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.
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: For appropriate clothing in temples and other important tips, read about Do's and Don'ts for Buddhist Temples.
- 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.