By now, you should have had plenty of time to go through the application process and get your visa to visit Saudi Arabia. You are now ready to see the sites. But--wait a moment: You aren't allowed to see the sites. Of course, you can see the sand, you can visit the hotels and you can go to the restaurants, but you cannot go to the holy sites. These places are reserved only for Muslims and only for those who are on a hajj. So, I hope you are not too disappointed if I only show you a selected group of photographs from the various things we could see.
1) The Riyadh Ritz Carlton is a must see. This is a 6 Star hotel. It was built by one of the members of the royal family to house diplomatic visits to the palace. Alas, as soon as several visiting dignitaries were in the same place at the same time there was a threat of violence, bombing or destroying the palace -- which would result in all dying. So, it was sold to the Ritz Carlton group. But, this means that there are several dozen identical "presidential" suites, with associated living quarters for their staff (i.e., yours truly!!). As we are in Saudi Arabia, there are no facilities for women, so the spa and pool were only open to men -- and women could watch from above. There was a great bowling alley in the lower level. Truly opulent and very over the top -- but very enjoyable.
2) National Museum: This is a great place to visit during the sweltering heat of the day -- although everything is closed between the noon prayers and about 4 o'clock (think siesta in Latin cultures). So, you have to plan the timing of your visit to get the maximum benefit. The museum shows geography and natural history, as well as archaeological, economic and cultural history. Many models and dioramas help to complete the visual. Easily a half a day can be devoted to this complex without feeling rushed. There are many interactive displays, so children will feel welcome and engaged.
3) The Sands: This is a generic term for the dunes and sand that cover most of the country. However, there are mountains, rivers, forests, planes, and all eco-habitats you can think of in the country, including a very interesting coast-line with unique terrestrial and aquatic life. While camels are all over and raised by the bedouins, they are not really in the way. They sell for tens of thousands of dollars and are the major source of income for many. We were there during the height of the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, and so were told not to go near the camels -- but as you can see, that did not stop us in the least. You are only going to be here once!
4) Shopping and hospitality. The Saudi's are world reknown for their hospitality, and I can assure you, you will be treated royally and with great respect -- although separately (women do not eat with men; women are in separate spaces from the men). So, if you are traveling as a couple, be prepared to request "Family Style" eating or companies. For a couple of the meals, my wife ate with the women, but in other events, we were able to be together without any issues. You must eat "local" food, rather than restaurant food--just to get a true flavor of the country. The shopping is for local produce and for clothing -- and they will help you buy perfume, gold and jewelry and anything else. But, there is no alcohol in the country at all; no drugs; no pornography; but plenty of coffee. So, if you are a Latter-Day Saint or a Seventh-Day Adventist you will actually find the customs quite similar.
5) Religious customs. The 5 times daily call to pray can be a bit jarring at first. My first experience was on the plane. With all of the difficulties with leg-room, seat space and feeling cramped, about 3 hours into our flight, I walked back to the bathroom, only to notice a curtained-off area in the center of the plane. It was probably 12-14 rows of space. I drew the curtain aside, and found dozens of men all bowed to the floor, praying. I noticed a TV screen on the front showing the direction to Mecca. This meant they could all face the correct direction. Over the course of the subsequent 16 hours, I noticed the comings and goings of passengers going to pray. Apparently, it is not a "strict" moment in time. You have 30-60 minutes around the call to prayer to actually do the abolutions (cleansing) and pray. Some of the prayers are shorter than others. But, overall, it was a gesture of time in which to perform the prescribed pray. Of additional interest, the men and women pray separately, so they are not in the same room at the same time. Finally, I was quite amused to see that the drawer of the night stand in the Ritz Carlton showed a compass and arrow pointing the direction of Mecca--obviously no bible!
Overall, this was a fascinating and completely unique experience in my travels--one that I would encourage all to share and discover. If you are Muslim, even more reason to go as you will be able to see Mecca and enjoy the full extend of Religious Tourism that others are not able to avail themselves.
(Note: for legends to the following photos, scroll and hold your mouse on it. Or click on the thumbnails at the bottom of the post)
Riyadh Ritz Carlton
Saudi Arabia Riyadh National Museum