Thursday, March 06, 2008

City of Bikes

Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. Its name is derived from "Amstel dam", pointing to the city's origin: a dam on the river Amstel. The city is known for its historic port, the Rijksmuseum, its red-light district (de Wallen), its liberal coffeeshops, and its many canals which have led to Amsterdam being called the "Venice of the North". During the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam was one of the most important ports in the world, with innovative developments in trade, and became the leading centre for finance and diamonds.
27 – 29 Feb

Holland was never in the travel plans. The air tickets were booked on impulse because they were going for 0 dkk but taxes came up to about S$150. David wasn’t interested in drugs and all the rest of the liberties in Amsterdam, so I travelled with Debbie, Jiamin and our new South Koren friend, Jin Joo.

It was to be another traumatic flight experience. Deb and I had Danish lessons till 5pm, on Wed evening, and our flight was at 6.30pm. Jiamin kept exhorting us to leave class early so that we wouldn’t be late, and we had pre-arranged for him to be there earlier to check-in for all of us, since he didn’t have anything on that day. After carrying my third-full 60litre backpack to class, and 2 hours of dansk later, we rushed to the airport expecting to meet the other 2 there. Alas! Only Jinjoo was there when we arrived, and she had checked-in for us. We had 10 more minutes before the baggage drop closed, and jiamin was nowhere in sight. We got an sms from him saying he was about 15-20 mins away, and that something terrible had happened. Jinjoo and I went in first, cos she wanted to get some duty-free stuff for her friend in Amsterdam. I was smsing deb and she didn’t have any news either. Time passed quickly… 6.00 (the baggage drop closed)… 6:10 (all we could do was pray)… 6:20, Jinjoo and I start heading to the gate. it was a long long walk to the last gate at the furthest end of the terminal. And when we were there they were almost closing the gate. still no news. We asked the person at the counter whether the ‘last guy’ had checked-in, and she said yes, but did not know where was he. We quickly assured him that the last 2 pple were running as fast as they could to the gate, and to please wait for them. So jinjoo and I proceeded into the plane. We were assigned the last row of seats, and had to walk past every single person already on board. Anyhow, the whole plance waited, pple were getting impatient, and the pilot made an announcement that we were just waiting for 2 more passengers and then we were ready to shut the doors and take off. About 6.40pm, the 2 of them stepped into the plane, with plastic bags and laptops in their hands, and jiamin’s gigantic 40 to 50l backpack. Obviously they didn’t allow them to check in. but thank God for answering our desperate prayers and for allowing the passengers to wait.

So, his story: he put a set of clothes to wash when he discovered that he did not have enough while packing, at about 1pm. 1 hour later, he went to the basement of his house to retrieve his clothes, only to realise that he had forgotten to take his keys along, and he had locked himself out of his house. Thankfully, his bike was unlocked so he rode all the way to forum (which is near where we live and where his landlord works) to get keys from his landlord. In just t-shirt and track pants. That’s quite crazy and we actually live about 20 mins away. So to cut the long story short, by the time he got back, packed, showered and left, he was late. Enough said.

Back to the plane. Just when we could take off, while taxi-ing, the pilots discovere some ‘technical problems’, so they had to get the plane back to the gate to get it checked and repaired. We were delayed by almost 2 hours. By the time we took off, it was close to 8.30pm, and we landed at about 9.40pm, almost 2 hours late. The worst thing was that we had dinner waiting for us at Isaac’s place. And I was quite scared that they’d be waiting for too long. I didn’t even know his friends. Anyhow, we managed to get to his place by about 10.30, they were so kind as to heat up the food for us and chatted with us till almost midnight. They were all NUS students, mind you, and we were the enemy – SMU. Heh. It was great meeting Isaac again though, it’s odd how we only see each other outside of Singapore, the last time was when we were leaving Cedar Point about 1.5 years ago… how time flies!
Jiamin and I slept on the floor in Isaac’s room; while deb and jinjoo stayed at jinjoo’s friend’s place. The arrangement was complicated, I’ll explain if you ask. Poor jiamin was coughing all night through, and quite badly too, isaac’s pipakao and luohankuo helped to alleviate it, but not much. The next morning, I woke up with a cough too, but I thought I was tough enough. I borrowed Stephanie ‘s (Isaac’s friend) bike and we pushed it to Amsterdam Centraal where we met the 2 girls. After much deliberation, we decided to rent 3 more bikes and explore the city of bikes on… bikes.
sights along the way: the famous Amstel Hotel, nice colourful pipes, boat houses...

The city of Amsterdam is truly amazing. It was not what I had imagined it to be – messy, dangerous, dirty. Au contraire, it was rather orderly, and I felt very safe. There are so many bikes in the city, more than in Copenhagen, and the bike rack at central is 3 storeys high and can hold up to 2500 bikes, imagine that! On top of all the bikes that are already parked everywhere you can imagine!

you can really see the B1 storey here cos it's lower on the water... and the picture doesn't really do justice to the sight

But the traffic wasn’t the most bike-friendly. Despite the designated bike lanes, things can get quite dangerous when motorcyclists use them as well, drivers in cars are rather fierce and reckless, and add in the trams that run through the city and cut across many pedestrian streets. It was insane. Nonetheless, we tried to follow a bicycle trail we had printed off the internet, except we never got to see most of the places cos we couldn’t find them. Yet, it was through these moments of being lost that we experienced firsthand the friendliness and helpfulness of the locals. And yes, that helped to change my impression of a mafia-filled; drug-taking city…) People just stopped in their tracks to ask if we needed help when they saw us studying the maps. And they did more than point us in the right way, this man even took the effort to tell us how the entire city is organised and what is good to see, and he even asked us where we were from and spent a few minutes reminiscing about Bugis Street and Clifford Pier in Singapore (I didn’t even know those places were that famous!).

cycling around

Anyhow, we wanted to end up at the Van Gogh Museum, which was south of the city centre. So we followed the Amstel River south, but soon enough, we found ourselves cycling in the countryside, completely out of the navigation guidance of the map! After a big detour and a minor accident involving the bikes, we arrived at Museumplein (the place of Museums) to meet Isaac, who was kind enough to bring us around after his classes ended that morning.

at museumplein, which kinda resembles Washington DC

Using the NUS people’s museum passes, we managed to get in for free, and spent some time appreciating Van Gogh’s art and learn about his tragic life. I quite like his paintings, mainly because I like the impressionist/ pointillism style which was made famous by people like himself and Monet, but his life was so sad. At a high point, he had wanted to become an evangelist, as his father was preacher, but he gave up after a while and became an artist at 27, only to fall into melancholy and illness, and then shoot himself in the chest when he was barely 40 years old because of a lack of popularity, decline in skill due to illness and fears of becoming a burden to others.
Our next stop was the market. That was really nice and exciting for us, cos it meant eating. We had discovered that the cost of living was significantly lower than that in Copenhagen, and suddenly, we could afford lots of things again. So we decided to go on an eating spree. At the market, we bought homemade chocolate, nuts, dutch stroop waffles, fried mussles, and even cheap toiletries.

the chocolate shop, really 'creatively' shaped chocolates, chocolates dipped in chocolate and huge chunks of chocolate

getting our stroop waffles, really really sweet syrup between 2 pieces of biscuit

deep fried mussles... look at jin joo's expression! classic!
We were rather tempted to buy Birkenstocks too, but there was limited stock (pun not intended) left in the right sizes and designs, but they generally cost between 30 and 45 euros. Cheap right? Wasted. Haha. Anyway, after that, we weren’t done eating yet! Isaac brought us to this pancake place to have Dutch pancakes, which were really good and kinda different from our regular pancakes. Well, they actually look and taste more like those crepes you can get at Marche, but it was very nice nonetheless!

ham and cheese pancake (?!?), fruit pancake
And then, it was Thursday night so we took the opportunity for late night shopping, and headed down to the shopping street while Isaac went home. There wasn’t that much to buy though, cos it was Europe afterall and it wasn’t the sale season. The only special shops are those that specialise in selling cigars and drugs, or sex shops. The drug shops were really interesting tho, the way they sell stuff like Spanish fly (a drug used in spiking a girl’s drink) and canibbis lollipops, and coffee shops in Amsterdam don’t sell coffee, rather they are drug houses serving space cakes and i dunno what else. We didn’t dare to step into one.

a huge variety of drugs... cannabis lollipop, anyone?

interesting shops...

some shop which sells all kinds of junk food you can imagine...

But we did eat out that night at this Asian place called ‘Wok to Walk’, which is basically Chinese takeaway la. We just hung around a bit and cycled to Dam Square, the city square where the royal Palace stands.

debbie and i @ dam square, in front of the royal palace

There we met up with Isaac again, who brought us to visit the famous Red Light District. That area was also surprisingly orderly and safe, even late at night. In fact, it is probably more touristy than anything. The sex trade there seems pretty well controlled. And the girls actually have to rent a window space on a per night basis for about 50euros, and all they can do is stand behind the door/window and wait for someone to negotiate with them through the door. They are not allowed to come out at all, and people along the streets are not allowed to be impolite towards them. There are red light district police all around. However it was interesting to see rows and rows of such windows, with a tube of red light above it. It the curtains to the windows are drawn, the girl was in business. Sometimes, almost immediately after seeing a man walk out of the door, the girl draws the curtain again. She’s ready for the next customer. It’s quite scary. Heh. And well, some of them are just chatting on their mobile phones or surfing the internet (or maybe they’re juggling a side business) while waiting for patrons. And the girls come in all shapes and sizes and origins- the more exotic ones are usually on some small side street. Generally, it seems like these people regard themselves as professionals, and won’t resort to harassing people desperately like those prostitutes you see in Chinese shows. Or at least, they’re not really allowed since they’re stuck in those little windows. Another interesting thing is the public male toilets around. They are basically just a round frame of metal that probably covers jiamin from his head to his calves. And then you have to pee onto the floor. And people around can actually see the floor. So it’s quite gross but well, functional? Jiamin wanted to try, but he changed his mind. The last interesting thing is that there is a HUGE church right next to the district, almost in the district, and has been for hundreds of years. The idea is that sailors, after coming to the area for their fun, can go to the church right after to see forgiveness. Some warped kind of logic, but it seems to have been accepted for centuries. Of course, there are lots of sex shops around where you can rent dvds and watch them in specially provided cubicles and I dunno what else. About 12 plus, we decided that it was time to go home.
porn shops galore, red lights above the windows (the curtains are drawn here), isaac & jiams scouting around... :p
The next day, Isaac was too tired to bring us around, poor thing, his school work is a lot more voluminous than ours in Copenhagen, and he’s been having late nights, so we asked him to stay home while we went around by ourselves. Jinjoo was too tired from all the cycling the day before, so she decided to sleep in as well (oh no, maybe she’ll never travel with us again!)

we bumped into esmond and daphne, who are headed for paris but travelling a lot before school starts...

First up, we tried to locate Anne Frank’s house. It is arguable the most popular tourist attraction in Amsterdam, but it’s tiny, so the line for tickets are usually very long. So all we managed to do was to take a look on the outside. But inside, you can supposedly see where her family and 4 others hid out during the Nazi years of WW2. In the little room whose entrance is concealed by a bookshelf. It would have been cool to go in, and see her original diary as well, but we weren’t prepared to stand 3 hours in line.

Besides, we had a very important next stop – the Mariott Hotel. Mummy had just told me on Tues night after prayer meeting that Uncle Kah Poh was flying into Amsterdam on 29th Feb, so in the space of 2 days, I asked for some things to be brought over, and they had to scramble to get all those things. The most important of all was a portable hard disk, since the one I have was full to the brim. Jiamin also desperately needed one, so his dad had to go get one and then drive to CCK to pass to us and daddy had to go to uncle kp’s house etc. all the rush, but I love my family for that. They so willingly did all that for me and went to such great lengths and inconveniences. J anyway, so I had to go collect my package from home! For some strange reason, my Singapore phone couldn’t work, so I couldn’t really contact him. But we just went to the hotel anyway after giving him sufficient time to rest. We chatted for a while and I found out that he’s coming to Copenhagen in March! (yay!) I promised to cook for him then and then he can go home and tell mummy if I pass. Haha. But sigh if I knew he was coming in march maybe we didn’t have to rush so much huh. Anyway, I gave him a head scratch-er since it was his birthday the day before. Haha. Thank mummy for warning me through Isaac. I think it looked quite pok tho, especially against a setting like the mariott. Haha. I tried to see a picture of Ian to see how he’s progressing, but the photo got deleted from his iphone. Heh. Maybe someone from home can tell me how the babies are growing! So yay, I got my package, and that added quite a bit of weight to my bag as well, cos mummy gave me 4 bottles of contact lens solution instead of 2!

Our next stop was the rijksmuseum, the biggest museum in Amsterdam. It was really good, but deb and I didn’t have much time to appreciate Rembrandt and other significant Dutch artists who helped record Holland’s history in pictures. Jiamin hates art, so he went shopping by himself.
Then we went to hunt for lunch around the shopping district, thinking that a kebab might do it for the afternoon after all that eating we did the day before. We bumped into uncle kah poh and his co-pilot(s) at some random small kebab shop, heh. But it was too expensive for poor students for us so we decided to continue our hunt. We then headed to the flower market, where they sell tulips of all colours, and well as the bulbs for you to grow some yourself. There were other flowers too la, but predominately tulips. I was so tempted to buy a bouquet of tulips for mummy for her birthday, but I don’t think it’s very possible for uncle kp to bring it back, and then I thought of buying 1 for myself, because no one else would ever give me, right? But then, I didn’t want to carry it to Belgium and then back to Copenhagen. So Debbie decided that we should buy some bulbs instead. We’ll plant them when we reach back, with all 20 of our blue fingers, and keep you updated on their progress. Haha.

Anyway, by this time, we were totally starving. I told myself that I’d just get a burger from the next burger king I saw, and so I ended up having a whopper for lunch, cost me all of 3.95 euros. Grrr. But that’s a whole lot cheaper than any burger you’ll get in Copenhagen anyway. We then zipped off to Chinatown, cos we wanted to buy some sauces that we heard were much cheaper here. We were not disappointed. The Chinese supermarkets there treated us to an eye-feast of the largest array of lee kum kee sauces we’d ever seen in Europe, and other types of Asian sauces as well. They were all like 1.++ euros, as opposed to 6.++ sing in Copenhagen. So we bought vinegar, dark soy sauce, a large carton of coconut milk, ma la chilli for soup, and I can’t remember what else. I bought a packet of sago and another packet of mung beans too (yay, I smell tau suan coming up!) we didn’t care that we had to lug all these stuff around Belgium. But cycling back with all these sauces is different.
After much trouble, and dropping + breaking our cheap imitation nutella bottle, we arrived back at Isaac’s place.

isaac's place - containers (some students live on the boat too), and the awards we presented him with...
We quickly packed and presented him with our little token of appreciation for his great hospitality and use of lovely abode (a row of short glasses and a bottle of stroop sauce which he said goes well with pancakes) and then had to cycle back to centraal to return the bikes and then head to Belgium. The problem was that we only had 2 bikes, so one of us had to walk. The other problem was that we also had 2 huge backpacks with us, and I couldn’t ride the higher bike while carrying that 60litre thing. So jiamin and Debbie took the bikes, and jiamin took the other big bag of course, and I was left to walk to the station. It was about 10-15 mins away if you cycle. I think if you walk it’d take 20-30 mins just walking normally. But I had that 10-20kg weight on me and I nearly died after like 7 mins, so i decided to take a bus there instead, haha. Ok, my other excuse was that it was pouring (in the gu niang European sense of the word la). Deb and jm got the central rather drenched, and jm’s leather gloves got destroyed by the rainwater. Btw, that was about when I started to feel like I was about to lose my voice. And from that point, my voice became sexier and sexier, and threatened to disappear altogether. But thank God he has preserved it thus far, despite all the injustice I’ve been doing to my throat. We left Amsterdam via the inter-city train, that was to take us to Leuvan, Belgium, a journey of about 2hrs 50 mins.


  1. tulips! (: would have loved to be there... what a coincidence, i'm also about to lose my voice =|

  2. oh man... good friday + easter's coming... find that voice back! get well soon!

    anyway the 10 tulip bulbs we bought, we cant exactly plant them, cos we dun have soil... haha, and we dun know what type of soil we need.. so it's just lying around now... sigh...