Oh, it’s been a good week for Burma. Political prisoners have been spilling from Insein Prison like candies from a piñata. Reformist president Thein Sein must have watched Invictus and wept like I did on my flight over to Burma, because he/I was a little drunk on free bourbon and because Nelson Mandela is such a beautiful man and the capacity to forgive is what separates humans from dogs or from the monkeys that try to steal your jewelry at Mt. Popa.
But before I get too moist about all the peace and love, I should remember that it’s all a means to an end. The end, in this case, is the end of sanctions. Myanmar wants out of its cage. It has been trapped in there with a rather selfish dragon for too long. So in exchange for all its good deeds, Myanmar now has friends in Oslo and maybe even Brussels. Roads and Kingdoms was live on the scene when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stormed Myanmar, but today and tomorrow Myanmar has its biggest prize so far: A Republican in Rangoon.
That’s right. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is on an official state visit, just as Washington announced full normalization of relations with Naw Pyi Daw. But having just been there, Roads and Kingdoms understands that it’s still not the easiest destination for anyone, let alone a staunchly conservative burgoo-lover from Louisville on his first trip to the land of shrimp paste. And while we’re not ready to Switch to Mitch at the ballot box, we do applaud his long record opposing the military junta (which included a failed attempt to get a visit to the country years ago). So with gratitude, here is the Republican’s Travel Guide to Rangoon.
The Strand Hotel: Never mind that a night in Burma’s most famous hotel runs more than the average Burmese makes in a year, this colonial palace is well worth the splurge. Each room comes equipped with its own private butler, who waits silently in the hallway until pressed into action. “Freshen your drink, Senator?” Well-heeled Westerners like to set up shop in the colonial bar and talk in low voices, which is why (or so we’re told) the government likes to have a set of friendly ears on hand at all times.
In the market for a Burmese keepsake that might help improve your 14 percent approval rating back at home? You could do no better than head to Bogyoke Market and get a travel-size version of one of Burma’s 37 nat, capricious spirits that hold great power over the daily affairs of local Buddhists. Treat your nat right and maybe Americans will forget about a few of those temper tantrums you threw in 2011. Better yet, you can pass it off as a peace offering to Barry or Harry or whoever and neglect to tell them about the nat’s strict diet of daily offerings: unripe bananas, coconuts, tobacco, and blended malt whisky. With the economy showing early signs of recovery, an angry nat could be just what the Republicans need coming into the 2012 election cycle.
Could there be any other destination than the Shwedagon Pagoda? Forget the fact that the murderess of Vince Foster walked that same ground on her official visit last month. The Shwedagon is an absolute must-see for the staunchest defender of unlimited money in politics. Sen. McConnell has been such a soulful warrior against the evils of campaign finance reform that his anti-FEC crusade went all the way to the Supreme Court in a case that presaged Citizens United. With an ardor for earmarks would make Steven Colbert blush, the Senator is sure to enjoy the orgy of gold that is Shwedagon. And yes, that is real gold, and no, it did not just jump up on the paya on its own: it was put there, in recent decades, at least, but the military junta, which tried to buy penance for its occasional bouts of monk-murder by larding as many Buddhist temples as possible with gold. Wrapping warped policies in the cloak of religion? Hmm, sounds familiar.
One little-known fact about the formerly brutal military dictatorship was that it was home to a number of golf course, vestiges of the Brit’s endless appetite for colonial luxuriation. We know how important it is for politicians, especially those so friendly to K-Street, to keep up with their short game, so we recommend the grand-père of all Myanmar courses, the Yangon Golf Club. Bonus: this lovely Steve McCurry photo of a Burmese servant-lady helping a golfer with the daunting task of placing a ball on the driving range tee. To paraphrase 007, in Myanmar, men come first.
The Senator won’t find any squirrels in Asia to remind him of burgoo, that famous Kentuckian stew of roadkill and spices, but if he heads to the Bogyoke Market stalls and looks for the sweet, heavy-set woman with the squat plastic table, he’ll find some dishes that hit a few familiar notes. The meal starts with a bowl of sour soup, made cheek-puckering with a heavy dose of tamarind and lime. Things get salty from there, with the help of a brick of shrimp paste and a few shakes of fish sauce used to lend a good measure of funk to Burma’s midday mélange of meat and fish curries. Lunch ends on a bitter note, a salad of tea leaves dressed with peanut oil, crushed nuts and tiny dried shrimp.
Or might we recommend a nice bowl of chili crab before the Senator’s long flight home?
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.