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  1. Salams I’m inviting members to share brief travel stories along with select pics about the wonderful places they have visited and the things they experienced there. The reason for starting a new thread is that I’d like to focus on individual experience, personal observations, and examples of cultural exchange and shock etc as opposed to the more general to-do and to-see lists which, in the age of the internet, anyone can look up online about any place on Earth. Reports of pilgrimages or religious travel are welcome but this is by no means the main or exclusive focus of the thread. I was in transit at Oakland airport (OAK) when I saw this appear on a digital screen with a background of an unknown snow-covered mountaintop. “We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us.” It struck a chord. I’ll start with some observations from my Umrah trip. Until then here's something to think about:
  2. SEPTEMBER 19, 2017 In Bangkok – “No Speak Your Language, Speak Thai or Die!” by ANDRE VLTCHEK It is hard to calculate the cost of the stubborn refusal of the Thai population to learn foreign languages. Some daring estimates, however, calculate that the losses could be in tens of billions of dollars, annually. And the situation is not getting any better. Bangkok wants to be the center of Southeast Asia, and by many standards it has already achieved this goal. Suvarnabhumi International Airport is the second busiest in the region. Almost all of the international news agencies are here, and not in Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur. Several UN agencies are now located in Bangkok, as well as mega malls and top private medical facilities, catering mostly for people who live in Burma, Cambodia, Laos and as far away as the Middle East. For years and decades, Thailand was busy promoting itself, capturing the imagination of millions all over the world. Some wonder whether it could really do even better than it is already doing. According to Forbes, Bangkok recently became the most visited city on Earth: “According to Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index, the Thai capital had 21.5 million visitors who stayed at least one night in 2016. By comparison, London had 19.9 million overnight visitors last year while Paris had 18 million. The Big Apple was even further down the list with 12.8 million.” 32.59 million foreign visitors descended on Thailand in 2016 alone, and the numbers are not subsiding. Statistics vary, but travel and tourism now account for approximately 20 percent of Thailand’s GDP. That’s a lot, much more than in other countries of the region. *** For Thailand, that is all good news, or at least theoretically it is. But despite its cosmopolitan flair, Bangkok remains a relatively closed and segregated society. Now, there seems to be more Japanese eateries in the center of Bangkok than traditional Thai restaurants. However, try to order in one of them, for instance, an iced tea in any other language other than Thai, and you will be up with a great surprise. The chances are that, the staff will not speak any foreign languages. And it gets much more serious than that: people working in banks, at least theoretically catering to foreign customers, hardly speak anything except Thai. Even the ‘tourist police’ cannot understand what you are talking about when you try to report a crime. The other day, in Bangkok, I tried to retrieve a substantial payment from a foreign magazine, which for some reason utilized Western Union in order to transfer funds. Western Union in Thailand is teamed up with the large Krungsri Bank. In one of its branches, I spent a humiliating 90 minutes, trying to complete a simple transaction that would normally take 2 minutes, even in Beirut or Nairobi. The incompetence of the staff was covered up by spiteful facial expressions and outright rudeness (using Asian, not Western standards). More and more new ‘additional information’ was demanded sadistically, by pointing at some confusing printouts. Not one out of six people involved spoke anything but Thai. *** Generally speaking, many Thais believe that making a decent income from foreign tourists and expats is their inherent right. The perception is that no high level of knowledge, language proficiency or provision of quality services is required from them. Once my local interpreter told me: “Everyone wants to come to Thailand, everyone loves it here, so they should accept things the way they are done in the Kingdom.” Recently, trying to buy an item of professional video equipment at the SONY showroom in Bangkok, I realized that the assistants did not speak absolutely any foreign languages. I had the same experience in the studio, where I was attempting to capture two of my damaged HDV tapes. This was all totally acceptable when Thailand was, many years ago, one of the cheapest places on Earth, a haven for backpackers and romantics. Since then, everything has changed. The country is desperately trying to provide high-end services. But comparable services and goods are now often cheaper in London, Paris or Tokyo, than in Bangkok. So is the food in supermarkets. And still, there is no foreign languages proficiency. As a veteran traveller from Japan recently pointed out: “It was much easier to accept an overcooked and tasteless bowl of pasta from a waitress who was rude and spoke no foreign languages, when it came at a symbolic price of US$2. It is much more difficult to remain ‘benevolent’, if the service is still terrible, nobody speaks anything but Thai, but the cost is twice that of a good spaghetti dish in some excellent restaurant in Venice.” *** But Thailand is confident that hordes of people will keep coming. Partially it is because of the extremely positive propaganda coming out from countless Western mass media sources. If there is any criticism of Thailand, it is of an exceptionally mild and ‘kind’ sort. All the basic elements of Western dogmas – about how great, relaxed, safe and comfortable the country is – are upheld in such reports. No wonder! No matter which government is in charge, the country remains one of the staunchest US ally in Asia. Thailand fully implemented the economic system promoted by the West. During the Cold War, it killed, tortured or at least imprisoned thousands of its own Communists and leftists (no need for interventions). In the past, the Kingdom readily accepted and accommodated many defeated (in China), genocidal troops of Chiang kai-shek. It participated in the savage bombing campaigns of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, often lending its own pilots, and it brought poor young women from the countryside, in order to serve the US, Australian and other pilots and technicians based at Pattaya and other military airports, as prostitutes. It adopted draconic laws that forbid all criticism, and often even mention of almost all the basic power elements injected into Thailand by the West. The rewards have been great ever since. No matter how rude an interaction between locals and foreign visitors often is; the country still maintains the reputation of the ‘land of smiles’. While the murder rate is higher in Thailand than in the United States, the Kingdom is still perceived as a relatively safe place. Endless military coups that overthrow democratically elected governments are generally accepted and after a few headlines, ignored by the Western mainstream press. While virtually all coastlines are irreversibly over-commercialized, even ruined, Thailand is known as a ‘tropical paradise’. *** There is actually one group of Thais, which speaks perfect English – the elites. Most of their members were educated in the United States, in the UK or Australia. Some of them are leading jet set, cosmopolitan lives, with several properties in different parts of the world. But these are not people that foreigners stumble across during their two-week long vacations. I encountered several of them, on different occasions, and I can “testify” that their proficiency in foreign languages, particularly in English, is great. *** Frankly and honestly, I actually love Bangkok. It is chaotic, overgrown but an extremely complex and exciting city. I have worked in almost 160 countries, on all continents, but Bangkok is still one of my favorite places on Earth. It drives me insane, it often defeats me, but I cannot imagine my life without it. It is one of the places where I come to think and to write. But it is not a ‘friendly place, and it is not cheap. It is definitely not an easy and comfortable city. It is what it is. For me it is great, for many others it isn’t. But it is definitely not at all what it is being defined as by the Western positive propaganda. Thailand could change; it could greatly improve, if its populations would take advantage of those tens of millions of foreign visitors every year, and learn about many other places, not just about the United States, Europe and Japan. People don’t travel here only from the West; they are also arriving from China, India, Russia and Latin America, even Africa. And savage capitalism is not the only economic system now on offer. As the Western “truth” is not the exclusive one, anymore. The best thing for Thailand would be to interact, to learn something new from those millions of visitors. And what better way to learn than through interaction, through learning languages. Bangkok is now a world city, a cosmopolitan metropolis, but with a provincial mindset. All this can and should change. Not for the sake of foreign visitors, but for the sake of the people of Thailand! First published by NEO as “Can Thailand Evolve into A Regional Leader?” Andre Vltchek is a philosopher, novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. Three of his latest books are revolutionary novel “Aurora” and two bestselling works of political non-fiction: “Exposing Lies Of The Empire” and “Fighting Against Western Imperialism”. View his other books here. Andre is making films for teleSUR and Al-Mayadeen. Watch Rwanda Gambit, his groundbreaking documentary about Rwanda and DRCongo. After having lived in Latin America, Africa and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides in East Asia and the Middle East, and continues to work around the world. He can be reached through his website and his Twitter.
  3. Salam Most of shia people travel to iran to visit Shrine of Imam Reza (as) in Mashhad and they may not find any chance to travel to other beautiful cities of Iran. as I have a good archive of Iranian's architecture,I decided to introduction some Masterpieces of Iranian Architecture through pictures and graphics. you may get a chance to visit these cities in the future. First of all: my favorite mosque 1- Sheikh Lotfollah mosque Sheikh Lotfollah mosque was built during Shah Abbas time, and dedicated to his father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfollah, a prominent religious scholar and teacher who came to Isfahan at the orders of Shah 'Abbas, and resided on the site, but was never involved in the mosque's construction. Sheikh Lotfallah was born in Mess, which is currently in the Lebanon. Like his family he was a member of the Imami, or Shi'ite sect and was encouraged to take up residence in Iran under the Safavid rulers as part of the policy of promoting Shi'ism in Iran, along with other followers of this tradition from Bahrain. At first he lived in Mashed, where the second holiest of Shi'ite shrines is located, that of Imam Reza, but, partly due to the political instability of the area at the time and partly because of pressure from Shah Abbas, he took refuge first in Qazvin and then in Isfahan, where he seems to have acquired a son-in-law and patron at the same time. It was probably he who introduced the great mathematician, Sheikh Baha Al-Din Mohammed Ameli, otherwise known as Sheikh Bahai, who designed the famous sundial in the Royal Mosque, to Shah Abbas. Sheikh Lotfallah died in 1622. The Sheikh Lotfollah mosque is viewed by historians and visitors as one of the most important architectural projects built on Isfahan's Square, prominent for its location, scale, design, and ornament. It represents the best example of architecture and tile work of Iran in the 17th century. The beauty of its buff dome fills visitors with enchantment. This mosque differs from all others in several respects. The portal iwan is not aligned with the Naghsh-e-Jahan Square’s elevation, but is preceded by a recessed small court which flows from the Square and is linked, on its north and south sides, to the continuous corridor that envelopes the Square’s mercantile facilities. The main entrance to the mosque is located on the east side of this small court. The structure itself is not aligned perpendicularly to the Square’s eastern wall, but lies at an angle (almost 45 degrees) against the Square’s wall. As a result, when viewed from the Square, the mosque's main portal iwan and dome do not fall on the same axis, as is always the case in other mosques, but instead the dome appears behind the main portal iwan as if having slid 6.5 meters to the right from its axis. This asymmetrical layout was initially introduced to reconcile the (southwest) direction of Mecca with the placement of the mihrab on the qibla wall, and adds visual complexity to the structure. Contrary to the Square’s sand-colored brick elevation, the portal iwan is elaborately ornamented in colorful mosaics. It is built as a recessed area on the eastern wall of the court, an elevated platform raised by four steps from the court level. An inscription band in white on a dark blue background runs horizontally on the three sides of the portal niche, above which begins the iwan's vault, comprising four clusters of muqarnases made of small glazed-tiles units. These four clusters ascend to inscribe a concentric floral medallion. The pointed-arch doorway is located below the inscription band and is flanked by two panels of mosaics of floral arabesques with motifs in yellow, white, and blue on a dark blue background. These panels rest on top of a continuous marble dado. The offset entry does not allow the visitor to enter the prayer chamber directly from the Square by passing through the main portal iwan, which is aligned on the east-west axis. Due to the mosque's alignment on the northeast-southwest axis, upon entering the mosque one walks along two corridors, oriented respectively to the northeast and southeast, which are placed adjacent to the northwest and northeast walls of the prayer chamber. Turning southwest to face the qibla wall, one enters the domed chamber to see the mihrab on the opposite wall. This journey into gradual deepening into darkness and reemergence into a room bathed with light reflected on the glazed revetment is one of the most rewarding experiences of the building. In contrast to the grand size of the Square’s space, the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque is very small and is comprised of a single domed chamber (19 meters on a side), surrounded by rooms (which possibly functioned as service areas) on its sides, and preceded by a portal iwan overlooking the Square. The two rooms accessed from the corridor which envelopes the sanctuary dome measure 6 by 9 meters; one is found on the western side of the corridor, and the other along the far end of the eastern wall. A third room (8 by 16 meters) is located on the exterior of the southern wall of the sanctuary, and is accessed via the corridor running along the Square wall and then turning right after the vestibule area. Although the Sheikh Lotfollah is not one rectangular structure, its masses can be measured as one rectangular area of 44 by 30 meters and an additional rectangular service area comprising approximately 152 square meters. The dome is one of the few single-shell domes of the Safavid architecture with a structure consisting of three levels. Four squinches of pointed-arched panels, framed by an inscription band in white and blue demarcated by light blue cable moldings, ascend from the floor and support a sixteen kite-shaped shields that, in turn, support the drum, which comprises sixteen arched panels. The drum is ornamented with alternating double-grilles windows with an arabesque pattern. The interior dome has a sunburst from which descend medallions inscribing floral motifs, which become larger as they descend away from the center. The exterior of the dome is ornamented with an arabesque of a floral motif in white, blue, and black against a yellow background. This beautifully proportioned and decorated mosque, with some of the best mosaics from that era, took nearly 20 years to complete. The pale tiles of the dome change color, from cream through to pink, depending on the light conditions and the mosque is unusual because it has no minaret or courtyard. The figure painted in the middle of the floor under the dome is a peacock at certain times of the day. The sunlight enhances the peacock's tail. The mosque was once called the Women's Mosque, because there is apparently a tunnel between this mosque and the Ali Qapu palace, allowing women from the old dynasties to attend prayers without being seen in public.
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