YANGON (Reuters) - U.S. security went barefoot on Thursday as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured one of Myanmar’s most revered shrines, a towering golden pagoda that is the symbol of a country seeking fresh rapprochement with the West.
Clinton arrived at the Shwedagon Pagoda shortly after arriving in Myanmar’s main commercial city, Yangon, and took off her shoes to follow respectful Buddhist tradition at a site rich with religious and patriotic significance for the country also known as Burma.
Clinton’s U.S. diplomatic security detail quickly followed suit, while barefoot agents in business suits fanned out across the huge complex of spires and Buddha statues, muttering into their radios.
A crowd of tourists and local visitors applauded as Clinton made the rounds, stopping to make an offering of flowers in front of the Gold Buddha statue, one of the centrepieces of the elaborate pagoda site, as well as to pause and hit a huge bell three times with a gold-adorned staff.
“Hitting the bell means she is sharing the merits of today’s events for both of our countries,” said Phone Myint, one of the tour guides at the shrine which dates back as far as the 6th century.
The visit represented an incongruous mash-up of official Washington, Asian tradition and modern-day tourism, with Clinton and her entire staff of diplomats, advisers and the travelling press all shuffling shoe-less past Buddha statues decorated with neon halos and stalked by feral cats.
The pagoda stop was also one of Clinton’s few chances to see anything of modern-day Myanmar, which is implementing tentative political reforms as it seeks to improve ties with Washington after decades of estrangement.
She is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit in more than 50 years, and U.S. officials say they still know little about a country many view as both hermetic and hard to read.
After finishing her pagoda tour, officials handed out moistened towelettes so the U.S. delegation could clean their feet.
Clinton later left her hotel for a dinner at the U.S. charge d‘affaires residence with Aung San Suu Kyi, the veteran pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate who has endorsed Washington’s outreach to Myanmar’s new military-backed civilian leaders.
The pair - arguably the two most famous women in the world - will dine on their own during their first face-to-face meeting, comparing notes on Myanmar’s political reforms and the country’s halting steps to re-engage with the rest of the world.
Earlier in the day, Clinton got an up-close view of another side of Myanmar, meeting President Thein Sein at his enormous presidential palace in the new capital of Naypyitaw - an almost deserted city established on orders of the former junta several years ago.
Clinton was the first senior U.S. official ever to visit the presidential office, and her car zipped along a deserted, 20-lane highway to reach the complex, a vast concoction of marble and chandeliers set on a bluff and protected by what looked like a moat.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie