We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in
Myanmar’s culture is largely a result of heavy Indian influences intertwined with local traditions and some Chinese influences. This can be seen in the various stupas and temples throughout the country, which bear a distinct resemblance to those in northern India. Like neighbouring Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is the single largest religion, and even some of the most remote villages will have a village temple for people to pray at.
Other religions which exist in smaller numbers include Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. People The dominant ethnic group in Myanmar is known as the Bamar, from which the original English name of the country, Burma, was derived. Besides the Bamar, Myanmar is also home to many minority ethnic groups and nationalities which have their own distinct cultures and languages. In addition to the native ethnic minorities, Myanmar is also home to ethnic Chinese and Indians whose ancestors migrated to Myanmar during the colonial period, most visible in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Generally speaking, the divisions in Myanmar are Bamar-dominated, while the states are dominated by the respective ethnic minorities. The Rohingya Muslim people are a heavily oppressed minority.
Mentioning the ongoing conflict between the Buddhist population and government with the Rohingya could be a sore subject. Generally speaking, most Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite, and will do their best to make you feel welcome in their country.
Despite recent developments, Myanmar is still a conservative country and visitors should keep that in mind. Modest clothing is highly appreciated everywhere except nightclubs, and practically required in religious places such as pagodas, temples and monasteries (of which there are thousands).
Miniskirts, shorts and sleeveless shirts are not allowed in consecrated areas, where you also have to remove your footwear, so loafers and flip-flops that can be slipped on and off are highly recommended. Myanmar has some of the most stunning temples in Asia and you will be tempted to visit more than you think. You can readily purchase modest clothing that is also light and cool. Both men and women wear a longyi, a sort of sarong sold everywhere, and it is not unusual to see Caucasian foreigners walking around in them. They are wrapped in different ways for men and women, so find out how to tie yours. If you turn up at a temple in inappropriate dress, you can always rent a longyi for a pittance. Also avoid t-shirts with images of Buddhas or Buddhist imagery, which is considered highly disrespectful.
Folks are forgiving about it, but one should not look like a bigger fool than is necessary. Give generously at temples and monasteries but women are not allowed into some sacred areas; actually the restriction should cover only women in menstruation, but since it would be rude to ask and unthinkable to verify, they keep all ladies out. You will often see monks begging for alms in the streets in the morning (they are not allowed to eat after noon). Note that monks are not allowed to come into physical contact with the opposite sex, so be careful not to touch hands if offering a donation.
In addition, you should only donate food to the monks, as they are not allowed to accept money under any circumstances and giving money to a monk is considered a sign of disrespect; those that accept money are almost always fakes. You can also purchase little squares of gold leaf to apply to consecrated statues. When praying or paying respects, it is important to ensure that the *soles* of your feet do not point towards the Buddha or anyone else. However, statues are arranged so that won’t happen unless you get acrobatic about it.
Tuck your feet underneath you when kneeling at shrines and temples. Public displays of affection such as prolonged kissing are shunned. Physical contact such as shaking hands with strangers is uncommon, especially between members of the opposite sex, except in business settings. A friendly smile and a nod of acknowledgement will suffice when introducing yourself.
When receiving items from people who could be considered equal to or higher than you in status, it’s respectful to use your left hand to support your right elbow, and receive it with your right hand. Tourists of Caucasian descent are commonly referred to as bo, which translates “leader”, as a sign of respect. Address elders with U (pronounced “oo”, as in soon) or “Uncle” for men, and Daw or “Auntie” for women. If these honorifics are too complicated for you, address people with the prefixes “Mister” and “Miss” and you will be understood. Generally speaking, despite the common negative perception of the government, most ordinary Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite as long as you respect their local customs. Customer service is in general very good (some say better than in Thailand) but customer service staff are invariably poorly paid, so you might wish to tip service staff generously to ensure your money goes into the right hands.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Burma, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Burma food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Burma? Please comment below.