Familiarising yourself with the local customs and etiquette is one of the most useful things you can do before visiting a foreign country.
While getting things wrong is nothing to be afraid of – any well-meaning error will almost always be cheerfully forgiven, no matter which country you’re visiting – there is a difference between an honest mistake and a wilful lack of respect for the local culture.
Here is a quick guide to understanding the customs and etiquette in Burma.
1. Understand That It’s All About Face
The idea of “saving face” and “losing face” is a huge deal in Burma, as it is in many Asian countries, and understanding this is key to dealing successfully with Burmese people. Doing anything that might cause someone to “lose face” – anything that might embarrass or belittle them – is just about the worst thing you can do, and is to be avoided at all costs.
2. Know Your Body Language
Body language is extremely important in Burmese culture because of its strong Buddhist culture. Buddhism teaches that the head is sacred and the feet profane, so you should never touch someone on the head, put your feet on the table, or use your feet to point at anything or anyone.
3. Dress Appropriately
Burma is a conservative country, and the standards of acceptable dress are different from what we’re used to in the West. Modest dress is generally considered to mean covering up the knees and shoulders, but this is usually only enforced at religious sites such as temples. Don’t assume that just because nobody has tutted at you for wearing hot pants and a sleeveless top they don’t care – it’s much more likely that they just don’t want to cause you to lose face by telling you off.
4. Get to Grips with the Money
Tipping isn’t the norm in Burma, so you don’t need to feel awkward about not leaving a tip in restaurants, bars or taxis. It is acceptable – but not necessarily expected – to tip guides, drivers, boat crews and hotel porters if you want to, but this is completely up to you.
Haggling is expected – but as ever, try not to push it too far. That last couple of kyat is generally worth more to them than it is to you!
5. Respect your Elders – and Monks – and the Buddha
Of course, you should behave respectfully to everybody you meet while travelling in Burma – but the utmost respect in Burmese society is reserved for the elderly and monks. Burmese society has its own specific codes of behaviour for these situations – but for tourists the best approach is generally just to copy whatever everyone else is doing.
The only thing you need to be more respectful towards than old people and monks is the Buddha, who is help in the very highest possible regard in Burma. Don’t wear any clothing or jewellery with images of the Buddha emblazoned on them, and be careful not to point at any image of the Buddha with your feet (not that you would, but just so you know…)
6. Avoid PDA
Public displays of affection between couples are generally frowned upon in Burma – and it’s rare to see couples holding hands or hugging in public, let alone kissing.
Follow these simple rules and you’re guaranteed to go down a storm in Burma!