Checking in from Burma — when the Internet allows

BAGAN, MYANMAR — Ah, Burma . . . land of pagodas shimmering at dusk, of scorpions the size of external hard drives, of Buddhist monks who practically quiver with spiritual grace yet have also been known to torch villages of people they don’t like.

And now, ever-so gradually, Myanmar, as it’s also known, is enjoying the easing of militaristic rule and the flowering of something akin to democracy, at the same time that it slowly climbs up onto that high-speed digital train into the future.

To put it politely, Internet here is spotty. So spotty, many would say it’s non-existent. I mean, if an email is sent and there’s nobody there who can read it, was it really sent? Still, over the past few days of my visit, I’ve managed to climb online, if just barely. At hotels in Yangon, the country’s former capital and largest city, and in Bagan to the north, the glorious home of more than 2,000 temples large and small strewn like golden dice across the Irrawaddy River plain, the Internet unveiled itself for the intermittent fleeting moment, like some shy princess pulling the wool out from in front of her eyes.

Still, despite technical challenges, the online business community is coming to life, if mostly in the country’s urban areas. Many startups are using their Facebook pages to kick-start commerce, and one study shows that Myanmar now has more than 600 websites indexed by, many of which are based overseas but serve the Burmese audience.

So that’s a start. Even though it could take years for Myanmar to get even close to catching up online with the rest of the world, things are starting to happen: New buildings are starting to go up in Yangon; colonial masterpieces left by the Brits are being renovated; a new terminal is starting to rise at Yangon’s still very much old-school airport; and crews are busy fixing up battered roads and bridges.

The obstacles to technological advancement are huge and complicated in this decidedly undeveloped land (case in point: as I type this, a large spider is crawling across my borrowed computer screen). For example, efforts to crank up mobile-payment systems by online vendors are hampered by the fact a very small number of residents possess a credit or bank card. But that’s changing. A German startup called Rocket Internet has come up with, even though it’s a fledgling and awkward system at best.

So if you come to visit this magical land, be prepared to spend a few glorious and satisfying days or weeks offline, meditating instead of Instagramming, enjoying your gracious hosts instead of showing them the backside of your iPhones, savoring an off-the-grid life (while you still can) without constantly checking sports scores, stock prices, emails or Facebook status updates.

Ah, Burma.


Photo by Pat May


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