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Myanmar Local Etiquette

Myanmar has only recently opened its doors to foreign travelers. After years of relative insulation from the outside world, the Burmese now have to contend with droves of foreigners with no idea how the locals work and live.
But the country isn't completely opaque as far as customs and traditions go. As Myanmar is a Theravada Buddhist country, like its neighbors Cambodia and Thailand, its citizens follow norms and traditions closely associated with the local religion. Follow these simple rules, and you can make your way through Myanmar without offending the locals

Culture Overview

Myanmar is a sovereign state located in the Southeast Asian region. Myanmar is bordered by India and Bangladesh to its west, Thailand and Laos to its east and China to its north and northeast. Its capital city is Naypyidaw, and its largest city and former capital is Yangon (Rangoon). Myanmar has been a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since 1997.

Early civilisations in Myanmar included the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu city-states in Upper Burma and the Mon kingdoms in Lower Burma. In the 9th century, the Bamar people entered the upper Irrawaddy valley and, following the establishment of the Pagan Kingdom in the 1050s, the Burmese language, culture and Theravada Buddhism slowly became dominant in the country. 

The Pagan Kingdom fell due to the Mongol invasions and several warring states emerged. In the 16th century, reunified by the Taungoo Dynasty, the country was for a brief period the largest empire in the history of Mainland Southeast Asia. The early 19th century Konbaung Dynasty ruled over an area that included modern Myanmar and briefly controlled Manipur and Assam as well. 

The British took over the administration of Myanmar after three Anglo-Burmese Wars in the 19th century and the country became a British colony. Myanmar was granted independence in 1948, as a democratic nation. Following a coup d'état in 1962, it became a military dictatorship.

Myanmar's recent political history is underlined by its struggle to establish democratic structures amidst conflicting factions. This political transition from a closely held military rule to a free democratic system is widely believed to be determining the future of Myanmar. 

The resounding victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in 2015 general elections has raised hope for a successful culmination of this transition.

Local Customs

Travelling in Myanmar is a wonderful experience and you will soon realise that the Burmese are very friendly, outgoing people and very hospitable towards visitors.

Greetings: The traditional word of greeting is ‘mingalaba’ (hello). You use ‘Nay kaung la’ to ask ‘how are you?’ or ‘how do you do’. The greeting consisting of the palms pressed together in a prayer-like way, while common in Thailand, India, Laos and Cambodia, is generally not used in Myanmar.

The longyi is everywhere. The longyi is a sari-like tube of cloth that is widely worn by men and women in Myanmar. I bought one at the Boyoke Market in Yangon and loved it. It was very convenient to just wrap around myself for entering temples and when wearing it on the streets I had an easier time interacting and befriending locals. They were really happy to see me wearing their traditional piece of clothing.

Here is more detail about Burmese Longyi

Thanaka: You will notice a lot of locals walking around with a yellowish-white paste applied to their faces. Thanaka cream has been used by the Burmese for over 2000 years and is not only used for cosmetic reasons, but also for cooling and as a protection from sunburn.

Here is more detail about Myanmar Thanaka

Teatime: Tea is very important in the Myanmar culture. It is a popular drink everywhere and usually when arriving at someone’s home you will be offered tea immediately. Some Burmese still observe teatime, a tradition that came from the British colonial period.

Politics are taboo and something that is not spoken about openly in public. Avoid asking locals questions about it.

Basic Myanmar etiquettes

Right vs Left

Eating and passing things to others are reserved for the right hand. It’s considered rude to eat or pass things using the left hand because the left hand is used for personal hygiene; that is, for using toilet paper. When giving or receiving a gift, it is appropriate to use both hands.

When you visit temples and pagodas, you will notice people walking multiple times around stupas. This is called ‘circumambulation’. Circumambulation is always done clockwise, to ensure that one’s right side is closer to the center.

This is a sign of respect, a reminder to keep the Buddha’s teaching at the center of one’s life. Here you can see the same idea that the right side is superior to the left.

Regarding left and right, an interesting fact on the roads of Myanmar is that people drive on the right-hand side of the road, with mostly right-hand-drive vehicles (while the steering is also on the right).
This is different from the rest of the world, where you either drive on the right using left-hand-drive (LHD) vehicles or drive on the left using right-hand-drive (RHD) vehicles.

The story goes that as subjects of the British, the Burmese followed the British custom of driving on the left using RHD vehicles. Then in 1970, following the advice of an astrologer, the military leader at the time – Ne Win – decided it would be better to drive on the right than on the left.

Since all of the vehicles had steering wheels on the right, they continued to use RHD vehicles while driving on the right-hand side.

Now both RHD and LHD vehicles can be found on Myanmar’s roads. For safety reasons, the government has recently introduced import laws banning the import of RHD vehicles, with the hope of eventually replacing all by LHD vehicles

Head vs Feet

Myanmar people have strong views relating to the upper and lower parts of the body. The upper part is considered superior, while the lower is inferior. The head is regarded as the holiest part, while the feet are considered the most impure part of the body.

Hence, Myanmar people will not use the same item for their upper and lower body parts. For example, they do not use the same towel to dry their head and feet or use the same basin to wash their feet and face. Washing one’s feet with water reserved for drinking is considered insulting.

As the head is considered a sacred part of the body, it is best to avoid touching anyone’s head, even the heads of little children, as doing so is seen as very disrespectful.

Similarly, it is seen as very disrespectful to touch or even point at anything with your feet. The habit of putting one’s feet on the table is perceived as outrageous. So please do refrain from relaxing like that, and be careful what you do with your feet! (Playing football is okay.)

One of the first Christian missionaries in Myanmar, Adoniram Judson, arrived in Myanmar in 1813, a little more than 200 years ago. Soon after he arrived, he was warned by his predecessor about unknowingly offending Myanmar people with body language, because a minor blunder could be fatal.

Myanmar has changed a lot since then and has become much more forgiving with these social rules, but people still have strong feelings regarding these different parts of the body, which you ought to keep in mind.

Women

Women have unique status in Myanmar society as it was once a matriarchal society. They can own land and property, do not change their name after marriage, and in the event of divorce are entitled to half the property accumulated during the marriage.

Myanmar women are known to be strong and competent. Running a business, for example, comes naturally to them. The sight of women carrying things on their heads is common, showing their hardiness.

However, despite same legal standing, women are typically segregated from men. In social interactions, men interact amongst themselves, while women constitute another cluster. At mealtimes, men are served first.

When a man walks down the street, often his wife follows a few steps behind, carrying his things.

Women are not to be touched. If a woman wants to shake hands with a man, she will offer her hand first. Women refrain from going to certain areas in a temple and some Buddhists consider that divine enlightenment can only be obtained by men.

From these examples, you can see the paradox of women in Myanmar. On one hand they enjoy the same legal standing, and have strong independent character, while on the other they are segregated and have definite social expectations regarding their behavior.

Greeting and Conversing

In Myanmar, handshakes are not the norm for greeting, but instead a slight bow. Myanmar people use honorifics when addressing others, especially if they are older. Older men are addressed with ‘U’ before their name, and older women with ‘Daw’.

Though Myanmar is opening up, there are still several issues which are too sensitive to discuss, especially religious- or ethnic-based conflicts. Some people do like to talk about their leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but many other political topics remain sensitive and are best avoided.

Religious Sensitivity

The people of Myanmar are particularly sensitive when it comes to religion. There is a law prescribing four years of imprisonment for ‘insulting religion’ and ‘hurting religious feelings’.

Over the past few years there have been several cases of expatriates being unexpectedly detained for acts deemed as insults to local religion.

In the same year, a Canadian university professor was asked to leave the country for having a tattoo of Buddha on his leg. Two years later, a Spanish tourist was also asked to leave for having a tattoo of Buddha on his calf.

These two cases were because people in Myanmar see the lower part of the body as ‘unclean’, so having the sacred image of Buddha tattooed on the leg is considered almost blasphemous. What seems innocent and even cool to expatriates can seem offensive and disrespectful to locals.

Even taking photographs of images of Buddha is considered by some to be sacrilegious but is generally tolerated in foreigners.

Temples and Monks

At religious sites, legs and shoulders should always be covered, so no short sleeve shirts, short pants, or short skirts. Although sometimes these are tolerated when worn by foreigners, they are not considered appropriate.

Socks and shoes should be taken off before entering any temple site, even if the site is huge.

Monks are held in reverence. They are not to be touched and get to sit at the best place available – which on a bus is the roof! Taking photos of monks, especially when they are meditating, is considered rude.

Dressing in Myanmar

Myanmar can get very warm and humid. If you’re not familiar with tropical climes, you will be tempted to dress as light as you can. However, when you pack for your holiday, it’s best to keep a few pointers about respectful dressing in mind.

Myanmar has just opened up its borders, and the local populace is still defined by its old and cherished customs and traditions. While they may not express it, strappy tops and mini shorts are a severe contrast to the traditional long skirts, kilts and vests of the Burmese. If you’ve been to Bali, you’ll know that wrapping a sarong is a must before entering temples.

The same thing applies here! If your day consists of visiting pagodas, you should consider wearing a longyi or htamein over a pair of shorts. Usually made of cotton or a cotton mix, these are light and airy! Alternatively, a usual long wrap-around skirt covering the knees would work just fine!

Sleeve-less tops can easily be switched out for short-sleeved, breathable tees – covering your shoulders up is seen as respectful too, especially in religious places. You could afford to be a little lax when you’re exclusively exploring Myanmar’s outdoors, like the Inle Lake or when you’re hopping around Mandalay.

Respect for age

Children are taught from young 'to venerate one's elders, to respect one's peers, and to be kind to the young and weak'. Young people would avoid sitting on a higher level than the elders or passing in front of them unless unavoidable, and then only treading softly with a slight bow. Things would be passed to the elders using both hands together. Men may cross their legs sitting on a chair or a mat, but women generally would not. 

Parents are believed to be solely responsible for their children's behavior as reflected by the expressions: undisciplined either by mother or by father and bad language from bad mother, bad body-language from bad father. Saying "thank you" however is not Burmese custom between friends and within the family.

Table manners

When dining at home, it is not custom to drink alcoholic beverages with meals. Serving spoons are taken with the left hand. Diners begin to eat only after all of the food has been placed on the table, with the eldest served first. In their absence a spoonful of rice is put aside first in the pot as a token of respect before serving the meal. Modern cutlery has become common, though some choose to eat in the traditional way with their fingers.

Business etiquette

Many offices in Myanmar are shoes-free areas. Shoes are worn from the street into public hallways and foyers, but then removed at the door of the office. Handshakes are common and standard, with both hands being used an acceptable practice. 

If a businesswoman initiates a handshake, it is acceptable for a male to shake it, but a male would not initiate a handshake with a woman. If a handshake is not initiated by a woman, a male may instead make a small bow. 

In an informal market setting haggling is acceptable, though not in shops.

Ana

Burmese society operates on ana, a characteristic or feeling that has no English equivalent. It is characterized by a hesitation, reluctance, or avoidance, to perform an action based on the fear that it will offend someone or cause someone to lose face or become embarrassed. Also, there is the concept of hpon, which translates to "power". 

It is used as an explanation for the varying degrees of ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender differences between people in a society. Hpon refers to the cumulative result of past deeds, an idea that power or social position comes from merit earned in previous lives. This idea is used to justify the prevalent view that women are lesser than men, who are considered to have more hpon.

Smile and Be Friendly!

Having said all this, please do not let these dos and don’ts deter you from interacting with locals.

Being a foreigner means you are entitled to more lenience in interpreting these social rules. People will probably understand if you are not familiar with some of their cultural etiquette and make minor mistakes, without intending to offend them.

Furthermore, Myanmar people are generally very friendly and like to smile. If you are not sure whether it is appropriate to take pictures of them, approach them and ask. So, while keeping all the etiquette in mind, put on your best smile and enjoy your interactions with locals.

Dos & Don’ts in Myanmar

Understanding the Culture

  • Learn a few words from the local language; use them when you can. The Burmese people are a generally open and friendly people, much more so when you can talk to them (however haltingly) in their own tongue. These two words go a long way in fostering goodwill as you travel in Myanmar:
    • Mengalaba (pronounced as Meng- Gah- Lah- Bar) = Hello
    • Chesube (pronounced as Tseh-Soo- Beh) = Thank you
  • Go local. The Burmese appreciate the effort of your trying to observe their way of living. Try wearing Burmese clothes, like the Longyi (for women) and Pasu (for men). These are worn in place of pants or skirts, as they have plenty of ventilation compared to their Western counterparts. For more on the merits of wearing Myanmar's national dress, read about the longyi and why it's good manners to wear it.
    • Try some of the local customs, too, like wearing thanaka makeup and chewing Kun-ya, or betel nut. Thanaka is a paste made from thanaka tree bark and is painted on the cheeks and nose. The Burmese say thanaka is an effective sunblock.
    • Kun-ya is more of an acquired taste; the Burmese wrap areca nuts and dried herbs in betel leaves, then chew the wad; this is what stains and distorts their teeth.
  • Participate in local festivals. So long as they do not disrespect the proceedings, tourists are allowed to participate in any traditional celebrations going on at the time of their visit. 

Respecting Personal Space

  • Watch where you point that camera. Stupas and landscapes are fair game for tourist photographers; people aren't. Always ask permission before taking a shot of locals. Just because women are bathing out in the open doesn't make it OK to snap a picture; quite the opposite.
    • Taking pictures of meditating monks is considered very disrespectful. Certain far-flung tribes in Myanmar also frown on tourists taking pictures of pregnant women.
  • Respect the local religious customs. Most Burmese are devout Buddhists, and while they will not impose their beliefs on visitors, they will expect you to pay due respect to their traditional practices. Wear appropriate clothes when visiting religious sites, and don't violate their space: avoid touching a monk's robes, and don't disturb praying or meditating people in temples.
  • What not to wear: If you are planning to visit the touristy destinations, you will most probably be ok whatever you’re wearing. However, I would recommend trying to cover your knees. You should avoid wearing shorts in Myanmar or any short skirts. Even though most probably nobody will say anything, it is a sign of disrespect to the local culture.
  • Mind your body language. The Burmese, like their religious compatriots around Southeast Asia, have strong feelings about the head and feet. The head is considered holy, while the feet are considered impure.
    • So keep your hands off people's heads; touching other people's heads is considered the height of disrespect, something to avoid doing even to children.
    • Watch what you do with your feet, too: you shouldn't point to or touch objects with them, and you should tuck them under yourself when sitting on the ground or floor. Don't sit with your feet pointing away from your body - or worse - pointing at a person or a pagoda.
  • Don’t show affection in public. Myanmar is still a conservative country, and the locals may be offended by public displays of affection. So, when traveling with a loved one, no hugs and kisses in public, please!

Following the Law

  • Don't disrespect the Buddha. Images of the Buddha may be used in a lighthearted way in the rest of the world, but Myanmar marches to the beat of a different drum. Articles 295 and 295(a) of the Myanmar Penal Code prescribe up to four years' imprisonment for "insulting religion" and "hurting religious feelings," and the authorities will not hesitate to use them against foreigners they believe are using the image of the Buddha in a disrespectful fashion.
    • New Zealander Philip Blackwood and Canadian Jason Polley both experienced harassment for their perceived disrespect of the Buddha; the latter got out of Dodge, but the former was sentenced to two years in prison. For what they did, what happened afterward, and the implications of Myanmar's harsh treatment of perceived religious disrespect, read this: Traveling in Myanmar? Respect the Buddha... or Else. 
  • Shop responsibly. When visiting Myanmar's markets and shops, make sure you're not plundering the country's precious natural and cultural resources in the process.
    • Avoid purchasing questionable wildlife products, like items made from ivory or animal skin. The government is fighting a tough battle against Chinese demand in these illegal products; help them by not supporting this kind of trade.
    • Take care when buying arts and crafts, particularly antiques. Authorized antique stores provide certificates of authenticity with every purchase, protecting you from counterfeit items. Remember that antiques of a religious nature cannot be taken out of Myanmar.
  • Change your money at authorized money changers, not the black market. Black market money changers can be found all over local markets, but don't bother. You'll get better rates at authorized changers: local banks, some hotels, and at Yangon airport.
  • Don’t visit restricted areas. There are still a lot of places in Myanmar that are closed to tourists. The reasons vary: some are protected tribal areas, others have terrain impassable to ordinary tourist traffic, and others are hotspots for ongoing religious conflicts.
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We believe you have the right to arm yourselves with as much information as possible before making any decision.

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PLACES TO VISIT IN Myanmar
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The combination of some must-see experience and the cruise tour along the mighty rivers

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Myanmar BLOG ARTICLES

Thanaka or  thanakha is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. It is a distinctive feature of the culture of Myanmar, seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls, and is used to a lesser extent also by men and boys. The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand.

Within this article, we will learn everything about Thanaka and the benefits of its powder in making a secret beauty ingredient of Burmese women.

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Burmese Longyi, along with the country’s longtime history, art, and heritage sites has contributed to the richness of the local culture that will grasp your attention whenever you find yourself in strolling around the streets of Myanmar. With just a piece of fabric grasping on the lower part of the body through time, the longyi has made it become an incredible pattern of Myanmar traditional costume for both men and women. In this article, we are going to find out the secret of Myanmar quintessence through Longyi, about why it has been worn for centuries by the Burmese people.

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Kachin Manaw Festival is an annual traditional dance festival celebrated by Kachin people. Mostly held at Myitkyina, Kachin State also known as Manaw Land in Myanmar and also celebrated by Kachin people around the world. Manaw is the largest festival in Myitkyina, held at the beginning of January. Manaw Festival is the most significant event for Kachin People. Tribes of Kachin gather together in Manaw ground and dance around the erected Manaw poles. The Manau dance is performed at Manau festivals, which originated as part of the ‘Nat’ or spirit worship of the past.

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If your idea of fun involves a blurry riot of colour and explosions, look no further than the Taunngyi Fire Balloon Festival, which takes place in the culturally diverse capital of Shan State over several days every November. This celebration is held around the Full Moon of Tazaungmon, a Myanmar national holiday that marks the end of rainy season and is also known as the Tazaungdaing Festival of Lights.

Traditionally, it is a festival to pay homage to the Sulamani Pagoda by sending up decorated hot air balloons, and lately it also became as a Hot Air Balloon Competition Festival and the festival is divided into two parts; daytime competition and nighttime competition. In the daytime, hot air balloons are sent up with the shapes of various animals and mythical creatures, and hot air balloons with firework & fire-cracker (known as Nya Mee Gyi) and lot of lanterns are hanging in the hot air balloons (known as Seinnaban) are sent up in the nighttime.

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All year round, visitors to Myanmar can experience the country’s warm and rich culture. However, one particularly special and unique time to visit is during the Naga New Year Festival, which will be held in Lahe around mid-January every year.

This special time allows visitors the chance to experience the traditions and customs of Myanmar’s Naga people. For the Naga, Lahe (New Year) is a significant time when people share their wishes and hopes for the future, and families are reunited.

It is a time of great celebration; where lively dances are performed in traditional dress, to the beat and sounds of traditional instruments.

Few tourists are lucky enough to share in the joy and festivities of the Naga New Year, but those who do are richly rewarded with an incredible cultural experience.

Overall, for those who seek genuine cultural exchange and the opportunity to take some truly stunning photographs, the Naga New Year is an amazing and unique festival to attend.

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The full moon of the Thadingyut month is when Buddhists believe the Buddha descended back to earth after three months of preaching in the spiritual realm above. While the rest of Myanmar celebrates it by lighting the Buddha's way home, the town of Kyaukse near Mandalay commemorates it a little differently: with a Elephant Dance Festival, populated not by real elephants, but by pairs of dancers in gigantic elephant costumes.

Hmm... What is it? What makes it so special? and how to join the festival? You will have all the answers below.

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