Amsterdam and beyond

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September 28th 2016
Published: September 28th 2016
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Well all good things must come to n end. We are currently flying to Dubai from Amsterdam, and then connecting to Brisbane and our European holiday 2016 will definitely be over! Let’s catch up on what happened in Holland aka The Netherlands.

We left Munich on Friday morning. We were very lucky to get a seat as seat reservations are not compulsory on German trains, so we could just hop on with our German rail pass. Unfortunately everyone else who bought a full fare ticket has the option of paying for a seat reservation, which many people did. Anyway we found 2 seats for our journey to Duisburg. We changed trains in Duisburg, and the train to Amsterdam was beyond full (we should have gotten off at Frankfurt airport which is where the train originated and onto the Amsterdam train to get seats!). Anyways we stood/sat next tot the door with our baggage for 2 hours. Lucky for us they were serving Erdinger weissbier which we availed ourselves of!

When we arrived to Amsterdam we got on a local train to go the 2 short stops to Zaandam where my cousin Biab lives. Biab migrated to Holland from Thailand 18 years ago, and since I have visited her and her husband Douwe twice. Once in 2003 when I stayed with them for 3 months and once again with Bill in 2012. They were waiting for us at Zaandam station and we and our large bags piled into Douwe’s company car for the short ride home. Everything looked the same – their house is about 5 metres from the entrance of the supermarket! How convenient! Behind their house is a lovely canal with ducks diving and splashing around. And a school which can get noisy in the mornings. We had a Pad Thai dinner and drinks to bring in the evening, sharing our travel stories and catching up with the family.

The next day after a leisurely lie in, Douwe dropped us off at Zaandam station and we caught the train to Amsterdam. Amsterdam was like we remember – big, busy and we lots of charm. Despite it being September and officially the end of the European summer, the streets were still packed with people – locals and tourists alike. We went to Dam square to join a free tour with Sandemans, the same company that did our tour in Munich. Unfortunately, Sandemans were organising people into who had booked online (it’s a free tour, we didn’t bother) so those of us who didn’t book had to wait aside until all those who booked turned up. Anyway, it was a really convoluted process for a free tour, so we noticed another free tour by a rival company starting so we joined that one! Our guide was really fantastic, he is a local and told us the stories and history with energy and passion for the city. First stop he took us was the red light district, the heart of the city’s prostitution, which is when he told us to put the cameras away as the girls get upset when photos are taken of them (understandable its completely invasive as disrespectful). Everyone’s heard of how liberal The Netherlands is – prostitution and soft drugs are totally legal. Our guide was telling us how pre-2000 the prostitution industry was run by pimps who effectively ran a human trafficking ring by getting girls from Eastern Europe with the promise of fame and fortune, and them forcing them into prostitution and taking their money. So in 2000, tired of this, the government 100% legalised prostitution. The girls sit/stand behind small windows in suggestive poses in sexy lingerie, looking for customers. The girls get paid for their services by the client (€50 we were told for a basic 1 position and oral! Maybe Mondays one can haggle for €35!) and out of that they have to pay rent for the room, taxes, and well as some ‘protection’ money to some ‘pimps’ who protect the girls by having a rope above the bed with a bell attached. So if a girl gets into a rough situation, she can pull the rope and a big burley man can go punch the client, throw him out into the streets or canal etc. These ‘pimps’ must be quite different to the illegal ones I think, which have virtually been made obsolete with the legalisation of the industry. There is also a prostitution information centre as well as a health clinic for the girls too. Very clean and well run. Our guide then told us a psychiatrist once conducted an experiment where he sat outside the windows with a stopwatch to see what the ‘average’ visit was, which is 8 mins and 21 seconds! He was a fun guide asking us how much do we think it is, how long etc is before he tells us. The 8 mins and 21 secs include taking trousers off, cleaning their privates in a sink (very hygienic) oral and one position, trousers up and pay. So I guess the girls know what they are doing for such speedy service! So we walked down the various alleyways, some curtains open with girls waving in lingerie, other curtains closed, and one talking to a customer inviting us in! We then went down ‘Big Mamma Alley’. When Biab took us here 4 years ago, there were big mamas in the window, because some men like that and you have to cater for everybody! This time there were some chunkier girls, but honestly no big mamas! He also told us a red light means they are available for a man, green they are available for girls, green and red they swing both ways (the green, grren and red I need to fact check I think this is correct!), and blue means you could get a surprise when you go in aka a transvestite! Next to big Mamas alley, which we saw last visit, was an Old Church, the Oude Kerk dating back to the 14th century. He explained that the reason the church is here is that it is next to the canal, and in the old days when ships would dock here, the sailors would come looking for a good time. The priest said he would look the other way, so they could do what they wanted and ‘sin’ if they went to the church, paid him money and confess, the priest would absolve them of their sins. So seems the priest was a bit crooked! Anyway, all was happy. There is a kindergarten as we found out in big mama alley. This is because the city wanted the red light district to be a ’normal’ neighbourhood, with normal people living there too with kids, and they need kindergartens. The residents are happy, the prostitutes are happy, and the kids are happy as the girls wave at them as they go along to kindergarten! I think this is where Holland got it right. Prostitution is 100% legal and out in the open. The girls get regular check ups, its clean and done by the books. So its not seedy, and people have a healthy, open minded outlook on the industry, our guide also showed us some ‘street art’ – a golden hand on a golden tit. Apparently an artist put them all around town, but then the city of Amsterdam took them away except one near big mamas alley. So someone stumbling home from the pub will trip over it and tell the story of how they fell over a golden tit! As I like to think of it, it puts a new meaning on the Aussie saying ‘ arse over tit’ ! We the saw Amsterdam’s oldest building which has had many functions over the years, as well as the old Dutch East India company building, which was of the biggest companies in the world until it went bankrupt. I always thought the Dutch East India company was the name of the Dutch explorers and subsequent colonisers, but actually in addition to lots of business, it was a trading company, getting spices and tea from the east, and ‘accidental’ discoveries and I guess colonisation of places such as Indonesia, South Africa, New Zealand (named after Zeeland in Holland as they thought this new land was smaller than Zeeland, when in actual fact it was much, much bigger). Lots of cities and names are named by the Dutch for example New York, Harlem after Haarlem in Amsterdam, even the New York Yankees. We saw many of the canal houses titling, as Amsterdam is built on marsh land, and the cheap wooden stump foundations are old and rotten. So the government will come knocking, tell people they need to re-do their foundations which is pricey at around €200 000 (Douwe says its about €50 000) and people will pretend they’re not home! But it will eventually will need to be done, even by the city. So there are sloping houses everywhere! We then went to a medieval square where in those times women got married and had babies at 16, or became a nun. For those not wanting either, a priest let these girls live here around the square, as long as they remained a virgin. When they found a man they had to leave. We also walked through Amsterdam museum, or part of it, which is a thoroughfare with strange pictures and paintings! Our guide also told us of surnames, which were made up around the 19th century when Napoleon came, and that’s why Dutch surnames can be a bit strange! We also stopped outside near ‘coffee shops’ where you can legally some weed and eat hash cookies. Smelling it made me feel woozy ! Small amounts of drugs are legal in Holland, and we stopped by the largest magic ‘truffle’ shop in Amsterdam. Truffle, not magic mushroom as they are illegal now as in 2008, a French tourist high on magic mushrooms thought she was a dragon and could fly off a 22 floor balcony. So, as a result magic mushrooms are banned, but truffles are not as its underground, not above ground. So growers throw dirt on it and calls it ‘truffles’. He also gave handy advice to those wanting to try drugs. Smoking drugs take 30 seconds to get into your liver and bloodstream, 1 hour if ingested. So people eating hash cookies don’t feel and effect and keep eating and eating, and end up in hospital where doctors will have a laugh, but also help them of course. There are street dealers, don’t take anything from them. There are free drug testing labs around Holland where you can get drugs tested with a few hours or days depending on what it is. Perfectly legal. Apparently tourists have been sold washing powder for €50 and our guide said you’re better off going to the red light district and getting oral sex and one position! Bill and I aren’t interested in drugs (well except alcohol) or prostitution for that matter, however for those wanting to do it, it is safe and legal with a lot of controls. I don’t see junkies on the streets or drugged up people (though I do smell weed everywhere) and its illegal to consume drugs and alcohol on the streets so this liberal way of living must be working!! Another story, he warned the guys not to pee the canal. You can swim in it, although it looks green, as it is filtered every 48 hours. But don’t jump off a bridge as there is a layer of mud and bikes (usually stolen bikes end up in the canals, or when people are done with their bikes they throw them in the canal). A city worker comes by in a boat with a large mechanical hook, collecting the bikes from the bottom of the canals. So in 2014 an English tourist, drunk, pissed into the river fell in, and as he couldn’t swim, drowned. His parents came to look for him as he was missing for 3 days. A worker was going down the river collecting bikes and inadvertently collected the body of the drowned tourists from the bottom of the canal. Not a nice story! The tour then concluded at Dam square where we gave him a big tip!!

We then had lunch near one of the many canals, I needed to I felt woozy from smelling weed smoke! I then heard from my cousin Penny, whom I had messaged the night before, asking us if we want to go to dinner the next night with her to her mum’s (my aunty’s house). So we made a plan to do just that! We then went up Kalverstraat, shopping street! No need to fill in the blanks. We then went to find a bar, Beer Temple, which was an American craft beer bar where we had beer and cheese. Afterwards we caught a train back to Zaandam, and decided to walk back to Biab and Douwe’s house, 15 minutes away. We took the scenic backstreets along the canal and it was really nice. We had more drinks and lots of talking at home that night. Biab also said Aunty Punnee rang her, and Biab and Douwe would go to dinner the next night too so I told Penny we’d see here there.

Aunty Punee is my mum’s cousin, who moved to Holland when she had Penny (Penny’s dad is Dutch). Penny also has a brother King, who I only met twice on my last trip, but I’m sure we met when we were little kids in Thailand!! So that’s my Dutch-Thai connection! The next day we had planned to go to Amsterdam with Biab and Douwe to A’Dam lookout, then they would drop us to the Rijksmuseum before picking us up to go to Lelystad to see aunty Punee. But Biab had a better plan, we all go to the A’Dam lookout then to Lelystad, leaving the Rijksmuseum until Tuesday, and have more time with Aunty Punee. The A’ Dam lookout is new. Before going up in the giant elevator with a light show, you get your photo taken with a blue screen, sitting on a beam, funny poses while various Amsterdam backdrops are superimposed. We go up in the giant lift, and up the top enjoy magnificent views of Amsterdam. Fantastic views even with the security guard fence in our way! There is also Europe’s biggest mechanical swing over the city. Only 6 months old, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. I then wanted to, and convinced Bill to do it. There are 2 double swings, only one was only being used. They kept asking if anyone was riding solo, and turns out the second swing was for solo riders. So Bill said next time they asked, I should go solo to skip the queue which I did! The swing was exhilarating but scary! I held on so tight my nails dug into my hand but it was so fun! It lasted about 2 minutes. A different kind of scary to the giant drop in Oktoberfest as you knew what was happening and they strap you in and lock you on the strap so you feel super safe. After my exhilarating swing, we walked around for more photos, and then went down. We caught the free ferry (yes free) to Centraal station and walked to the NEMO science museum and went to the restaurant on top for a delicious healthy lunch and more magnificent views of the city. Afterward we made our way back to the car via the free ferry. Amsterdam is a city full of bikes and cyclists, so they are bikes and bikes and bikes and bike rage if you get in their way! As our guide told us yesterday, he was told of a new local drinking game – hit the tourist with the bike. Two drinks if you hit a female tourist, three if you hit a male tourist and six if you hit a local as its tougher to hit a local! Suffice to say the Dutch love to ride bikes, with massive bikes racks stacked upon each other all over the city.

Lelystad is an hour away, and this sleepy town is exactly how I remembered it. Aunty Punee was so happy to see us, having cooked up a Thai feast and having a small barbecue outside cooking marinated lamb – yum! We had a lovely catch up sitting in the yard, and then Penny arrived with her boyfriend Twan whom we met on our last trip, and her best friend Sana who we also met on our last trip. I also knew Sana from way back in 2003 when I visited. Her and Penny were just 15! We ate lots and lots of Thai food – chilli! And giggled at the Farang (foreigners) who can’t eat spicy food. Except my farang he loves chilli! And Twan made a really good effort too. We shared travel stories, and heard all about Penny, Twan and Sana’s trip to the US and a massive Woodford festival-like festival in the Californian desert – wireless ! Sounded great! Penny works for a Danish clothing company, so she lived in Denmark for 9 months and regularly goes back which she will this week. Her and Twan are also going to Stockholm on Friday for a long weekend. Crazy I know, its only an hour away! They loved our travel stories from the Balkans too – we travel off the beaten track a lot! Penny’s brother King, who had to work unfortunately, has a 3 year old son. He was at his other grand mothers house, but aunty Punee looks after him during the week. Alas, we could talk all night but we had to go. A long trip home. I wished we could have stayed longer, it was so lovely to see everyone.

The next day, we all set out for a day trip to Rotterdam, Den Haag and Scheveningen. Douwe driving and Biab in the back with me, while Bill was up front. First stop Rotterdam. We parked briefly at what I thought was a shopping centre, but it’s a massive food hall with lots and lots of food shops. The curved shape roof, decorated with bright colours and butterflies reveal windows – these are apartments!! Douwe said he was there 2 years ago and this building wasn’t there. Outside there were these also new cube-shaped buildings with angled walls and yes they were apartments too! Douwe said he went inside and having angled walls took a bit of getting used to. We then drove to the port to go on a great big ship hotel – it was a functioning ship back in the day, now a hotel. We went to the deck for a drink. We then drove to the different side of the port and walked around and saw navy ships from Portugal and Spain there. Later while Biab and I had our photo taken, we noticed a jogger in the background of our photo with an ‘itch’ haha. After that, it was off to Den Haag, or The Hague in English. After lunch and a brief H&M visit, we walked through what is the complex of the Dutch parliament and other buildings of what I think is a museum and walked to see another museum. Later, we also walked past the Queen’s residence. Lovely Douwe was taking us to the International Criminal Court, which I always wanted to see, but we drove there instead. The Peace Palace, it is officially called, is the International Criminal Court of Justice and the permanent seat of arbitration, a court built to end WWI by the Hague Convention 1899. The likes of Sloberdan Milošević and other war criminals have been on trial here. Milošević aka the Balkan Butcher, died here in 2006 whilst on trial. Unfortunately the visitors centre was closed on Mondays, but still it was lovely to see and take photos. There are also regular Peace Awards, and the Peace Palace was founded on the basis to restore peace to the world post WWI. We then went to Scheveningen, the seaside town near Den Haag. My Dutch colleague was telling me of Scheveningen, a popular seaside town with a massive beach (not really for swimming) a pier with a big Ferris wheel, shops, clubs, restaurants and pubs. We walked around for awhile, exploring and taking photos before treating Biab and Douwe to a Chinese dinner. Then it was the hour journey home. Relax and happy hour before bedtime!

The next day, or last full day in Amsterdam and our trip, we decided to have a walk around Zaandam shops and catch a train to Amsterdam. Biab and Douwe came to Zaandam with us, and we walked around the shops and looked at the new buildings, colourful in rich greens and built in the old Dutch traditional style. One of the big ones is the new Inntel hotel, and there is also a boat hotel which I didn’t see, but my parents want to stay there. Even Town Hall has this cool architecture! After a shop we ventured to eat Pannekoeken – Dutch pancakes! We had go wait for the bridge, which lifts and separates when a tall boat comes by! Me and Bill had a large Pannekoeken, while Biab and Douwe had traditionally Poffertjes small pancakes. Afterwards, we went back and they drove us to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Rijksmuseum was closed for 10 years, so we couldn’t come last time we were here. The museum was massive – paintings from the 12th century onwards – Monet, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and his contemporaries (the Van Gogh museum was down the road so this was a small collection), various Dutch and Flemish artists, as well as artifacts such as porcelain, a music room with various instruments, tapestries, an Asian collection of art and religious statues, and of course Arms and Amour. You could spend all day here, as it was we spent 3 hours but we sped up our visit and we wanted to relish our last day in Amsterdam! We walked back towards Dam square, I got ding-dinged and got told off my a disgruntled cyclist I was walking in the cycle lane – woops! We checked out souvenir and tulip bulb stores along the canal. A brief stop at some shops on Kalverstraat, we went to a craft beer brewery near Dam square. One beer, turned into two, turned into three when our snacks came late! Then it was bye bye Amsterdam, back to Zaandam to meet Biab and Douwe who took us to a farewell dinner at a fantastic Mexican restaurant. Margherita’s and bellies full of food, we went home for drinks (which may not have been the best idea considering we are flying today!)

We got up this morning and packed, and packed and packed. Biab was flying to England today too to see her friend in Southampton. It is her Thai friend who married a Norwegian- they were living in Switzerland so we visited them in Geneva in 2003. I’m not sure if she is living in England now. Anyway, Douwe drove us all to the airport and we had stacks if extra time at the airport to relax. We went through passport control with Biab, a final Tot Ziens – goodbye as she had to catch her flight!!

We’ve had a wonderful trip, many of the country’s vastly different from the passion of Southern Spain, to typical western Europe and many colours of Belgium, our exciting journey through Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, not knowing what to expect but being pleasantly surprised and learning lots of history and meeting people on Intrepid sharing the adventure together. Typical Germany in Bavaria, getting into the Oktoberfest experience and drinking too much beer! The Netherlands, Holland or whatever people like to call it, one of my favourite countries, if not my favourite country in western Europe. So free, liberal and far less restrictions, yet law abiding and friendly people who love to talk with tourists as their English is excellent. And to see family again, I have a great bond with the country and most of all my cousin Biab. We are so grateful to be in a position where we can travel and see the world. To travel is to learn, to understand and to respect. Where will our next journey take us? Who knows in this big world of ours! Until next travel, Tchuss, Adios, Tot Ziens and bye-bye!!


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