AMSTERDAM, April 13 — If you’re travelling to Europe, there’s a good chance you will transit at The Netherlands’ Schiphol Airport. The airport is only 20 minutes by train from the city centre of Amsterdam and makes for a great layover visit.
What should a Malaysian expect, though, when visiting the Dutch capital for the first time? For one thing, you can skip the Dutch-to-English dictionary as most Dutch speak English as a second language (and impeccably so).
Here are five top things to watch out for instead, when you find yourself in the land of windmills and wooden clogs:
1. Go on two wheels or two feet
Amsterdam may be known as the Venice of the North thanks to all its canals, but it may jolly well be the capital of bicycles too, given the number of cyclists pedalling this way and that. The cyclist is the king of the road (and off-road) as they have the right of way, not only over vehicles but also pedestrians!
Renting a bicycle is a cheap and efficient way of getting around the city. You’ll be able to cover more ground and sights, and then later decide which ones to revisit slowly on foot, if you have the time.
Just be aware that most other cyclists aren’t tourists pedalling leisurely but locals commuting to and fro from work. Until you get used to the pace, watch out for the Dutch on bikes — talking on their mobile phones or even eating a sandwich — as they buzz around you.
Whatever you do — cycle, walk or take a tram (Amsterdam has an excellent public transportation system) — don’t rent a car in the city. Not only is parking expensive in Amsterdam, you won’t get very far with all the cyclists speeding by and the other tourists strolling slowly.
2. “Coffee shops” aren’t really cool
Tell folks you are visiting Amsterdam and most will give you a knowing wink. The Dutch capital is, for better or for worse, known as the land of legal pot or marijuana. Tourists make a beeline for “coffee shops” which aren’t cafés serving coffee but shops licensed to sell marijuana. American comedies of college students getting high on their tokes make it practically a rite of passage.
Not so fast though. Putting aside the freedom to smoke pot, the question is should you? Most Dutch people aren’t admirers of this trend at all. One Malaysian-born Dutch resident I met told me that the locals consider smoking pot in Amsterdam something only tourists and “losers” do.
Perhaps it’s because legal marijuana has been so readily available to them, the attraction for the Dutch isn’t there anymore? Yet taking a closer look at the stoned tourists, grinning maniacally or blabbing away while rolling their joints, I’m inclined to believe the Dutch on the “loser” claim.
In Amsterdam, do as the Amsterdammers do (and not the tourists).
3. The Red Light District can be… educational
Another highlight (or “red light”, as it were) of Amsterdam is the infamous Red Light District. Here prostitution is legal and one of the tourist draws are the streets where “ladies of the night” wait behind windows for prospective clients.
Given the premise, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a dodgy area. Instead the Rossebuurt (as locals call the neighbourhood) is also one of the most historical and beautiful parts of the city. Women of all nationalities smile at you from their parlours framed by red neon light… right next to Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest church.
It’s also one of the safest places in the city as the Red Light District is crowded with tourists, even late at night. In fact, it can be quite an education observing groups of drunken men chatting up the women at their windows and trying to negotiate a discount sometimes.
Displays of male ineptitude and lust aside, note that these ladies may be parading their “wares” but you’re not allowed take pictures of them. It’s the ultimate tourist faux pas!
4. Be careful where you pee
Feel the call of Nature? Answering it in Amsterdam can be a bit of a challenge as there aren’t many public toilets available. No worries, you’ll just drop by a restaurant or pub to use their restroom, you say? Not so fast — many will refuse you or charge you a pretty fee — up to 1 euro (RM3.95) simply to use their facilities.
Menfolk may get creative and just decide to relieve themselves “in the wild” — be it on the sides of buildings, behind trees, or even straight into the canals. Ah, but the Dutch frown on this and there’s a hefty 90 euros (RM356) fine for wild plassen (or “wild peeing”).
The solution, for the boys and men at any rate, are the trademark Amsterdam public urinals or De Krul. This curling Dutch pissoir was first introduced in 1880 and the iconic design has remained the same ever since. You could stand there in public and relieve the building pressure on your bladder without anyone seeing a thing.
Well, passers-by will see your feet and the ensuing golden stream, of course. But that’s part of the charm of experiencing a new culture, no?
5. Have some fries with it!
Wait, four tips for Amsterdam thus far and none on food? How could a true-blue Malaysian survive without some serious makan crawl? Unfortunately, truth be told, Amsterdam isn’t really a stellar city for food, unlike its European counterparts such as Paris or Madrid.
Fret not though, for there is one signature food that you simply have to get when you’re in Amsterdam — the fries! Called Vlaamse frites (Dutch for “Flemish fries”, oddly enough, and not the Anglicised “French fries”), these deep-fried chunks of potato are practically an Amsterdam institution in themselves.
The secret to their crispy exterior and soft interior is a two-part cooking process: frozen fries are first cooked in oil at low heat, and then fried a second time at higher heat upon ordering. The result: perfect fries!
That’s not even the fun part yet. There is an astonishing assortment of sauces to choose from as topping — it’s not only mayonnaise here. You can try the traditional sauce andalouse (a mixture of mayonnaise, tomato paste, and roasted peppers) or the familiar-yet-different satay sauce (a take derived from Indonesian cuisine, hence creamier and less chunky than our Malaysian variety).
Whatever you do, don’t tell a local how much you love this “Dutch dish”; while the Amsterdammers adore their fries, Vlaamse frites are actually Belgian in origin…