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Monday, October 23, 2006

Learning Drupal

Wow, I spent the whole day in front of my computer!

I had been reading up on Drupal (a Web-based content management system) for a while now. I had been giving some serious thought to moving ECO Singapore's website to it, because it's pointless to develop a custom-built CMS when there's already a good one for free. For a long time, I hadn't thought much about it, until I realised that The Onion website is based on it! And that website looks fantastic!

Today, I installed it on my website and gave it a spin. I had to learn a lot of new things, particularly how the menu system worked (it's not just about making aliases to Web page content) and how to use categories/taxonomies (among other things, to build a home page for a section). And then I had to learn about and install plug-ins/modules to make an event calendar, customise the view of a page, enable rich text editing (instead of dealing with HTML), etc.

The most time-consuming part was the menu system. I had to read three tutorials and watch a video demo before I figured out how it worked! Categories/taxonomies also left me scratching my head, until I hit upon a eureka moment.

Now, I just need to learn how to design a custom theme so that the new site looks like the old site.

All in all, it looks like Drupal makes it relatively painless to maintain a website, after the steep initial learning curve. Even then, the curve doesn't plateau, it just eases off gradually. Once I have everything figured out and working the way I want it to, I'll move it over to ECO's site. Hopefully, that'll make updating the website easier for everyone involved. Because, in the end, it's all about whether the end users know how to use a system that determines how useful it is.

And that's how I spent my company off day today.


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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Elevator oddities

What a weird day today was! I should've bought the 4D lottery, except I don't know how to play it.

I work on the 26th floor. The elevator that serves my floor goes up to the 28th floor. When I stepped into the elevator to go for lunch today, there were already two men inside. After that, the elevator stopped at each and every floor until the 19th floor!

At first, I didn't think much about it. By the fourth ding to indicate the 22nd floor, I couldn't help chuckling to myself. After all, what were the chances of this happening? And then I kept listening for the next ding.

I pity the two men who were inside. Assuming that they were from different floors, then that means one of them had to endure stops for nine consecutive floors!

So that was my lunchtime adventure. When I left the office, there was an Indian man standing next to the lift buttons. And he had his finger permanently on the "door close" button until he alighted! My only thought was, "Wow, he must be in a heckuva hurry!"

The weirdness even happened during my lunch. I went to a food court and ordered wan tan mee from this guy. I kept thinking that he must have been high on something! His speech was slightly slurred, he had this dazed look in his eyes. And when he confirmed my order twice, he got it wrong -- twice!

I swear I'm not making any of this up!


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Saturday, October 14, 2006


I'm at Vivocity and it's packed like crazy! As if half the nation is here.

More later.

(1st post through mobile blogging.)

Update: 11:28pm
Back at home now with a few photos to share.
Opening weekend crowd
Opening weekend crowd Opening weekend crowd Opening weekend crowd Art sculpture

And California Fitness had the audacity to stage a live workout session along a busy corridor! Stupid idiots.

It seems that Vivocity is targeted at the upper and upper-middle classes, judging by the retailers. Lots of brand names and jewellery stores. No McDonald's, no KFC. I suspect that there'll be quite a high turnover of retailers there.

It was opening weekend at Singapore's biggest mall, so naturally, Singaporeans were curious about what was going on there. It took half an hour to get through the jam on Telok Blangah Road between Keppel Road and the Vivocity car park entrance, a journey that usually takes less than five minutes, even with the traffic light junction. There were so many people at the mall, even though half the shops aren't open, that I was reminded of this saying:

"Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

I suppose that since I was there, then that makes me an owner of a little mind too.


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Friday, October 06, 2006

Myanmar, day 5 -- orphanage

Orphans young and old
We left the hotel at 9:30am for an orphanage. My uncle and aunt have been contributing to it for a long time already, and every year, they pay a visit to see how it's doing and bring some donated stuff.

For this visit, we met the orphanage's leader, Tui Hing, at the hotel. Annie also joined us to see what goes on there. During the journey, the leader, who was also an orphan, related how he had been born again as a Christian and went on to help other orphans. He also mentioned that the government has begun requiring all orphanages to be registered, which means that they also cannot function overtly as places of religious worship.

Along the way, we stopped by a fruit stall to buy bananas. The Myanmarese apparently believe that bananas help to prevent diseases, like indigestion and other stomach-related ailments.

Next to the fruit seller were a couple of men hanging around and playing chess.

The orphanage houses about 40 children ranging from three-year-olds to teenagers. They greeted us with a Christian song sung in Myanmarese. We returned the favour by teaching them "Jesus loves me". It took about 15 minutes to get through the song.

After that, the kids sat in a circle and Annie led a game. It went like this: a person pats his/her thighs twice while saying his/her name twice, then claps two times saying his/her name once followed by another person's name. The idea was to get to know everyone's names, though, of course, I couldn't remember five of them by the time we were done.

And then it was time for lunch. A quick prayer, and then everyone dug into packets of nasi bryani, which my aunt and uncle had arranged to buy and paid for. Everyone ate hungrily, as this is apparently their annual treat, i.e. when my auntie and uncle visit. It was also amazing to see the small kids finish their huge packets of food. Another observation that warmed my heart was when the older kids helped the younger ones tear apart the chicken for easier consumption.

Some of them didn't finish their food. Apparently, the treat will last for a few more meals.

For dessert, they ate the bananas that we had bought earlier. Of course, kids being kids, some of them even compared the sizes of their bananas first!

My aunt then began to distribute the donated items. I decided to walk around the compound. At the rear of the house, I found the dark and bare kitchen. Its rudimentary stove resembled something out of the 1950s. In an adjacent room, I saw an orphan sleeping snugly under a blanket. Perhaps she was sick?

Then I had to answer nature's call. (Later, I was to learn that there's a better toilet elsewhere.)

I returned to find that the clothes distribution was still ongoing. Meanwhile, some kids already had their goodies, like snacks and toys. Everyone seemed pleased with their gifts.

At about 1:30pm, we walked about five minutes to reach another building that's part of the orphanage. The plan had been to turn it into a teahouse, but it was rejected by the village leadere for fear that it would become a place of Christian worship. So it's now another hostel for the older orphans, though there are plans to make it a grocery store to sell some of the orphanage's produce.

Tree-covered rear of the second hostel.

Outside, I heard a constant chirping. It sounded like something from a mechanical toy. Only this sound came from real live chicks. Haha, like a city slicker, I felt compelled to photograph the hen and her brood.

Along the way back, we passed by a few village houses. I wonder if I could stay for a long time at such a run-down house. We also met a family that was cooking a pot of rice outside. Maybe their house didn't have a proper kitchen.

It was time to say goodbye to the orphanage. We went to visit one of my uncle's friends, then stopped by J's Irrawaddy Dream, a high-class souvenir shop and cafe owned by Singaporeans Jennifer Teo and Helen Yeo (wife of former Transport Minister, Yeo Cheow Tong) with signs warning against touching the plants. Escape from Paradise, anyone?

Dinner was at Over Sea Chinese Restaurant again, where we also had mooncake brought by my aunt. After that, we walked back to Park Royal. Along the way, we passed by several cinemas showing Hollywood and Bollywood movies. What caught my attention was that these cinemas had the old-school design with the winding staircase, manual box office and snacks seller, all of which are no longer found in Singapore. Too bad I didn't bring my camera along.


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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Myanmar, day 4 -- Yangon

Food sellers
Today was a slow day for us. The plan was to wander around Chinatown in the morning. Unfortunately, it was raining quite heavily and we didn't bring any umbrellas. (The rainy season apparently ends towards the middle of October.)

So we drove directly to a particular shop in Chinatown, Tun Family (I forgot the full name). To get there, we drove through 18th Street, which is wide enough for two vehicles. But with the various food sellers and their customers occupying both sides, we were reduced to driving at first gear and carefully avoiding hitting anyone. Kudos to our driver! He couldn't use the horn, because there's a 1,500 kyat fine per horn.

Tun Family sells cashew nuts, peanuts, dried shredded prawn, bird's nest, shark's fin, and lots more. The owner is also Chinese Myanmarese, so we conversed with her in Mandarin. We didn't go anywhere else because of the rain. When I peeped outside, there were still lots of pedestrians thronging the streets, some with umbrellas, some without. Life went on in spite of the weather.

Our loss was Tun's gain. We carted off with bags of nuts and more.

While my aunt, uncle and a companion went for a head massage-cum-hair wash, my mum, our other companion and I headed for a tailor shop, Forever Tailor. It's actually a house, with the garage converted into a small clothing store. The owner made and sold her own clothes there. Of course, most of it was female clothing, so I took the opportunity to have a short nap. I also met her daughter, whom I had emailed before.

The six of us reunited for lunch at Sabai Sabai, a Thai restaurant. My uncle recommended the fried fish salad, which was really good.

With nothing to do after lunch, a few of us returned to Bogyoke Market for more shopping. This time, I bought a gift for a friend. The place closes at 6pm and I thought that there would be a "last sale" discount. No such luck.

Dinner was at Over Sea Chinese Restaurant, which had a distinctively sourish smell in the air-con hall. For a while, I was taken in by the tank of king prawns. I'd never seen live prawns swim before, let alone prawns of those size!

And then it was back to the hotel for the night.


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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Myanmar, day 3 -- Yangon

Food sellers
The first order of the day today was to move from Yazuna Garden Hotel (with its super-heigh ceiling) to Park Royal Hotel, which was just across the street. Traffic doesn't stop in Yangon, so we had to dash across at the first sign of a gap. And we had to breathe the noxious exhaust fumes too. Fumes are so powerful that they could be smelled even in the lobby of Park Royal.

Some pictures from the morning walk: public bus, nationalistic sign, a run-down building, a view down a street that was blocked by a truck!

We spent the rest of the morning shopping at Bogyoke Aung San Market. ("Bogyoke" means "general", the army rank.) It's a one-storey squarish non-air-conditioned shopping centre. Many small stores fill the area, which is about half the size of a football field. And it's a clothing paradise. More than half of the stores sell clothes, including the popular "longi" (not sure of the correct spelling), or sarong. In the central corridor (another pic), government-registered jewellery shops sell gold and precious stones. And they are the only stores that are allowed to trade with U.S. currency.

Along the narrow street, food sellers prepared their menus for the day. Most of them sold a noodle/bee hoon-type dish, which the seller mixed with several spices and curry -- with her bare hands! I didn't dare try it for fear of falling ill. Apparently, this dish is a typical lunch for the locals.

One thing my aunt told us is that the first customers at any store get good discounts, sometimes by as much as half the price! Another thing I noticed: after my mum paid for a blouse (she was the first customer there), the attendant used the money to hit the other clothes and racks. Perhaps it's a sign of good luck?

I bought a green T-shirt that says: "Have you been to Myanmar?" and the word "Myanmar" in Myanmarese behind. Nope, I wasn't the first customer. But I got a 500 kyat discount, ha.

Also present at the market were groups of monks. They wandered the corridors, chanting and soliciting donations from the store owners.

Another constant presence, especially near the jewellery shops: men approaching tourists asking, "Change U.S. dollar?"

Talking about tourists, one thing I observed was that no one, whether men or women, exposed their legs. Therefore, no shorts, no knee-high (or higher) skirts. Everyone either wore sarongs or, for the men, trousers. The only ones who had exposed legs were tourists and small children. Perhaps it's a cultural thing.

I was also constantly amused by the yellow powder/cream on their faces. Apparently, it's a sunblock. And everyone uses it.

We had dim sum lunch at Trader's Hotel, which is supposedly where Singaporeans congregate. Only this time, we didn't run into any, perhaps due to the shift of the country's capitol.

After lunch, we still had some time before the next item in our itinerary, so we took a drive around the city. We passed the Buddhist temple in the heart of the city and City Hall (or what used to be City Hall before the capitol was shifted). Yangon retained some of its British architecture, like the building for the maritime authority. Also, road signs have two languages. Truly bilingual!

We also stopped by Strand Hotel, supposedly the first hotel in Myanmar. It's also a five-star restaurant where dishes at its restaurant go for double-digit U.S. dollars a pop! But it is a very classy hotel.

We then paid a visit to the Singapore ambassador. My uncle knows him and he had invited us for tea. Like a country bumpkin, I was fascinated by the dishes with the Singapore crest.

An amusing story from him and his wife: no one is allowed to fish at Inya Lake. But some people do, and no one stops them. Because they're soldiers, who are bored from their duty of guarding someone under house arrest.

Dinner was at Green Elephant Restaurant, a place that serves Myanmarese dishes. Someone whom my uncle knew treated us to dinner there. We had an assortment of dishes, including beef rendang, curry chicken, fresh water prawns, fish. And rice served in a cute porcelain bowl. Personally, the food tasted similar to Thai food. But that shouldn't be surprising since the people are neighbours, and therefore would have a history of shared culture.


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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Myanmar, day 2 -- Marubin, Inya Lake

One of Annie's fish ponds
At 9:30am, we set off for Marubin in our minibus. The town is about three hours away from Yangon, but for one-third of the journey, we travelled on second gear (at most) due to the many potholes in the country road. We also passed several run-down buildings, small roadside shops and public transport vehicles packed to the brim with passengers.

(Potholes are repaired by placing small rocks into the hole, then covering up with a layer of tar -- by hand. Inevitably, new potholes will form.)

Scenes from the drive: open land, another open area, a house, the same house, roadside food seller

We passed a toll booth that had security personnel there. I figured that they were there just to keep the peace. But at another security post, we were ordered to provide our passports so that they could record our particulars. It was quite a frightening moment because I'd never encountered such heavy-handedness before. I decided to take a photo to record this moment for posterity. But a guard saw my camera and waved "no". When he turned away, I snapped my pic!

Marubin looks like a typical Third World village. The town centre has one main road with vehicles and pedestrians streaming up and down. Trishaw riders waited patiently for their next fares. And I was amused by the trucks with their exposed engines.

Annie, a friend of my aunt and uncle's, wasn't at her house, so we went straight to her fish farm. She rushed out to welcome us. Apparently, having guests at one's house is a joyous and honourable occasion. She served us a sumptous lunch with five different kinds of fish cooked in several ways.

Although it threatened to rain, fortunately it didn't. In addition to the good weather, we also enjoyed the fresh air and peace away from the city. But times are tough. Annie earns 1,400 kyat per vis (about 1.6kg), a slight increase of 100 kyat from last year. However, she has five ponds and is working to buy another two to expand her offerings.

Pics from Annie's fish farm: a pond, another pond, her cat, her cat again, the farmhouse entrance (from the second floor), a bed, the same bed, her mum's garden, farmhouse entrance, hall

Interestingly about all of the villages, beside every road are narrow rivers on both sides. I noticed this while in the plane and thought that I was seeing things wrongly. The villagers use these to ride their sampans, bathe and swim. Such simplicity! Not a care for hygiene! Also, it's rude to cross a bridge while a boat is going under. Myanmarese don't like to have people "over" them, especially if they're women.

We stayed at the farmhouse for about three hours, then returned to Yangon. By 6:30pm, it would be dark out. We passed another toll booth. Drivers simply stick the kyat bill out the window and the toll collector collects it. Very easy and painless.

Scenes from our return journey: Buddhist pagoda, public bus, Yangon suburb from a bridge

Scenes from Yangon: passengers hanging from a public bus, roadside fruit seller, traffic jam!

Our uncle took us to Inya Lake, which is situated within Yangon. I'm not sure of the exact geography of the lake, but from what I could tell, it's fed by at least one river/tributary. We arrived in time for the sunset, which made for some great photos. There was no one else there, though a hotel is right next to it, so it was a peaceful evening for us.

Dinner was at Grand Royal Restaurant, where we had Chinese food such as beef kway teow, fried rice, sambal kangkong, sweet and sour pork. Total cost: 39,000 kyat (plus tips).

Over dinner, we "interrogated" our driver (all in good fun, of course), and got a few insights:
  • he's a Chinese Myanmarese, his grandparents were from Fujian, and he can speak Mandarin
  • he holds a degree in geology (my uncle later revealed that almost everyone has a degree for family pride, and degrees like geology and zoology rank at the bottom (i.e. for the sake of having a degree) while engineering and medicine are at the top)
  • government civil servants earn 60,000 kyat a month, private employees earn 30,000
  • therefore, it's more worthwhile to work for yourself, like as a driver
  • vehicles appreciate in price!
One thing I started to notice, initially from the waiters: things like money are exchanged with the right hand, while the left arm is bent across the chest at elbow level. By contrast, in Western societies (and in Singapore), it's polite to use two hands to hand over items.


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Monday, October 02, 2006

Myanmar, day 1 -- Arrive in Yangon

Yangon International Airport
I, my mum and our two fellow travellers landed at Yangon International Airport early in the afternoon. A shuttle bus took us from the plane to the terminal -- a less-than-one-minute ride. Clearing customs was a breeze. I was amused to see that it takes two officials to clear each traveller. Picking up our luggage was also easy-peasy.

Getting out of the airport was relatively painless since our travel agency had arranged for transport. The only thing that caught us by surprise was when several porters came forward to help us with our luggage. So we had to dig up a small tip. Fortunately, we had some spare kyat (Myanmar currency, pronounced "chet").

The half-hour journey to Yuzana Garden Hotel gave me my first taste of culture shock. Vehicles, which are right-hand-drive, are driven on the right side of the road. And everone just swerves and drifts without indication -- without crashing into anyone else. It's like all of the drivers have a shared telepathy.

Traffic also rarely stopped, usually only at the occasional red light junction. And then street peddler would appear to hawk their wares.

A typical building in the city.
The locals at a roadside eatery.

At the hotel, we were treated to coconut juice while the staffers arranged for our room. Our room, on the third storey (or second floor, as this former British colony calls it) had a ceiling that was waaay up there. But the floor was strangely dusty...

My aunt and uncle arrived soon after with the other two ladies. First thing to do was to convert currency. US$1 = 1,345 kyat (about S$1 = 850 kyat).

Dinner was at Western Park Restaurant (I think that's the name) -- which has a small bin at every table! -- with my uncle's ex-colleagues. It's a Chinese restaurant that serves pretty decent Chinese food. We had suckling pig, roasted duck, crab, fish (cooked in two styles) and more for slightly over 100,000 kyat. Six female singers provided live entertainment that night, crooning Myanmarese and English songs.

That night, I tuned in to Channel NewsAsia. Which was intriguing to me; I had a choice of BBC or CNN, and still chose CNA.


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