When Air Force One left, so did the technology.
International visitors quickly realized that cellphone service providers don’t provide service in Myanmar, putting it in the same category as a handful of countries that include Cuba and North Korea. Some residents have cellphones, but many others make calls at stalls equipped with land-line phones and people standing by to collect money. Finding wireless service is even more difficult. Only a handful of hotels and cafes have such service, but like air conditioning and electricity, it often doesn’t last for long.
There are signs that, finally, in small ways Myanmar is starting to catch up with the world.Guides offer English tours at the 2,000-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, a massive structure that despite the nation’s immense poverty gleams with gold and diamonds. A few of the fortunetellers that line busy Sule Paya Road now cater to foreigners. Billboards, written in Myanmar and English, advertise Samsung, Panasonic and Rolex products. One promoted cappuccino with “real foamy Italian taste!” Credit cards still aren’t accepted, but visitors can pay some hotels, now filled to capacity, in U.S. dollars.
The airport, however, can still barely handle one flight taking off at a time.
And in a nation where English isn’t regularly spoken, young men have found the couple of words needed for a job that they never could have anticipated a few years ago. Standing on busy streets, they forcefully offer to change foreign money into Myanmar kyat, for a small fee, of course. “Change money? Change money?” they insistently ask anyone who doesn’t look as if he belongs. Those living in near-isolation for five decades are just getting a sense of what the rest of the world is like – and some apparently are finding they like it.
In Yangon’s huge Bogyoke Aung San Market, where stall after stall displays Myanmar’s traditional white cotton shirts and velvet slippers, vendors have added a new item: red, beige and blue T-shirts with an image of Obama, the same one that became famous during the 2008 election. But instead of the word “hope,” the shirts are adorned with another word that better reflects Myanmar’s state: “progress.”