Tuesday, July 1, 2014

European Independent Travels - Some Driving Tips and Legal Requirements

In Europe, vehicles are driven on the right side of the road. It may take some time for a left-side-of-the-road drivers (like us) to adapt. But the first few days can be quite an adjustment.

If you are driving a European registered car which the driver sits on the left side (rented or otherwise) you do need some adjustment as the changing gears is done with the opposite hand. For some driving tips to adjust yourself with the car go learn something here.

Getting in lane at the checkpoint in IJmuiden Port
The car we drove in our Independent Travels in Europe happens to be a UK registered right-hand-steering drive, which we are very familiar with. So, there's no adjustment or familiarization to be made as far as the car is concerned. But, we have to be extra careful especially when there’s a need to change lanes or overtake. This is when the service of the co-driver cum navigator is highly needed to check on incoming cars from the left lane. 

The moment when I drove the car out (of the cruise) in IJmuiden Port there wasn’t any problem as all cars were given directions to queue in lanes before the immigration check-point. But after the check-point there were no cars in front of us and I kept driving on the left side until I saw a car coming in the same direction ahead of us giving a high-beam warning. 

Always be alert and remind yourself to stay on the right-side of the road
 Turning on the left or right at junctions can also be confusing as you need time to think which lane should you enter. And this is when you’ll panicked if the driver behind you gets impatient and blast a double big-horn for being slow to move.

The round-about turn is also quite tricky for first-timers as you need to enter from the right-side of the circle and do an anti-clockwise turn. The first time I came across a roundabout, everyone in the car laughed as I made a double roundie just to get acclimatise. For more tips on how to drive in roundabouts in Europe go here.

In most countries in Europe the roundabout sign is well placed some meters before drivers can see the roundabout in front of them. But be careful, in Belgium there are almost no signs to alert drivers of a roundabout in front. If there is any, it'll be very small, very near to the roundabout or hidden from other signboards or trees.

Anyway, drive carefully and defensively, observe all the road signs and InsyaAllah after a few hours of driving you’ll be able to fit in. Nonetheless, the next day when you start driving again you’ll definitely get confuse as again you’ll start driving on the left....haha!

Tarmacs on Swiss roads are smooth and well paved
The tarmacs on European roads are in general smooth and new, especially in the Netherlands, where their motorways/highways are the best we have driven so far. So are the tarmacs in Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg which I would say wide and smoothly paved. 

Exceptions however are given to Belgium and the highways on the countryside of France where we begin to see potholes here and there. But on overall it is at par with the Malaysian highways except of course you have to pay to drive on Malaysian highways...haha!

Relying on GPS or Satellite navigation systems is a must if you are not into reading maps (or crystal balls) and are not familiar with the directions (of course you’re not). We did rely on one albeit an outdated one as we did not see the need to buy a new one since we thought this will be our first and last time driving in Europe.

But if you can afford, please get anew one to avoid any hassle or difficulty, especially when making a wrong turn. A stupid wrong turn may affect 3 things: 1. Waste of time, 2. Waste of gas and 3. Unnecessary stress and quarrel with your co-driver...huhu!

Anyway, if you’ve decided to get a new GPS make sure it can also be used in your own country when you’re finally back home. Nonetheless, it will also take some time for you to be getting use or be in control of the keys and functions on the gadget...which was one of the reasons I hate buying a new one.

Getting stuck in Zurich when entering the city centre
Avoid big-city driving whenever you can. You get stuck into one, you are in big trouble. We did got stuck in Luxembourg when we tried entering the city center to find a tourist spot recommended by someone we met at a restaurant earlier. After getting horn-blasted by some angry Samaritans when entering a no-entry lane and a few mistakes here and there it was smooth sailing again.

The legal requirements for driving a car in Europe differ from one country to another. A valid driving license from your own country is however needed as proof of a basic driving requirement. In some countries in the EU apart from your driving license, you might also need an International Driving Permit (IDP). You can check with a motoring organisation like the AA or the RAC for rules in other European countries.

A DVLA V5 Registration
Do however check the requirements or compulsory papers needed to bring your UK registered cars into Europe, such as the V5 registration. Bring the original copy and make sure the owner of the car is together traveling or driving the car. Also check if your insurance policy covers your driving travels in Europe. Most comprehensive insurance has it stated that you are covered to drive in many countries in Europe.

In some European countries like France and Italy you have to pay for using their highways or toll roads, but this can be avoided if you choose not to enter the toll roads as there are many options. For most of our travels we avoid using the toll roads in France as it is quite expensive. The country roads are not that bad except that it takes longer to reach your destination.

The Swiss vignette on our car windscreen is still valid
But do take note in Switzerland most of its roads are tolled roads and the tax is in the form of toll tickets or officially called vignettes that you have to pay before entering its borders. The current cost of a vignette sticker is 33Euro and it can be used for a whole year. Check the Vignette Switzerland webpage here.

The AA and the RAC also have certain advice on driving in specific countries, including information on compulsory equipment. Please do check their website, and try to comply although some of it I think is not really necessary, such as having a breathalyser in the car in France and extra bulb for the headlamp as we try as possible to avoid driving at night.

Enforcement however is not strict, as from my (and others) experience, enforcement agencies in the EU do not stop cars just to simply check, unless of course if you are found to have violated traffic rules (like speeding) or involved in accidents. So, be alert all the time and obey the rules and regulations.

Lots of parking space in front of our hotel room in Strasbourg, France
Parking the car in most cities we’ve come across is quite tricky as at most of the place where there’s parking available on the road side, the paying machine does not have instructions in English. What we did was after parking the car, go to the pay machine and ask passersby to help while someone waits in the car. 

Well, not everyone in Belgium and France speak English but eventually you’ll find one who does.

Parking fee is not that expensive, I think its one Euro for an hour (in some smaller cities its 50cents/hr). The good thing is that in the evening (around 5-6pm) or after office hours onwards till the next morning at 9.00am no fee is needed. Even if you have slotted a Euro coin inside the machine after that time, the ticket will print a statement that you are allowed to park until 10am the next day (starts at 9.00am).

Monday, June 30, 2014

The intro to our European Independent Travels

The planning must be done meticulously base on your budget
This posting is about our independent travels around Europe during last Easter holidays (April 5 – 14 2014). The write-up is only a basic guide, written and expressed through my personal experience when we (my family and I) were traveling in our car (driving) to 6 different European countries recently.

Before completing the journey, my references were basically collected from recent experience traveling by air and cruise to European cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Istanbul in Turkey. Other main references included the internet and word-of-mouth from other friends who have been through the same experience previously. It may not be a comprehensive guide, but would suffice if you are a novice traveler.

Included are some important guides for Muslim travelers in finding halal food or suitable hotel locations where you can get access to halal stores, restaurants and eateries or hotels with cooking facilities (or at least ones that offer boiling water facilities, i.e. kettles, coffee/tea/self service).
It's not difficult to find halal food if you know how

By saying independent travels it means you get to plan and set where you wanna go or which country you’d like to visit and the best thing about it is that it can be adjusted within your budget constraint. In a way independent travels help you save cost as much as possible as you are not paying for any tour guide or agency. But if you are really not familiar with the countries in Europe, this independent guide will also try to help you figure out where to go in Europe (which may or may not be the best place of your choice), how to get there  including tips to find the safest and cheapest way to get around.

So, basically this guide is about planning, coordinating and time managing your travels and journeys. By planning and time managing your travels it also means planning it well and early so that you can save time on all your journeys and start to enjoy sightseeing the places you plan to visit and so that you get great bargains with cheap but good hotel rates.

By planning early, it must also be real early - as far as a year ahead so that by 6 months into your real journey you are ready to decide which country, which city and which part of the country or city you want to go visit or stay. After which you can already shorlisted the hotels you want to stay at and start to make online bookings.

The hotel bookings made, printed and compiled
So, within the three months before the journey starts you must have finished making all the necessary hotel bookings and are completely ready to anticipate or prepare other things that you might have missed out like bringing extra amenities that can help ease your travels such as other European currencies, travels adapters, electric blankets if you are traveling in the cold seasons/up north or even electric kettles and small rice cookers.

Remember, not every European countries accept the Euro. The Euro € is the official currency of the euro zone, which consists of only 18 of the 28 member states of the European Union (EU). But if you plan to go to Switzerland, many parts of the Swiss only accept Swiss Franc (CHF) and some parts of Turkey only deals with Turkish Lira (TRY).

Nevertheless, the use of debit or credit cards affiliated to internationally recognized and established names like Visa, MasterCard, Bank of America and such are well accepted. But be prepare to pay the extra charges.

And the most important thing about planning, coordinating and time managing is that it can help you avoid making mistakes that can result in unnecessary stress and significant additional expenses if anything goes wrong.
Bring along your electric kettle and small rice cookers. They can help keep your food budget low
      Planning – You have to have a storyboard or itinerary of your travels. Plan well where you wanna go, what to do there, where to stay and to make sure the place/s you are staying are near to amenities, convenience stores and places to eat, especially if you have constraints on food choices such as consuming only halal food or a vegetarian. Bringing along canned food, noodles, rice and cooking utensils like kettle and small rice cookers can help keep your food budget low especially if you are traveling in a family or a large group. But be sure the place you are staying has cooking facilities. 

     Coordinating – by coordination it means having another person(s) to travel with and share ideas and responsibilities on the planning of the journey. You as the main planner should get him/her to help in to synchronize ideas and integrate responsibilities of activity. For example if you are driving on your travels, you need a navigator or map reader and that he/she will be the added pair of eyes for details such as speed limit warnings, finding gas stations, toilets locations or places you have missed on your earlier planning. In this case the coordinator/navigator should also make him/herself available as a second driver in case the main driver falls sick, tired or sleepy.
Stopping for breakfast at rest areas along a highway in Luxembourg

      Time management – this is very important as you have to plan how many hours of the day you would be driving to reach your destination, and anticipate the time needed for stops and rest or visit the places on your itinerary. Since you already made hotel bookings at the places of your visit, you must reach there on a timely manner so that you can have some rest or you would likely miss your next itinerary. For example, if you start to drive at 9.00am in the morning to reach a city in your itinerary, you need to only drive for 5 hours the most excluding breaks (ETA 2.30 pm), and then rest 1-2 hrs so that by 3.00 or 4.00pm you can start to explore the city or complete the itinerary/tour of the day. If you lag, you’d probably reach there by nightfall and there’s not much to see unless you are really there for the nightlife.

The DFDS seacruise from Newcastle to Amsterdam is a 16hr journey
In this Europe tour, we traveled by sea (cruise) and land (driving) from Newcastle-upon Tyne, England to 6 (six) EU countries starting with the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany and ending in Switzerland and back to England through Calais, France. The whole traveling time took us 10 days and in each city we stopped, we only stayed for one night. This is really a budget trip as there were 6 of us traveling together and at some of the cities we stayed we have to book for 2 rooms and share 3 people in one room. But for the most of our stays there were not much problem because we were in a way prepared for the worse.

The sea cruise is smooth sailing all the way to Amsterdam
Apart from the sea cruise where we slept overnight (16 hrs) to reach IJmuiden, Amsterdam, the cities that we stayed for a night each were Antwerp in Belgium, Lille in France, outskirts of Luxembourg City, Daschen and Interlaken in Switzerland, Strasbourg and Arras in France and finally reaching London on the 9th day where we stayed for another night before reaching home in Newcastle on the 10th day.

More details of the journey in my next posting, InsyaAllah.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


I have abandoned this blog for far too long. Thank you GoStats Support (http://gostats.com) for emailing me and reminding me every month. God willing, I need some motivation to keep this blog alive. Hopefully will start blogging again when I am in the UK again in September this year.

What I really need is an IMPETUS to drive me into IMPETUOUSNESS. Either with human or divine help, or both. Insya Allah.


noun \ˈim-pə-təs\

Definition of IMPETUS

1 a (1) : a driving force : impulse (2) : incentive, stimulus
b : stimulation or encouragement resulting in increased activity
Synonyms boost, encouragement, goad, impulse, incentive, incitation, incitement, instigation, momentum, motivation, provocation, spur, stimulant, stimulus, yeast


adjective \im-ˈpech-wəs; -ˈpe-chə-, -chü-əs\

Definition of IMPETUOUS

1 : marked by impulsive vehemence or passion impetuous temperament;  

another definition
im·pet·u·ous  (m-pch-s)adj.
1. Characterized by sudden and forceful energy or emotion; impulsive and passionate.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

So what's wrong with having surgery?

When you are sick, it pays to be well informed.

But even if you are well informed, there are others who think they are more informed than you and try to offer their ‘medically unwarranted’ advice even though they don’t even have a clue what you are suffering from.

So, make sure the ‘well informed’ information comes from the ‘rightly-guided’ source. For example if you want an expert opinion on a medical condition, get it from a qualified doctor, not from an illegitimate one. There are too many quacks out there trying to make a living out of the ignorance and gullibility of others through their so-called ‘well informed’ information.

A ‘rightly guided’ and balanced information help us make the right decision, especially in deciding treatment on crucial sickness, some of which involve life or death. The doctor that treats us can help to a certain extent by giving us the options of treatment. For example, if surgery is needed to cure a condition, then it is up to the patient to decide whether he/she consents him/herself to the option. No one is compelled to opt for surgery.

We always hear of the statement “Surgery should always be the last resort…”. Meaning if we want to opt for surgery to cure a sickness, there’s always other alternative to choose from. More so if it involves crucial parts of your body, like the head (brain), back (spine) or neck.

But most of us take this statement at face value without even going to great extent to study the facts, results and implications if we do consider surgery to treat our sickness. We just regard surgery as something orthodox, conventional, very risky and carry other side effect. The very mention of the word SURGERY leaves the uninitiated terrified or at least, confused.

Yes, surgery involves complications and risks, but if we weigh them with the risk of not having any, and the risks are far more dangerous, then the option is clear. For example if one has back pain, which involves spine problem, the patient would have to risk getting complications such as paralysis if the surgery on his back fails. But then, if by not getting the surgery, the risks are twice as much to get paralyzed as opposed to the surgery, so it is better to have one.

Nonetheless, if someone is faced to decide on surgery of the spine, it will be such an important decision that he should consider having more than one expert opinion. But do make sure the opinion comes from a real expert and not from some quack.

So, this is the story of how I decided to opt for surgery on my back, i.e. lumbar spinal stenosis, less than 2 weeks back. And after more than a week of recuperating from being under the knife, I felt better now. Before this, I was constantly suffering in pain due to the lower back pain and sciatic nerve pain on my right leg. (read my earlier post: August 2012 Family Visit to London)

To be exact the condition I was having is the narrowing of the spinal canal or in medical terminology Lumbar Spinal Stenosis.

The first time I knew about it was when I felt pain struck my right foot while on a family tour of London. I thought it was just a muscle strain and it ended in an inflamed feeling in the calf. So the pain was treated, as it is – a muscle pain. Actually it was an internal inflammation symptom due to the effect of compression of sciatic nerve, which starts internally at the spinal cord, which is at the area of the buttocks.

The pain was at time unbearable, as I couldn’t even walk and at times it struck at night and when it happens I would usually have sleepless nights. So, I had no option but to find a cure, and to find it quick, before it really gets on my nerve.

The pain on my lower back has been a recurring problem to me for the last 5 to 6 years, so I didn’t thought it was related. But after a lecture on nerve pain from dear wife and googling around for simple answers on the Internet, I got some good news and also scary ones. The scary part is if all else fail, surgery is not to be recounted.

Good news is that sciatic nerve pain can be cured naturally with health therapies, exercises and avoiding the causes of the symptoms. Other treatments available are anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxers, herbal cures, acupuncture etc. Majority of the people are cured by these conventional therapies. But basically, all these non-surgical treatments focus on symptomatic relief of the inflammatory issue and not the real problem. 

The surgical treatment for the condition that I had -- lumbar spinal stenosis is something I don’t see as a choice, if you really understand what the term means. How do I know I have lumbar spinal stenosis? By analysing the MRI scans, which was done much earlier at USM's Advance Medical & Dental Institute (IPPT), Bertam, and the diagnoses are agreed upon by both the radiologist and spine experts at HUSM.

As explained by the spine surgeon who treated me, Dr Abdul Halim Yusof from the Department of Orthopedic, HUSM, the spinal canal where the nerve resides had swollen and compressed the nerves and this condition makes it impossible for the nerves to function well. The only way out is to open up the canal by removing excess bone particles that have grown to compress the nerves. This can only be done by surgery.

Yes, I wish I can undo this with conventional therapies, but there is no time for experiment. I’m no fan of surgery either, but if surgery can help cure the pain and sickness in the shortest amount of time and won’t cost me my arms and legs then I’m willing to be counted as a surgery ‘groupie’.

So, after my first meeting with Dr Abdul Halim Yusof on 14 October 2012, his department had set the operation to be slated on 30 October 2012 (2 weeks later). There was not supposed to any operation on that date, but Dr Halim was kind enough to slot an ‘extra OT’ as he see the graveness of the ‘pain’ I was in (I was walking with crutches) and had trouble myself to fire-flyz to Kota Bharu from Penang on my own accord just to see him and show the MRI scans.

So, on the morning of 29 October 2012, I was at the Orthopedic ward in HUSM (4S) getting ready to meet the doctors there, the MOs, HOs, Matrons, Nurses, including medical students, who are there doing their job, asking all sorts of questions for their ward postings. And after meeting the most important person before the surgery, the anaesthesiologist, and on request, I was transferred to the staff ward (8TD), which is exclusively for USM staff. I do not know what are the qualifications for the comfortable two-bed room, but I was given one.

For the night, the anaesthesiologist said I was better off sleeping early and with the help of a sleeping tablet given by the nurse, I dozed off like a baby. The next morning, 30 October 2012, I woke up feeling refreshed in a hope to start the ‘surgery’ day on a right footing. I was given a pair of surgery gown plus cap to wear and was pushed on the same bed I slept that night to the operation theatre (OT). Halfway to the OT, everything went blank.

I woke up about 8-9 hours later with a very dry throat. Somebody asked me if I can talk, and I said I needed to clear my throat from sputum. The person shoved a tube in my throat to suck the sputum off and after that I went blank again.

About 1 hour later, I realized I was pushed to a ward (Wad 2 Zamrud – Orto Akut), which is the acute orthopaedic ward meant for post-surgery observation. After a few more hours lying in bed, I realized I can sit-up, stand and even walk, albeit with much difficulty. There I stayed until 10pm after which I was transferred back to the staff ward 8TD. Initially I was supposed to stay at Zamrud 2 but upon insistence and that since no food were given to me at the ward, I wanted to go back to where my things were as there’s where I stock my food.

For the whole night, I couldn’t sleep and the next morning I told this to the nurses and a group of young doctors who came to examine me. They couldn’t make up their mind what was the reason and said they’ll leave it to Dr Halim to decide. After a few hours later, Dr Halim came to ask about my health and briefed me about the surgery. He told me that he had taken 4 hrs non-stop to operate my back. I asked if there was a complication, he said no, just that my spinal canal that he plowed was extraordinarily constricted compared to what he had done before. So, as he was alone doing it, he had to take more time and it was very tiring. The technique used by Dr Halim was the Endoscopic Decompression Surgery with minimal invasive through the skin and this method involves the use of endoscopic devices with indirect observation of surgical site through a large monitor (Read:

USM Hospital Offers Endoscopic Decompression Surgery for Spinal Problems)

Dr Halim tells me I was ready to be discharge if I wish so, but also welcome my decision if I wanted to stay for another night as the nurses can observe my overall heath, BP reading, ECG etc. I opted on the latter and later the nurse gave me a pill (it was the same one the night before) that can help me sleep through the night. I slept with a little difficulty and for two hours only as the pill didn’t work well this time. Later I found out that the reason of my being non-sleepy was because of the steroid (dexamethasone) given to me twice daily. I wasn’t sure what the steroid was meant to do, but when I ask the nurse, she said it was to prevent blood clotting. Since 3 days ago, I have stopped taking the steroid, on my own advice..hehe! And now I sleep like a log!

It has been 11 days now since the surgery, and although I cannot sit up straight for a very long time (the pain will seep slowly as the cut is directly on the back), I can walk better, even better than I was before the surgery. Lying down and sleeping also feels better as long as the bed is not too hard or too soft.

So, what is wrong with having surgery?

I wish to thank all the doctors and staff at IPPT, especially Dr Liau Kai Ming and Prof Ibrahim Lutfi, and the doctors and staff at HUSM, especially the orthopedic surgeon Dr Abdul Halim Yusof and the nurses, matrons, attendants and friends who visited me. Not to forget my wife, Dr Bakiah Shaharuddin who was supportive of the decision and did the initial contacts with Dr Abdul Halim Yusof even though she is a few thousand miles away in UK, my two aunts (Maknun & Makyang) who drove me all the way to Kota Bharu from Ipoh for the operation and waited and nursed me throughout the process (before & after) and those who gave their support and doa' especially to whom I forgot to mention their names here.

Thank you all and may Allah reward you for all the good deeds that you have done.


When Back Surgery Should Be Considered?

Treatment For Spinal Stenosis