Culture and etiquette
As in other Southeast Asian countries, clothing in Myanmar is usually modest. In some ethnic minority villages it’s still the norm to wear traditional dress, and even in cities many men and women wear a traditional skirt-like garment called a longyi. These days, though, it is also common for locals to wear Western-style clothes and you’ll very occasionally see men in shorts. People will be too polite to say anything, but they may be offended by the sight of tourists wearing revealing clothes. This would include shorts cut above the knee, and – particularly for women – tops that are tight or show the shoulders. It’s especially important to dress conservatively when visiting temples, and some travellers carry a longyi for such situations.
Most women and girls, as well as some men and boys, use thănăk’à (a paste made from ground bark) on their faces; traditionally thought to improve the skin and act as a sunblock, it is often applied as a circle or stripe on each cheek.
Avoid touching another person’s head, as it is considered the most sacred part of the body; feet are unclean and so when sitting don’t point your feet at anyone or towards images of the Buddha. Remove your shoes before entering a Buddhist site or a home. Always use your right hand when shaking hands or passing something to someone, as the left hand is traditionally used for toilet ablutions; however, locals do use their left hand to “support” their right arm when shaking hands.
Most people in the country are Buddhist although there are significant Muslim and Christian minorities. Men are expected to experience life in a monastery twice in their lives, once when a child and once as an adult, although this is only for a short time unless they become a novice. Most Buddhists also believe in nats, spirits rooted in older animist traditions, which are now considered to be the Buddha’s disciples. These supernatural beings take an interest in the actions of humans, and may need to be propitiated.
Considering the social conservatism of Myanmar’s society it is interesting to note that while in the past most nat kădaws (spirit mediums) were women, today most are gay men and many are either transgendered or transvestites. A nat-pwèh (spirit festival) held, for example, at the start of a new business enterprise is an occasion on which people have license to sing, cheer and show emotions which would otherwise be repressed in public. Homosexuality is, however, technically illegal in Myanmar – for tourists as well as locals – and punishable by fines or imprisonment, but this is rarely enforced in practice. There is a discreet gay scene in Yangon, but little elsewhere. See
utopia-asia.com/tipsburm.htm for information and advice.
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