Ever since a formerly anonymous Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire a year and a week ago, the Arab Spring has blazed unceasingly, notably in Cairo’s Tahrir Square where, in the last year, the Egyptian people have managed to ouster their former Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak. Just three weeks ago, the fourth most populous Arabic state held the first round of primaries for parliamentary elections, the first elections since Mubarak’s resignation.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis—though they have no plans to forge a formal coalition—will prove to be formidable foes against the military establishment that has been in control. General Molla’s military has felt the increasing disaffection on the streets and has been trying desperately to rope the protestors back under their control by—you guessed it—savagely beating and shooting them while publicly denying all accusations of violence. In the most recent military crackdown, 17 people were killed in a week… Molla’s method of catching bees with honey.
It could make for great street theater, as Nathan and Matt would arrive during the final round of parliamentary primaries. The people are clearly very badly in need of a sensible leader—not a general, not a mullah, but a visionary with compassion for his countrymen. May I suggest this man?
Tourism has suffered tremendously since Egyptians people have taken to the streets. Stability seems the political equivalent of parting the Red Sea. Anyone brave enough to visit Egypt as a tourist would probably receive a hero’s welcome. Egypt’s attractions, from the ones built by chosen people to the resorts along the Mediterranean, are empty, and the country’s tourism webpages are virtual ghost towns, scarcely updated and eerily devoid of any mention of Cairo. Furthermore, an understated component of the Salafi platform involves the promotion of “Halal Tourism,” Islam’s brand of radical R & R.
Granted, we are not against some sort of correction of the cultural excesses of package-tour-Meccas on the Red Sea like Hurgada, which Nathan visited with a bunch of sweaty Germans years ago. Hurgada is a place where wrinkly and orangish Germans and Italians gather on the beach to expose themselves pre Bunga-Bunga. It’s all so aberrant that the only people who will work the resorts are the Copts, Egypt’s oft-pissed-on Christian minority, who are distinguishable because that carve a cross into their forearms at a young age. Yipes.
So while we are no fans of Hurgada, this idea of Halal Tourism worries us. Or is maybe worth investigating. Either way, halal is best for deciding how to slaughter a goat, not for deciding how to spend your precious vacation days.
The real culture, then, is still along the Nile, not the Red Sea. It took some digging to find any cultural activity in Egypt that doesn’t involve nightsticks, gunfire, shouting or brutality, but we’re intrigued by the dark Egyptian Street Art: shadows painted on the walls of alleys and dusky corridors of the city that calls itself “The Vanquisher”.
Cairo will perservere. It has seen worse. It has survived plague, famine, war, assassination, and Elizabeth Taylor’s rendition of Cleopatra. And in fact, Cairo became (and remains) the center of the film and music industries in the Middle East, producing stars whose names can be conjured with a quick wiki search. For a bumping example of contemporary Egyptian music, pop star Amr Diab is worth checking out.
Anyway, Egypt’s weather in January is supposed to be some of the best of the year there, but if the military government still has the internet shut down by then, reporting from Cairo could be tricky. Tell us what you think.
You probably get asked this all the time, but are there any internships available?!
Yes! What’s not to like about interns?! We picked one up in a bar in NYC, and the other in the middle of a war zone in northern Burma. But we’re still happy to hear from more. Anyone interested should send a bit about themselves to roadsandkingdoms at gmail.
“Social media is huge for us. We’re starting out as a Tumblr, for example, not just because it’s great for articles/photos/videos, but because it’s so shareable. We want people to get involved, not just as passive consumers, but as advisers and compañeros along the way.”—From an interview about Roads and Kingdoms on AOL’s travel site Gadling. Y’all been warned.
There are no ATMs. In fact, there is no legitimate way to secure cash once in the country. Bring American dollars, big ones (the larger the bill, the better the exchange rate), and change them over at the Scott Market in Rangoon, where the rates are generous. Make sure they’re crisp; if they can’t break skin, they ain’t worth shit in Burma. Seriously: nearly every foreigner there is carrying around a bunch of worthless $20s and $100s they can’t use or exchange anywhere because of a single nick or crease. Go to a bank before you leave, get brand new bills.
Don’t expect to send photos or upload videos (or launch a website) from Burma. Internet does exist, but it runs at the same speed it did back when Al Gore invented it. Your best bet for doing anything other than watching the spinning wheel of death is to stay up late or get up early; Internet between midnight and sunrise seems to run about three times faster than it does during the waking hours.
Yes, those men are wearing skirts. They’re called longyi and they’re actually pretty damn cool. You might even have the urge to rock one by trip’s end, but do your best to resist. A non-Burmese man in a skirt just looks like a tool.
No, those women are not preparing for war. That makeup on their faces is called thanaka, and besides being an effective natural sun block (made from ground bark), it’s also a bit of a style statement. Pay attention to the different shapes—circles, stripes, swirls—women paint on their cheeks throughout the day.
Skip the free hotel breakfast. That was the piece of advice offered by legendary cookbook author and Burma trailblazer Naomi Duguid the first morning in our hotel and for it we owe her dearly. Even the dodgiest hotels will offer breakfast, and although it might be free sustenance, it’s a terrible waste of what may be Burma’s best meal of the day. Pull up a plastic stool at a teashop and order samosas, a plate of mohinga noodles, and a coffee with a twist of lime. It’ll set you back less than $2.
That smooching sound is not some dude making a pass at your girl. The international signs for flagging down a waiter—finger waves, chin nods, etc—carry little currency in this country. Instead, two short kisses are used to get someone’s attention. The trick is to make the sound via a thin stream of air passing through your lips, rather than from the lips themselves—a trick I never quite mastered, so my spirited attempts at authenticity invariably ended in me sounding like a pervert.
Those red stains you see everywhere—on street corners and in the cracks of sidewalks and stained to the grills of nearly every man the country over? They’re not blood, they’re betel juice. Betel nut is chewed throughout SE Asia, but in Burma it’s an indispensable part of the daily diet. Hard squares of betel nut are wrapped in betel leaves slicked with lye and laced with an Indian curry’s worth of spices—cardamom, fennel seed, star anise, rose powder, maybe even a touch of tobacco. For a mere 50 kyat (about six cents), you get a chance to fill the streets with your own personal burgundy stream, just like a local. With the texture of a two-by-four, it makes for a tough chew, but by the time the nut’s mildly narcotic juices start flowing and your head starts spinning, you won’t mind in the slightest.
Rise with the sun. The best hours of the day in Burma are from six to eight in the morning, when the light is soft, the heat gentle, and the naan bubbling hot from the tandoor ovens invariably firing in front of the city teashops.
“Where you from?” is the Burma’s unofficial way of greeting a foreigner. You could be racing down a country road on the back of a moped and rather than a wave or a simple “hello”, a group of kids will shout “where you from?” as you go screaming by.
Skip the crab. Unless you see them pluck it directly from the Andaman Sea, it’s probably not worth the risk. There’s not enough chili paste in China to overpower the debilitating powers of a rancid crab (just ask Nathan). Refrigeration is spotty, so seafood is best consumed in the earlier hours of the day.
Hip-hop is king. Want to make friends? Study up on the scene. We found ourselves in numerous heated discussions about the three generations of Burmese rappers and the various alliances and beefs between them. Or better yet, bring some burned discs with the latest Odd Future or Quannum Projects mix tape to offer as a gift from the West.
Rehearse your China talking points. All of the locals we spoke with—old women, young monks, chatty cabbies—were eager to talk about China’s stranglehold on their country. Among the many accusations I heard leveled against the neighbors to the north: “heroin pushers,” “jade thieves,” and “silent colonialists.”
English Premier League is serious business in Burma. Part of this, of course, is the lingering residue of British imperialism, but the more prosaic explanation for the EPL passion lies in the fact that most English soccer matches on the weekend take place midday (i.e. just after dinner time in Burma), meaning that by the time Wayne Rooney sets up for that bicycle blast, the Burmese spectators are on their third Dagon forty.
The only thing as fickle as the Internet in Burma is the power grid. Matters have apparently improved markedly in recent years; not long ago, power was only available for part of the day (in some rural parts of the country, scheduled blackouts may still be the rule). Still, don’t be surprised if you’re left groping in the dark.
The oil is there for a reason. I’ve heard lots of people complain about Burmese food being oily, but this isn’t the result of a nation of heavy-handed cooks; it’s a basic protective measure. With little reliable refrigeration, curries are cooked early and often kept throughout the day. The layer of oil shields against bacteria and spoilage, so be thankful it’s there.
Burma runs on its own time. Literally. It’s one of the few countries in the world to operate in a offset time zone. Burma is eleven and a half hours ahead of EST—a half-hour behind the majority of Southeast Asia.
It’s never been easier to go. We managed to secure visas in just under five hours in Bangkok with nothing more than a few passport photos, an application, and about $40 cash. Still, if you’re a journalist, better you dream up a new profession when filling out the section on job history. We went as caterers from New York, complete with our own business cards. (Slogan: Tri-Tip for the Tri State.) In Burma, you can never be too sure. -MG
Awesome. Dashne Murad's cousin reblogged us and recommended that we go to Kurdistan, because, among other things, “we will be welcomed and praised for being White”. Well, who doesn’t like that? Except for, you know, people who are not white.
“ Dashne Murad, revered by her people as “The Kurdish Shakira”. She doesn’t sing very well, but she’s probably the hottest Kurdish woman alive, so she seemed like a logical choice for a cultural icon. “
omg that’s my cousin you’re talking about.
But yes, Kurdistan is a very nice place to go if you want to see beautiful scenery, be welcomed and praised for being White, excellent food, and cheap things to buy at the bazaar.
Just don’t tell people you’re from America or speak English around Taxi drivers because they will charge you extra because they suspect you’re rich.
Hey sports fans, If you can believe it, Nathan and Matt gave their intern the responsibility of presenting the potential destinations for their upcoming trip, which is scheduled for late January or early February. In turn, the reader (that’s you), will decide where they’ll end up going. Questions, comments, concerns, previous experiences, preconceived notions, ungrounded prejudices, fact-based biases and obnoxious trolling are not only encouraged, but will be crucial factors in determining which Kingdoms our heroes’ Roads (heh heh) will lead them to next. Here is the current shortlist:
Over the next days and weeks, I’ll provide what information I can about each candidate to help you weigh the options. Each has its merits, each its pitfalls. They represent a vast spectrum of conditions; from hellish and hazardous to peaceful and placid. Some are safe for journalists, some dicier; all have their fascinations. Onward to this week’s highlighted destination:
KURDISTAN Even in light of the recent troop withdrawal, Iraq wouldn’t seem like a very appealing destination. It hasn’t been great for foreigners for decades (post-2003: cannon-fodder; pre-2003: human shield). However, in the last twenty years, Kurdistan has effectively separated itself from the rest of Iraq and from its vicitimization at the hands of Saddam and other Iraqis. Kurdistan has gone so far as to call itself “The Other Iraq,” and the Kurds have managed to refashion their region into a rapidly developing modern state with all of the framework of independent governance. The Kurdish Regional Government lacks only, um, international recognition. Which is actually not a small thing. But they do have this: since the U.S. established a no-fly zone over the region following the First Gulf War in 1991, there has been (relative) peace.
Tourists, primarily Middle Eastern families and adventurous whites (that’s us!), have been flocking to Kurdistan to take advantage of its mountains and the burgeoning hub city, Erbil. Something that it makes a bit of a time warp: Kurdistan has benefited immensely from both Gulf Wars and have a mad affection for the U.S.A. and our former sheriff-in-chief, George D. Bush.
That might explain their almost-comical cheesy cultural output. Their famous musicians include mustachioed pop-star Aziz Weisi and Dashne Murad, revered by her people as “The Kurdish Shakira”. She doesn’t sing very well, but she’s probably the hottest Kurdish woman alive, so she seemed like a logical choice for a cultural icon. We admire Kurdish taste. Much like Texas taste.
Kurdish cooking, though, isn’t quite Kreuz Market. It’s more like typical Persian and near-eastern fare: a lot of shawarma, naan, kebabs, etc. They have many special dishes with kooky names… like kuki (a meat/vegetable pie). Sounds like a badass knish.
With the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Iraq, Kurdistan still sounds like a pretty newsworthy part of the world these days. Might also be a nice place for the boys to take a breather after being whipped through Burma. Next to Kachin State, Kurdistan sounds like paradise, of sorts.
Haven’t heard from the boys in a couple of days. If they’re on schedule, they should both be heading back to Rangoon for a night of revelry, but something tells me they’ve been set off course. According to their itinerary, Nathan (and possibly Intern #2 Zach) should be in Kachin State and Matt in Bagan. All three should be headed back to Rangoon by now, or at the very least, soon.
Perhaps Nathan has remained to cover the fighting, which has worsened in recent days. Bloody clashes between the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and Burmese government troops immediately followed widely publicized peace talks the two parties had held only several days ago. As Nathan previously reported, a shroud of darkness and fear veils the streets of Myitkyina and, “all is not well.” The supposed ceasefire changed nothing. Secretary Clinton’s visit seems to have changed very little thus far.
Her visit did gain a great deal of attention, however, despite being ignored by the government-run paper, The New Light of Myanmar. Citizens flocked to newsstands to find copies of any publication showing Secretary Clinton and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi hitting it off.
Though fighting in the north and the borders rages on, and poverty remains rampant in all cities (besides possibly the ghost-capital Nyapyidaw), things seem to be heading in the direction of change. By suspending construction of a Chinese hydroelectric dam project, Myanmar’s government has asserted to China that it need not be dependent upon the superpower, an action that few wealthy western countries would have taken.
But they do, and right now, the fighting along that border is as bad, if not worse, than ever, and it seems that no amount of peace-talks will quell the fighting, which has spilled into western China. Let’s just hope that Nathan and Zach are safe either in Myitkyina, or on a train bound out of harm’s way.
It’s been a week since Nathan and Matt arrived in Burma. In that time, they’ve covered the country from north to south. They began in Rangoon where they toured the urban center, visited the New Zero art space, hung out with hip-hop artist Thxa Soe, hung around Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and got some cooking tips from food critic Naomi Duguid.
Now the two are separated: Matt’s in Pagan, gazing at the stupa temples that stand as magnificent symbols of Burma’s rich past, while Nathan is in the far northern Kachin region, experiencing firsthand Myanmar’s wretched present. His brief report was just that—terse, stark and haunting. To live in fear is to live in bondage, but it seems that the residents of these border regions live in conditions beyond any imaginable conception of fear most Americans may have. An estimated 3 million (official and unofficial) people are displaced, living in camps, or in nomadic clusters of fellow former villagers.
There’s no predicting where they’ll be tomorrow—they’ve deviated heavily from their intended itinerary—but we can look forward to hearing more from the boys in Burma and their new intern, Zack, who will hereafter be referred to as “Intern no. 2,” or “Intern B” if it suits him. As for Intern no. 1, I’ll be waking up at about 4 a.m. to move boxes at Costco, so I’m gonna get some shuteye. All the best to our presumably beautiful readers,
So Nathan and Matt are heading up to Myitkyina, Kachin province, to report on the region’s continuing struggle with the Myanmar government. By train or by bus, I’m not sure, but let’s hope they can provide some snapshots of their trek up through Burma. Clinton’s gone and, save for glimmers of hope for a brighter, freer Burma, nothing has really changed. Ethnic war and genocidestill rage on the Eastern border with Thailand (though Thein Sein intends to instigate a “Bold Peace Initiative”); artists like those whose works hang in New Zero and musicians like Thxa Soe still have to contend with the maniacally obsessive censorship board; Buddhist Monks remain repressed.
In the city of Myitkyina (meaning “near the big river” for its proximity to the Ayeryarwady River), war with China has been perpetual for some time. The Kachin people have been subject to atrocities at the hands of the junta, which seems, at the moment to be somewhat intent on relenting the oppression. That doesn’t mean immediate peace, however, between the regime and the Kachin people, who have been fighting in western China since the SPDC took power in the late-eighties.
So the boys are going into harm’s way to report on the devastating state of things in Northern Burma. We wish them the best of luck from stateside and look forward to a firsthand account of the war-torn jungle.
A short post here to say that I have arrived in Myitkyina safely, and to say that all is not well in this town. Heavy military presence throughout the city, curfews, warnings not to stray from the city because of the Kachin uprising being fought throughout the hills to the north and south of here. Am told there were sirens throughout the night last night. Tourists are no longer allowed to take the boat from here to Bahmo, since two rockets were fired recently at river boats. That’s the rumor, at least. In town: reasonably safe.
Hard to believe the immigration police here—I was in line behind six Chinese nationals on arrival—actually bought my story that I am a caterer on vacation. Who the hell would come here on vacation right now?
I am confident, though, that if we stay between the lines, we will not have any problems.
I said “we”: though Matt has broken to Bagan so we can give you a look at Burma’s biggest and most mindblowing tourist destination, and though I arrived here solo, I found in Myitkyina a second Roads and Kingdoms intern (don’t worry, Chad, you are still top dog of the interns). He is a somewhat wildeyed backpacker/freelance journalist named Zack Goldman. I bought him lunch, he told me he had braved military checkpoints in the hills to visit Mitsone Dam, the controversial Chinese project that was recently canceled by the Myanmar government. He has stones, that one, and I’m short a man, so voila: new intern. Plus, he is hungry and will work for fried rice.
So Nathan and Matt are in Bagan today (alternate spelling, Pagan). This land of a thousand temples is southwest of Mandalay and dead west of Nyapyidaw. The city’s stupas (Burmese Theravada Buddhist temples) are magnificent, but they are haphazardly maintained by the junta, resulting in the city’s denial from the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Its grandeur, however, transcends the country’s current shackles. Hopefully Matt and Nathan will grab some snapshots to capture that.
Meanwhile, Madame Clinton peaced out of Burma today, feeling, as Bloomberg reports, "cautiously hopeful" that the junta will take actions that will allow the U.S. to lift the decades-long sanctions held against Burma. In the same breath, China, who basically threw a hissy fit against Clinton for visiting their little buddy west of Thailand, signed a defense agreement with Myanmar. Does this add an unnecessary dimension of futility to Clinton’s hopes of appealing to the junta? Perhaps. The junta’s probably just covering its bases.
With Hillary Clinton stateside, safe and sound, the boys remain in Burma, steady on their course. After Bagan they’ll head back to Rangoon to push through the remainder of their trip.
Ask someone who’s been to Burma about the food and you’re likely to get a shoulder shrug, or maybe even a scowl. I spent hours sifting through online forums and magazine databases and printed research packets and came up with the same vague chorus: Not safe. Not Thai. Not good.
Lonely Planet, in their infinite road-hardened wisdom, offers up a section of tips “to help you persevere”, as if Burmese food were a desert marathon or a mysterious rash. We’ll do those jokesters one better and offer up a few ideas for how to turn the food here into one of best parts about a trip to Burma.
Start with coffee and donuts. Rise with the sun, when the light is soft, the heat is gentle and the city still has sleep in its eyes. Head to a local teashop, sidestepping roving coconut carts and young monks wrapped in pink robes along the way. Stoke your hunger next to the fires of the teashop tandoor oven, where someone will be stretching and toasting your daily bread with a nonchalance that belies the love and experience that goes into this ancient practice. Order samosas, stuffed with a mash of curried peas or wilted cabbage and potatoes. And vada, Indian lentil donuts as intensely savory as a Sunday pot roast with edges crisp enough to break skin. And, of course, that blistered naan bread, which comes with a bowl of creamy chickpeas and maybe a spoonful of sugar for slathering on top. Wash it down with a cup of black coffee with a twist of lime. Bonus points: Bring a local and convince him to bend his ear to the local gossip—this morning, the whispers no doubt concern the Lady’s new BFF in the West—and offer up on-the-spot translations. I’m told teashops are where the country’s most pressing matters are discussed.
Follow the (en)trails. The open-air markets of Burma aren’t tame affairs. There will be piles of tiny tidal shrimp and hulking catfish whose whiskers still twitch with rigor mortis. There will be goats’ heads and fish guts and puddles of burgundy betel juice. Purple mountains of shrimp paste. There will be blood. And somewhere, amidst the chaos, there will be a squat table with a round-faced woman wearing a generous smile and a few thick stripes of thanakha, which looks like war paint but is more about blocking out the sun. She will serve you a plate of rice, a pile of fresh vegetables to dip in a bowl of fish paste and chili, and a soup of wilted greens with a sour hit of tamarind. These are the staples of the Burmese lunch, the day’s main meal, and you will find them at nearly every place you eat in this country. Your only job is to point at the bowls surrounding that sweet woman—the goat meatballs, the tiny fish slicked with chili and pregnant with smoke, the bright pink cakes of rice paste and dried shrimp—eat with gusto and smile warmly when you leave.
Stalk a world-class cookbook author and force her to reveal the delicious mysteries of this elusive cuisine. We didn’t do that, exactly, but when we heard Naomi Duguid would be in Rangoon during our time here, we just happened to find ourselves staying at the same hotel. Duguid is the author of the region’s greatest cookbook, the types of lush, sprawling tomes that routinely collect James Beard awards and cult followings. She’s also a personal hero of mine. Her books don’t just deliver the flavors of the Mekong or southern India or the far-flung regions of China, but the entire DNA of these places—the smells of the morning market, the sounds of the bread maker at work, the life story of the old woman that’s been hand-pulling rice noodles all these decades. Over the last few days, she has generously shared her time and her wisdom with us, introducing us to the people and places that helped inspire her upcoming book, Rivers of Flavor, which will do a much better job than me at convincing the world of the brilliance of Burmese food when it comes out in September. Before Naomi, we had rancid crab and food poisoning; after her, we had some incredibly memorable meals and a deeper appreciation for the cooks in this country.
But it’s not Naomi you need (as luxurious as it’s been to have her on our side), just her sense of fearlessness and wonder. People come to places like Burma and fail to eat well because they’re afraid of ordering something they won’t like, of the awkwardness of having an unidentifiable pile of food that they just can’t stomach. There have been a number of things I haven’t liked here (shrimp paste, in particular, in all its fermented funk, is a tough one for me to stomach without more practice), but behind every minor miss has been a flavor that will follow me well beyond these borders. Naomi or not, open eyes, persistent hunger, and a relentless sense of curiosity are all you need to crack the code—here and anywhere. But here is as good a place to start as any.