Our time in Asia finally came to an end as we caught our flight from Hong Kong to Amsterdam. I must say that I was sad to leave – Southeast Asia was an amazing experience – I loved the culture, the people, the climate, and the food. And what a great opportunity getting to experience cultures and countries so different than our own. But, unfortunately, we had run out of days and it was time to move onto the last leg of our trip: Europe. While we were sad to leave Southeast Asia, we were also looking forward to the new change of pace and culture that this new region would bring.
From the moment we stepped foot in Amsterdam, we were transfixed. It was shocking how different the city looked to anything we had seen yet (especially after coming from Southeast Asia). Amsterdam has stunning architecture and scenic canals that crisscross the city. And I’ve never seen buildings, let alone entire neighborhoods, as old as those in Amsterdam. In the U.S. a building is considered old if it was built a hundred years ago. Here, in much of Amsterdam, that would be considered relatively new. (Most of the architecture is dated 500 years ago, and many buildings are even older!)
After the architecture, what probably hit us the hardest was the climate. During our stay in Amsterdam, it was generally in the low-to-mid 40’s. Coming from the tropical climate of Asia, it was definitely a bit of a shock. (And we had to buy warmer clothes.) We also were unlucky to have rain during our first two days, which definitely hampered our sight-seeing.
Some highlights of our visit to Amsterdam include:
- [*]The Anne Frank Haus – This is the house that contained the business Anne’s father ran, which later became her family’s hideout during the Holocaust. The house is open for tours of the “Secret Annex” (the secret attic rooms where her family and one other family lived for 2 years while they hid from the Nazis). I recommend anyone going on this tour re-reading her book as a refresher, as the tour itself doesn’t give much information.
- [*]Van Gogh Museum –An entire museum dedicated to Van Gogh and his life. It was incredibly informative and educational, and they have a enormous collection of Van Gogh’s works. Just getting to see the originals of some of his most famous paintings, such as The Starry Night and The Sunflowers, was worth the ticket price in itself.
- [*]Cycling the city on single gear beach cruisers – on our final day Kevin and I rented bikes for the day. No gears and no hand breaks – you stopped old-school style by pedaling backwards. Most of the locals seem to cycle in Amsterdam – it’s a common alternative to a car and most roads have separate bike lanes or even separate bike paths. This is probably the reason that helmets aren’t required for cyclists (of the thousand cyclists we must have seen, not one was wearing a helmet – in fact it wasn’t even an option from our rental agency). Cycling around town was easily the highlight of our trip.
Amsterdam is probably most famous for two things: Its “coffeeshops” and the Red Light District. Coffeeshops are everywhere – and these aren’t any cafes that Starbucks will be putting its name on. (In fact, I’m not sure if they even sell coffee!) Coffeeshops in the Netherlands are pubs selling marijuana with display cases showing various joints or baggies for sale. The minimum age to purchase is 18 and coffeeshops can sell up to five grams of marijuana per person per day. Holland has a nationwide smoking ban – but the law pertains to tobacco smoke and not marijuana smoke. So as long as the coffeeshop is selling pure marijuana, they’re safe. We learned, however, that many shops mix their marijuana with tobacco, and when these shops get busted it’s because of the tobacco and not the marijuana! I did learn that the Dutch are not necessarily pro-marijuana, but that they believe that the outlawing of marijuana would cause more problems than it would solve. Statistics show that the Dutch have fewer hard drug problems than other countries. And shockingly, after 10 years, the Dutch have found that their drug policy does not result in more pot smoking – actually statistics show that Americans smoke twice as much pot as the Dutch, per capita.
The Red Light District is a fascinating (somewhat shocking) couple of blocks that literally lights up in red at night. Of course, the Red Light District is famous for the sex industry, where prostitution is legal. However, we read that there was an effort that began a few years ago to clean up this area, requiring permits for legal businesses, attracting new and trendy restaurants, and luxurious hotels and lodging options. This effort must have worked because our impression was a much cleaner, more sophisticated area than we had expected with theaters, shops, restaurants, and bars in addition to the sex businesses. That being said, it was quite the experience walking down the street and window-shopping the red-lighted windows in which scantily-clad women put themselves on display in order to solicit their services. It was a bit awkward-feeling, and I can definitely say that I never got used to that.
All in all we were very pleased with Amsterdam and could have easily spent more time here. The city feels much smaller and relaxed than its true population, and—perhaps due to unfair preconceptions—Amsterdam is far more charming (and cleaner) than we had expected. I’m definitely excited for our remaining time in Europe. Our next stop is Prague!