Sunday, 6 April 2008

Amsterdam, bicycling capital of Europe – sex capital of the World?

7.25 am 6 April Sunday - just landed at KLIA waiting for connecting flight to Penang. Best Airport in the World (but I can login in to Yahoo Messenger). Below was written a few days ago. Having difficulty uploading photos here so will try that another time - Tried a different location of KLIA and finally managed to upload some photos.

3rd April 2008 10.30 pm – second night in this self-acclaimed tolerant and liberated city. You can smoke weed and other stimulants even though they are illegal substances. But the cops will tolerate it if its for “personal use”. Sex is all over the streets. Well, at least the bollards which look like penises are all over the city. And of course, prostitution is legal, that’s why Amsterdam is famous for its Red Light District. It’s even marked very clearly on the tourist maps. Gays marriages are legal. And the bicycles, they are amazing. They number more than people and the city has put big signs everywhere proclaiming “amsterdam cycling to sustainability”. If any city can claim that it is Amsterdam. But recycling? I don’t think so. I see them chuck their cardboard boxes on the sidewalk and the garbage collector throws them all into the back of the truck with the rest of the thrash.

Everything (just about) is expensive in Amsterdam. Starting with this room I am in now. Cost 65 euros without breakfast and its bare basic. I even have to pay another 3 euro per day if I watch the room TV. Don’t even think about free wifi. In Barcelona, I paid average about 60 euro (the rates varies over the week) and the room was better and there was free wifi.

Now food, very confusing. Can’t figure out if there is any authentic Dutch food around. It’s very cosmopolitan but Chinese seems a favourite including a very popular Wok to Walk chain (P.S. I actually tried it too - verdict? Lots of fire and action but not to my taste). Two nights here and had noodles soup twice at two Chinses restaurants – they are all coincidentally located in the Red Light District. The point is, the Red Light District is not just about sex. There’s lots of restaurants and bars and other shops. Most visitors are just curious tourists.

You may walk around with a map but very often, as I have discovered, you just bum into pleasant surprises
Above is the flower market along one of the canals. Those bulbs are huge - I wished they would grow in Malaysia.

The city. Every city I go, I will pound the streets for hours. This morning I started at 9 am and walked until about 3 pm, almost none stop slow walk. Sky was gloomy, so the photography wasn’t that good. And it was freezing cold. I think below 10 C. I had three layers of normal clothes plus 2 jackets and I was still cold. But the cold was great.
What is Amsterdam without the canals. I wouldn't say the canals or the water looked clean but they are definitely not clogged full of floating rubbish. Yes I have seen rubbish (including polystyrene foam) in the smaller canals but I have also noticed that they have excellent street cleaning services. Quite impressive watching the team of two small trucks (one for spraying water and another to vacuum and brush the roads) and 3 or 4 men walking and spraying and sweeping the rubbish to be picked up by the second truck.
Those boats you see in the picture - they look like boathouses but I did not once encounter its inhabitant.

I decided to skip most of the tourist stops. Just walked to soak in the vibes. The city feels very friendly and livable, even though there are signs warning of pick pockets. Had wanted to visit the house that Anne Frank lived but gave it the skip when I saw the long lines. If you ask who is Anne Frank, she was the Jewish girl who hid in a house from the Nazis and during that time she kept a diary (which was later published). She was eventually captured. During her stay in the house, her only link to the outside world was a tree behind the house. Now there is a movement working to preserve the tree including putting up support structures for the aged tree.

Lot’s of museums around, but I decided to spend 10 euro only on the Van Gogh museum and it was worth it. Poor guy didn’t even live to be 40. Shot himself in the chest – he felt he had lost his artistic flair and was going crazy. It was only after his death that critics recognised him as a modern artist. There are some nice paintings using his “pointilism” technique. Coming out of the museum I bought a hotdog from a stand outside for 2.50 euro with everything on it. Excellent lunch.

Do you think you can guess the main business along these streets?
Well, it was taken when there wasn't a crowd. Go on a weekend and it's full of curious tourists and visitors.
Yes, its part of the infamous Red Light District.

What’s all the sex about? There’s the sex museums – visit one for 3 euro, interesting but not so exciting. Sex shops, are of course everywhere, not just in the Red Light District. What do they sell? Ah, I think if you search the web you will get all the answers you want. Then there’s the live shows – very pricey like 30 – 50 euros. If you convert that to ringgit its 150 – 200 RM. Then there's the ladies in cubicles wearing skimpy outfits trying to attract customers. It’s very cold so they stay behind glass doors. As I said, there are more curious tourist than customers. Young and old from all over the world come to see this cultural oddity (oops, no offence meant). People seems to accept the happenings here as being “normal” or perhaps a novelty. I am sure that when they go back to their own countries they won’t be walking leisurely through their own red light district. Say, I didn’t see a single male prostitute on parade – why is that?

Bummer, I did not get to go bicycling. Maybe I can still get a few hours after I come back from Keukenhof tulip garden.

11.36 pm – time to rest my weary legs.

For one brief moment while I was walking the streets, the sun peeked out to provide a photo opportunity.
The bicycles are everywhere and the police seems to have given up the fight against bicycle theft.
They just advise you to double-lock the bike to something permanent. And the bikes look deceptively "normal" but they are actually quite powerful with gears to climb the small inclines. I did manage to try out a rental for one hour on my last day. It was quite fun but I kept going around in circles. Sometimes it appears the cyclists are quite reckless but I only saw one incident in which a lady cyclist stopped to give a motorist a piece of her mind for not respecting "her right of way". Yeah, cyclists are king of the roads. Even very old people, some probably in their eighties or at least late 70s are cycling in the city and for recreation in the countryside.

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