Need to Know Customs and Etiquette in Myanmar

“Different countries, different customs.” Before travelling in a new country it is always good to familiarise yourself with the local customs and etiquette. What we consider normal behaviour at home isn’t always perceived in the same fashion outside our borders.

Myanmar is a country rich in culture, traditions and beliefs, and there are a few things to consider when travelling around.

Stupas in Mandalay

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.

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.

Tea time: 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 tea time, 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.

Burmese man in Bagan wearing longyi

General Rules

Myanmar is a Buddhist country and the same rules apply that you might be used to from travelling in other parts of South East Asia:

The concept of face: Saving face and losing face are taken into account during all interactions in Asia. It can be described as a combination of social standing, reputation, influence, dignity and honour. The number one rule for saving face is ‘staying cool’ in public. Always avoid potential embarrassment for others and avoid pointing out someone’s mistakes.

Dress Code: Always dress appropriately. Walking around in swimwear on a beach or resort is absolutely fine, but cover up in other places as respect for the local people and their culture.

Temples in Bagan

Temple Etiquette: Take off your shoes and socks when entering a temple (or home). When visiting a temple make sure to cover your shoulders and knees. The dress code applies for men and women alike. Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments.

Interacting with monks: Show respect to monks, novices and nuns. If you want you can leave a donation by offering the gift with both hands. You can raise your hands with palms pressed together as a greeting, but don’t offer to shake hands with a monk as that would be disrespectful. A woman should not touch a monk at all.

Mind your body language: Never touch someone’s head as it is the most sacred part of the body. Don’t point at someone with the bottom of your feet. Don’t walk in front of praying people and don’t take photos during prayer or meditating sessions.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Other tips:

  • When photographing locals, ask first. It is always nice to show them their picture afterwards.
  • Respect for the elders is very important in Asian countries. For example, lower your head when passing them.
  • Avoid public displays of affection.

Myanmar is still much more conservative than neighbouring countries like Laos or Thailand. So make sure to be extra sensitive and respect the local customs. There have been several cases of tourists who got in trouble for insulting religious feelings. To stay on the safe side, do not discuss religion with the locals, keep any religious iconography under wraps and treat local religious imagery with respect.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you will have a wonderful time in Myanmar!

Guest blogger Katrin Tochtermann of Traveler's Little TreasuresGuest blogger Katrin Tochtermann travelled around Myanmar on the Pagoda Pass. She shares her travel adventures on her blog Traveler’s Little Treasures. All photos in this post belong to her and are published with her permission.

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Emily is a native creative nerd. This creative crew member's favourite stop is Bay of Islands.

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