Days 12-14: How Dubai far exceeded my expectations

I had a lot of preconceived ideas about Dubai, more negative than positive to be honest, based on accounts from friends and family who have either lived or holidayed here. Artificial, flashy and uber-conservative were the impressions that I had; I was wrong on many counts.

Our balcony view #nofilterneeded

Dubai literally ended up on our itinerary due to flight patterns, and us using our stopover here to visit somewhere that we have always wanted to visit (we even explored the possibilities of living here on one or two occasions). 45 degree August desert heat was clearly never going to be the ideal climate, but it did allow us to book a five star all inclusive stay at the Amwaj Rotana in Jumeirah for a fraction of the peak season cost. Everything about the hotel has been impeccable, from the view, to the service, to the food. Even the airport was the easiest to get through, with no pesky landing cards to fill out and two tourist SIM cards helpfully handed to us with our passports.

Kids and the Burj Khalifa

Dubai fully deserves its status as a luxury holiday resort. Yes, it is a man made city sprawled from the riches of its first oil discovery in 1966, but it is spectacular, and a whole lot more welcoming of its Western tourists than I thought it would be. Everybody has been extremely friendly and respectful ; they value the importance of the tourist industry (after all, the oil will run out one day) and all they ask in return is mutual respect on the part of the tourist, for example not wandering around in beach attire away from the beach and no overt displays of public affection: none of which is unreasonable.

Fountain at Dubai Mall

Dubai is what it is, and we have loved it here. From it’s crazy malls complete with swimming sharks and dancing fountains, to its pristine waters (genuinely as hot as a bath-it made Malaysia’s sea seem cold!), no expense nor effort has been spared-certainly in the areas that we have visited. Crazy hot yes- but with strategic early visits to the beach, a cooled pool and full use of air conditioning all over the place, the summer heat has been surprisingly manageable. Certainly the surprise destination of the trip; we will return.

Day 11: Singapore Zoo

I am the first to admit that zoos are not up there on my list of favourite things to do, however, Singapore Zoo repeatedly came up as a ‘must do’ as part of my research. Although our time in the country was relatively short, we decided to go the whole package and book ‘breakfast with the orangutans’ to start the day off.

It was a plentiful, mostly Western style breakfast buffet, and the Orangutans were basically brought in and given their breakfast in their area at the front of the restaurant. It did make me laugh how one tripadvisor reviewer had to put a warning in their review after being disappointed that the animals don’t actually come and sit and eat at your table with you 😂

The Zoo is excellent however, and it’s ‘open concept’ does mean that that there are no cages, often just a waist height fence and some sort of body of water between you and the animals, which did make me a little nervous when facing a Komodo dragon and a white tiger!

I did read up on the zoo’s methods of enclosure, thinking that they may use high frequency sound as a method of containment, but found no evidence of this, alongside a generally high safety record. Feeding the giraffes and elephants was a highlight for the kids; getting so close to these amazing animals was indeed a privilege and there was so much to see and learn about: I can certainly see how it consistently earns recognition as one of the top zoos in the world.

We spent around six hours there altogether, although could have easily stayed longer had the splash park area been open and if we had watched all of the six or so shows (the rainforest animals show was excellent-everything is so slick in Singapore). However, whilst the park was almost empty in the morning, from noon it got an awful lot busier (and hotter), so we welcomed the air conditioned bus with open arms as we headed off to find a late lunch.

Day 10: Pints and orchids

With only two full days to spend in Singapore, and with one of those pretty much dedicated to the zoo, we knew that we would have a busy itinerary. Our first stop was Chinatown (we mainly used the highly efficient and reasonably priced public transport system to navigate): this was a great place to wander around soaking in the atmosphere and architecture. There were lots of restaurants, market and food stalls with a friendly and vibrant feel to the place, not to mention an extreme variety of food offerings for sale (steamed chicken heads anybody?!).

Street mural in Chinatown.

Our next stop was to the famous Gardens by the Bay. Our preferred option of the two indoor garden domes (cloud forest) was closed for maintenance, so we went to the flower dome. The air conditioning alone was worth the £35 entrance fee, although to be fair it was pretty spectacular, with themed areas that included ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and a display of orchids, the national flower. It made for an enjoyable, cool hour or so, with plenty of fun photo opportunities and not too much crowding.

Following this we had lunch at the mall food court, having battled the masses to procure a table. Having got a bowl of noodles to share, I then proceeded to try to dish them into smaller bowls for the kids. No chance, the noodles are never ending. Without a knife to be seen, the only way to go is to follow the example of the locals and to pretty much stick your face in the bowl and hoof it in.

After a bit of respite back at the flat, we went to Clarke Quay in the early evening. It was lively and buzzing, with a good array of bars and restaurants, live music, and of course that all important ‘happy hour’ -the only time when the cost of a pint was low enough to justify drinking it without guilt. How an offer of the day can be a burger and a pint for £15 I don’t quite know: unless you are earning the Singaporean Dollar, dining out can be an expensive pursuit if you eat outside of hawker centres. Nonetheless starved we have not 😂 and we managed to pack even more into one day than I though we would, I feel fairly well acquainted with Singapore now, at least from a tourist point of view.

Day 9: The city that rose like a merlion

We managed to exit Tioman Island via a five hour boat and road journey (several didn’t: the ferry is frequently overbooked and the bemused passengers left behind on the jetty were safe in the knowledge that the next ferry was not until the following day. God willing.)

Being budget conscious we had to search high and low to find accommodation larger than a postage stamp for our three nights in Singapore, and ended up with a bargain one bed apartment through Airbnb. Bargain because it’s in the middle of the red light district… The area has been cleaned up a lot over the last five years according to our cab driver, and to be honest I find it far safer than wandering around Dagenham Heathway after nightfall. At 11pm last night it was buzzing with locals, families and travellers all cramming in to what seems like hundreds of eateries (restaurants are on the odd numbered roads, brothels previously on the evens-luckily we are on 19). Owen doesn’t believe that the speciality is frog porridge-he just thinks it’s a bad dad joke lol.

We spent the evening at Marina Bay, with its classic skyline views and amazing light show ‘Spectra (we didn’t really know what the thousands were sat waiting for, so thought that we would just join them!).’ Not only was the light show stunning; but every aspect of the mall was created with no expense spared. At every opportunity Singapore wants to show us its pride in economically raising itself up from the sea like its symbolic mythical merlion.

The mall food court (hawker centre) looked delicious, however it was packed, so to the kids’ delight we ended up in the superheroes cafe, which they described as ‘epic (this word gets somewhat overused in our household). It was like a typical themed London cafe: moderate food but amazing decor.

The kids fell into bed shattered at the end of a long day, and I was not far behind them after trying to research some sort of plan for tomorrow. I went to sleep, my head spinning with images of gardens in the sky, pork noodles for breakfast and thoughts of how pricey the damn alcohol is once more…

Days 7-8: Paradise found…

I was sincerely hoping that the two hour transfer and subsequent two hour ferry ride were going to be worth the effort to get to Tioman Island (I cannot wait until the kids can properly carry their own luggage). It absolutely was. Tioman is one of the most beautiful places in the world that I have ever visited.

The view from our balcony

We are at Paya beach, one of about eight resorts dotted around the island which are all serviced via ferry. There are no cars (luggage is transported using scooters with side cars) and Paya consists of two hotel resorts and a scattering of dive operators, restaurants and duty free shops. Yesterday we went on a boat snorkel tour; the coral and the water were pristine and there were plenty of tropical fish (nothing much more exciting alas, although we did see a sea snake). The kids both enjoyed the snorkelling-Owen more than Elsie (she doesn’t like ‘big fish’ which can be somewhat problematic). I was a bit jealous of the divers-it’s been 10 years since I last went diving (never had the inclination to until now) and I would imagine some of the dive sites are pretty amazing.

I splurged and had lobster last night. It had been caught one hour prior to it being cooked, and was presented sliced in half, with a garlic butter sauce. Now I have only had lobster on a handful of occasions, but this was head and shoulders above others. We have a mixed grill preordered for tonight, so Rhodri should be in his meat heaven. We have had the more traditional noodle and rice dishes (which have obviously been great) however somewhat repetitive (maybe I have an ignorant palette): I could not envisage having a rice/noodle variation for three meals a day every day.

I will be sad to leave tomorrow, but feel recharged and relaxed after the bustle of Johor. We still have two more countries to explore with a busy itinerary (and washing to do 😂), but Tioman in particular has ensured that I will leave Malaysia with fond memories.

Day 6: Mersing: gateway to the islands

It is just before 6am and my not so peaceful slumber has been shortened by an unexpected prayer call. Mersing, a jetty town that is the gateway to some of Malaysia’s most beautiful islands, is an eclectic mix of locals and travellers, namely backpackers. As with the rest of our holiday so far, our Western appearance is in stark contrast to everybody else (I saw less that a handful of ‘Westerners’ in Johor Bahru) but unlike in other countries, nobody bats an eyelid nor treats us any differently (as far as I can tell). We have been met with the same quiet and unassuming courtesy pretty much wherever we have been so far.

Mersing, is almost a dry town (in the alcoholic sense). The food that we had for lunch was delicious, yet alas, no crisp white wine to accompany my seafood.

A very unauthentic tuna sandwich and chips!

Apparently, the only place where alcohol is served is at Chinese restaurants, and unsurprisingly their menu is three times more expensive. There is a beer fridge in 7 Eleven, however it is covered in angry looking warning signs, and met with expressions of disapproval and a giant price tag (Rhodri was undeterred however, and found a few less expensive Tigers in a local supermarket).

As with the majority of other travellers, we are merely using Mersing as a stop to get the ferry to Tioman Island; there is not much else to explore here. We are staying in an apartment that is part of the Hardrock VIP Guesthouse (not part of the franchise lol), it’s massive and aimed at large groups I would imagine, with enough beds to sleep 10 and quite a lot of house rules (my favourite being a ‘no cooking’ sign in the kitchen!). I thought that I would have the stretched out luxury of my own bed, yet somehow ended up with a single whilst the other theee had a queen each!

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So we are now immensely looking forward to spending three days on Tioman Island. Bizarrely, the island has no alcohol restrictions and is duty free. It’s almost like they want to keep the drunken, hedonistic tourists contained; away from the peaceful and conservative lifestyle of the mainland…

Day 5: Meat and manicures

Elsie and I went to get our nails done this morning; Asia really is the home of all things cosmetic-I’ve never seen such a vast array of colours and designs to choose from. Our nails were done fantastically well for a fraction of the price I would pay back at home; Elsie was a bit put out that she couldn’t have giant fake nails with unicorn designs..

The mall was still eerily quiet as it is still in the process of a ‘soft opening.’ I found it weird how they cluster together similar shops: the nail salon was one of three next door to each other, opposite three hairdressers; ghostly quiet with bored employees flicking through their iPhones. In its frantic rush to build, Johor has yet the people to fill what looks like trophy complexes in full coastline view of their richer neighbours, whose business they are desperate to entice.

Today’s best event was a buffet dinner at the Hilton Doubletree, before which we had pre dinner drinks at the least Irish Irish bar that I have ever frequented (I know we are in Asia not Ireland, but I’ve pretty much drank in Irish bars all over the world and they’ve at least hung an Irish flag or had a token bored-looking Irish bar steward).

The buffet was amazing, it reminded me of a Cayman brunch (sans bottomless cava and pork). Rhodri was in his element as the theme was meat: curries, Malay specialities, Kobe beef, lamb, Chinese dishes. It was all delicious, and at eighteen pounds per adult and half for the kids, whilst expensive for Malaysia it was fantastic value overall. We came home with full bellies and heavy eyelids.

Day 4: An Angry Bird and twinkling fireflies

We arrived at Angry Birds land (a big indoor play park) this morning and were the only ones there which was a tad weird. However, instead of being able to keep an eye on the kids from the balcony over a relaxing coffee and cake, we had to pay full price, buy the socks and follow the kids around. Irritated, I proceeded to find a spot on a not so comfy bench, only to have Chuck (the yellow bird, yes I had to Google him) come over and try to hold my hand. It didn’t take him long to Chuck off.

In the UK it became a game changer when our kids hit the magic age wherein you could take your ipad (and headphones in my case!) to the indoor play centre, plop yourself in a comfy chair and feel safe in the knowledge that they were having a great time wearing themselves out and that I would only see them if they a) were hungry or thirsty b) had an argument c) wanted to show me how sweaty they were (Owen). I looked at the other bored, red-socked parents traipsing around after their offspring and pitied the fact that they probably had resigned themselves to this regime without knowing any different.

The highlight of the day was a visit to Kota Tinggi Firefly Park. A forty minute drive from JB, it is one of the only places in the world where you are able to go on a night boat ride to see the fireflies light up the trees along the riverbanks. I had absolutely no chance of capturing this phenomena on camera, but it basically looked like twinkling Christmas lights- the guide managed to get us within touching distance so that we could see them in flight. On our way back he also used his flashlight to show us a group of monkeys sat up high in a tree and a couple of large iguanas clung to branches. The tour company were great; the added extras like the quirky styling, koi carp pond and opportunity to try Malaysian fruit (I think that they were lychees, very tasty) all added to what was an authentic and atmospheric experience.

Kota Tinggi Firefly Park jetty

Day 3: Noodle and taxi appreciation

It has become somewhat of a novelty having peaceful mornings whilst the kids sleep in; after having spent six years in Spain I can now appreciate the small perk of having small ones stay up at such an ungodly hour. I am amazed that we collectively suffered very little jet lag despite a seven hour time difference. I did try some homeopathic jet lag pills which had great reviews, and would go with the general consensus that they must have worked: I’m not sure how-it could well have been a placebo effect (I am such a sceptic). Unfortunately I will never really know unless I did the same flight again without them..

The plan was to go to Johor Zoo today. I knew in advance that it was not a patch on Singapore zoo where we are booked to go next week (our taxi driver spent ten minutes telling us how rubbish it was as he was determined to sell us his own set of excursions) but at just over one pound entrance fee for all four of us we could hardly complain. And it pretty much met my expectations: there was a decent range of animals from elephants to crocodiles, but for me personally the place was a little tired and the enclosures were small. I agree with hubby when he pointed out that it must be near impossible to renovate based on such a low entrance fee. It was also ridiculously hot and humid today as there was practically no cloud cover. Owen kept making periodic announcements as to where he was collecting the most sweat.

Lunch was the best meal of the day: you can’t really go wrong eating noodles in Malaysia. Referred to as Mee Pan Mee, you generally get what comes up as a deconstructed stir fry: my noodles came with roasted chicken, pak choy and a fried egg on top. Delish. What I do find weird is that it is mostly common to have coffee or tea as the accompanying drink at restaurants. Pizza and a mocha just doesn’t seem like a match made in heaven for me. Granted, alcohol is far less common out here presumably for religious reasons; it does make me realise how alcoholic the UK is in comparison.

And whilst alcohol is pricey, taxis are ridiculously cheap. We got four taxis today, which made me concerned about our opulence until I reminded myself that all four journeys combined cost about a fiver using their fab app. No haggling, no tipping, no explaining. You can tell that I am still relatively new to Uber, but after years of pricey cabs on the Costa del Sol I am all for a bit of taxi appreciation.

Day 2: Finding our feet and tattooing our hands

For once my insomnia worked in my favour wherein my normal nocturnal wake ups meant that I actually got up at 630am, having had 5 and a half hours of uninterrupted shut eye. I woke the kids at 9am and it was quite funny to watch their confused waking up faces readjusting to their new surroundings.

We explored the complex to find the pool which is on level 4 and on top of the shopping mall. Clearly the whole complex is very new, as our tower appears to be one of just a few currently inhabited. Johor Bahru seems to have reinvented itself over the last five years, shaking off the often negative border city connotations and embracing its opportunities: namely being a gateway for cheap housing and shopping options for the Singaporeans. La Linea could certainly learn a thing or two from here.

You can tell how high our apartment is by the fact that we are looking down on a skyscraper!

On the downside, that means that construction is in full force around us even on a Saturday, but the upside is that we had the pool to ourselves, albeit against the crane concerto…

We took a cab to a place called Danga Bay which is a man made beach and marina. Aside from a few quirky statues, it was pretty underwhelming. The general consensus is that it used to be great until developers took hold and started to build towers on the ‘beachfront’ land. Afterwards we spent a couple of hours in JB City shopping mall which was decent. I had to track down some dry shampoo as the humidity is killing off my hairstyle #flatasapancake. Elsie found it amusing that instead of toilet roll you got a hose in the cubicles at the mall, the whole thing was sopping wet!

My favourite part of the day was going to the night market near to the apartment. It had a really good atmosphere, and was cheap as chips. Elsie and I got matching henna tattoos for one pound apiece, and Owen got an avengers lego set.

Speaking of chips, that was our dinner after the pizza delivery failed to show up (their Uber equivalent ‘Grab’ seems to be great for taxis but terrible for food delivery). Cue an emergency family meal at midnight, consisting of oven chips, bacon and scrambled egg (couldn’t do fried as even when improvising without oil and spatula, the hob Gods were not smiling down on us). We know how to rock and roll…