Story

Cell Phones in Myanmar

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Boy with a cellphone on an elephant. Image by Doug Bock Clark. Myanmar, 2017. 

Boy with a cellphone on an elephant. Image by Doug Bock Clark. Myanmar, 2017. 

I was riding in the back of a pickup truck through fallow rice paddies in the remote north of Myanmar when I spied the elephant and the boy. The boy lounged on the giant’s head, his feet hooked behind its ears to steer it along a muddy oxcart track so that he could keep his hands free to twiddle with his smartphone.

I leapt out of the truck and sprinted after them. As late as 2011, Myanmar had ranked last in the world for cellphone penetration—even behind North Korea. Today, there are 51 million SIM cards for a population of 54 million people—accounting for my journey through Myanmar to report for WIRED about how this windfall of technology was changing the country.

Before arriving, I had assumed that everyone would find the mobile revolution strange. But instead, I was shocked at how normal it had become to them.

“Cellphone? Cellphone?” I panted, once I had caught up to the boy and his elephant. They only stared at me. I was the strange sight in a country with approximately 5,500 working elephants. Then the boy smiled as if he understood and leaned down to offer me the phone.

He thought I wanted to make a call.