Europe Travel Diary

Beyond the red neon lights of Amsterdam

Discovering a place is like making a new friend. The first time you meet them, you may be taken aback by what it immediately throws at you, and the more you visit and get to know a place, the more you realise there are layers to the personality that you never know existed.

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This is Amsterdam for me. My first visit ten years ago was rather confronting, because I have been brought up in a society where there are rules that apply to all forms of appearances, and laws against several liberal forms of lifestyle that are usually perceived ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’, and Amsterdam opened my eyes to the lifestyle that doesn’t always balance on appearance, but to live as you will, for life is short.

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Then, I got to know Amsterdam a little bit more, and saw the Amsterdam beyond the red neon lights and the smoky coffee houses.

I like giving cities their personalities. Munich is an upper class retiree who collects history’s finest antiques, and enjoys long afternoons in the sun, by the river, with a stein of beer or two. Berlin is a modern history professor who is obsessed with preserving the lessons that should be learned by all generations to come.

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Amsterdam on the other hand, might have schizophrenia. Most times, the city is  a young smiling hippie with flowers in their hair and bells around their bike; at other times, it is a sex maniac who enjoys puffs of weed. Amsterdam is a little bit of a show off too – it is good looking, and it knows it – so every now and then it flaunts it, with flowers, windmills, sparkling canals, bridges, fancy houseboats, green lush parks and outdoor concerts.

Yes, this is one place you don’t want to mistake a ‘Coffee Shop’ to a ‘Cafe’. Although, I am sure too much caffeine can be a bad thing too.

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What I love about Amsterdam (and The Netherlands in general) is the difference in structure all around. On the map, the city looks like Venice on more solid grounds, with canals circling the harbour filled with houseboats, lined with houses fitted with facades of different height, style and design, as if erected by an artist of the abstract mind. Those in the know will also agree, this is the world’s most bicycle friendly city, with bike lanes almost as wide as car lanes, and the multi-level ‘parking’ at the train station is for bikes, not cars.

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Needless to say, there is almost no point in driving. Ride a bike or walk is the perfect way to explore Amsterdam, or, utilise the tram system which takes you to almost anywhere.

The Amsterdam many are familiar with (or have a pre-perception of) appears in the late afternoon. Whiffs of Pot replaces the flowery scent in the air, and when the world’s oldest profession opens for business, this part of the city blushes a deep crimson red.

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Do visit the Prostitute Museum the next time you are in town. Learn the more serious side to this line of business, and experience what it’s like to stand behind the red lights.

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