Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Favourite Moments Of 2013

Every year since the past few years, I've done a year-end list of my favourite moments that I share on this very blog. Although I do the list mainly for fun, it's also a nice reminder of how blessed my life is.

2013 was another year of milestones and moments to cherish and remember. As usual, we had great family vacations, and ventured to a couple of new destinations; Sydney and Amsterdam.

On the career front, I moved on to a new job after more than six years, and even gave up a couple of things I never thought I would.

And there's nothing like the joys of fatherhood, especially when you have a daughter who's growing up fast and every moment spent is special in its own way. Some, you just want to rewind over and over again, knowing full well that she can't stay as your little princess forever.

But 2013 was also special to me because of the spiritual journey I went on in April to to the holy cities of Mekah and Madinah for my umrah. Yes, there was the distraction of the general elections that threw the trip into some doubt, but really, there was no hesitation in my heart that it was what I needed most in my life.

You can read the full experience HERE, but perhaps I can add that months after that wonderful journey, the biggest lessons I've learned and embraced are two of the most basic things in life; redha and syukur.

Fully embraced, they are truly keys to one's happiness. Well, at least for me. And really, when I look back on 2013, I can only be profoundly thankful for everything that's happened in my life...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Jalan-Jalan Amsterdam

I actually have an "Amsterdam" T-shirt. But it was bought at the Schiphol Airport in 2010 when I stopped over on my way to Cannes. To be honest, it's never been high on our list of must-go places. But while planning this year's year-end/winter holiday, I thought it'd be fun to consider other European cities we've not been to.

Suddenly Amsterdam went to the top of the list, simply because I've flown KLM before and quite enjoyed the experience (seriously lah, the Red Light district and "coffeeshops" NEVER entered my mind). Then we started to consider the second destination; Rome, Barcelona, Milan… but in the end, we couldn't really do without the Xmas frenzy of Oxford Street and having a cuppa at Pret, so London came back into the picture. So finally, it became an Amsterdam and London winter sojourn; ok lah kan.

The flight was slightly uncomfortable as I didn't get a seat with the fam and sat between two rather large European men. The food was so-so, but we got into Amsterdam safely and on time. Which was very early in the morning. We considered the various transportation options into the city but settled on the taxi. I had read that taxi fares could be rather costly, but it only came to Euro37. Plus, the driver was a friendly Turkish muslim guy and we immediately booked our return ride with him to avoid all the hassles.

Our hotel was the American Amsterdam Hotel right smack in the centre of town near Leidseplein. It's only minutes away from the main museums, the shopping district, the park, the Hard Rock Cafe and yes, halal makan places. So, I would highly recommend this place if you're ever in Amsterdam.

Since we got in very early, we had to wait for our room and also daylight to arrive. It was still dark at 8am, but we found a place to have breakfast, and started our jalan-jalan of Amsterdam. And here's where I go into highlight mode. But of yeah, as far as the weather went, it was mostly cold when we were there with temperatures ranging from 4-9c during the day. There were scattered showers over the four days as well, so we were in triple layers most of the time. OK, let's get on with the highlights now...

The city of bikes & canals
We were told of the exact number of canals but I keep forgetting, but Amsterdam's canals are world-famous and simply beautiful. The water's not totally clean everywhere, but more importantly, it didn't smell and actually, the canals keep the city afloat (yes, do look it up).

Amsterdam is also known as a bike city and is extremely friendly to cyclists with extensive dedicated lanes and everything that is required to make it a way of life. So, apart from looking out for the normal vehicles, be extra careful when crossing the roads as it can get really busy with dudes in suits on basikal cabuk zipping through to get to the office.

Rijksmuseum & I amsterdam
Just a few minutes from our hotel was the world-famous Rijksmuseum. And really, it's pretty easy to get anywhere on foot with plenty of accurate signages with distance guides.

Rijks is well-known for its collection of paintings from some of history's greatest artistes, including Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Vermeer. The ticket price was Euro15 per adult. FOC for kids.

We actually came back on the final day to take photos at the famous "I amsterdam" sign. Didn't realize it was there during our visit and only saw it when we were on a tour bus. Nasib tak terlepas!

And oh yeah, the Van Gogh museum's also just a few metres away from the Rijks, but we ran out of time and couldn't squeeze in a visit.

Windmills, clogs & cheese
Of course we had to see some windmills! And for that, I booked a half-day tour through Lindbergh Tours (Euro72.50 for the whole fam), which also provided a hotel pick-up. The tour would take us to Zaanse Schans, Volendam and Markem.

Holland not being a large country, the "countryside" was just mere minutes away from Amsterdam. We got on the double-decker bus, and a few minutes  later, voila!, we were already in the kampung. Haha.

First up was the windmills of Zaanse Schans. We took a nice walk across the bridge and even got to see it going up to let ships pass. The quaint town itself was picturesque and the sight of well-preserved windmills was definitely something to be photographed and remembered.

The coach then took us to the fishing village of Volendam, where we also visited a cheese factory. And yes, they also sold all sorts of delicious Dutch cheese, that I could not resist sampling, despite being lactose intolerant (please don't ask what happened to me after that).

 We also had a nice seafood lunch there that was pretty good.

And finally, we were taken to Marken, which proved to be the most fascinating drive as we cruised along the causeway. The place is a former island and is known for its wooden houses.

 It was also where we got to see clogs made.

Overall, an excellent and rather economical half-day tour that gave us a taste of everything that's authentic about Holland!

City treats & cruise
So, as I was saying, Amsterdam's rather easy to go jalan-jalan on foot. Although honestly, I never even bothered trying to remember the names of the streets. So forgive me for the lack of accurate info in that sense.

Our first "long" walk was to the Central Station which took us pass the shopping districts, flower market and cheese stores.

Then, we stumbled upon Amsterdam's own Xmas market at Leidsestraat! Not quite as magical as Champs-Elysees in Paris, but they did have some pretty good churros : ) And oh yeah, a good halal restaurant along the way as well.

But as usual, we also opted for the City Sightseeing Hop-On Hop-Off bus. It took us to 11 stops, as well as a free tour of the Gassan diamond factory.

It was there too that we took a short walk to visit Rembrandt's House! Complete with an audio guide, it's definitely one of Amsterdam's must-dos.

The tour also included a canal cruise. And I tell ya, it was the perfect way to wind down the day. It was simply calming as we snaked our way along the canals through this charming city.

On the fourth day, we took the Cityhopper fokker flight to London and left Amsterdam with a bagful of  cool memories. And like I said, the Red Light District and the Coffeeshops were not even on the agenda : )


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