My Top 5 List of Strangest Shopping Malls in the World..

…and five honorable mentions…

With one possible exception, every location on this list completely stretches the traditional western definition of “mall” past way past its normal boundaries. However, if you use your imagination a little, you can see how some places of commerce in other countries could be considered the local equivalent of an American style shopping mall. Anyway, it’s my list and I’m sticking with it. If you have other candidates for this list, I would love to see em. Please post in the Comments section.

1.) The Dubai Mall

Apparently this is the world’s largest shopping mall by square footage. It boasts a bewildering amount of retail shops, entertainment centers, eateries and other shopping flotsam and jetsam. Aside from having an Olympic sized ice rink hiding indoors in the one of the hottest countries this side of a solar flare, it also contains something I’ve never seen before in any mall. Something I very grudgingly found fascinating. Right there in the middle of the mall, just down the street from all the people sliding around the ice like rocks on a curling rink is just a colossal fricking aquarium. The main wall is simply enormous and it’s chock-a-blog full to bursting with marine life.

This isn’t Podunk Pete’s Wonder Aquarium with a handful of Goldfish and a pissed off Neon Tetra. They have everything in there and it’s just bristling. One half of me, the scuba diving, eco-friendly, hate seeing things-in-captivity half, is feeling a little disgusted by it all. The other eight year old half that grew up watching Flipper, Jacques Cousteau and Voyage to See What’s On the Bottom is just drooling over all those cool aquatic creatures spinning laps in the world’s largest fish tank. Holy Seafood Lovin’ Mother Load Batman!!

Are you in there Mom??

One of the other things I saw at the Dubai Mall I’m sure was planted by my family back in Canada – a Tim Horton’s Donuts of all things. TimBits is practically a national institution there, even though I think their coffee tastes like wimpy dishwater (donuts are okay though). 

2.) Petra World Heritage Site in Jordan

If you’ve ever seen the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where they all gallop down a narrow canyon (siq) and into a big opening where this incredible temple building (the Treasury) is carved right into a sheer cliff face, then you know what Petra looks like. This is a must see place and if it isn’t already on your bucket list, you really should add it in.

Every mall needs an anchor store to bring in traffic. This might be it…
Me, a camel and a sales squad at Petra

There are buildings, temples, burial crypts and other stuff carved into literally miles of rock in one of the most beautiful and isolated places you can imagine.

So what does this have to do with Shopping Malls you ask? Like many such destinations where the local economy doesn’t have the same resources as downtown Manhattan or London, many people earn a living selling stuff all over the place inside and out. Being a World Heritage Site does not exempt these places from also being a robust center of local commerce where tourists and travelers are concerned. From even before you enter Petra, you are barraged by offers of horse, donkey or camel rides, jewelry and coins, food, clothes and a zillion other items. It never stops and it doesn’t matter how far in you explore. There will be someone there selling something. There will be a manky little table with four trinkets or some hot tea brewing in likely the same kettle used by Julius Caesar’s mom.

No sooner do you get through 400 yards of walking and explaining to some guy why you don’t want a donkey ride, than the next dude with a donkey is all over you asking the exact same thing. This, after watching the entire “thanks, but no thanks” exchange take place all along from his own little territory. “Oh yeah buddy, your donkey is much better than that last one…” It can be a maddening gauntlet.

Aaahh – there’s a tea shop at the end of the world…
How I know it’s the End of the World. Just needs a tea shop…

Despite my frustrations and the burnout you can get fending off vendors, hagglers, hucksters and touts all day while trying to take in a truly magnificent place like Petra, I am also sympathetic. If I were in their position, I’m pretty certain I’d be doing the exact same thing.

Location, location, location…
Fine Haberdashery and Dry Cleaning Service… wait, sorry,,, that’s the display…

Whenever possible I try to buy at least some stuff locally like this. It might be a few trinkets, a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, but I try to purchase whatever I can to support (hopefully) local craftspeople, artists and artisans. Yes, a lot of it is cheap manufactured tourist crap produced elsewhere, but not all – not by a long shot.

3.) Duty Free Shops in the Colombo International Airport, Sri Lanka

Forget – totally and utterly – ALL the preconceptions you have about Duty-Free shopping in an airport. Forget the usual ho-hum assortment of alcohol, smokes, perfume and chocolates. All that is so… done… done to death… yawn. What you REALLY WANT is a full-size fridge, stove, dishwasher or other household appliance to take along with your cute little Prada Rolling Duffle don’t you??

Okay, I’ll take the watch, the scotch and that beautiful washer/dryer combo. Will they fit in the overhead bins??

Well, you’re in luck, because that is precisely what you will find at the duty-free shopping area in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka’s international airport. When I first arrived at the airport there, I had to do a complete double take when I saw the shops selling all these big household appliances. I mean, how do you get something like that into the cab at curbside anyway? For that matter, how do you get it to curbside at all unless you happen to be an Olympic Power-lifting Champ and even then…

4.) Street Kiosks at Angkor Wat World Heritage Site in Cambodia

Hey wait just a doggone minute!!This sounds just like number two contestant Petra up above buddy. Well, it is… and it isn’t. Yes, Angkor Wat near Siem Reap Cambodia is also a World Heritage Site and yes it has people selling all sorts of stuff both in and around the grounds, but it also has some significant differences too.

Where’d everyone go??

First off, if you’ve never been to Angkor Wat or Cambodia for that matter, then you need to go. It needs to be on your bucket list. Cambodia is beautiful, affordable and the people are incredible. I loved Cambodia. I love everywhere really.

Aaahh – there they are!! Can I get that to go…?

The thing that really grabbed my attention as far as this shopping mall topic, are the miles and miles of the same manky little wooden tables with or without disintegrating little thatched roofs. The ones that are open all seem to sell the exact same nine items too, mostly water, soft-drinks and fresh fruit with the odd few other items thrown in. But mostly, they were empty or abandoned. Miles of lonely little tables lining the road between exhibits in the huge expanse of Angkor Wat. I’m not sure if they were abandoned because of the season or because the proprietors couldn’t make a living. After all, if every shop in the mall is selling the same stuff as you, how the heck do you compete?

This experience really did feel much like a huge outdoor mall to me driving down the long straight roads. Here and there, you’d come across colorful little intersections where the stalls sold a much larger and more interesting range of goods. At these little knots of commerce, business was much more frenetic and interesting.

5.) A Ton of Beaches in Bali, Thailand and Elsewhere

Imagine you’re in Bali and you take a taxi or motor your little rental scootie out to some remote little hunk of oceanfront aptly called “White Sand Beach.” near Karangasem. There are a couple of small thatched roof “warungs” or cafe’s onsite and maybe half a dozen other travelers splashing around in the warm ocean water, but that’s really it. Almost your own private Idaho. You plunk down on the blazing hot sand and contemplate a cool-down playing in the moderate surf. Maybe a snorkel to see the amazing array of marine life just below the surface…

No, no – don’t get up… we have trinkets, cold drinks, clothes and artistic nail polish – all at one place!!

But really – what you NEED – crave maybe would be the more accurate term, is a trip to the mall for a good old fashioned shopping experience. It eats up all your thoughts, making it hard to concentrate on the lush tropical setting you’ve flown 15 trillion miles to visit. Well, fear not gentle traveler for your salvation is at hand. If you can’t get to the mall, the mall will get to you!! That’s right, all you need to do is sit still for more than 1.2 seconds and someone will be there to sell you whatever you may or may not need. Cold drink? Check. Fruit smoothie with or without sight destroying alcohol? Got it. Bangles, beads, trinkets, lockets, chains, bracelets, henna tattoos? Gotcha covered Mate. New towels, scarves, sandals, swimsuit, scarves or hats? Check-a-roonie Sport. Want your nails painted by a true artist for less money than a bottle of water? No problem. Not now or not sure? No worries Mate – they’ll be back!

Seriously though, the local vendors here are pretty respectful and not nearly so numerous as other beaches I’ve been to. The little family owned warungs have a limited menu, but the food is good and the drinks are refreshing. I also did buy a few very pretty little bracelets for the folks back home that I didn’t see anywhere else. This is also where I found the best scam ever to pry you from your money.

It goes like this: Some 100 million year old wizened knot creaks down into the sand right beside your towel and produces a strange wooden tube with finger-holes. “Okay,cool” I think, “he’s going for some kind of soothing flute serenade.” I almost found myself looking forward to hearing it. I’m thinking perhaps of Paul Horn’s meditative flute in the King’s Chamber at the Great Pyramid of Giza. But the noise that issues forth from this wretched instrument is somewhere between a car crash and the sounds of wholesale slaughter at a meat-packing plant. “Holy SchnitzenGruben Batman!!! For the love of God make it stop!!!” And then of course I have my answer and Monsieur More Wrinkly Than Beef Jerky has his “sale.” Like a fish on a hook, I smile and nod appreciably while handing him way more money than I gave anyone else for anything that day. I paid him off to stop “playing” and simply go the f*ck away. I did and he did. Sanity restored thank you very much. It’s totally brilliant though and perfectly legal. Nobody is going to tell the world’s oldest living (up for debate) and completely talent-less human fossil to piss off. It would be like smacking your own great granddad upside the head. The only solution is to pay him off or go rapidly insane. I guarantee you wouldn’t last long enough to roll up your towel  and run off the beach either.

Honorable Mentions – To Round Out a (free bonus) List of Ten…

6.) Floating Shops on the Mekong River 

7.) Small Bipedal Micro-Malls in Bangkok

Reach for the sky pardner, this is a hold-up…. No, wait sorry, I meant wanna buy a sandwich for lunch…?

8.)  Floating Mall Food Courts in Phra-Nang Beach and Princess Cave

Okay, okay – not even close to being a mall..

9.) Taipei Airport SkyMall with Colossal Hello Kitty Store


10.) Night Markets – Anywhere You Can Find Em (These are Awesome Fun!!)

Night Market in Luang Prabang, Laos