Key tie tips trade target

Forget the 'gay' pink shirt, John Key is working the tie on his whirlwind south east Asian tour this week.

And while the prime minister's fuchsia silk top caught the eye of the US President, it took Barack Obama a while to crack the code spelt out in Key's neck-wear on Tuesday.

The cow-print tie was a secret message to the US during trade talks: New Zealand takes agriculture seriously.

Eventually Obama did get the hint, pointing out the design on the pale blue accessory during TPP talks in Cambodia on Tuesday.

Since the subtle signalling seemed to work, Key sported elephants for his first official trip to Myanmar yesterday. In Buddhism the elephant is a symbol of mental strength and power. In Myanmar, an elephant without tusks is also the zodiac animal symbol for those born on a Wednesday afternoon - as Key was.

According to the astrology of Myanmar's ancient monks, those born at that time are hard to figure out because of their contradictory nature - but successful and excellent at promoting themselves.

However, Key did not need to self-aggrandise: his very arrival made front page headlines. A VVIP (as the signage on his official motorcade spelt out) he was shown around one of the country's most sacred sites: the 2600 year old Swedagon pagoda in central Yangon.

Glittering in the twilight, the 99-metre high gilded stupa is set with 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies, sapphires, and other gemstones. At the crown sits a single 76-carat diamond. Surrounding the pagoda are smaller shrines: fittingly known as Nats.

Barefoot and chanting monks stopped and stared as his entourage past.

One small tourist child asked his mother who the man at the centre was. "Someone from Europe?" she shrugged.

Also shoeless, Key carried out two Buddhist rituals, before holding a mini-press conference beneath the Bohdi tree, under which Buddhas gain enlightenment.

"I've been absolutely stunned," Key said of his first impressions of Myanmar. Of course, he isn't just there to sightsee. Just like US President Barack Obama earlier this week he will observe progress towards democratic reform. And change is everywhere.

Cafes and taxis display pictures of former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi. The clean-swept streets are jammed with new cars - the lifting of ban on importing foreign vehicles has brought around 40,000 in the last two years alone. Buildings - particularly hotels - are springing up, embassies are opening and the once extortionate cost of mobile phones is falling.

However, evidence of oppression still lingers - and the transition is on the military's terms. The New Zealand media delegation was accompanied everywhere by a minder - a journalist from a government owned paper.

Out on the streets, half-clothed children cling to their street-vendor mothers, hawking plastic shoes and stringy barbecued meat. Even in the city's swankier hotels, power cuts are frequent.

"It is very much in its infancy, and it's quite fragile," Key said of the reforms.

During talks with President Thein Sein, a former junta henchman, Key will today offer New Zealand's assistance.

"A lot of the things that we might take for granted, quite basic things about consultation, policy development, legislation, it is all very very new to what has effectively been a military regime for a very long period of time."

Last night, there was no word on which animal print he will use to strengthen diplomatic ties with the quasi-civilian government.