The ultimate guide to Customs and Etiquette in Myanmar
“Different countries, different customs.” Before travelling in a new country, it is better to understand its customs and etiquette. Myanmar culture is basically based on Buddhism and so much of the accepted etiquette pertains to Buddhist beliefs. Here are a few things you should know before you leave for your holiday.
Table of Contents
Proper Etiquette for Visiting Buddhist Sites in Myanmar
About 80 percent of the Burmese people practice Theravada Buddhism. So, Myanmar has so many sacred Buddhist sites which are still fully functioning as Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Golden Rock in Kyaikhtiyo… You’ll see many locals frequent the temples as pilgrimage sites. Since these religious sites are popular attractions, it is important to show the respect by observing basic religious etiquette.
- Dress conservatively at all religious sites. When visiting a temple make sure to cover your shoulders and knees. Short sleeve shirts, short pants, short skirts and pants are generally regarded as inappropriate attire. The dress code applies for men and women alike.
- Take off your shoes and socks when entering the religious site. There are places to leave your footwear.
- Hat, sun glasses and umbrella also need to be removed outside of temples/pagodas.
- Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments. Don’t walk in front of praying people.
- Buddha images are sacred object, so refrain from taking photos of them. Also should not pose in front of them or point your feet at them.
- Don’t take photos during prayers or meditation sessions. Don’t use a flash.
- Praying is done by bowing with hands clasped to foreheads from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha. Prayers are often made after tossing a coin or banknote into an offering box and leaving an offering of flowers or fruits or something else.
- Show respect to monks, novices and nuns. You can leave a donation by offering the gift with both hands. Don’t offer to shake hands with a monk as that would be disrespectful. A woman should not touch a monk at all. If a woman needs to pass something to a monk, it is best to give it to a male to then pass forward or hold the object with a handkerchief/tissue.
- Make sure you enter portions of the pagoda complex which are open to visitors. Women should especially take care to the warning signs as many areas do not allow women to enter.
Respectful Ways to Meet and Greet Locals, Including Proper Titles
The traditional greeting in Myanmar is a bow whilst placing both hands on your stomach. The younger people will bow and an older person will simply nod in response. Nowadays, a slight bow with a hearty smile is the most common form of greeting amongst the Burmese. Physical contact like handshake or friendly hugs are still not so prevalent here. To greet monks, place your hands together in prayer position, hold them at face level and bow deeply.
The common formal greeting words in Burmese
- “Min-ga-la-ba shin” (said by a woman) or “Min-ga-la-ba khin-bah” (said by a man) – both of these sayings mean ‘Hello’.
- ‘Htamin sa pi bi la’ for ‘Have you eaten?’
- ‘Nei Kaung La’ for ‘How are you?’
In the recent times, the Burmese people tend to transform slowly their traditional greeting process into a short ‘hello’ when this word was confined to answer the phones only.
It is considered to be rude to call other people by their first name, unless they are children or very close friends. Use people’s appropriate titles when addressing them
- Younger men are addressed as ‘Maung or Ko’ meaning brother
- Younger women are addressed as ‘Ma’ meaning sister.
- Senior men are addressed as ‘U’ meaning uncle
- Senior women are addressed as ‘Daw’ meaning aunt.
Proper Eating and Drinking Etiquette
- Myanmar food in Myanmar is inspired by the cuisines from China, India and Thailand. Rice is the staple food in Myanmar, making up approximately 75 percent of the local diet. Typical Burmese platter usually consists of several items including meat curries, vegetables for dipping in the sauce made out of fermented fish, steamed rice and soup.
- Meals are served at a dining table, with the individual pieces laid out so that diners can serve themselves and create their own combinations. A condiment made from preserved fish or prawn and chili powder accompanies most meals.
- In local people’s home, all members usually sit together on the floor around low and round tables. Try and eat with only one hand, preferably your right.
- Forks and spoons have gained popularity in Myanmar, but many locals still eat with their fingers. Elderly diners and guests serve themselves first.
- Leaving rice on the plate signals to the host that the diner wants more rice.
- It is not polite to eat something without offering it to anyone else present first. Furthermore, if you are eating in view of others, it is a customary gesture to ask anyone around you if they would like some.
- It is rude to sing, hum or listen to music while eating.
Many Burmese do not drink alcohol because of its prohibition under Buddhism’s principle teachings. Some people may continue to do so; however, these are generally only men. It is culturally inappropriate for women to drink, whether they are religious or not. 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. Local people usually use their free time at tea houses to meet and chat with friends.
What to Wear in Myanmar
As in other Southeast Asian countries, clothing in Myanmar is usually modest. You can see people including both men and women wearing longyi everywhere, even in big cities. Longyi is a garment made from a long piece of cloth folded and secured at the waist, resembling a sarong. Typical dress for men in Myanmar is a white shirt with no collar, an overcoat and a longyi. Ladies in Myanmar usually wear dresses, often of silk or cotton, or blouses with a longyi. These days, though, it is also common for locals to wear Western-style clothes but you’ll very occasionally see men in shorts.
Visitors should always dress appropriately. Local people will not say anything, but they will not feel comfortable when seeing tourists wearing revealing clothes including shorts cut above the knee, and tops that are tight or show the shoulders for women. We understand that Myanmar is very warm and humid, so you will be tempted to dress as light as you can. In fact, walking around in swimwear on a beach or your resort is absolutely fine. However, cover up in other places as respect for the local people and their culture. It’s especially important to dress conservatively when visiting temples.
You should consider wearing a longyi. 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.
Gift Giving in Myanmar
- Giving a gift is a sign of respect to people. When you are presented a gift, you will make giver hurt if you refuse. So, graciously accept it.
- When receiving a gift, just place it aside. Do not open it in front of everyone. This can be seen as greedy on the receiver’s behalf. It is expected that you will open the gift later when you stay alone.
- When visiting someone’s home, it is appropriate to give a gift wrapped in bright wrapping paper.
- If presenting or receiving a gift, always do so with both hands. This is even true of giving or receiving business cards – a custom the Myanmar people have enthusiastically absorbed.
- It is best not to give people gifts of a very high value. This can put them in an awkward position by which they feel they cannot accept it.
Common Taboos in Myanmar
- Politics are taboo and something that is not spoken about openly in public. Avoid asking locals questions about it.
- As in all Buddhist countries, the head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body, so avoid touching another person’s head, even a child. The feet are considered dirty and corrupt, so when sitting don’t point your feet at anyone or towards images of the Buddha.
- Burmese are a very friendly and outgoing people, especially towards visitors. However, it is considered improper to lose one’s temper or show much emotion in public. It is likely to make you lose face in a Burmese person’s eyes.
- In Myanmar, the use of the right hand is preferred over the left. Always use your right hand when shaking hands or passing something to someone. Using your left hand is seen as disrespectful.
- It is impolite to sit on a chair with one’s legs crossed, especially for women.
- If you have taken your shoes off, do not leave them lying upside down. This is believed to cause bad luck.
- Avoid pointing at anyone with your finger: this may be interpreted as a threat or a rebuke. Do not step over anyone (or part of their body): if you need to get past someone, ask them politely to move their legs.
In general, Myanmar is still much more conservative than other countries in Southeast Asia like Vietnam or Thailand. So make sure to be extra sensitive and respect the local customs. If you follow these simple guidelines, you will have a wonderful time in Myanmar!