Conservative Excursion in Riyadh

There are two rules which I always keep in mind when holding a camera while strolling in the world’s most conservative culture country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These are both applicable to my handy compact camera, DSLR, and even mobile phone. First, I should not take photos on the government buildings in an obvious method. And lastly, Saudi women should be censored from any types of photography.

I visited Riyadh, the country’s capital city, to meet our relatives and to renew my passport at the embassy. It was less than an hour travel from the eastern region by air flight. My embassy matter was just a few minutes transaction so the remaining hours was taken discovering the capital.

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Riyadh International Airport
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A beautiful building along the road.
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Comfortable bed of Mena Hotel

Location: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Where I Stayed: Mena Hotel

Buddies: Family

We checked in at Mena Hotel which was located at the famous Olaya Road near King Fahad Library and the Al-Faisaliah Tower. The receptionist’s English accent was excellent just like I spoke to an American in the body of a Saudi local. After a short orientation for our overnight stay we headed to our big and cozy room.

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King Fahad Library and Al-Faisaliah Tower from the hotel’s restaurant.

As promised, we met our relatives who was working for several years in Riyadh. The city was full of expatriates who are visible from streets, houses, shops, and restaurants.

We visited Batha Market, the famous local market for everything. Anything we needed was available in the market but the most attraction there was the gold shops. Our eyes glittered seeing a street of jewelry shops without armed security guards and those hanging wide belts, long chains and plates made of gold. For sure, women will surely love the shining shops to be satisfied from all kinds of jewelries and wide selection of gold accessories. The way of selling was amazing. My relative chose one type of a golden chain and the shop vendor chopped it according to her budget and bargaining influence. They also have ready-made sets and packages as best buy souvenirs. The jewelries here are much cheaper and had more options comparing to the other cities of the kingdom.

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Souvenir from Batha Market
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Kingdom Tower

From Batha, we stopped a taxi but the driver only speak and understand Arabic. There was guilt on my side because I’m working here for many years but I still do not speak the local language. The second taxi understood and brought us to the Kingdom Center, the base of the city’s landmark and a tourist destination.

We headed to the ticket counter to buy entry passes to the Kingdom Tower Sky Bridge. The sky bridge was accessed by paying 60 riyals per head. Children under two years are free. Two high speed elevators brought us to the bridge and let us witnessed the movement of the city at 360 degrees view, 300 meters from the ground. Unfortunately, camera was not allowed and our only option for memory keeping was to avail their photo booth service. The best time to stay is few minutes before sunset but it was already 7pm when we reached the tower.

After few minutes of staying at the highest part of the city, we took a delicious and heavy dinner at Tokyo Restaurant. The Japanese cuisine and its ambiance refreshed our taste buds from Arabic foods and our owned made menus. We continued the unending story telling which was paused after dining at the hotel to end our joyous day.

 

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Dining at Tokyo Restaurant

Riyadh is not just a deserted land. Aside of being a modernized and developed city, it has a unique culture. Additional to this is the strict rule requiring women to have their hair covered aside from wearing traditional abayas. Compared to other cities like Khobar and Jeddah, head covering is not seriously required for non-Muslim women expats.

The next day, after our buffet Arabic breakfast in the hotel, we prepared our things back to the Eastern Region by road. We did farewell to our relatives thanking them for sharing  and spending their hours with us.

The surrounding red sand dunes was the best sight while traveling from Riyadh. It took us more than five hours to reach the Eastern Region.

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Kapatagan – A Sneak on Mt. Apo’s Peak

Few minutes before sunrise, we were traveling along the road of Davao del Sur from Agusan. A jolly conversation ended when someone asked if we already have been in Kapatagan. I only knew the town of Kapatagan which is in the province of Lanao del Norte. I was so curious for I didn’t hear such place.

We rerouted to a new unfamiliar road. We turned right from the main highway before reaching Digos City proper even we were all first timers. The road to Kapatagan was already cemented and developed. It was believed that sunrise was best seen here on the lake that mirrors the peak of Mt. Apo. We traveled more than 30 minutes with winding, downward and most upward hilly roads. This remote barangay is a village situated on the highland. Our ears felt the changes on atmospheric pressure.

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Our first sight of the peak was so amazing. We stopped on the road side and took a beautiful view with the peak of Mt. Apo as the background. We didn’t reach the lake nor catch the sunrise. However, the romantic and beautiful place was already worth discovery.

We were not familiar with the place but as long that the car’s wheels were still touching the cemented road, we were still on the track. We decided to see the proper village for breakfast. We traveled far and it was not good to return back while our stomachs need refueling. The last restaurant we sighted was still on the main highway.

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Along the road, we noticed few numbers of car parked on the signage of Dhen Yho’s Place. We thought of a restaurant so we decided to stop and walked uphill. The site was so marvelous as we never expected it. There was an entrance fee but we didn’t know who is collecting and where to pay. We headed to the restaurant but it only serving coffee and packed crackers.  There was a swimming pool and we also saw tents as there were groups who stayed overnight. The towering pine trees covered the place’s hidden attractions. The place is a must to visit to see an artistry landscaped hills with a big letters sculpted “Land of Peace”. Due to lack of research, I just found that it was the Kublai Art Garden, a master piece of a well known Mindanaon artist. We saw the Bagobo’s tribal ways of living through displayed sculptures.

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We really enjoyed few minutes of our free tour and left the area as we oversaw the village proper from the site. The peak of Mt. Apo was already covered by clouds. We took our affordable but heavy breakfast at the village where we found that it was a drop point for sacks of newly harvested vegetables such as potatoes and cabbages.

As we were heading home, we asked if there was a strawberry farm and a local told us to visit Hillside Resto Civet Farm. We confirmed the existence of a strawberry farm. We noticed that the place was actually Mt. Apo Highland Resort and we were on the altitude of 1,160 meters above sea level. The resort has also bee farms and started materializing their honey-coffee production. We left the resort after a sip of their cheapest brand of the world’s most expensive civet coffee.

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Kapatagan is another starting trail of mountaineers who wish to visit the inactive Mt. Apo aside from Kidapawan City in North Cotabato.  It became famous because of its majestic beauty, nature friendly environment, and cool climate. The fogs covered the road as we were traveling down back to our normal route.

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The Wilds & the Lost Paradise of Dilmun

At 11am, we left the hotel and took our lunch at a nearby restaurant.  After pasta lunch, we headed to Al Areen, an hour travel south of Manama. Together with us was another family who just arrived from Saudi Arabia. Our purpose was to go to the newly opened water park and side trip to the zoo.

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We arrived at the Al Areen Wildlife Park at 2pm with BD2 park fee. We toured the zoo and enjoyed the park’s car ride despite of hot temperature. We, most especially the kids, enjoyed seeing the animals roaming freely which mostly found in Africa and Middle East. It was my first encounter on different types of oryx and wild jungle animals like the cheetahs, bears, giraffe, zebras, wolves, and hyenas. It was my first time on flamingos and swans too.

At 4pm, we left the zoo and headed to the nearby water park, the Lost Paradise of Dilmun. We made it to the entrance but the guard said that the park will close at 5pm. We thought that the park is still open until night. The kids’ energy dropped like fallen stars for they can’t go inside the requested water park. We decided to come back for the children’s sake.

Before we went back to our hotel, we took our dinner at the City Centre’s food court.

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LAST DAY

We checked out from the hotel and back to the water park at 10pm. The entrance fee is normally BD17 and BD8 for children below 1.2 meters. Kids below 2 years old are free. The locker is for rental at BD5 but they returned back BD2 upon the return of the lock card. The towel can be bought at BD6. Foods are not allowed to be brought inside but they have restaurants which offers tasty and delicious meals.

The Lost Paradise of Dilmun is a water themed park located in the middle of the desert and dominantly for conservative culture type of people. I never seen guests wearing bikinis unlike those at Wild Wadi in Dubai. It was very comfortable for me especially I have no guts, skin, and muscles to show off. It was the best place for small kids and family. The children was more enjoy here because there was a place intended for them with many options. The rides are also intense and we adults enjoyed it.

We left the water park and traveled to King Fahad Causeway back to Saudi Arabia at 5pm.

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Bahrain, the second time around

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Al Fateh Grand Mosque

After three years, we were back in Bahrain for an important document to be renewed from the embassy.  Visiting this small country required expats to applied re-entry visa. An amount was already spent so we decided to stay and enjoy more this open Arab country before coming back. Joining with us was our friend whose family is also here in Saudi Arabia.

We left Saudi Arabia at 10pm and arrived in the hotel in Bahrain at 1pm.

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Comfortable Bed of Ramee Palace Hotel

Location: Juffair, Bahrain

Where I Stayed: Ramee Palace Hotel

Buddies: Group (5+)

The Ramee Hotel and Palace is located in Juffair near the Al Fateh Grand Mosque. It is like a hotel apartment for each unit has a kitchen. We selected the unit with two rooms to share. The apartment was too spacious for a single family. This hotel has wide parking space. On the ground floor, there is a restaurant on the front and bars & disco pubs at the back. It should be a noisy atmosphere but we didn’t heard anything from our rooms.

At 6pm, we took our dinner at our favorite Japanese and Korean restaurant, the Arirang Edo Restaurant. We really missed the soup and the authentic taste of the menu. Though it was hard to park the car on that place, we managed to get a space. One of their staffs was outside barricading the front of the restaurant. Reserving the small space for their costumers.

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At 8:30pm, we headed to the Gulf Dolphin Resort to witness the sea lion and dolphin show for the second time. The entrance was still the same at BD4. The one-hour show was already started so we booked the next show which started at 10pm. We met again the same personalities as the animals trainers were the same. We enjoyed the show at this time because our kid interacted and appreciated it.

At 11pm, we visited our friend’s  cousin who work in The Domain, a classy hotel with a bar on the top floor. We were hesitated to enter because toddlers are with us. However, we managed to visit them at the restaurant and was introduced to their Bahraini manager. The manager was so accommodating and gladly given us complimentary cocktails to drink. We didn’t enter the bar because we were wearing short pants. A couple of alcoholic drinks satisfied our night. We were back in the hotel at 1pm.

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Next morning, we went to the embassy for our real purpose of coming in Bahrain. The transaction was so fast that we already at the hotel in less than an hour. In the afternoon, we met our friends and dined at Bahay Kubo, a Filipino restaurant serving “lechon belly”. Their pork barbecue and their desert “halo-halo” are also in demand.

The World of Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is more than an hour travel from Dubai. As our plan, we have to wake up early to lengthen our time but it looks like we ourselves didn’t followed our own rules.

We left Dubai at 9am and we first visited the Grand Mosque. It is the world’s 3rd biggest mosque after the two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Non-Muslims are allowed to enter the Grand Mosque, unlike at Holy Mosques.

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Our driver who served as our guide led us to the entrance of the mosque. We entered a security tent for scanning of our belongings. He then led us to the underground car park to borrow a long black dress called “abaya”. The women clothes should be covered by abaya and men who are wearing short pants by “thoub”, a white dress for men. The attire was borrowed for free by showing to the staffs the hotel’s key where we were staying.

As a reminder from the mosque’s authorities, wearing open clothes is not allowed especially for women. Women’s hair must be covered. The shoes must be removed when entering the prayer room. No modeling posture when taking photos. And no  public display of affection for couples. There are so many staffs inside reminding the visitors every time the do’s and don’t s of the site.

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The Grand Mosque was the biggest mosque I visited so far. The outer white painting reminded me of the Disney’s children television show Aladdin. The mosque’s doom was said to be furnished with real gold. The weather was hot but once inside the mosque, it was cool.

At noon, we left the mosque and headed to Ferrari World amusement park. The park for those fanatics of racing cars. It has so many rides but sad to say that we didn’t have enough time for all of them. We miscalculated our timings and schedule. We should give a one full day for Ferrari Park alone. However, we tried some of the rides and the highlight was the world fastest Roller Coaster. At the speed of 240km/hr, for less than a minute ride, our throat was out of liquid, hair stood up, and crippled our balance. It drained our energy but the experience was worth to remember.

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At 03:30pm, we left the Ferrari to travel back to Dubai. We’re back in our hotel at 5pm. We took a nap to recharge the energy lost in Ferrari Park.

At 7pm, our travel agent picked us for the two-hour Dhow Cruise which started after an hour. The foods were international cuisines but more on Indian dishes.  Majority of tourists on board were from India. We cruised the riverbank for dinner and short dancing show. A little disappointment for I expected to see more of beautiful attractions on night scene and entertainment like what I experienced before in Bangkok.

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Bienvenidos Zamboanga

We traveled for around five hours from Pagadian to reach Zamboanga, the only Latin city of the country. As noticed, some of the stores’ names are written in an uncommon word and the dialect used is “chavacano” which is almost related to Spanish language.

Location: Zambonga City, Philippines

Where I Stayed: Casa Canelar

Buddy: Group (5+)

DAY ONE

We checked-in at Casa Canelar and offered us a spacious family room on the 3rd floor for P1,800. The hotel didn’t offer the usual bed and breakfast scheme. The reception at the ground floor was the backdoor of the Gerry’s Grill Restaurant. The best thing here was, the reception collected our ordered foods and the restaurant’s staff delivered it directly to our room.

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Fort Pilar, Zamboanga
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Marian Shrine, Zamboanga

In the afternoon, we roamed on the busiest street of the city which historically witnessed the war siege in 2013. We visited the Spanish era buildings of the municipal hall and its neighboring establishments. We walked on the aisle and waited for the romantic sunset at Paseo del Mar. We also visited and increased our spiritual reflection on the mass held in the shrine of Fort Pilar, an old fortress built by Spanish long time ago.

DAY TWO

We had an island tour in the only pink island of Zamboanga in the morning. The details was on the different post, The faded pink sand of Sta. Cruz island.

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In the afternoon, we headed to the City’s Barter to buy souvenirs. Zamboanga products are characterized by Muslims textiles symbolizing its colorful culture. The different designs of “sarong” and “malong” are the best buys. We enhanced our bidding and bargaining skills for there were so many stores to choose.

After buying souvenirs, we visited the Butterfly Garden. I’ve been to several butterfly sanctuaries but only on that garden I saw and encountered so many live butterflies.  We also visited the nearby museum, El Museo de Zamboanga. Unfortunately, the museum was already closed.

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Sighted Islands in Maldives

Where is that? It’s the normal question from someone who is not familiar with the country of Maldives. It is a small country consisting of several islands located in Indian Ocean. Its neighboring countries are India and Sri Lanka.

There is no direct flight from Saudi Arabia going to Maldives as far as I know. So we opted to book an airline which shows cheaper flight fare in anyhow to Male neglecting the long transit hours on returned flight. My first choice was the Sri Lankan air which has daily flight from Dammam, Saudi Arabia to Male, Maldives with two hours stop over in Sri Lanka. However, I was surprised that Oman Air is also flying to the country at a very good offer. A very good opportunity especially booking a flight four months before the expected vacation date.

Finding a resort in Maldives was the hardest things I’ve done. Luxurious and with star ratings. But I sorted my category into child friendly resort and its distance from the main island. The closer the resort from the main island will give me a cheaper option and health security especially when traveling with a toddler.

We departed Saudi at night and have a couple of hours transit at Muscat in Oman. Oman Airline is flying to Male but I noticed that only few passengers was on the flight.The morning clouds covered some of the beautiful islets of Maldives as we’re cruising  above the country after more than three hours on board. We tried to get pictures until we finally landed in the smallest main international airport I’ve been. The airport, itself is an island, surrounded by water.

Male International Airport has no passenger tubes so the passengers have to walk to the plane parking area and entered the terminal building for immigration processing. There are few questions from the officer like how many days and which hotel we are going to stay. A 30 days visa stamped on our passport which normally given to most of the nationalities arrived in Maldives.

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We went out and removed our jackets for the weather was humid and hot. We looked for a hotel representative whom I called an hour before we departed from Saudi Arabia. He confirmed that a hotel staff will fetch us at the airport. We didn’t find anyone from the hotel, so I managed to exchange money to local currency (one dollar=15 rufiyaa) as I heard that there is limited ATM and only American dollars and local currency rufiyaa are accepted. I bought a mobile sim for 120 rufiyaa which will function for a week. I immediately called the hotel and the guy from the line asked me to wait for 10 minutes. We waited for 10 minutes at the airport exit (after the travel agent booths) until I saw the cab with the hotel name arrived. He immediately recognized us and we headed to our first hotel in the country for two nights.

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Location: Hulhumale, Kaafu Atoll, Maldives

Where I stayed: Rivethi Beach Hotel

Buddies: Family

Rivethi Beach Hotel is a 10-minute drive from the airport. A new hotel offering a beach front accommodation in the man-made island Hulhumale. All staffs here are all men but very accommodating. We checked in early. Normally, the check-in time is 12nn but we arrived at 8am. We’re lucky that the hotel was not fully book and the room was available for it was not peak season. We checked-in without additional charges and gave us welcome drinks.

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All staffs from the driver, reception, housekeeping, and restaurant are all courteous and nice. As we were experiencing jet lag, we decided to sleep until noon time. In the afternoon, we walked on the white sand shore observing how the local people here lived and finding a store for some snacks as well. We ended our snacks/dinner back in the hotel with a pasta (the waiter told it was not spicy but it still hot) and a sandwich.

DAY TWO

We asked the receptionists about the excursions they were offering and if there was available trip to Male. They even urged us that we must visit the capital. We also asked if a guide was necessary and they politely said that it was not needed. The capital is small and safe to roam.

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In the afternoon, the receptionist helped us to get a taxi to bring us to the ferry terminal. The flat rate for taxi in Maldives is 25 rufiyaa. From the jetty, we rode a public passenger boat for 5.50 rufiyaa each. These passenger boats depart the jetty in every 25 minutes which is also the travel time going to the capital. Once the boat docked and unload passengers, the incoming passengers will get in.

We arrived in Male after passing both commercial and tourist boats, cruising the busy bay of Hulhule. From the port, we hired a taxi to bring us to the famous Sultan Park.  We strolled inside the park and spotted the museum, the mansion, the mosque, until we reached the park where the Maldivian’s military were preparing for the independence celebration. The public event was the reason why all those buildings were closed. We also stopped in one souvenir shop at the side of the park. As we’re confused about the name of attractions and government buildings, we stopped a vacant taxi and asked the driver if he could guide us to the tourist attractions we have not yet known. We both agreed with 200 rufiyaa for an hour guide. We are very thankful that we stopped the right person who told us a lot about Maldives tourist spots, economy, history, and its people. We were informed of those building names (National Museum, Islamic Center, Independence Square) and he also shown us important buildings in Male such as the president mansion, public hospital, schools and university, water supply plant, the main streets, famous stores, tombs, old mosques, and Maldivian’s apartment. I observed that most infrastructures in Male were built in small scale.

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After an hour of strolling, stopping, questioning and answering portion, we understand and we knew a lot about Maldivians. Thanks to the driver, he gave us a lot of information. Instead of dropping us to the ferry terminal, we requested the driver who became our instant tour guide to drop us to his recommended restaurant. He dropped us to Shell Bean Restaurant, a few minutes walk to the terminal. A well known to tourist because it was always full. The place was too small for so many costumers coming in and out.

After a full meal in Shell Bean, we returned back to our hotel in Hulhumale. I completed the first thing to be done on this trip which is to visit Male, the capital city of Maldives.

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