Archive for August, 2007

Home again

Back to freezing Blighty, to find that I’m mentioned in The Sun newspaper and that there’s still been no summer. Depressingly, it took six hours to download and filter my emails, and that’s without comment spam on this site.

Have re-enabled comments on my Cambodia posts and am starting to add photo links to said posts. So go and see, and add your comments!

Phnom Penh

I didn’t like Phnom Penh (gallery) when I got here yesterday. It was raining, dark and seemed a bit sinister to me – possibly because of the “no guns, no knives, no handgrenades” signs outside the bars.

But I’ve warmed to it today. There’s some wonderful old colonial buildings, some photogenically tumbledown, so I had a nice hour snapping them until I remembered that why they’re so tumbledown – the Khmer Rouge destroyed many when they forcibly evacuated the city in 1975.

Then I went to the Tuol Sleng (gallery) detention and torture centre that the Khmer Rouge established in an old high school. When the Vietnamese liberated it,there were only seven people alive out of an estimated 17–20,000 souls who entered. The horrifying tiny cells are still there; the iron beds that people were shackled to for electric shocks are there. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, kept meticulous records of their genocide, so one of the most harrowing aspects of the exhibition is all the detainees’ mugshots. Some are children.

And then to the Killing Fields (gallery) themselves, where the prisoners of Tuol Sleng amongst others were murdered with hammers, axe handles, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. There’s a beautiful stupa filled with skulls of some of those who have been exhumed, but many still lie under the soil. As you walk around, you notice rags on the floor – but when you try to pick one up, you realise that they are the clothes people were wearing when they were murdered protruding up through the ground. There are bone fragments and teeth littering the pathways as you walk.

And then you realise that the Khmer Rouge were not just an aberration, and that the world isn’t any more vigilant or anxious to protect the weak now than it was in 1975—think of Rwanda, the massacres at Srebrenica, and the current genocide at Darfur.

Then, you thank your gods or your lucky stars that you live in a country where that kind of thing couldn’t happen – and then you wonder whether, given the right circumstances, you might not be floating the corpses of the women you’ve raped and the children you’ve slaughtered down the Thames, or the Rhine, or the Seine.

And then you wonder whether beneath each of our fragile veneers of civilisation, we aren’t each a grinning monster that would smash another human’s skull with a hammer just for enjoyment.

And then, if you’re like me, you go to the nearest bar that plays music and is full of the sound of conversation and laughter, and you drink until you stop thinking.

A nobel prize for Mr Aki Ra, please

I’m all templed out, and red as a lobster from the remorseless sun, so decided today to go to the Siem Reap landmine museum.

Cambodia is the nation with the highest number of disabled people, and the vast majority of disabilities are caused by landmines. Cambodia was heavily mined by the USA, Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge during its recent bloodlettings and, when the ceasefire was declared, nobody told the landmines – so between five and ten million of the devices just lie there in the jungle and in farms, waiting to be stepped on. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reports

In 2005, there were 875 new landmine/UXO [unexploded ordnance] casualties, maintaining the daily average of two new casualties since 2000.

The landmine museum was started by a Cambodian gentleman with the Japanese-sounding name of Aki Ra. As a child, he was forced by the Vietnamese to lay mines, and later worked for the United Nations de-mining. With the money he earned, he set up a small museum where he houses paintings, photos and lots of empty landmine shells. (Photo gallery)

He continues to voluntarily defuse mines that people alert him to, and claims to have made 50,000 safe. Using the $1 museum entrance fee and donations, Mr Aki Ra and his wife take in orphans and children who’ve been disabled by mines, housing them in the museum grounds where they teach them a trade so they don’t need to beg.

Here’s a impressionistic 30 second video taken today of Ta Phrom in the rain, a landmine-crippled Khmer band playing outside Ta Phrom and the Terrace of the Leper King.

Nhan, my Siem Reap driver

Stinky, wonderful Bangkok is the exception, but generally if I’m in South East Asia and travelling in a town for pleasure, I use open vehicles rather than enclosed, air-conditioned vehicles.

There’s something about the smell of South East Asia that I love, particularly in rainy season: a mix of mud, moist vegetation, decomposing garbage and car fumes, cowshit and coriander, all in that sauna-like humidity. You might mock, but that smell defines the region for me.

So, to travel round to the temples, I’ve chartered a tuk-tuk for the last couple of days. My driver is named Nhan (pronounced “Nyen” or ”Nee-en”), and the hotel use him to pick up guests from the airport, so I figured that if they trust him, I can. He’s seems a good guy; he’s genuinely enthusiastic about the temples and artefacts, he drives safely, he’s on time, he quotes sensible prices and he’s pretty mellow about not always trying to sell me stuff.

Sure, he’s tried; he understood my disinclination to go to the shooting range, where you buy a live cow and rent an AK47 to kill it with (it’s apparently very popular with Americans, so I just said, “I’m not American” and he accepted that). He probably thinks I’m mad that I didn’t accept his offer of taking me for a “boom-boom massage”, particularly when he’d already gleaned that my wife is in a different country. I can’t blame him for trying, though; in a country where the average annual income is hundreds rather than thousands of dollars, commerce is commerce.

Nhan’s quite a character. He giggles to himself and points every time we pass western woman with huge breasts, which is most of them in comparison to the very petite Cambodian women. It’s tricky not to warm someone who chuckles with glee at the sight of enormous ladybumps, and you’d think the novelty would have worn off by now – there’s lots of tourists in Siem Reap.

Another great thing about Nhan is his motorcycle helmet. I liked that he had one and wore it, as any man who actually wears a helmet cares about his own personal safety, and as I’m on a small vehicle being towed behind him, it means that I too will hopefully benefit from that care.

While staring at the back of it as we bumped down some entertainingly-surfaced track, I noticed that it was branded ”Space Crown”. I immediately felt massive respect for the anonymous marketing manager in some South-East Asian helmet factory, for he had done to me what every soap-powder advertiser dreams of: he’d made the mundane exotic.
motorcycle rider, with helmet branded 'space crown'

I’d been thinking of boring motorcycle helmets, but those two words ”Space Crown” made me think of exotic, heavily-armoured royal headgear worn by warring intergalactic emperors. I tried to think if I could devise a similarly exciting brand-name that might make me a crash helmet millionaire on my return to the UK.

All I could come up with was ”The James Bond Bionic Time-Travel Tiara” which should be even more thrilling, but I feel its potency is diluted by all those syllables.

Siem Reap, day one

Phew. My first day in Siem Reap, Cambodia is coming to an end. Up early to see Angkor Wat, Bayon and finally Ta Phrom has exhausted me – five marvellous hours wandering kilometers in 30+ celcius and humidity.

The tumble-down temples are breathtaking – and perfectly, albeit ironically, exemplify the buddhist idea that everything is impermanent.

Then a massage followed by food and some live apsara dancing – and just time for beer before bed and doing it all again tomorrow.

See you in September

I’m off for a holiday in Thailand and Cambodia (it’s tough kid, but it’s life).

Comments are disabled across this blog, as the thought of nuking weeks’-worth of comment spam fills me with horror. (Hey, WordPress developers – how about a “Disable new comments while I’m on holiday” option in the Options panel? Added July 2008: here is a “disable comments while I’m on holiday” plugin!)

See you in September.

Posted in ephemera . Comments Off on See you in September

Roll up, roll up

Before another self-promo plug, let me point you to a very good article by Jim O’Donnell on scripting accessibility into microformats. He talks a lot of sense, does that rocket scientist.

Meanwhile, there are just a few seats left for Wednesday’s day-long accessibility tutorial extravaganza “Real world accessibility” at the Barbican, London.

£275 gets you a whole day of pragmatic accessibility tips and discussion from some of the toppest, grooviest names in Web Standards and accessibility.

And me.

Everyone’s going redesign crazy!

I notice that Patrick “Herb” Lauke has redesigned/ realigned the Salford University website with some tasteful Flash – and made a video of the redesign process!

I too have had a modest recode, to remove scrollbars from Safari and to restore a footer to the design. Originally, I had no footer as I was absolutely positioning the sidebar from the bottom of the source to the left of the screen, and with a blog there’s no way to know which will be longer – the sidebar or main content.

But I like footers, so have got a gruesome CSS epicycle to hold the grid together. The content div is still before the sidebar in the source, but the content div is 100% wide to fill the screen and has a left border of 240px wide. The sidebar is 210px wide and is given a left-margin of -100%, superimposing it over the wide left border of the content div. A small problem with IE means there’s a small horizontal scrollbar, but I hope to get my brain around that (without an IE-only stylesheet dragged in conditional comments). (If you’ve got any ideas, do let me know.)

During my redesign, I made liberal use of Brothercake’s new Firefox extension “Dust-Me Selectors” to find unused CSS selectors. For those who have to rummage around legacy CSS written by other people (or wade through your own code that you wrote when drunk) it’ll prove as valuable as the Web Developer’s Toolbar and Firebug. And full marks to Brothercake and Sitepoint for releasing it for free.