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 courses, 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?