Dubai: Traversing through the laidback old town and its glitzy new-age counterpart makes for a wonderful study of contrasts

There's the glittering new-age Dubai, where everything is bathed in a golden glow, and there is the old Dubai, where life seems to move at a more languorous pace, where people still stop to stand and stare.

If the former is a haven for the brand-conscious — almost every possible luxury brand in the world has marked its presence in this Emirate with an outlet or two in the many malls — the latter takes you back in time to when a fledgling Dubai was on its way to becoming the ultimate name in luxury. The charming souks redolent of fresh spices, dried aromatic flowers and persuasive shopkeepers, and the cobblestone paths that take you from one market to the other…there's so much history in the air.

I start my tryst with Old Dubai with the utterly fascinating Dubai Museum (, housed in the historic Al Fahidi Fort. Vintage cannons and reconstructed desert dwellings dot the sandy stretches of the fort, while the rooms serve as a repository of well-preserved traditional weapons and musical instruments.

The Indian connection

The desert dwellings in the museum are delightful proof of the linkages between India and this Emirate. Some of the dwellings displayed are Al Kaimah and Al Arish (the summer home). There's also an Al Manama, a bed for sleeping during the searing summers. Curiously enough, the bedcovers in the display rooms are proof of the age-old trading relationship the Emirate and India share — the sheets, a trifle faded, are of a brand called Larstar from Solapur.

Once you enter the portals of the museum, renovated in 1971, history takes over. It starts off with a map of Arabia, circa 1570, by Dutch geographer and cartographer, Abraham Ortelius.

Moving images on a giant screen (dioramas) trace Dubai's growth from the days when it was a mere creek and provide a lovely glimpse into the enterprise of a people that had the foresight to visualise present-day Dubai amid the sand dunes.

Artistes at work

And then, we move on to the industrious lot of Dubai, who kept its economy chugging — the blacksmith, the goldsmith, the potter, the pearl divers, the carpenter — much before the oil boom happened. Thanks to some deft lighting, a wonderful projector and a great audio system, you tend to think the artisans are at work right inside the museum.

After browsing through the souvenir store at the museum, it is time to move on to Bur Dubai, which houses the traditional souks, accessed after a short walk and a ride in the abra (a traditional boat quite similar to our dhongis).

During the long way to the jetty, schools of flying fish keep you company, gracefully darting in and out of the water by the thousands.

Once you reach the souk, you are transported to a world far away from the glitz and glamour Dubai is now renowned for. This heart of the city throbs with life — people jostle for space in the narrow streets, and, for once, you truly feel at home. Gone is the sophisticated selling you see in the malls; here, traditional Arab merchants are at work, tempting you to smell the rosebuds, dried lime and the incense, and taste the cashew and dates, well knowing that once bitten, you are smitten for life.

Marking the change

Close by the covered souks, dealing in everything from spices to textiles (a mini India, actually!) and gold, is the Dubai Municipality Museum, which overlooks the Creek. The municipality worked here from 1957 to 1964. And, preserved here are precious documents and manuscripts that have changed the way of life in Dubai — such as the move from Rupees to Dirhams, and from driving on the left of the road to the right.

Once you're done with the past, its back to the bustling, but charming neighbourhood of Karama, where you can shop till you drop at the one-dirham and two-dirham shops. But, beware, most of the stuff here, including Dubai souvenirs that beckon you to take a closer look, are made in China!

The move to the present is complete once you hit the malls. Ikea, heaven for every domestic goddess worth her idli and sambar and well-kept home, is located in the expansive Dubai Festival City.

Merely looking at all the goodies on offer can take you more than a couple of hours! The little trinkets entice, so do the unbelievable deals on pans and knives and strawberry candles. The hands ache at the end of the shopping expedition, but it's time to move on. To another mall, another location.

Munch time

This time, it's the super-swanky The Dubai Mall. You're like a child let loose in a wonderful world filled with all things attractive. And, foodies have so much to choose from, even vegetarians such as me! Personal favourites?

The aromatic Garrett's popcorn store, Candylicious, a haven for chocolates, jellybeans and all their cousins, and Cold Stone Creamery, which whips up the most delicious ice creams! The friendly staff at the popcorn counter ply you with freshly popped corns in an amazing variety of flavours, and all you can say is: “Gimme more”. Well, that holds true for this Emirate too!