By Frankie Chee
If you are trying to find your way around Dubai, landmarks would serve you better than addresses and road names. Even taxi drivers use landmarks as a guide because addresses are hard to locate.
That may explain why people there use post-office boxes instead of residential addresses for their mail.
That is a tip from licensed Dubai tour guide Ahmad Lutfi, 40.
The Singaporean, who also works as a restaurant operations manager, has been living there for four years but keeps in close touch with home where his two children attend school.
But while Singaporeans may be confused by the unusual way of finding destinations, they will be relieved to know that Dubai is a shopping haven with several huge malls. They can also tuck into Singaporean fare such as lontong, teh tarik and nasi lemak.
The best way to explore the city is...
By public transport such as public buses or taxis. As Dubai is still developing and building its landscape, most of the attractions are usually identified by landmarks and not easily found by addresses. New visitors should take note of this anomaly.
There are also no residential mail boxes. Instead P.O. boxes are the order of the day.
Most of the taxi drivers are from Pakistan and India, so it helps to give them directions in simple English, using landmarks as directional signs rather than street names.
Most activities happen after 7pm, while some shops close late, even around midnight. Visitors can sign up for day tours organised by local tour companies such as the Big Bus Tours company (www.bigbustours.com, tel: +971-4-3244-187).
The best time to visit is...
From late December to February as the cool and windy climate, averaging between 14 and 20 deg C, is more pleasant.
Also, there are more tourist activities and events during this period, such as the Dubai Shopping Festival (www. dubaishoppingfestival.com) which takes place in the first quarter of the year. Almost all the malls and retail outlets participate in the festival and you can find discounts of up to 70 per cent.
There is also the Global Village, a big bazaar organised according to different country pavilions, and not forgetting the fireworks and daily street events and performances.
Global Village (www.globalvillage.ae) is located in Dubailand along Emirates Road, near the Arabian Ranches community.
Which places in the city excite you?
Dubai is a city of skyscrapers and architectural wonders such as the Burj Dubai, Atlantis Hotel and Palm Jumeira residences, but it also retains its traditional values and architecture.
Where is the best place to go on a shopping spree?
Places worth visiting include the traditional souq or bazaar, which is much like our pasar malam where you can bargain for everything from antiques and artworks to spices and gold with the shopkeepers.
The mega malls – Mall of the Emirates, Ibn Battuta Mall and Dubai Festival City – are among the latest popular malls to visit. These house SkiDubai, Fitness First gym, Carrefour and Hyperpanda hypermarkets and the Ikea furniture store.
Mall of the Emirates (www.malloftheemirates.com) is located along the Sheikh Zayed Road highway near the Al Barsha community. At 2.4 million sq ft or double the size of Singapore’s VivoCity, it claims to be one of the biggest malls in the Middle East.
The Ibn Battuta Mall (www.ibnbattutamall.com) is near the Jebel Ali industrial area and the Dubai Marina residences. It is named after the famous explorer and comprises various architectural wonders based on his travels to countries such as Persia, India and China.
Interestingly, there are also historical anecdotes, life-sized mannequins and sand models of decades-old water irrigation systems, as well as scientific discoveries and achievements, showcased in the building.
Festival City (www.dubaifestivalcity.com) is near the Dubai Airport and just after the Garhoud Bridge crossing. It is the latest shopping haven and Ikea is one of its anchor tenants.
FOOD AND WINE
Dubai is a diner's delight, with many cafes in malls such as the Khan Murjan offering local fare
Where can you find food that is close to Singaporean fare?
Singapore Deli Restaurant serves familiar food such as rendang, lontong and nasi lemak – just as you will find them back home in Singapore. It also serves teh tarik, teh halia and bandung, and has alfresco dining. The place is one of the favourite hang-outs of the Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean communities. It is located in the Al Shumook Building, near Burjuman Shopping Centre, along Trade Centre Road.
Your favourite breakfast is at...
Saravana Bhavan (www.saravanabhavan.com), which is located at the Karama, Sheikh Hamdan Colony community clusters. It serves Indian vegetarian fare which is fresher and richer in taste compared to the branch in Singapore’s Little India. They serve thosai, idli and thali meals. A must-try is the hot tea or coffee served with fresh milk. Prices are reasonable – a masala thosai and a vadai with a bottle of mineral water and tea costs 15 dirhams (S$5.80).
Your favourite eating place is...
The Ibn Battuta Mall food court. It offers a variety of choice fares – Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Lebanese, Indian and fast-food joints – all under one roof and at reasonable prices too. The place offers good dining areas and ample free parking lots.
The coolest place to chill out is...
The Mall of the Emirates. Besides boasting the SkiDubai leisure park, it also houses a cineplex, Carrefour hypermarket and branded names such as Jumbo Electronics, Debenhams, Home Centre and Toy Store.
Many people flock to this place because of its one-stop shopping convenience where you can get everything under one roof. It is also centrally located and has over 2,000 parking lots.
What is the biggest difference between Singapore and this city?
Singapore is more organised and has a more service-oriented culture. After-sales service in Dubai is rarely heard of and staff lack a service mentality when dealing with customers. But with time and the efforts by the Dubai government, things may improve eventually.
Which is the place you will always take your friends to when they visit you?
I will take them to eat mandi rice, which is like the nasi briyani we have in Singapore but the rice tastes much better and is less oily. The dish originated from Yemen.
The rice is served with freshly grilled mutton, chicken or fish, with salad and salsa chilli. Normally, we have pomegranate juice to end the meal.
Bait Al Mandi, located along Muraqqabat Road in Deira, is a good place to try this dish. Al Marhabani Restaurant near the Dubai Police Headquarters, before Al Mulla Plaza, is another place worth checking out – it even offers prawn mandi rice and serves a variety of fruit juices.
These places also provide private cabins in majlis setting, which is the traditional style of Arab hospitality, for guests to dine in.
A LITTLE FURTHER
Are there things to do or see outside the city?
No worries if you find the city too confusing. Chill out in cool water at the al-Maha resort in the middle of the desert
A desert safari is one way to learn about the desert and Arabian culture. Typically, the trip starts at 3pm with a pick-up service in a Toyota Landcruiser four-wheel-drive vehicle.
One gets to experience the joy and exhilaration of traversing the winding slopes of the vast desert near the Hatta- Oman border. Some people may throw up because of all the rumble and tumble, so it is best to eat only a light meal before the trip.
After watching the sunset, visitors are taken to an Arabian-style oasis or camp area. Here, they will be served, buffet-style, traditional Arabian fare such as grilled meat kebabs, lamb chops, salads, Arabian bread and desserts. Normally, a belly dancer will entertain as you eat. You can also take pictures in traditional Arabian costume such as the kandura (Arabian white robe for men) or the abaya (women’s black cloak), ride a camel or have a henna hand-tattoo done.
The trip ends at around 9pm. Most tour operators in Dubai organise these desert safaris on a daily basis and they cost between 180 and 250 dirhams per person. Besides the desert trip, you can also travel to other emirates to enjoy scenic natural landscapes, wadis (oasis), or even go up to the coastal area of Musandam for dolphin watching.
Sharjah, one of the emirates in the United Arab Emirates, boasts a tradition rich in Islamic cultures and manages over 20 museums. Fujairah has wonderful beachfronts and is frequented by many visitors from Europe. Hence, it comes as no surprise that most Singaporeans living here own four-wheeldrives as the lure of off-road driving beckons.
IN DUBAI WITH...
Name: Ahmad Lutfi
Occupation: Restaurant Operations Manager and Licensed Tour Guide
Length of Stay: Four years
This article was first published in The Straits Times on August 31, 2008.