High in the Netherlands?

Well done Netherlands! Beating Mexico in the last minutes, you sure made for an exciting ending. So let’s have a look at the Netherlands, and more in particular, Amsterdam!

Two posts ago I warned people to not do drugs abroad. But while watching the world cup it dawned on me that many tourists go to the Netherlands for a rather specific reason …

This is that reason

This is that reason

The Netherlands is a beautiful country with a long history. It’s often called Holland by foreigners. But Holland is actually only a part of the Netherlands. You can read more about it here if you’re interested in that bit.

The country is known for tulips, wooden clogs, mills and cheese. But let’s be honest, most tourists (especially Americans) are interested in the Dutch version of the coffee shop! The menu in a coffee shop looks a little different from what most people are used to.

A menu in an Amsterdam coffee shop

A menu in an Amsterdam coffee shop

There are coffee shops all over the Netherlands. However most tourists will hang around Amsterdam. Because of the large tourist industry in the city, you’ll find a large number of shops. Most of them are close to the red light district … I don’t know if that’s by accident or not. And in the same general area there are also a lot of restaurants … again, I can’t vouch for the coincidence! I can however vouch for the variety of restaurants in the area. Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Uruguyan, Tibetan, German, French, … If you fancy it, you’ll probably be able to find it. So dig in!

Yes, it is legal for tourists to buy and use soft drugs in Amsterdam. Which is a big contrast to most countries and especially the South East Asian ones I posted about earlier. But it’s not legel all over the Netherlands, at least not for tourists. In recent years a lot has been said, done, undone and redone when it comes to coffee shops near the borders with Belgium and Germany. The end result is that there are still coffee shops near the borders, but you can only buy drugs there if you have the Dutch nationality. The reason for this is of course drug trafficking. People from Belgium, Germany and France could easily cross the border, buy drugs and export it to their own or other countries to use or sell. The chances of getting caught were small since many countries in the European Union have abolished border controls. This is not a consequence of being part of the EU, but of the Schengen Agreement.

Tulips, also a plant but you shouldn't smoke it

Tulips, also plants but you shouldn’t smoke them

But the Netherlands and Amsterdam in particular are more than that. There are many nice sights to see. Dam square, the Van Gogh museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank house, the Vondelpark are just a few of many other things to see.

Clogs are one of the things you’ll see. But mostly decorative or for sale. People in the Netherlands wear shoes, just like you and me

And of course, last but not least, the famous canals (grachten). Amsterdam is often called Venice of the North. Truth is that Amsterdam actually has more canals and bridges over them than Venice does! Amsterdam’s canals are more or less equally as old as the ones in Venice. But Venice seems to have a better PR machine. Or perhaps it’s because of all the old movies that feature the Venice canals in them. Whatever the reason is, the canals are very nice to walk by, and popular with tourists for photo opportunities! You’ll find many places to eat or just have a drink right next to them if you’re tired of walking around the city.

People enjoy hanging around the canals

People enjoy hanging around the canals

In fact, much like in the picture, local people often sit right next to the canals. Sometimes bringing some drinks and snacks to just enjoy the cooler temperatures and hang out with friends. I’ve even seen people enjoy entire picnics there!

There are many things to enjoy throughout the country. But if you decide to pay a visit to a coffee shop, take it easy. Every year tourists underestimate the effects or use too much drugs and end up hurting themselves, falling into the canals or worse, end up dead due to accidents. So enjoy, but be careful!

West Africa and the ebola outbreak

Doctors without borders has stated that they currently do not have the outbreak under control and that they need a massive deployment to fight the epidemic in West Africa. It is he most deadly and geographically widespread outbreak on record and is threatening to spread.

According to the World Health Organization, the first ebola outbreak was a simultaneous happening in Nzara, Sudan, and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The last one was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.

The virus is originally carried by fruit bats. It is transmitted from animals to people from wild animals and once infected, humans spread the virus to other humans in the general population.

Ebola has a 90% casualty rate, so things don’t look very well if you get infected. New drugs are being tested, but that’s pretty much as far as that goes. Casualty rates remain high.

The problem with the latest outbreak is that it happened in Conakry, the capital and largest city of Guinea, which has an international airport (Conakry International Airport) and a very mobile population that moves to nearby countries to work. With 635 people infected and nearly 400 deaths, this is not the best news. Local health care is poor and there is political reluctance to take action. Having been in West Africa myself, I can vouch for the poor health care and living situations. The ebola incubation period can take up to 21 days, so it’s possible for an infected person to show none of the signs and get on an airplane and fly anywhere in the world. The prediction is that it will probably happen.

Then again, thanks to the fact that it is a big city with an international airport, help is quick to arrive. So people are being diagnosed quickly and given the best care they can get in a big city like Conakry. That’s better than anything they could get in a small town far away.

Unlike what you may have heard, ebola does not spread very easily from person to person. So it is not very contagious. However it is very infectious. Only a tiny amount of blood or other bodily fluids can cause an infection. For this reason, it is mostly the family of an infected person and the health care workers who get infected.

I won’t go into what happens to your body when you get infected by ebola. If you want to know, you can read about it on Wikipedia. But it’s not pretty.

If you don’t really need to be in West Africa right now, you shouldn’t book a ticket over just yet. Because there is NO vaccine against ebola and the only sure way to prevent it is to simply not go into infected areas. This is a definite case of “better safe than sorry”.

If you are already in West Africa, avoid the infected areas and avoid handling live or dead wild animals. Some species of animals besides primates may carry the Ebola virus.

If you need to be there for professional reasons as a health care worker you can prevent infection by wearing masks, gloves, and goggles whenever they come into contact with people who may have Ebola.

An arial view of Conakry showing the city and it's harbour

An arial view of Conakry showing the city and it’s harbour

Vietnam will sentence you to death …

… but only if you are found guilty of possessing or trafficking of more than 600 grams of heroine or 20 kilos of opium. Vietnam has one of the toughest laws concerning drugs.

Whatever people do for themselves that doesn’t harm or inconvenience others around them is their business. But people should be aware that the laws in some countries will be enforced. And some countries’ laws are more strict than others. In South East Asia, you don’t want to test those laws.

Pham Trung Dung, a 37 year old Australian with Vietnamese roots, found that out the hard way. He got caught in May 2013 in the Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). He was carrying two suitcases which contained four kilograms of heroin. More than enough to get into trouble!

At the time he was trying to fly back to Australia with his wife and children. Dung stated that an unidentified man offered him $40.000 to transport the drugs from Vietnam to Australia. Unbelievable as that may sound, things like that do happen. Criminals know that people will do crazy things for a big bag of money.

Best of luck to Dung, who can still appeal the case. But whether or not he decides to do that is up to him and his lawyers.

There are about 700 people on death row in Vietnam. Many of those got there because of drug offences. That includes dozens of foreigners, but it has been decades since a foreigner actually got executed.

For your own sake, don’t get involved in any drug related activity in South East Asia, not just Vietnam. Even though a lot of drugs can be found and is produced there, the big guys remain untouched due to the prevalent corruption in many countries. The little guys are the ones filling the prisons.

Just take in the culture, food, people, smiles and experiences as your high 😉

A shot of the Heroin drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency

A shot of the Heroin drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency

Belgium, country of festivals

There are many different reasons to travel. Perhaps you want to go for adventure, get lost in a foreign country, maybe you want to immerse yourself in another culture, for some people it’s all about the food. And others, they just go to party.

Belgium has an ace up its sleeve when it comes to that: festivals. Belgium has a lot of them, among them the one voted “Best Music Event Worldwide” a few times in a row by the IDMA (International Dance Music Awards) in Miami, as well as “Best Major European Festival”. You may recognize the name Tomorrowland. This festival alone was so popular it attracted people from litterally all over the world. It became so big that a spin-off festival has been created, Tomorrowworld. It even has it’s own party flights to fly people in. Aside from that, many great DJ’s and bands have Belgian roots.

dimitry vegas and like mike tomorrowland anthem time with million of people cheering hd wallpaper night

A shot of Tomorrowland at night

But it’s not all dance music. There are techno, electro, folk, metal, reggae, world music, jazz and other types of festivals. Some are big, some are small. Some of the bigger names are: Graspop, Rock Werchter, 10 Days Off, Gentse Feesten, Tomorrowland, Reggae Geel, Pukkelpop, Laundry Day and I Love Techno .

Pretty clear what kind of festival Graspop is

People come from all over the world for the chill out vibes of Reggae Geel

People come from all over the world for the chill out vibes of Reggae Geel

Gent Jazz

Gent Jazz

Here’s a list of festivals you can find in Belgium. This list will always be incomplete as there are many smaller festivals that come and go. The links are pointing to the English versions of the websites if available:

A bunch of festivals can also be found on this map. Click the locations for more info:

So, if you’re in Belgium around summer time, there’s always a festival to go to. Leave a comment if you are missing a festival in the list and I’ll update it. Enjoy! 🙂

Burmese Bamba, “una poca de gracia” in Myanmar!

I’m relatively sure that Richard Steven Valenzuela never saw this coming. Who? You probably know him as Ritchie Valens. Still no? Well then I’m sure you’ll know him from his hit song “La Bamba”

And if that still doesn’t ring a bell, you may very well recognize another one of his big hits, Donna. If you still didn’t know him, you do now 😉

Unfortunately he died at a young age in a plane crash in 1959, along with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson. Three big artists died in one crash, which is why that day is referenced to as “the day the music died”. Artists today still refer to this, just check out Madonna’s song “American Pie“. You’ll find the reference in the lyrics!

However interesting all that is, you’re not here for a lesson in musical history are you? So what’s this Burmese Bamba all about? Well, during the festival in Lonton one of the singers brought her very own version of La Bamba. In Burmese of course.  I think sometimes it became “namba namba” and “lamba lamba” in this version, but nonetheless she did perform it with the youthful energy that the song is actually all about! I’m not really sure about the synth player though … 🙂

At least during this performance the drunk guys managed to keep things calm 🙂

The festival and everything around it was filled with local culture. Local foods, customs, songs, plays, comedy, references, … which is all good fun but hard to understand. So when something like this comes by it’s a rather entertaining and refreshing moment because it’s something you recognize … even if you don’t understand a word from the lyrics! The music itself is enough to put a smile on your face and get a bonding experience with those around you who enjoy it 🙂

Belgium, you got balls

Atomium_by_day

The previous post dealt with the Eiffel Tower which was built for the world fair of 1889. Today, we’re having a look at another world fair construction. This time it’s the 1958 fair, and as you can see from the picture, the building is the Atomium.

The name has been derived from the model it was built after, the iron atom. The amount of spheres doesn’t match the iron element’s number of electrons or anything. The similarity is based on the whole form of the structure which resembles a pure iron crystal at room temperature, magnified 165 billion times.

Again, if you are interested in the numbers, you can find those on line. But you should know that the 9 pheres were used to symbolize the 9 provinces Belgium had at the time (that changed to 10 provinces in 1995).

Originally, the building was constucted out of aluminium, which was a relatively new material to use at the time. During a long restauration period from 2004-2006, the aluminium was replaced with rust free steel as it handles corrosion better. To help out with the costs, the replaced aluminium panels were sold. A 2 meter triangular piece sold for about €1.000. Lights were present in the original design, but they broke rather quickly. So during the restauration better lights were put on so that in the evening the structure is lit up nicely for the next 150 years. At least that’s how long they estimate the lights to last. There are 4 support colums (called bipodes) present that were not in the original design. They were added when wind tunnel tests pointed out that the thing would fall over at wind gusts at about 80km/h (50mp/h).

The reason the structure is still standing is due to the fact that by the end of the world fair it had become so famous and popular, they decided to keep it. The original idea was that it would be dismantled after no longer than 6 months.

But it’s still there! And it’s still famous. Famous enough for CNN to award it as one of the 11 most bizarre buildings in Europe.

Good news for those who want to get in and up. You can! The 3 most outer spheres are closed off from the public for safety because they don’t have any direct support. You can take an elevator to the top sphere (at 5 meters per second!) to have a good view over Brussels and something to eat, as a restaurant is located there. For some more food you can go to the central sphere to find a snack bar. There is a “children’s” sphere, which is only accessible to groups on school outings and the children can sleep in this sphere. The other accessible spheres hold permanent or temporary expositions.

Atomium in the evening (picture from structurae.de)

Should you be around, do have a look. It’s worth a few minutes of your time. And while you’re at it, make it to the top sphere to take in the panaromic view!

Have a look over here for more pictures of what you can expect to see when you get there 🙂

France, how much Eiffel is there in the tower?

IMG_5342

The tower as you can see it when coming from the Trocadéro subway station

Before we get into the topic question, well played guys! 5-2 against the Swiss is a pretty decent victory!

Did you know that the Eiffel Tower has an actual address? It’s Champ de Mars, 5 Avenue Anatole France, 75007 Paris, France.

But to get there most people just look at the sky and walk in the direction of the big tower. Or they grab a subway to the nearest subway station. That would be Bir-Hakeim by the way, but you should get off at Trocadéro if you want to make some of the iconic Eiffel tower shots.

Including it’s antenna, it’s 324m (1,063 ft) made it the highest tower in the world until 1930. But let’s not get into the numbers too much here. You can hit up other places on the internet for that, like Wikipedia or the official Eiffel Tower website.

For the 1889 world fair France wanted something that would catch the world’s attention and celebrate the 100th year since the French Revolution. As so often, it came down to a design competition. The tower itself was originally not designed by Gustav Eiffel but by two of his employees,  Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier. Gustav himself wasn’t very into the first design, but he allowed the engineers to continue with the idea. After they got the head of the architectural department involved, who spruced up the tower with some decorative arches at the base and a glass pavilion on the first level among other things, Gustav got on board.

Though the tower is now a major tourist attraction (and let’s admit it, if you’re around you should go see it), the public didn’t love the idea at first at all. There were those who said it was simply not possible to build it. But the biggest outcry came from the French artists. The painters, writers, poets, sculptors, … they hated it. For them it was just a huge ugly piece of metal that ruined the city. It wasn’t easy to deal with the criticiscm, but they managed it and after a 2 year construction the tower had been built.

Gustav Eiffel, an architect and engineer himself, got his tower. But more than that, he also made sure that he would get all the commercial income from the tower for the duration of the exhibition during the world fair, and for the next 20 years!

For those wanting to visit the tower, yes, you can go up. But be prepared to wait in line … for a long … long time! So be there early and bring a drink and a snack.

People queuing to get into the tower

People queuing to get into the tower

There is an elevator, but that’s kind of cheating isn’t it? 😉 All combined, the general public can climb the tower for up to 710 steps. The top level is usually closed (not always, just most of the time), so the general public can only get up to the second level. The step count is:

  • 9 steps to the ticket booth at the base
  • 328 steps to the first level
  • 340 steps to the second level
  • 18 steps to the lift platform on the second level
  • 15 steps to the upper observation platform

If you hang around long enough, well, until midnight that is. You can catch the “midnight show”. For a few minutes the lights on the tower flicker in a seemingly random fashion as you can see in the video. Pretty nice if you don’t expect it to happen, and a lot of people don’t seem to know about it. Even though it’s just a few minutes and just some lights, I think it’s worth the wait 🙂

Enjoy your visit!

England, why are your phone booths red?

Travel doesn’t always have to be to the other side of the world. There are things to discover in places nearby as well.

England, for example. Sorry you lost the game guys!

One thing to see? The typical red phone booth. To be correct, one shouldn’t say booth or box, but kiosk. The kiosk actually has a pretty long history. The red one started out it’s life rather soon as “Kiosk No. 2”, or K2 for short, in 1924 and was the result of a deisgn competition. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott who was the winning designer suggested the colour to be silver with a green/blue interior. But as the owner of the kiosks was the Post Office, they painted them red, like their mail boxes. The K1 before that came to life in 1920 as a concrete construction and had no such designated colour.

In reality today there aren’t that many left. It’s estimated that there are about 11.000 of them left. And even less working ones. This is simply due to the fact that today just about everyone has a phone in their pocket. And the costs to keep them operational, clean and to fix them up after acts of vandalism are just too high. That’s why if you spot one, you’ll probably find yourself in a tourist area.

Not all of them were red from the start by the way. There were many areas where the red colour didn’t seem to work for people, so they had them painted in other colour schemes. Most of those have been repainted to the original and iconic red, as that is the colour that seemed to have grown on the people throughout the years. Which British Telecom found out the hard way.

In 1981 British Telecom (which was the new name for the Post Office Telephones) announced that they would paint all the red kiosks in their company brand colour: yellow. This did not go down well with the people at all. campaigns were launched (by the Daily Mail among others), questions were asked in parliament and even the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was asked to weigh in on the matter. Eventually, British Telecom abandoned the plan after having painted just 70 kiosks in different colours as an experiment.

A K2 phone kiosk in the Westminster area

A K2 phone kiosk on Grosvenor road in the Westminster area

K2's older brother, the K1 was constructed out of concrete

K2’s older brother, the K1 was constructed out of concrete

This is what the modern phone booth looks like. Much less charming isn't it?

This is what the modern phone booth looks like. Much less charming isn’t it?

Google Maps and borders

You know how Google Maps draws a border around the thing you’re looking for? You type in something and it takes you to the right place and if it’s a town, city, province, country or any kind of area that has a boder, it will show that border in red. Open Google Maps and search for Belgium. You’ll see Belgium with a red border. Now do the same but type Vietnam … no border. This is due to the conflict between Vietnam and China about the borders. Google has been shying away from confontation on that level for years now. I noticed this long time ago already. In some cases Google seems to side with the country that it has the biggest financial interest in. It designates the sea to the EAst of Vietnam as the “South China sea”. Many Vietnamese aren’t very happy with that though. But as China is a bigger financial interest for Google … I guess “South China Sea” it is. In areas where the borders are disputed, Google seems to opt for just not marking it at all. Vietnam and China aren’t alone in this case. Here’s a list of countries that will not have a marked border when you look them up:

  1. Albania
  2. Bhutan
  3. China
  4. Cyprus
  5. North Korea
  6. Egypt
  7. Georgia
  8. India
  9. Israel
  10. Japan
  11. Kenya
  12. Malawi
  13. Mauritania
  14. Mauritius
  15. Montenegro
  16. Morocco
  17. Nauru
  18. Pakistan
  19. Palestine
  20. Philippines
  21. South Korea
  22. Russia
  23. Serbia
  24. South Sudan
  25. Sudan
  26. Syria
  27. Macedonia
  28. Ukraine
  29. Tanzania
  30. Vanuatu
  31. Venezuela
  32. Vietnam

The image below shows Laos with a red border when looking it up, but Vietnam receiving no such border : Google_no_border Luckily, for you as a tourist this doesn’t spell trouble. You’ll still be able to find your way and likely still be able to look things up. But be aware that this may indicate other things. For example – no access to street view. There are countries, among which Vietnam, where street view is not an option. So if you find yourself looking up a country that you may want to visit, and no red border show up … that country may well be in a political dispute with a neighbouring one. Be aware that if you plan on crossing the border (wherever it may be) between the countries you may have to endure some more checks, delays, serious staff and less smiles in general.

For more and detailed information on all of the disputes countries seem to have with each other over borders etc you can go to the CIA site for the World Fact Book

Myanmar (Burma) – Hilton opens hotels

Before this webpage existed I posted on Facebook about how Myanmar decided to ban the construction of more hotels in Bagan to protect the temples. I thought this was a very wise decision.

You can read it, in Dutch, over here: article on Facebook

The story it linked to can be found over here: link to story

However, the Hilton group who has teamed up with the Eden group. The last one appears to be a Myanmar conglomerate with businesses from hotels to energy. Hilton will rebrand some of the Eden hotels to Hilton hotels in the capital Naypyitaw and Ngapali beach in western Rakhine state.

But a bit more (or not) surprisingly, it also stated that it will open hotels in Inle lake in Shan State, Mandalay and … Bagan.

I guess it helps to team up with a Myanmar conglomerate …

One of the sources: ABC News