Amsterdam Walking Tour

Whenever I visit a new city or new place I like to orient myself about the place and what better way than to take a walk around town?  By walking you get to see the city, observe the people, see the life that makes up a city.  It’s really a lovely way to just learn about a new place.  As a tourist without a car, you become free of the burden of having to find parking and driving.  It’s wonderful.

Before you start walking I suggest you ask your hotel for a map. It’s free and the staff are always more than willing to give you directions.   (Elsewhere in Amsterdam they charge you for a map even the tourist office)

I started my walking tour from my hotel on Vondelstraat which I think is a great neighbourhood for anyone visiting Amsterdam.  I haven’t stayed at hotels in other areas but from my experience at Vondelstraat I have fallen in love with it.  It is a safe neighbourhood without any dodgy characters hanging around and it is only a few minutes walk to the Leidseplein which is a lively square that fills up with activity late at night.  It is also near to the Vondel Park (which is like Amsterdam’s Central Park) and most importantly to the museum quarter and posh shopping road called Hoofstraat.(There are several hotels on that street)

I start my walk and head towards Leidseplein.  I cross my first canal and stop to take it all in.  The beautiful canal where several boats are parked and alongside which are trees whose leaves have just emerged from their winter rest.  Light green leaves glow in the canal. Bicycles are also everywhere so becareful when crossing the street as they come from all directions.

At Leidesplein I stop by the tourist office were I ask for information regarding the public transport pass and about Keukenhof (tulip garden)  You can buy tickets and excursions here, but some passes like the 7 day public transport card have to be bought at the office by Central Station.

I continue on my walk on Leidestraat which is a pedestrain street.  Cars are not allowed, but several tram lines run along it.  Along the street you’ll find shops, bakeries and drugstores.  There’s a cute bakery that sells XXL muffins that just look absolutely delicious and Starbucks is also on this street where you can stop, buy a drink and use some free wifi.

I cross several canals walking along the street and find myself at Koningsplein where I turn right and walk along the canal.  This is Amsterdam’s flower market.  There you can find bulbs as well as fresh flowers for sale.  Tulips, Amarylis , Daffodils and many others. Pricewise I thought they were quite reasonable though I am sure you can find them cheaper elsewhere.  There are also a lot of souvenir stores along the flower market which I discovered later to be selling postcards and other knicknacks cheaper than those in other areas.

At the end of the flowermarket is a beautiful tower where Amsterdam Museum is located next to the canal.  It’s beautiful here and a great photo opportunity.

I turn along and walk on Kalverstraat where there are more shops and boutiques taking me straight to Dam Square.  This is the main historical square in Amsterdam which dates back to 1270 when the dam on the Amstel river was first built and around which they city of Amsterdam eventually developed. The palace where the Royal family reside is also located on this square.

It’s a huge square and it is indeed the centre of activity.  Several people are in a corner playing music, in the middle I spot a man giving a speech (in Dutch) and around him is a large crowd. Another crowd surrounds a group of youngsters performing a hip hop dance.

Madame Tussaud’s, Peek and Cloppenburg, a huge souvenir shop and several shops occupy the buildings around the square.  To escape the cold I spot a few people entering what seems to be a mall and enter De Bijenkorf which turns out to be a luxury shopping mall with brands like Louis vuitton and Gucci.  I walk through and exit on the back.

I walk on Warmoestraat which is part of the Red Light district and get a sense of what it is like.  It’s daytime and quiet and it doesn’t look so safe.  I walk over to Nieuwendijk and stop by Beurs van Berlage which is an art nouveau building now a concerthall.   I go inside but can only peak through the doors to see the architecture.

A few minutes later I find myself at Central Station.  It’s a huge building that reminds you of times past.  Amsterdam in its hey day.  People stream in and out of the station and make their way to the tram stops which all see to start or end here.

I go to the pubic transport ticket office across the station, buy my pass and make my way to the trams.  After two hours of walking, I take Tram 2 back to the hotel.

I’ve seen most of Amsterdam. Not all, but I think the major sites that make the city what it is.  It’s beautiful, lively and  a city definitely worth exploring. 🙂  Wear comfortable shoes though! It’s all cobblestone!




Old Vienna: The Ringstrasse

My virtual trip to Vienna is starting, and I have to admit that I too am excited about it.  It makes my heart beat faster and my face smile.  Like every trip, its the anticipation that gives us the most joy.  The first area one must visit while in Austria is definitely the old town.  Most of the action happens here and almost everything worth noting is around the this district number 1 (Vienna has 23 districts).  The old town is the centre of Vienna and everything else revolves around it.  I spent a good few months wandering around the area, taking buses, trams and doing a walking tour of the place.  Only by foot can you really learn about a city.  Learn its streets and see its culture. 

My recommendation for everyone’s first visit is to head towards the Ringstrasse before walking through the Old Town.  It gives you an idea and orients you about the city.  What is it?  The Ringstrasse is a circular boulevard that encircles old town Vienna.  This was where the fortress walls protecting Vienna had previously stood in ancient days.  It took Emperor Franz Josef’s vision to demolish the defences and convert it into a grand boulevard.  It’s a grand boulevard just as grand as the Champs Elyssee but what I love is that on this boulevard are all the main cultural and political institutions.

Now to walk the entire boulevard would be tiring. You would be encircling the entire old town and its not that small, so my tip is to hop on the tram.  There are two trams that go around the Ringstrasse.  Trams 1 and Trams 2.  One goes clockwise, the other anti-clockwise.  I can never remember which does which, but if you just hop on one, you’d see all the main sites. It’s worth it. Just don’t go on rushhour in summer. It can get packed and sweaty.

What is there to see?  Oh its full of architectural feasts for the eyes.  Emperor Franz Josef hired architects from all over Europe to beautify the boulevard and that they did.    The Neues Rathaus or New Town Hall is the seat of Vienna City and is interesting in a Neo-Gothic style built by Friedrich von Schmidt.  Since then, they had design competitions and he won.  It’s impressive and has a huge tower that brings your eyes up towards the sky.  I remember seeing it in winter when every year they’d put in place a large outdoor ice-skating rink just in front of the building decorated with Christmas trees and angels that lit up at night. This was where they had the Christmas market.  What a beautiful backdrop for ice-skating isn’t it?  I told you Vienna was romantic.

Just a hop away, you suddenly see another spectacular building built in a completely different architectural style. It’s the Parliament building in a Neo-classical style that reminds me of Athens and Rome.  Greek marble figures of Greek and Roman historians adorn the front. A fountain with the goddess of wisdom stands out front.

The next site is one that you could hop off and spend an entire day roaming around.  Its the Kunshistorisches Museum (Museum of Art) and the Natural History Museum.  There is so much there they can occupy a post of its own.  Perhaps on a rainy day or after you’ve walked around the Old Town Square, its a perfect place to see the collections of the Habsburg monarchs.  Now, with the building of these museums, the private treasures of the Habsburg were made available for all to see.  I saw treasures that were later stolen.  Invaluable treasures.

The arts arrive after all the politics and the treasures.  There’s the famous Opera House, the Burgtheatre, and the Stadtpark with the famous golden statue of Johann Strauss with his Violin.   You can see the list is long so I won’t delve into details.

Not only do you pass by impressive buildings, you also pass by hotels and cafes and a little bit of local life. On the northeastern side of the ring, you catch a glimpse of where the locals live and the Danube canal built to stop the city from flooding.  Urban planning in Vienna is exemplary.  Everything is planned and integrated.  What else can I say… Just going around the Ringstrasse can take your breath away.  Wait till you see the inner square of the Old Town and see the treasures that lie inside the Treasury.  Imperial Vienna was a rich city.

Old Town Bangkok: Preview Venice of the East

Tonight I decided to study my map of Bangkok.  I know it sounds funny since I’ve lived in this city for years, but I have to confess that I usually only go to the areas I am used to.  I know how to get to places and what directions to go, but there are certain areas in Old Bangkok and across the river that still are a mystery to me.  It becomes like another world.  A criss cross of roads that run in random directions.  They are not all thoughtfully planned out in blocks like in the US.  Old towns have their uniqueness.

I learn more than I thought I would from my study of the map.  I learn that the oldest road in Bangkok “Charoen Krung” actually runs adjacent to the river and curves along with it.   I also learn that the wholesale markets of Sampeng and Paohurat (Little India) which exists actually have canals probably dating from ancient days running straight from the main Chaophraya river uptowards the wholesale market area.  Bangkok’s Chinatown is located not too far.  Trade in olden days had brought various cultures to Bangkok and as is often the case, people settle near to main transportation routes.   Along this route too is our main train station which stands beautifully in turn of the century architectural style.  One day I have to go inside.

I am reminded that Bangkok in previous lifetimes had been called the “Venice of the East” with its web of canals.  Canals were used for transporting goods and houses and business popped up along its banks.  My parents had told me how in childhood days, busy business district roads had been lined with beautiful canals filled with lotus.  I wish I could see Bangkok then.  It must have been so beautiful.  Now the roads are lined with cars.

It reminds me of my visit to the Bangkokian Museum.  The guide had told us how in olden days the road upon which I had entered the house was a canal.  In fact, he said there had been so many more canals before they were closed up in to make way for roads and to prevent the spread of cholera.  The river had been much more acessible.  I shall have to read up more about this part of history.

I suppose this is what trade everywhere looked like before.  Large ships with goods would come down the river.  Goods would then be transported by barges down canals and to the warehouses which would line up along its path.  The goods would then be distributed by land from these warehouses.  Singapore’s Clarke Quay too served the same purpose.  Now I understand why some of the largest trading families in Thailand own properties in the old areas of Bangkok. It all comes together quite well.

I went on a canal tour a couple of years back by long-tail boat, but I think its about time I took it again.   History I am discovering to be more and more fascinating.  Through history one can learn and understand not only the past, but also the present.  Its because of history that certain things are the way they are. Fascinating isn’t it?  Let’s go on a canal tour one day.  Now its on my “To do” list.

Old Town Bangkok: The Bangkokian Museum

Sometimes you stumble upon unexpected things that really are very pleasant.  I guess this is what you call “Serendity.”  It reminds me of the movie by that name… Anyways,  as it happens upon our “walk” around Old Town Bangkok, we passed by an unconspicuous house with a sign above saying “Bangkokian Museum.”  We had never heard of this place and never intended to visit it, but since we were already passing by we thought, “why not?”  We weren’t in a rush to go anywhere, so lets just explore it.

And so we went in.  To our surprise, this house comprised of a fairly large compound comprising of three houses and a row of shop houses on the side.  Two of the houses and the row of shop houses had been turned into a museum by the owner (72years old) who is now residing in one of the houses.  It was like we went back in time. 

The garden was green with an old wooden gate. The houses were built of wood and in a style that reflected the western influence during the 1930’s. It somehow reminded me of the houses in Kobe, Japan that were very much influence by foreigners living there. There were large patios and open windows that allowed the air to flow through the house. As we walked around, a cool breeze flowed through. Nature’s air conditioning.

A volunteer guide greets us at the entrance.  He looks like he should be out clubbing, with his fancy hairdo, tight jeans and a fancy jacket.  He must be in his early twenties.  Looks though can be deceiving.  He is knowledgeable in history and takes us around the house, showing us this and that and telling us the story behind each item.  Its fascinating.

Old pianos, chairs, old books and personal belongings made me wonder about these houses’s former owners.  It belonged to a doctor Francis, originally from India and a Thai lady.  I see an old weigh scale like I’ve never seen one before.  The dial is written backwards and can only be read in the mirror attached to it.  This is to allow those standing on top of the scale to see their weight.  Amazing.

There is cupboard filled with surgical equipment.  Fascinating.

Old leather bound notebooks still in excellent condition remain and handwritings of his children learning english are on display.  The calligraphy back then was so beautiful, so perfect, I wonder what happened to my handwriting.  With the advent of the computer, I write less and less and my handwriting gets worse and worst. 

And so we spend a good hour wandering around the houses.  Exploring and looking at the objects.  They’re normal everyday objects, but it is reflective of the life back then.  While leaving,  I wonder what people almost a century from now will think about the things we use today….. One day, we too will be just history.  (

Kobe: Strolling Along the Quaint Kitano Hillside

The Moegi House (American Consulate)

Not far from Osaka, Kobe is a city of approximately 1.5 million inhabitants and it is said to be one of the most attractive cities in Japan.  I thought it was a very “cute” and quaint city especially if you go walk around the neighbourhood of Kitano where there is a uniquely European-American atmosphere.  Very different from all the shrines, castles and small wooden houses found elsewhere.

On this hillside, away from the hustle and bustle of centre city where all the shopping and businesses are located, I feel like I have just travelled to a little hillside town in the US or somewhere in Europe.  I walk up some steps and find myself in a little plaza where ice-cream shops and cake shops adorn the place.  I could be in Germany, I remember seeing a small area like this when I was last in Frankfurt, the only difference is that the ice-cream is all Japanese style, soft served in a cone and green-tea flavored and the people eating it are japanese.

I walk further up the hill, passing little alleys along the way and up an extremely high flight of steps I suddenly find myself in a round plaza surrounded by an American styled house and another German styled house.  There are wooden seats and gardens that bring me back to the western world.  For awhile I forget that I’m in Japan.  There are bronze statues of jazz musicans, and sounds of water splashing around from the fountains.  It’s a beautiful and calm place.  Perfect for weddings and wedding pictures.

Apparently this place is very popular among the Japanese for foreign-style weddings and photo-taking.  I even spot a couple making a video while I’m there.

The Weathercock House

I go to the tourist information, where I’m greeted with much ado by the staff there.  They give me maps, guidebooks and even free postcards!  I’m touched and try to practice a bit of Japanese, but all I end up saying is “Arigato gozaimasu.” (Thank you very much)  I must learn more japanese.

These houses I discover, were previously homes of the American Consulate, a German businessmen, and other expatriates who lived here when Kobe was first open for trade with the western world.  Kobe is a busy port town and this was where trade flourished 200 years ago.   It’s amazing this hillside area survived the 1995 Hanshin earthquake where so much was destroyed.  I’m happy it did.
If you are fit and healthy, there are quite a few houses to see up a very steep alley such as the Austrian, Holland house where they even sell some Viennese torte and play mozart.  It makes me nostalgic for Vienna.  In summer, you can sit and have some drinks, but now its quiet and there are only a few elderly japanese walking the route.

The main road in this hillside town is so quaint.  American styled houses with large terraces and gardens are now converted into cute cafes and others have found new life as a wedding spot.  It’s perfect, as long as you don’t invite hundreds and hundreds of guests.   However, if you live in the US and Europe, this hillside might not be so attractive, but rather a nice place for a stroll.

I find my way back to Osaka and realize that Kobe isn’t just about the Kobe Beef.   It has evolved so much and still today many expatriates still live there and work in Osaka.  It’s that close.  I want to trek up to see the picturesque waterfall of Nunobiki Falls which apparently has been in many japanese literature but that will have to wait for another trip.

US consulate staff house


Japan’s First Capital: Nara and the Todai-ji Temple

The Todai-ji Temple

On holiday one goes to so many sites within the space of one day that after two days you feel like you’ve seen so much, experienced so many things and nourished your senses. Yesterday I went to visit Nara, founded in 710 as the first capital of Japan and it is definitely a site not to be missed. There are eight Unesco Heritage Sites in Nara alone and the best part is that a lot of them are within walking distance (though make sure you have comfortable shoes.) I like it because it doesn’t have the large bustling atmosphere of a modern city. I can feel its history in the air.

The main sites are located in Nara Park which is an area so large you would probably need an hour or so to walk around. Being someone who loves to just soak in the atmosphere of the place, I took longer, much longer. I spent at least two hours walking around. I couldn’t help but just stand and look at the large wooden columns that towered over the entrance of the Todai-ji Temple. On each side of the towering gate were two enormous wooden guardians fiercely guarding the entrance to Japan’s largest Daibutsu (Great Buddha). It reminds me of the fierce giants standing guard over the temple entrances in Bangkok. I suppose buddhist countries all have similarities.

The Daibutsu (Great Buddha)

I like this temple not only because it houses Japan’s largest buddha, but because its completion set the capital as the center of buddhism and ensured that the religion would prevail. This was the start of Japan as we know it today. Its amazing how decisions over 1,300 years ago can have so much impact on millions of lives.

Hoards of tourists walk in and out of the temple as if there was a big festival going on. I am so busy taking photos, soaking in the atmosphere and trying to capture the roaming deers on video I feel like I should have another pair of hands. I spot parents out with their children brought along in a little buggy cart, I see students on class trips walking in orderly lines, and I watch elderly couples walking together to see this great buddha.

Upon entering the large wooden hall you cannot help but feel how insignificant you are next to this Great Buddha. How short our lives are compared to eternity. Although only two-thirds of the original cast in 746, the present buddha was built in the Edo period and is still a staggering 16 meters high! Can you imagine that?? I stare up at this huge buddha image made of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kgs of gold and wonder how heavy it must be, how expensive it must be at today’s prices.

So big yet so peaceful is this great buddha. Size doesn’t mean you have to be large and fierce. You can be large and gentle. Large and calm, large and at peace.

With a Messenger of God

Heads of black, brown and blonde bob up and down around the Great buddha, taking pictures exclaiming sounds of joy and all sorts of languages can be heard. In previous times, this place must have been a place of worship. It must have been so austere and terrifying. It must have been accessible only to a selected few. Now it is for all to see and worship.

I’m lucky these past two days the weather has been absolutely divine. The sun is out, the sky is clear and a soft breeze blows. I walk slowly down the walkway, playing with the “messengers of gods” (the deers) and succumbing to their big doe eyes. How incredible sweet and tame this animals are. How lucky they are to live in such a beautiful place. I wonder if they will be reborn as humans many many many lives from now. I wonder if they know they are the messengers of god.

Family Outing