The oldest Chinatown in Europe is in Amsterdam

I started this blog in 2006 as a way to share my travels and perspectives with family and friends. Since then I’ve written over two hundred posts and there are always ones that are still a work-in-progress. Last week, I decided to do a bit of spring cleaning and found some tips I had collected for a 2012 trip to Amsterdam. So if you’re planning to travel to the city infamous for pot (i.e. marijuana) and prostitution (i.e. legalized), these other sights might be interesting if you’re looking for something more.

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Like science? There’s a green, shiplike building on the eastern harbour designed by big-name architect Renzo Piano that houses NEMO. The science museum has loads of interactive exhibits to entertain kids, such as drawing with a laser, ‘antigravity’ trick mirrors, and a ‘lab’ where you can answer questions such as ‘How black is black?’ and ‘How do you make cheese?’ One of the best places to chill out and take in the view of Amsterdam is NEMO’s stepped roof (admission free) – it’s worth a stair climb for its fantastic views.

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The Anne Frank House is a compact museum with a layout that requires visitors to keep moving at a steady pace. Visitors should allow about one hour to complete the tour, excluding time to wait in line which could be quite long given the history and reputation of the place. And if you’re not in shape, beware that there are a lot of steps to climb moving from floor to floor.

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Amsterdam has mainland Europe’s oldest Chinatown. It was weird to pass over the canals of the city and then suddenly find ourselves surrounded restaurants and shops offering food and products from all over Asia.

Sunset looking towards the main train station - can you see the Chinese restaurant/hotel?

We passed through the Red Light District one night but didn’t realize we could’ve organized a tour with the the Prostitution Information Center! If you’re tired of it all, just follow the waterways to get out of the district and walk around the harbour especially at sunset for a much better view.

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Forget about the hotels and try all the bed and breakfast options that dot the city. We stayed at “Sleep With Me“. Not only was it a quaint place run by a French and Dutch couple, it was also outside of the city centre where life is quieter and where there are plenty of things to discover on foot.

If you have other sights to share, leave me a comment.

2014 was a blur

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1548 – that’s the year La Paz, Bolivia was founded by Spanish conquistadors and the exact number of photos I took in 2014. Over 1500 photos in a year using mostly digital cameras isn’t much, but I’ve been more picky this past year (i.e. a lot more black and white film) and probably had other things on my mind, like becoming a dad. Even if the year was a blur, it wasn’t because of all the traveling I did – the only time I got on a plane in 2014 was for a weekend trip to London. Here’s a gallery of photos which I do every year on Flickr – click on the arrows to move through the photos.

I’m still not totally convinced about the quality of photos from my mobile phone, but I’m getting the hang of it and post some once in a while on Instagram.

Believe whatever people say about SNCF

I’ve written a lot about traveling to the south of France in the last few years as I’ve been spending a lot of time with my extended family. It’s a straight shot from Geneva to Marseille – a 3-hour hop on the TGV, France’s high-speed railway, which can go over 300km/hr, and then a quick change onto a regional train and I’m “home” in just over 4 hours. Like most things, it’s great when everything works, but then Murphy’s Law kicks in and all hell breaks loose. This weekend was one of those… the trip going down took over 9 hours!

France’s rail system is run by the state-owned SNCF and it covers pretty much the whole country with lines connecting to Italy, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. It is probably one of the fastest and most convenient ways to get from Geneva to France, including Paris in the north and Marseille in the south. The only issue is that when the lines aren’t working, it really pisses people off, especially when the company doesn’t communicate or plan for the disruptions. Here are some photos (all taken with an iPhone) and a bit of the story…

On Sunday, I was planning to take the train and only received an email the night before telling me that my train from Geneva to Marseille was cancelled. Instead, I would need to take bus from Bellegarde, 20-minutes outside of Geneva, to Lyon, the main connection point to get an onward connection. The only problem was that there wasn’t any information about the leg from Geneva to Bellegarde. I arrived at the train station on Sunday morning trying to find any indication of how I would get to Bellegarde. I found out (accidentally) that the line to Bellegarde wasn’t working and that I had to catch a bus instead – and at that point I was told to run as the bus was leaving.

Just outside the St. Julien train station were things are already looking bleak.
Just outside the St. Julien train station were things were already looking bleak.

When I finally got on the bus, like everyone else, I was dazed and confused (remember this was also around 8am on a Sunday). We arrived at St. Julien a small station outside Geneva where we were told this was the end of the line and had to wait for half an hour for another bus which would take us to Lyon – actually no one really knew and when we finally left St. Julien, we were told that this bus would take us only up to Bellegarde where we would have to catch another bus to Lyon. I could tell that people were already losing patience. The normal 20-minute train trip from Geneva to Bellegarde ended up being a 2-hour trip on two buses.

Chilling out at the Bellegarde train station for the bus to Lyon before being told that we had to run to catch the train!
Chilling out at the Bellegarde train station for the bus to Lyon before being told that we had to run to catch the train!

At least the sun was shining when we arrived in Bellegarde which helped to calm people down – it was going to be a nice Sunday after all. This feeling didn’t last very long. Stepping off the bus many of us went to the train official to get the latest word – he didn’t know anything other than just telling us to wait for the bus. But in a split second he turned to everyone and said that a train was actually leaving from Bellegarde to Lyon RIGHT NOW! So everyone started to panic, especially because many of them were trying to get back to Paris for work, etc., and we all ran to catch the train.

Culoz station where all the passengers to Paris were struggling to find their way.
Culoz station where all the passengers to Paris were struggling to find their way.

The train from Bellegarde didn’t end up going to Lyon as we were told (surprise surprise). Instead, we were being driven to somewhere else to catch our connections. At Culoz, a small stop in the middle of nowhere, most of the people got off the train to go to Paris. A few of us stayed on to catch our connection in Valence, a 2-hour trip on a regional line, to the south of France. Once we were back on the main line, all went smoothly – I changed at Valence for a 1-hour trip to Marseille and then made my connection right away for another hour-long trip to finally get to Sanary Sur Mer.

Waiting in Valence TGV station for an hour before getting the train to Marseille.
Waiting in Valence TGV station for an hour before getting the train to Marseille.

I wasn’t too fazed by the whole thing and actually found it to be quite an adventure – a little like my 22-hour trip from Bangkok to Vientiane. The mind-blowing thing was that I can understand that this can happen in Southeast Asia, but I was in one of the most developed countries in the world and where other countries looked at as an example. The lack of service, misinformation, and poor communication by SNCF was just something I couldn’t believe even after being told by French people.

Finally reached my destination just in time to see the sunset at the beach.
Finally reached my destination and just in time to see the sunset at the beach.

One of the nicest things in the whole trip was how people bonded over the whole situation (until it was time to run to their next connection) and talked to each other. It’s something that you don’t see nowadays where people are on their phones, iPods, or tablets. I hope this type of kinship continues because it’s going to be tested with a lot of construction and upgrades taking place from now until the beginning of summer along the southern train lines – check the TER SNCF website for more updates… and make sure to triple check the times for trains (or buses).

Chin-glish as east and west meet in HK

One week ago today, I was in Hong Kong for a quick trip to meet up with family. After having traveled and lived in Asia for the last few years, Hong Kong should’ve been a pretty easy vacation destination. It’s well-connected, modern, and has a great variety of food. I’ve been through Hong Kong airport probably ten times, but actually never left the confines of the airport… until last week. And, boy, was the place a bit of a surprise!

Since 1998, Hong Kong has been a special administrative region of China following being a British colony for about 150 years. Not much has changed since the handover according to people I talked to… English and Chinese are still very apparent and live (some what) in harmony with one another as the region has grown into a financial hub. Yet there’s definitely cases where speaking and reading Chinese comes in handy.

The clearest case of this harmony are in the numerous signs and advertising that crowd the city! With a population of approximately 7 million (in 2010) and a density of 6540 people per square kilometre, it’s no wonder why there’s stacks and stacks of signs, posters, etc. trying to get your attention no matter where you look. It’s a bit of sight that will make you dizzy… yet represents the craziness that’s Hong Kong and overtly loud Cantonese culture (if you don’t believe me, go for Dim Sum or Yum Cha and tell me I’m wrong!)

One unexpected thing was the fact that Hong Kong is actually ‘green’ outside the main city areas. According to the Govt of HK website, only 25% of land is developed and 40% of land is designated as parks and nature reserves. So if you’ve had enough of the consumerism, in-your-face-advertising, noise and people, there’s plenty of green space to take a breather.

Living in a grey period – enjoying the black and the white

I was just visiting my blog and realized that it’s been about a month since I last wrote something. Well, let’s see, what’s been happening? For one thing, we went to a cooking class last night to learn a few French dishes. If you’re in Geneva and want to go to a cooking course, check out Katrpices. They have lunch, afternoon and evening classes. Book early as many classes fill up!

Here’s the menu. The menu sounds better in French, but whether in English or French, the taste was amazing.

  1. Gravlax de saumon, dakon & mangue, vinaigrette ciboulette crmeuse – Dill-rice vinegar marinated salmon sashimi and mango-carrot-radish salad with a chive vinaigrette
  2. Cuisse de canard braise aux chicons et rutabaga confits – Roasted duck and sesasonal vegetables, truffle-oil infused mashed potatoes topped with a port reduction sauce
  3. Gratin d’ananas & gingembre, sorbet banane au sirop de vanille – Caramelized ginger and pineapple topped with baked custard and homemade banana sorbet

Rather than bore you with the finer details of the past month, here are some photos:

The port of Sanary looking from the town tower
Chinese New Year in Toulon with some suprisingly decent Chinese red wine!
Studio photography class with a photogenic model - this reminds me of MJ.
This was really interesting shot I took while the model with preparing for another barrage of photos

No snow = no skiing

You can’t be in Switzerland without going skiing. That’s what I’ve been telling myself for the past few months, but when it hasn’t snowed for over 5 weeks, it’s hardly tempting to go up to the mountains. But then again there are other reasons to get out to the mountains… three things come to mind – fresh air, surreal scenery, and exercise. The weather has been fantastic – the sun has been shining for the last few weeks and the temperatures have been bearable for outdoor exploration. So a couple weeks back we decided to take advantage of the weather and go for a hike around Saint Cergues, about an hour by train away from Geneva. It was nice to experience mountain-life in Switzerland, but it’s still winter and most of our 4-hour walk was trying to maneuver around icy paths and slippery slopes.

It’s interesting to hear people going for hikes or roaming the mountains quite often (i.e. randonne in French). With well-marked trails, books, and maps to help the beginner to advance hiker, it’s worth a trip to the countryside… a very different experience than in Canada where outdoor life is more untamed.

A new year, a new set…

2011 started off with a big bang in a Copacabana-style new year’s party and new resolutions. Going skiing was one of them for me given that I haven’t been to a snow-capped mountain in over 5 years. I was hoping to go after coming back from France for the holidays, but unfortunately the weather has turned for the “worse”… having a lot of sun for the winter isn’t so much the problem. It’s been the mild temperatures and rain. Instead of hopping on a bus to the nearest mountain, we decided to visit the infamous Evian in France – you know, the place for the “water”. An hour away from Geneva by train, we went to visit an interesting exhibition on animals in photography. The town’s waterfront is surprisingly like Vancouver, and it’s also a jumping-off point for skiing in the French Alps. Here are my first photos for 2011…

Scary sculptures along the waterfront… kinda creepy.

Looking towards the Hotel de Ville and the Palais Lumire where they had the photo exhibition.

Free bags for dog poop! The sign of a wealthy community?

The photo exhibition…

Winters can be beautiful

It’s amazing how winter can be beautiful. The last couple of weekends in Geneva have been an absolute treat… the sun was shining and the temperature was balmy. With an average of 16C, the weekends were warmer than normal and that meant people were out walking, drinking, running, shopping, etc. – any way to get out to soak up the sunshine before the grey and dreary Geneva winter starts. It was as though the weekends were holding back the cold and rainy weather that we have been getting during the weekdays. Last weekend was especially excellent and I was happy to join a tour to go and visit the town of Annecy, about an hour train/bus ride south of Geneva into France. Other than the rude waitress at the train station and a small shouting match in French between our eccentric organizer and some locals, the day was a highlight so far in my 2-month stay in Switzerland.

You can find the photos of my trip to Annecy, France here:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=573322&id=861805383&l=8c7102beab

The Return of Euro-Work

Geneva. This is where I’ll be for the next 6 months. International development work especially with the United Nations is generally sporadic and short-term – that’s why I’ve been moving around a lot these past few years. I finally made it back to Europe – in 2005, I spent almost half a year in Eastern Europe with a week stopover in Geneva. Even after spending a week in the city five years ago, the cityscape is still familiar albeit a little fuzzy.

I came right at the cusp of the changing of the seasons… most of the first few days were great in the city. 20+ degrees with clear blue skies… I took advantage of it by walking around different parts of the city. But now in the latter half of the week, it’s been raining and the air seems to be signaling the first signs of autumn. It’s still great to be able to walk on the street and take things slow, which the city is quite catered to. Nothing is open beyond 9pm (and that’s only on Thursday)… most shops and stores close by 6pm from Monday to Saturday. It you have any errands to run, forget about Sunday… everything shuts down. I guess if God rested on Sunday, so should Geneva – but I think this is also quite common in France and other parts of Western Europe.

So now the pressure is on to find a place to live for the next 6 months so I can focus on other things (i.e. work, skiing, visiting other parts of Switzerland).

Shouldn’t parks be green?

Having lived on and off in different countries in Asia since 2000, moving from one country to another for short periods of time to renew visas (i.e. the visa-run) is a fact of life for lots of tourists and foreigners. Last week my tourist visa to Indonesia expired so I took a short (i.e. one night) trip to Singapore. The city is like a second-home to me so when I arrived, I wanted to see something that I haven’t seen before. A quick trip downtown and I couldn’t miss the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino, Singapore’s newest controversial source of revenue.

The feature you’ll notice is the roof of the hotel which is marketed as the “Sky Park”. So without much hesitation, I wanted to visit the park especially for a escape from the urban chaos I’ve been living in Jakarta. After walking over the very cool looking bridge from the mainland to the Hotel, I soon realized that getting to this park wasn’t as easy as I thought. I entered the hotel hoping to catch an elevator up to the 50+ floors to the park, but was quickly stopped by a stern looking security guard.

“Where are you going sir?”

“Uh, I want to go up to the SkyPark”

“Hotel guests are only allowed beyond this point – you’ll have to go around the corner and pay at the tourist entrance.”

“Pay? How much?”

“$20”

“I just want to go to the park. You have to pay to go to the park?”

“Yes, $20, around the corner.”

I was a bit hesitant to go especially when parks are usually free. But I figured it was a good opportunity to see what a $20 park would be like – it must be fantastic, filled with fairies, trees, wildlife, etc. After reluctantly letting go of $20, I rode the elevator to the top and got out expecting a lush forest with walking paths. Here are some photos – you be the judge.

This is the only green space and tree-lined walkway in the SkyPark.

The pool is the main feature in the SkyPark, but it’s only open and accessible to hotel guests. Tourists and visitors get to watch from behind a fence. The hotel really makes tourists and visitors feel like they’re welcome!

The view from the observation deck for tourists and visitors without any benches or covered areas to enjoy the view.

Summary: While I wouldn’t call the SkyPark anything close to a park, if you have to pay $20, I’d wait until the restaurants and bars are open to enjoy the view of Singapore with a drink in hand or for dinner.