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Unplugged in Yangon

Author: Bill Barnett. Category: News Column - Property Report SEA. Posted: 7th Oct 2013

Man's best friend without a doubt is a dog, but coming a close second has to be his personal mobile computing device. My friends often compare me to a vanquished dinosaur when they spot my Blackberry, but I make no apologies. My fingers are the size of young coconut trees and all sorts of spelling catastrophes come up when a touch screen comes in contact with my bear-like paw.

In a life spent going from near disaster to the end of disaster, my latest cliff-hanger started when I tried to boot up my MacBook Air while transiting Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and heading off to a real estate conference in Yangon. Pushing the button once, twice and then a rapid staccato only brought a blank screen. This of course was not good, given a three day journey laid ahead and the promise of going unplugged for any period longer than an hour brought fear to my heart.

The fear continued until I landed in Myanmar and resigned myself to a fate worse than death - being bare naked crazy in Southeast Asia's emerging market storyboard. I recalled the fragile hero of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge who sought out spiritual awakening when the world came crashing down around his ankles. Monkhood was not an option, as I simply can't wear a robe - a black t-shirt yes, but not one of those voluminous flowing things which remind me of accidentally wrapping myself up in a hotel curtain during an alcohol-induced bender.

Somehow I managed to make it through the first night and rose as dawn broke and a new day came up over the nearby Sule Pagoda. Hitting the streets of the city, one thing that became swiftly apparent is that in the short span of a year or so, a new urban phase of carmageddon has taken over in a python death grip. Cars, taxis, buses were everywhere and it was absolute gridlock.

Weaving my way to the Parkroyal Hotel for the 2nd Annual Myanmar Real Estate Conference was somewhat of a chore, but I was on a mission, one that had me unplugged but with a faint whisper of hope out there somewhere. And yes, this hope followed closely behind, not dissimilar to a cold war plot which trailed along dodging behind trees and a street side samosa stand.

As in all conferences or meetings of any sort, there must be caffeine. In most instances this can be classified into the good, the bad and the ugly. On this particular Tuesday, it was hard to pinpoint exactly which measure applied, so let's go with "not too bad, but not too good". Geared up, eyes wide open and my mind clear of any outside influences caused by surfing the internet, I felt like a North Korean, until a platter of chocolate croissants brought me back to the future.

Throughout the conference, being in with the vibe was good, it was not dissimilar to the Maugham classic novel, "High's and low's, optimism and yet self doubt". There is little doubt Myanmar's property sector will emerge, but the biggest question has to be does it have the same engine which has driven most of Southeast Asia's broad real estate sector over the past five years? This is an emerging middle class or more exacting, a consumer class? How deep is the market?

Yes, property ownership is possible on a 50 year lease with two 10 year options, though finding suitable titled land at a reasonable price is proving harsh. The market remains starved of cash and the easiest solution according to the experts is a joint venture. My heart skipped. "Remember the massive failures in China and Vietnam over the possibilities of mutual cooperation," said a Tiger Lily whisper.

A positive remains on the horizon for a condominium-type legislation that may allow foreigners to own 20 or 30 percent of units in a building, but no-one can say exactly when this will happen. Hotels on the other hand are coming in full force and global chain ACCOR already has eight management deals in place. Foreign investment is also visible in projects by Yoma Group and a JETRO planned port development, so things are moving, but not at the pace the world expects. Things in Myanmar are going to take just bit longer.

Driving back to the airport, after some 72 hours of being unplugged, my mind was full of ideas, thoughts, stories and inspirations from the weirdly wild streets of Yangon. All I now needed to do was get plugged back into the rest of the world as fast as possible.

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