only discovered this on my last visit and am disappointed I found it just before I was leaving! You have to ask for a fountain view which again enhances your dining experience. The menu is stunning, we had a sharing option between three of us – it was like a mini brunch, it just kept coming! Dad was even given an entire fruit bowl for one of his desert options! The staff were so friendly and I would go back again and again.

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The Claw in Souk al Bahar. Not much to say here apart from go! It does the biggest sharing cocktails you have ever seen and it has pork on the menu – winning! It’s a fun place but very popular so again, I’d pre book.

 

The Farm, Al Barari. A little slice of green, quiet heaven for a scrummy breakfast or chilled out lunch. I can’t explain how relaxing this place is, your menu is on an iPad and is mainly healthy options such a granola, a variety of eggs, bagels and toasts alongside a variety of smoothies, juices, teas and coffees. There is a trickling river and you are surrounded by flowers and greenery, if you want a breakfast away from the craziness of Downtown, please go here. You will just need to request for the staff to call you a taxi when you’re ready as you can’t hail them here.

The Observatory, Marina. This is a restaurant/bar up on the 52nd floor of Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel. The views are incredible – I booked a table for just before sunset so we could see/take photos of the view in daylight, during sunset and at night! Luckily I had a voucher for the meal I had there as it is pricey but if you don’t want to do that, the bar snacks and drinks are enough to fill you up. They also do a great ladies night here on a Tuesday but I’d advise booking.

The Boardwalk, Dubai Creek. I simply love it here, in the good weather, sitting outside is one of my favourite things to do. They do buffet nights which are fab but the normal menu isn’t huge yet everything from fish to calzones, pasta to steaks are cooked to perfection. When you have finished eating you can then pop downstairs to the restaurant called QD’s for drinks on comfy chairs and some shisha – a perfect evening!

Mezza House, Downtown Dubai. This is such a brilliant place to eat, it’s small but the food is delicious and you can walk here from Dubai Mall. It serves Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian dishes and you HAVE to try the mousakhan rolls – lip smackingly delicious!

Places to go/things to do

There is SO much to do in Dubai apart from chill out by the pool or at the beach, although of course that is going to form a massive part of your holiday!

I’ll start with the two main water parks:

Aquaventure, Atlantis, The Palm. This is such a fun place to spend the day! Not only do you get access to the water park but when you get bored (which won’t happen!) you also have access to a beautiful beach with a view of the skyscrapers in Dubai. It tends to get very busy here so entrance queues and food stall queues are always long but that doesn’t bother most people if you’re prepared for it. You can book in to swim with dolphins here which I didn’t do but many people I know did and said what an incredible experience it was. There are SO many rides here, it will satisfy thrill seekers and those of you who are happy to float along a lazy river or chill on a sun-bed and read your book.

Wild Wadi, Jumeirah Road. Wild Wadi is much smaller than Aquaventure but I prefer it here. There are normally buy one get one free vouchers for entrance in The Entertainer which helps with costs. If you bag a sunbed up on the terrace part you will get a view of the Burj al Arab and if you’re lucky spot helicopters landing on the helipad. The lazy river is just as it says on the packet but there are also plenty of rides to keep children and adults occupied. The main pool has a wave machine and there are food stalls scattered all over the park meaning queues are rarely that long.

Now we move on to all the other things you can do!

Dubai Fountains. The fountain displays are on every evening on the hour and half hour from 6pm – 11pm. They are choreographed to music, a different song each time (unless it’s broken and it’s the same song, like when I took my friends!!) and they are breathtaking. That’s why I recommend booking a restaurant with a fountain view so that every half an hour you get a free, spectacular show which can make you cry at times! You HAVE to make an evening trip to see them.

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The Souks. There are many different souks in Bur Dubai you could choose to visit; the Gold Souk in Deira, The Spice Souk, Perfume Souk, Textile Souk and then the indoor souks near Dubai mall and at The Madinat. To get to the souks you can get an agra across the creek which is really good fun too. Souks are cultural experiences that I feel people should visit and put money back into the place you are visiting, supporting local business men and women.

Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. If you really want to spend time getting a true understanding about Dubai and the UAE, the people, the culture and the past, this is the place for you. We took the school children here each year and although hot, it’s such an eye opening, interesting experience. You will learn a lot, try traditional food and get the opportunity to see inside a mosque.

Ski Dubai. Yep, there is a full blown, 22,500 square metres indoor ski area in one of the hottest places in the world! You can have ski or snowboarding lessons, children can have access to a snow park, you can fly on a zip line and go zorbing down the slopes. We took our classes at school on trips here and honestly, it is just the most magical place! It is SO cold but the children just get excited to be somewhere cold rather than sweating in the heat! They provide you with a snow suit, boots and helmets but you will need to pack your own hat and gloves. However, the best part for me is their Penguin Experience. That’s right, you can actually choose from several options, including swimming with penguins or an option to simple meet and learn about them. Hands down this is the best thing I did in Dubai, granted penguins are my favourite animals but it was just so much fun! Again, it is pricey but most packages include photos or souvenirs. It’s an experience I’d recommend for children and adults and then afterwards you can go to The Cheesecake Factory – what a day that would be!

Dubai Cinema Experience (Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, Mirdiff Mall.) If you want a cinema experience that will make you feel like you’re flying first class, Dubai cinemas can offer you that! In most cinemas you can get your bog standard cinema experience but if you opt for the more expensive option (they’ll be called Platinum Movie Suits or something along that line) you will be escorted to a little bar area where you choose your food (anything from nachos to mini burgers) and drinks (tea, coffee, mocktails etc) before they take you to your HUGE seats which recline and have foot rests and be given blankets and pillows. Your food and drink will then be delivered to you in the cinema for you to enjoy during the film! It’s amazing! Be aware that films here are sometimes edited to be in line with the culture i.e sex scenes may be cut and swearing bleeped out but it doesn’t make that much of a difference. Honestly, if you want an indoor, low key activity one day or evening – do this!

Desert Safari. Most people that visit or live in Dubai want to get out into the desert and really experience life in the sandpit. The company that I’ve been with many times with visitors is called Arabian Nights Tours. Each time they have been great fun with fab drivers and will leave you with a memory you’ll treasure forever. Again, there’s usually a voucher in The Entertainer and you will need to pre book (which you can do from their website before your trip). They pick you up from your hotel and drop you back later. It’s usually a pick up mid afternoon so they can get you to the desert, do some dune bashing (you’ll laugh until you cry), let you take photos whilst you watch the sunset over the desert and then drive you to a Nubian camp where you are provided with dinner and entertainment. There’s a chance to ride a camel, do sand boarding, hold a falcon and get some henna. Fun times.

Dubai Segway. One of the best things I’ve done in my life! Make sure you pre book with Segway Glides! You start at Vida hotel Downtown (although this may have changed since I went) and are then shown how to control and ride a segway.  We were lucky and only had our friends in the group and pretty much had a guide each. They were so friendly and helpful – my guy took my camera and snapped the most amazing shots of us as we toured our way around Downtown Dubai. Again, we laughed SO much and it’s an experience that will highly rank in my memory forever.

Dubai Mall Aquarium. I have to admit I never paid to actually go inside the aquarium as I figured the outside was pretty amazing without paying! But people that have been have said how good it is. King croc is there and you can pay to dive in the big tank. It’s just a wow factor to have such a huge aquarium in the middle of a mall – get your camera ready!

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Afternoon Tea. There are SO many places that offer afternoon tea in Dubai – from the ridiculously expensive to the very affordable. I would highly recommend having afternoon tea up the Burj Khalifa. Just to go up the tallest building in the world is exciting but their tea is affordable and yummy. If the tea doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can still go up the Burj Khalifa – book tickets in the Dubai Mall for ‘At The Top’. I know a few people who have had afternoon tea in the Burj al Arab but for me, it would have to be an extremely special occasion as it costs an arm and a leg! Afternoon tea at The Palace Downtown is one that I think most would love, it’s a stunning setting and the tea itself is just what you’d expect and more.

 

Seasonal Attractions

Dubai Miracle Gardens. This is such an extraordinary experience, especially as it’s in the middle of the desert! Basically it’s an attraction park where flowers and plants are used to create structures such as boats, peacocks, cover cars etc. It is a beautiful way to spend a few hours but because of the plants, the Miracle Gardens are only open during the cooler months, normally from November through to around March. It’s a cheap and very worthwhile thing to do.

Butterfly Gardens. These are just across the road from the Miracle Gardens and again,a very worthwhile trip! I went with mum and we really did have a giggle! You can purchase garlands that have been sprayed with a certain chemical that attracts the butterflies so they land on you, it really is fascinating to see these insects up close – even if I was very jumpy throughout! Again, remember your camera!

Global Village. This is claimed to be the worlds largest tourism, leisure and entertainment project! It is a huge site with various market sections from all around the world. You can visit Germany, Africa, England etc and buy various items from that country. There are fairground rides and restaurants and in the evenings there is entertainment. However, it really isn’t for everyone. Although you can bag yourselves some amazing bargains, it does get very busy (the car-park has enough space for thousands of cars!) and if you’re not up for a bit of bargaining and a lot of walking, I wouldn’t suggest it! Because its all outdoors, it is only open in the cooler months, November – April. I enjoyed the first time I went but I know my parents hated it! I would recommend going and making your own mind up, especially if you’re looking for gifts to take home.

And finally, if you want to have a day trip, I really would suggest getting yourselves to Abu Dhabi to visit The Grand Mosque. It is one of the most stunningly beautiful, peaceful places I have ever visited and urge everyone to go. Unless they perceive you to be dressed respectfully, you will be provided with clothes to cover you properly, including your head. You will also be asked to remove your shoes. It is open year round but in the hottest months it can be unbearable so I would suggest going in the cooler months if possible!

So there you have it, my full guide to Dubai! There is so much more that you may discover as Dubai is changing all the time. They are building new theme parks and venues so you may be able to share new attractions with me when you come back!

If you visit Dubai, I truly hope you love it like I do.

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Happy Tuesday!

#hairlesshannah

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Tuesdays: Egypt

I’m noticing more and more how many of my blogs have links to music – it’s not intentional I promise! The song ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ will forever be linked to my time in Dubai. One of our Year 2 topics was Ancient Egypt and we always had an Egyptian day where the children wore an Egyptian outfit (hopefully) homemade and we would head up to the playground and parade along the catwalk whilst listening to the Bangles classic.  Take a moment to picture it, even splitting the Year group into two groups, that’s still seven class, around 196 children…so about an hour’s worth of catwalk and goodness knows how many repeats of that one song!! But it was fun and I will always have fond memories of those days.

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What’s that got to do with anything I hear you ask? Well, this is my first “travel” blog. Travelling has always been something that intrigued me; discovering new countries, new cultures, meeting new people ands creating memories just has such an appeal to me. Although I have been incredibly lucky from a young age to travel to many parts of the world, Dubai enabled me to fulfil even more of my travel dreams. I’ve never been afraid to embark on trips alone, using tour groups and setting off on a new adventure yet Dubai also allowed me to find like-minded people who also wanted to travel which worked out perfectly.

This is always a risk – being friends with someone and travelling with a friend are two different things to some extent. You can be friends with someone and love them to pieces but travelling with a friend means they will be with you for almost 24 hours a day for the duration of the trip and in this time you will discover things you never knew about that person before…which can be a good or bad thing!

Our year group in Dubai was a unique one. We were a power house, a real team. We supported each other, had fun, socialised, made sure our main aim was the children and stuck to our guns when it came to what we believed in. She will hate me for saying it, but the main reason for this was our APC (assistant phase co-ordinator), Sharon. In my first year we didn’t become friends until half way through but from day one I knew we would get on; we are very similar in so many ways, she’s fiery, you wouldn’t want to mess with her but she’s loyal to a fault and I am so very glad to call her my friend.

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In 2015, February half term seemed to come round really quickly and Sharon and I decided quite last-minute that we should go away and both said how we would love to explore Egypt.  At the time I hadn’t quite realised the degree of possible danger in Egypt and mum only let me know of her fear when I was back safely! We were lucky to know many Egyptian families at school who gave us advice and helped to plan our little trip.

I’m not sure about Sharon but I was a little nervous about going away together – Sharon is very confident and out going in many ways and I didn’t want to be that boring friend that was always conscious of being cautious! Carly, who had travelled with Sharon before gave me two tips which I adhered to…thank goodness! 1) ALWAYS carry snacks and 2) ALWAYS carry something to keep her warm! Hangry, cold Sharon is not a good combination but we avoided that for the entirety of the trip and we are still friends now so our travels clearly made our friendship rather than breaking it!

Travelling with Sharon was a new experience for me. I am quite often the person in charge of organising things, being OCD about booking, checking, re checking and setting things in motion but in this case, Sharon did the majority of organising the trip and I actually quite enjoyed it. It was refreshing to take a back seat, I think it was because I trusted her..until we landed at the airport and saw the car we were being collected in! No seat belts, a bit rickety and similar driving to Dubai, let’s just say I was slightly terrified but after a few days and realising that hardly any car in Egypt had seat belts, I relaxed and went with the flow! We laughed, a lot. I learnt very quickly to just let go and enjoy it. It was a trip like nothing I’d experienced before.

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We turned up to our hostel in Cairo and I must admit my heart sank a little!  There were cats outside and inside the building – I assumed all stray – and to get up to our little hostel in the block, there was an old-fashioned lift where you pulled across the metal grating, a bit like those you see in Titanic!  We let the kind man take our cases in while we took the stairs – we didn’t risk that lift once! The hostel was basic but so lovely. The people who ran it were so friendly and helped us to plan some of the next bits of our trip, sorted taxis and tour guides and provided us with nice breakfasts!

I was not too excited about going to Cairo initially.  After  watching ‘An Idiot Abroad’ I was dubious about what the pyramid experience would be like but I have to say, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. When we arrived outside, it was as described by many, very touristy with a KFC and people trying to sell over priced camel rides and tacky souvenirs. However, once you walk through the entrance, it’s like you’ve entered another world. It was oddly quiet and the space was vast with pyramids of all sizes stretched out before us. Quite quickly a little boy named Hassan took us under his wing. He wasn’t pushy like some of the unofficial tour guides in the compound and maybe because we are suckers for children, he guided us around for the duration of our visit. He reeled off facts and figures about the pyramids and the sphinx and enjoyed taking selfies with us. As we walked towards the exit we decided to tip Hassan – he had neither asked nor expected it, I think he had just enjoyed spending time with us rather than spending his day being shooed away by other tourists. I will never forget his face when he took the money we gave him, our only hope is that he got to keep it and spend it on himself.

Our tour guide took us on many pit stops that day – one stop was to a papyrus shop which in hind sight we were majorly conned by! It was fascinating watching how papyrus paper is made and we both spent money on our own “original” papyrus art! We were both thrilled but later realised we had been total suckers for a nice guy! Our favourite thing in Cairo though was the Khan el Khlalili night market. It was like something out of Aladdin; little stalls everywhere, friendly faces, lamps, spices, scarves – it was wonderful. The Egyptian people were consistently friendly and welcoming and that night a shop keeper invited us in and sent his son to buy us a shawarma and can of coke! We sat and chatted and had a lovely time, he didn’t pressure us once to buy anything and we bid farewell after a nice dinner!

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It was in Cairo that I first witnessed Sharon’s immense bartering skills and picked up on some of her Arabic. The bargains we ended up with were fab and I came away with life skills from that holiday that will last a life time! The citadel was also a cultural experience I would highly recommend along with going into some mosques. We laughed so much when we donned the bright green robes they gave us to respectfully cover us – I hadn’t taken off my back pack so I just looked like a turtle walking round which amused Sharon greatly! The rest of our time in Cairo we spent simply walking around, exploring real Egypt and finding off the road places that we otherwise wouldn’t have discovered. Our final night in Cairo found us on a little cruise with a traditional Egyptian menu.  What we realised quite quickly though was that we were also extra guests at a wedding! It was one of the most bizarre nights of my life!

We then moved on to Aswan where we stayed in a Nubian village. Sharon and I both said this was a place to stay for anyone who wants to have a traditional, once in a life time experience. The house we stayed in was colourful, beautiful and so peaceful. It was off the beaten track but the owners were once again faultless. Just a walk away from our accommodation was a little market where we bought fabric and Sharon held a crocodile in the Crocodile House!

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We spent one afternoon at the Philae Temple which again, wasn’t busy and was so interesting to spend time at. Seeing hieroglyphics carved into bricks first hand was exciting and we couldn’t wait to show the children! We spent a while taking silly photos but then we stopped and sat, had a drink and ate some snacks and whiled away an hour or so just talking. We did go to the Aswan dam but to be honest, it was a let down and I wouldn’t recommend it.

One night in Aswan we went to a Nubian party which we were expecting other tourists to be at yet it became obvious very quickly that we were the only ones staying in the village so we spent the night dancing, listening to music, drinking Arabic coffee and smoking shisha with the Nubian people – again, an experience I will never forget! The other night we stayed in our little haven and were provided with the most incredible meal. It was just such a serene place and I’d go back in a heart beat.

We had then organised to be picked up for an overnight felluca cruise on The River Nile. This would probably rank in my top five travelling things ever. Our little crew were so friendly and we just had such a laugh. Until sunset we listened to music, talked and chilled out. We stopped to take in sunset over the Nile and then shored up. There was no toilet on the felluca so whilst two of the crew made us dinner, one walked us through fields to a little Nubian house which I have to admit was slightly dodgy! We sat and had some shish, well Sharon did, tied scarves on our heads to stop getting cold and laughed at the absurdity of the situation we were in. That night on the felluca was sooooo cold and I discovered over that day/night that I have not mastered the art of going to the loo in the bushes!!

Sunrise on the Nile was stunning and our home-made breakfast, although very old, was lovely. We cruised on a little more before shoring up and being collected for the next leg of our trip. Our driver then took us to Luxor. It seemed that we attracted random men who wanted to show us round and this night we met Ahmed who became our little tour guide for the evening. It was another wonderful place to explore but unfortunately there was a power cut as we headed back. We sat and talked to Ahmed for a while but it was when he invited us back to his home that I started to get Daily Mail headlines flashing through my mind of two careless travellers who went home with a stranger to be found murdered the next day! It would have probably been fine but that night I became cautious Hannah and made Sharon come back with me to our hotel!

It was in Luxor that we spent the day at The Valley of the Kings. Wow. What a day. It was very hot but such an awe-inspiring experience. I think because we’d taught so much about Tutankhamun, it just seemed surreal that we were in his tomb, in his chamber. The other  tombs and chambers were also incredible and we had to soak it all in because no photography was allowed as the flashes, over time, would destroy the hieroglyphics. It was quite steep in the chambers and we definitely hit our 10,000 steps that day! It was of course the busiest place we visited in Egypt but we had expected that, having said that, it wasn’t bustling and we saw everything we wanted to with ease.

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Our only regret of the holiday was that we didn’t get up early and take the trip to Abu Simbel but that just means we might have to go back one day! I honestly would recommend going to Egypt. I know it isn’t the safest place to go now, but when, hopefully things settle it’s a place more people should visit. We didn’t venture anywhere near Sharm El Sheikh although I would like to go one day but I think because we lived in Dubai, we wanted something different to pools and sand and desert safaris. Getting to see proper Egypt was the best decision we could have made, if you get the opportunity – go.

 

#hairlesshannah

 

Dubai for now

As most of you know, I have just spent three weeks in Dubai packing up my life and saying my goodbyes. To say it was stressful would be an understatement and I thought it only fair to fill you in as well as give some handy hints to those of you who will go through the leaving process at some point!

Dubai is a unique country in so many ways but then so is the company I have been working for. Those two factors combined resulted in chaos from the get go. Because I had been out of the country for more than six months my residency visa had been automatically cancelled. On school’s advice I had to simply get a doctor’s certificate attested at both the Foreign Office and UAE Embassy in London. Seemed simple enough but that process alone took over three weeks, numerous phone calls and emails to complete. I checked and double checked with the Government Relations Officer at school that was all I had to do (because yes, I am a worrier and yes I was on high alert as I would be travelling alone!).

I cannot express how nervous I was to be travelling alone and facing two weeks away from my support system – dad flew out to help in the final week – and the irony is, the night before I flew, we sat at the dinner table and I asked, in all seriousness, what I would do if the medical certificate wasn’t enough and they wouldn’t let me into the country. They all laughed at me and said it would be fine and to put my trust in what school had said and dad’s final words were, “If it does go wrong, don’t call us because we won’t be able to do anything from here!” Then we joked about me becoming the female Tom Hanks in my own version of The Terminal and I went to bed feeling nervous but reassured it would go well.

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I’d booked a meet and assist with Emirates so I didn’t have to face the long airport walk or struggle with my luggage as the arthritis in my right hand is still excruciating. Saying goodbye to Dad (mum wasn’t allowed to come to the airport!) was very hard, I even made my wheelchair pusher cry because I was so upset! The service however, was wonderful and I managed to have a giggle about the fact I was in a beeping buggy and took a photo and video for the amusement of my friends and family. The flight was actually okay, I’d managed to use breathing and relaxation techniques I’d been shown in my reiki sessions and before I knew it we were landing early at 12.05am. Brilliant – I was wheeled past the long queues to passport control, handed over my passport and the medical certificate and then, it all went pear-shaped.

Basically, I wasn’t spoken to, my wheelchair assistant was ordered to wheel me off to immigration and shooed us away. My passports and doctors certificates were handed over to the men at the desk and I was told in no uncertain terms that I would not be allowed entry because I needed a stamp from the Dubai health authority. Shit. I tried to explain that I had done everything school had advised but once again, I was ignored and wheeled outside to wait. This may sound okay to most of you but now picture this, I was wheeled out, pushed into a corner, facing the wall like a naughty child – I was mortified! I asked if I could get out of the chair to go and speak to them or sit in a normal chair (yes, I was also strapped into the wheelchair in case I decided to make a run for it Little Britain style!) but I was told that if I left the chair, the assistance would cease and I would be left alone. Now I didn’t want this to happen because I needed help with my cases etc so, I stayed, facing the wall, silently crying for about an hour…I can just about laugh about it now but at the time it was not fun. I had no phone credit but did have dirhams; I asked if someone could go and by me some credit so I could contact people – no. Could I use a phone in the office – no. Great.

So after some more panicked tears and anger at the fact school had let me down so badly, survival mode kicked in. Airport must equal free airport wi-fi – bingo. However, my battery was almost dead but, top tip number one, always pack chargers in your hand luggage! This was also my ticket out of corner detention! I was wheeled to a plug socket, charged up and sent SOS texts to a few people saying if I wasn’t home by the time they left for work, to get help! I also let home know what was going on…I think they felt a bit guilty and also very helpless, well, apart from my hilarious (!) brother who thought he’d lighten the situation by letting me know what was going on in the Eurovision Song Contest…read the situation Jack, sometimes it’s just not helpful!

By this point I’d been told I would be taken to departures to book a flight back to the UK whilst they sent the certificate to the health authority. Really?!! That was it, I lost the plot, like, big time tears enough to not make any sense when I was trying to talk. Didn’t they know how much it had taken for me to even board a flight? Didn’t they know I hadn’t been paid for six months and literally didn’t have the money to book a flight? How dare they! It was also now nearly three hours after I’d landed, all my strong painkillers were in my suitcase so I was exhausted and in so much pain I can’t describe – probably made worse because of how emotional and stressful this situation was. I am a very independent person and can fend for myself yet I had never felt so helpless. However, I think they took pity on me because after another half an hour, the man reappeared with a random entry stamp in my passport and told me I could enter. I started to ask questions and then thought, shut up Hannah, take the bloody passport and run – well, wheel away quickly! The only obstacle then was they couldn’t find my luggage as it had been so long since we landed but eventually it was found and I was in a taxi heading to Silicon Oasis.

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It took me four days to recover from that ordeal. Four days I hadn’t accounted for because I had so much to get done. I felt very sad that the schools Government Relations Officer only offered an apology when he met with me and dad in the last week, and even then he said it had ‘funnily enough’ happened to someone else only a month before. Wonderful. Another great example of how rubbish communication can be in Dubai.

I’d applied online for my good conduct certificate which needed to be collected from a police station. Dubai don’t do CRB checks so this certificate is needed to account for the years spent out of the UK if you’re returning to teach. Another amazing friend took me to the station after school one day to collect it, she needed hers too, and with a click of a button it was emailed – sorted. Only mine was received though and poor Charlie is now still fighting to get it sorted. Believe me when I say, we take for granted how easy things are in England compared to Dubai.

School provided a tick list of things to do to exit the country along with numerous signatures to collect at school to say we were good to go. I had handed in my passports and Emirates ID only to then discover I needed my ID to cancel my internet, bank etc. This is not mentioned anywhere in the documentation. So, if you are going through the leaving process DO NOT HAND IN YOUR EMIRATES ID BEFORE CHECKING WHAT YOU NEED IT FOR. Once you give it in, it’s cancelled and you don’t get it back, then you’ll be up the creek without a paddle. Once this was all done I was sent some school transport to take me to the ‘pineapple’ building to sign off and hand in visa to be cancelled. I laughed out loud when they sent me a whole school bus to take me – so Dubai but I also think they knew I was fed up of empty promises of help!

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Closing your bank account. Oh dear lord. I feel I now have a very close relationship with Citibank. If you bank with them, close your account ASAP because they can’t do their jobs properly. In order to get your final settlement from school you have to provide a letter from your bank simply stating you’ve closed the account. So, with plenty of time I zeroed my account – that was hard enough as I had 14 dirhams and 99 phils to clear….it took hours because everything in Dubai ends in .00 or .5! Anyway, it was closed so I rang to apply for the letter. LONG story short, and I’m glad dad was there to witness this, it took ten days and technically it still isn’t resolved. They needed different departments to write the email, print the email, sign the email, scan the email, send the email. I can’t count the hours I spent on hold and eventually I tried to get school a verbal confirmation that it was closed and when they saw how useless Citibank were being, they took my word for it and gave me my settlement cheque. The next day the email arrived. I had to make a password to open the PDF and when I did I was met with an email saying it was a test and the second email saying nothing useful relating to the closure of my account and with no signature – SERIOUSLY??!!!!!!! It was just so infuriating.

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Over the three weeks I spent five hours waiting for people to do apartment checks and turn up for meetings at school that never happened. I was told endless times how people were expecting me to look much worse and that bald suited me while all the time I was screaming inside that this process was literally shoving me hundreds of steps backwards. Screaming that my illness is hidden, that bald isn’t a choice, I don’t want it to suit me, I miss my hair. Screaming that the Dubai heat was making my pins and needles feel like my head was on fire and that I wanted to rip my skin off. Nothing about some of the processes that school put me through was okay. It reminded me a bit of jury service, when you work for someone, you are needed but once you’re done, they don’t need you or necessarily have a duty of care towards you. I want to clarify here that the majority of people I saw made genuine offers of help and did help and I will be forever grateful to them.

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These three weeks have shown me how strong I can be if I need to. I didn’t have a choice, I had to get things done, I had to see people – no, I wanted to see people because I was on a tight time frame. Just because I went out and did things doesn’t mean I didn’t pay for it. I couldn’t pace myself like I have been doing at home and I am paying for it now. I had some amazing meals out and celebrations, all booked at decent times so I didn’t have late nights. Everyone was so understanding but people see your persona on social media and assume, ha, Hannah is out and about in Dubai, she must have been pulling our leg back home. Not the case one bit. I slept in late and had afternoon sleeps and doubled up on pain killers. I smiled when I wanted to cry and did things when I wanted to be in bed but I don’t have any regrets. I needed to go through that process in order to finish that chapter properly.

Having the chance to see parents and pupils was emotional and amazing. Dubai was too hot to wear anything on my head as it was too itchy and uncomfortable. I was terrified about braving the bald at school but it was actually quite freeing. The children asked questions which was fine and a few asked to touch my head which was also fine. What isn’t fine is when people touch, rub or play your bald head…not okay. The three weeks confirmed to me how many friends I have made over the years and how many decent, hard-working, unappreciated people I have had the opportunity to work with and get to know. Walking back into school opened my eyes to the stressful job I was doing before and how it had been the major contributor to me becoming as ill as I am. People don’t walk at school, they power walk, mainly with smiles on their faces that you know are covering the endless to do lists, pressures from emails both from management and parents, the endless planning, assessing, report writing etc and I felt relief. Relief that I wasn’t going back into that environment. We are teachers, not robots. We are humans not superheroes. I want to work in a school again that recognises that. But I’m not sure how I feel about it, my last experience working there has dented my confidence and really made me doubt whether I want to teach again. My body has been changed by this experience and I don’t ever want to go back to that situation.

Having said all of the above, I have not one single regret about my Dubai adventure. I have made so many life long friends, so many memories and I will always love Dubai. I have loved being immersed in another culture, loved working in an international school and being able to travel more than I ever could have imagined. I thank Dubai for introducing me to Bath and Body works and The Cheesecake Factory, for letting me have cinema experiences like no other and being able to watch the most magical fountains whenever I wanted to. For letting me experience a desert safari one day and be in Ski Dubai meeting penguins the next. For waking up to the call to prayer and experiencing Ramadan first hand.  For changing me, giving me the confidence to challenge myself and broaden my horizons. It’s made me a stronger person and a part of me will always call Dubai home.

And before I end this blog I want to mention the amazing person that is my Dad. At the age of 30 I never thought I need to rely on my family as much as I’m having to at the moment. Dad took a week of his holidays to come and help me in the final week. I have never been so happy to see him after the ordeal of my first two weeks and he never left my side once he landed. He wrapped, packed, organised, calmed and sorted me out. I have always known what a brilliant man he is and I know he wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other way but he just needs to know how thankful I am for everything he did in that week, he even spent his 60th birthday with a group of my friends and never complained once! So, thanks dad, I love you more now than I did before – if that’s even possible!
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When we started in Dubai people spoke about your friends becoming Dubai family and I thought it was a bit daft but you know what, they are. You need a support system in Dubai and luckily I found the strongest one. Thank you to all the people, both friends and colleagues that made my Dubai experience so very special, I will never forget you and all you have done for me.

So, Dubai for now….

Hairless Hannah

xx