Postcard from Myanmar, the world Obama left behind after visit


There are no credit cards. The Internet is virtually impossible to access. Other everyday conveniences we’ve grown accustomed to in the United States are nonexistent.

You couldn’t even find a Coke in Myanmar until a couple of months ago, when the Coca-Cola Co. announced that it would start exporting its drinks to the Southeast Asian nation for the first time in six decades. Diet Coke still seems to be out of reach.

In many ways, Myanmar is the land time forgot.

Tourists arriving in the country for the first time in two generations find it still looks much as it must have in the 1960s, when the military seized control of the government and began its 49-year rule.

International isolation has left the nation’s largest city, Yangon, resembling the old-fashioned colonial capital it was during more than a century of British rule instead of a large Asian metropolis buzzing with technology.

Massive colonial structures the size of Washington’s federal buildings – which once housed government agencies, courts and department stores – span block after block of downtown Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. Even the heavily guarded pale blue City Hall has a colonial motif, though with Asian overtones.

History books tell us that the Myanmar government kicked out squatters and began sprucing up the buildings 20 years ago. But while some have been restored to their former grandeur, most have been abandoned in desperate need of repair or covered in blue scaffolding.

Yangon, home to 4 million of the country’s 55 million people, doesn’t feel like the massive urban centers that dot Asia, such as neighboring Bangkok or Mumbai. There are no skyscrapers. Visitors flying into the former capital city can still see lush green fields, oxen hauling supplies and homes made of bamboo and dried leaves.

Everywhere you look, the infrastructure appears to have failed to keep up with the times.

Large dilapidated apartment buildings that appear uninhabitable are overflowing with residents. Streets and sidewalks, uneven right to left and up and down, are crammed with food stalls selling fruit unfamiliar to Americans, fried treats and cold drinks in plastic bags with straws. Vendors hawk T-shirts, jewelry made from Myanmar jade and traditional lacquerware handicrafts.

Secondhand books that look like third- or fourth-hand books are sold on Pansodan Street in what some call Yangon’s open-air library. Women wearing traditional longyi sarongs and heavy beige powder on their faces carry baskets on their heads, while men crowd the ubiquitous teahouses and the Myanmar version of food trucks, small carts where meat is cooked in front of the one or two people who are able to snag seats.

A 2010 election launched a series of political changes in the country – cease-fires in some ethnic conflicts, the release of political prisoners, loosened restrictions on the news media – and with political changes came cultural changes.

Last month, in an attempt to encourage the emerging democracy, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit a nation still known to most people as Burma, arriving to throngs of jubilant fans, who filled the streets, chanting his name and waving American flags.

A team from AT&T accompanied his staff and press corps, setting up phone and computer lines in a nation where only one in four people have electricity. They even managed to provide wireless communication – somewhat intermittently – for the U.S. media working on the manicured lawn outside the home of famed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the same place where the activist known in Myanmar simply as “the lady” spent 15 years under house arrest, presumably with no communication with the outside world.

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.”

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