Understanding Myanmar Culture with this Travel Guide

One of the most frequent questions travelers ask about expeditions to Myanmar is whether or not it is a safe country to visit. Due to its turbulent history, it makes this a good question to ask however it is actually one of the safest places to travel in world. Understanding Myanmar Culture begins with the people of Myanmar who are incredibly friendly and as devout Buddhists (over 90% of the country’s population of roughly 54 million people adhere to Theravada Buddhism) petty crimes such as thievery are relatively uncommon. As with all places in the world, practicing general safety is a good idea but other than the occasional taxi driver you won’t have very much to worry about. It’s actually not uncommon for a taxi driver to stop you from leaving the taxi without taking the correct amount of change and preventing you from overpaying!

myanmar culture
Wearing a traditional Longyi and posing with a monk at his request, Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar, 2015

Understanding Myanmar Culture

The five precepts of Buddhism are not to take a life (whether a person or animal), thievery, sexual relations before marriage, lying and taking drugs/getting overly intoxicated. The Myanmar people are generally strict in their adherence to these values however you will have the rare outlier so it’s important to always keep that in mind. This is why those who make the journey to the Golden Land usually leave with an incredible impression of the people not to mention the absolute beauty of the country.

In order to make your visit to Myanmar more meaningful, here are some tips on Buddhist Culture to make the transition easier. First and foremost, monks are aplenty in most cities and at all holy sites. Due to their strict following of the Dhamma (Buddhist Holy Scripture) they are forbidden to listen to music or eat meals after noon. Travelers should keep in mind not to play music loudly in their presence, offer them food after lunchtime and not to touch their robes or their person as they are considered holy and revered. If a monk initiates a handshake, it would be rude to refuse. If possible, travelers should also try to avoid sitting higher than them either on a bus or around a religious site like a Pagoda, Temple, etc.

Female travelers are also very safe in Myanmar however proper caution should always be applied when traveling outside your native country. The conservative society in Myanmar means that locals and visitors should try to dress modestly when out and about and at places of worships should cover their shoulders and knees. Men are also asked to wear long pants and cover their shoulders and you may be asked to cover up if dressed immodestly at a religious place. Men who wear short shorts at the Shwedagon Pagoda in the nation’s former capital and largest city of Yangon will be required to either provide their own long pants or to wear a traditional Myanmar longyi (long skirt).

At monasteries and religious sites, socks and shoes should be removed and you should refrain from sitting with your feet stretched out. Bare feet should never be pointed towards the Buddha Images or Pagodas (feet are seen as the lowest point of the body) so sit with your feet tucked in or “Indian style.”

Generally speaking, feet shouldn’t be put up on a table and touching someone on the head is seen as disrespectful. Public displays of affection are very uncommon due to the conservative and modest culture and visitors are asked to avoid this while in public.

There is a popular joke in Myanmar: a local is talking to a tourist about places he’s traveled and the local tells the visitor “I just came back from Thailand, I had to go see the dentist.” The traveler asks the local “Why? You don’t have any dentists in Myanmar?” The local responds “In Myanmar, it’s inadvisable to open our mouths.” Myanmar is currently undergoing a period of dramatic reform and as locals gain new freedoms, they are quick to use them. Initiating a ‘controversial’ conversation is not advised but if a local or taxi driver brings something up, feel free to ask away! When feeling comfortable the people are open and honest and will tell you exactly how they perceive the new government, the old government, religious practice and everything in between. Be prepared to hear some interesting things and never try to argue, just listen and absorb. You will have a much better experience for it.

In terms of LGBT travel, there is a small but vibrant community in the former capital of Yangon and as the Southeast Asian country’s largest city feelings are a bit more liberal. Technically speaking, homosexuality is illegal in Myanmar and punishable by law. As long as travelers keep overt displays of affection to a minimum there shouldn’t be any issues but as always when traveling to another country with a different culture, it’s better to “play it safe.” The Taungbyone Spirit (Nat) Festival located just north of Mandalay is a major attraction for the LGBT community during the month of Wagaung (August/September). The festival is a hectic mix of Gay Pride, music, culture, art and old-time tradition.

As for the nightlife, it’s better to start in the late afternoon/evening as restaurants and bars generally shut down relatively early compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. A pre-election government-imposed curfew of 11:00pm in Yangon greatly affected the town but that’s the past. Nowadays it isn’t uncommon for Yangon’s numerous clubs to stay open well past 1:00-2:00am and KTV (Karaoke) establishments to remain open until 2:30am or later. The drinking scene consists of local Beer Stations (cheap beer, filled with locals, taboo for women to join in), regular bars and cocktail bars, night clubs and high-end restaurants and hotel bars. Pro-Tip: Myanmar Beer is delicious, cheaper than imports and does the job. Cocktails still have a long way to go in this country but if you’re at an upscale international hotel bar, order away! Myanmar doesn’t have an established wine culture but you can procure some good vintages at Bin64 on Parami Road, just north of Inya Lake.

The people of Myanmar have a few peculiar habits which foreigners can find a bit odd. They have a fondness for something known here as “Betel Nut,” a close equivalent of chewing tobacco. Locals (and especially taxi drivers and security guards) enjoy the mild intoxicant to the extent that it rots their teeth as they spit it all over the sidewalks and roads. It comes out in red splashes and its trail can be seen on the driver’s side doors of many cars. Another strange habit is a fondness for swastikas. The symbol associated in the West with Nazism has a historical significance in Asian culture but the wearing of full-on swastikas can be a bit unnerving. This practice has more to do with a general lack of education for the outside world and Asian symbolism than it does with any form of racism or prejudice. There are several movements and educational initiatives occurring now to educate the people on the symbol in an effort to get it removed from culture and design.

An area where the Myanmar people are not unique to the greater Asian world is the concept of ‘saving face.’ No-one likes to be seen as ignorant, unknowledgeable or weak and a raised voice or aggressive behavior will generally be met with a response typical of the situation. Directions will be given even if the giver has no idea or a fight will be threatened if someone feels his honor has been questioned. Situations can usually be diffused quickly through a smile, nod of the head and a walk away. Don’t be ‘that guy’ who engages in a fight when it could be easily avoided.