As with all countries, Myanmar has its own set of unique cultural traditions and idiosyncrasies. Some of these are fascinating; some require sensitivity; some require the visitor to adjust. But above all they combine to make a nation that is as warm and welcoming as any in the world: locals are almost always keen to help out and make friends.
Buddhism and religious courtesy
Buddhism is at the heart of Myanmar culture and it permeates private and public life. Most young people spend time in monastic education, and monks and nuns hold a revered place in society: they should not be touched; they always sit at the highest place available (for example at a table or on a bus – which often means on the roof); and they hold privileges such as the freedom of first class travel on public transport, sometimes with their own reserved places.
In some parts of Myanmar, particularly mountainous border areas such as Chin, Kachin and Karen states, Christian belief is deeply held – and often mixed with ancient animist traditions (as with the rest of Myanmar).
Other points of religious courtesy:
- Revealing clothing is sometimes frowned upon, although it is increasingly common amongst Myanmar women. But at religious sites, legs and shoulders should always be covered.
- Shoes and socks should be removed before entering any shrine, pagoda or monastery. It is also customary to remove shoes before entering private homes and many offices.
- The head and feet are important in Myanmar culture, as the highest and lowest points of the body. No one, including children, should be touched on the head. Feet should never be put on tables or used for touching or pointing.
Other social mistakes to avoid:
- Myanmar women should not in general be touched by men. If a woman wishes to shake hands, she will offer her hand first.
- Couples should avoid public displays of affection.
For weather-appropriate clothing, go to climate and weather.
Living, working and business hours
Time spent in Myanmar, particularly travelling out of cities, may see earlier mornings and nights than most westerners are used to. Trains and buses are often scheduled as early as 5am – sometimes as their sole departure time. And due to recent poverty and isolation, as well as regular black-outs, nightlife as a concept is only in its infancy in Myanmar – although the bigger cities, in particular Yangon, have a growing number of bars that are open till late. For more information on going out, go to drinking, bars and nightlife.
You may hear religious chanting through the night – this can be beautiful, but can also take some getting used to! And in the early mornings, you can often hear songs and chanting from schools as early as 6am.
Business hours can vary, but in general the following apply:
- shops Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 6pm or later; some shops open Sundays
- restaurants all week 8am to 9pm
- internet cafes all week 9am to 10pm
- banks Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm
- post offices and other government offices, Monday to Friday 9.30am to 4.30pm. For postal services, go to other useful info.
- business office hours Monday to Friday 9am to 5.30pm; some offices open Saturday
Other cultural issues and talking politics
When preparing for a trip to Myanmar and travelling around the country, it is important to bear in mind the lack of development. It is a poor, almost entirely cash-based economy with little official banking; large parts of the population do not have direct access to the national electricity grid (which frequently shuts down); and only a small percentage of the population has access to the internet or a fixed telephone line, although these figures are improving. For more information, go to currency, exchange rates and banks, electricity and shortages and telephone and internet.
As with many parts of Southeast Asia, good-natured bargaining and haggling for prices are a big part of Myanmar culture – although you may find that some vendors will bafflingly stick to their guns over silly prices. For advice on tipping and contributions, go to setting your budget.
Pace of life and idiosyncrasies
The lack of development also means is that life in Myanmar exists at a very different pace than it does in most developed countries; people are usually in much less of a hurry, and are more likely to stop to help. This also means that you may have to wait longer to be served – signs of impatience will not be taken well.
As in many parts of Asia, saving face is very important to people in Myanmar. This means raised voices or aggression are not taken well. It also means that if you ask someone a question (for example, directions or the price of an item), they will often give you an answer – even if they have no idea. This comes out of a wish to be helpful, but it is important to bear in mind.
To western eyes, perhaps one of the less appealing Myanmar traits is betel-chewing. This mild intoxicant is used by many males in Myanmar, and results in a reddening and rotting of the teeth and plenty of spitting, resulting in the frequent sight of red blotches on the streets of Myanmar.
Other types of idiosyncratic behaviour may sometimes be displayed that can simply be attributed to Myanmar’s recent history of isolation and corresponding lack of knowledge of the outside world. If this behaviour seems offensive to western eyes, it is rarely, if ever, meant to be. For example, jackets and t-shirts with Nazi swastikas (not the ancient symbol) are popular amongst young men.
As Myanmar undergoes dramatic reform, it is becoming easier to talk openly about politics. Locals happily wave flags for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, where until recently this might have landed them in jail. There remain sensitive areas for conversation, such as inter-ethnic and religious conflict, but in general few subjects are taboo. Violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims means that you may well encounter some anti-Muslim sentiment – although on a day-to-day basis, particularly in larger cities, the groups tend to co-exist peaceably.
To find out more about Myanmar, its politics and history, go to about Myanmar.
Although Myanmar is a socially conservative country and homosexuality is still technically illegal, the LGBT community is growing in profile and trouble is unlikely to occur – although of course in more remote parts of the country attitudes may differ, and overt signs of affection may be frowned upon.
Yangon has a growing number of gay-friendly bars and a semi-regular LGBT night called FAB that appears at venues around the city; check local listings for the latest event.
For advice for women travelling alone, go to safe travel and security.