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When visiting any new country, knowledge of local etiquette will be essential for interacting with local people.
This is especially true in Myanmar, where many local customs are unique, and unheard of in the west. Being a foreigner, you will be excused for many things, but you can avoid offending locals unnecessarily by knowing some basic local etiquette.
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
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 won’t 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’s 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Having said all this, please don’t 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’s 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.
We provide tailor-made tours to Myanmar. Tours typically start or end in Yangon or Mandalay and last approximately 9 days; visiting Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.
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