Social conventions in Burma
As in any foreign country, it is highly advisable that travellers familiarise themselves with local customs before visiting Burma in order to avoid inadvertently causing offence. Having said this, just as you would expect to find anywhere else in the world, it is perfectly normal to make mistakes! Nobody expects you to know everything there is to know about an alien and complex social etiquette, so there is no reason to feel nervous about putting your foot in it.
As a general rule, the more effort you make to understand and respect the local culture, the more you will be respected in return - and the more you will enjoy your trip!
Ana & hpon
Burmese culture is dominated by the idea of "face". To lose face or cause somebody else to lose face - to embarrass them or in any way humiliate them, in other words - is to be avoided at all costs, and this idea forms the bedrock of Burmese manners. In practice, this means that raising your voice in anger is very unlikely to get you anywhere! It also means that when you ask a question of somebody in Burma, they will often give you an answer even if they don't really know - so bear this in mind.
The word ana in Burmese refers to this desire to avoid a loss of face, while the term hpon refers to a concept roughly equivalent to "power". Hpon is thought to accumulate through deeds in past lives, and is used to explain and reinforce the social hierarchy and structure in Burma.
Age is very much respected in Burma, and this is also reflected in the national attitude - as well as the Burmese language, which makes considerable use of age-dependent honorific terms. Elders are always served first at mealtimes, when something is passed to them it is done with both hands, and younger people avoid raising themselves to a higher level than their elders. These are all marks of respect for age.
In Buddhism, the head is sacred and the feet are profane, so it is bad manners to touch somebody else on the head, to prop your feet up on a table, or use your feet to point at things. You should also be careful not to allow your feet to point in the direction of somebody else or a religious icon even inadvertently, as this is considered very rude.
Public displays of affections such as holding hands or placing your arm around somebody are common in Burma between friends (of the same sex) and family, but not usually between couples. This rule is relaxed in major cities, but in general this is a conservative society and demonstrations of affection between couples - however mild - is often frowned upon.
Since Buddhism holds such an important place at the heart of Burmese society, monks are given very high social precedent and treated with extra respect. They always sit in the highest position at mealtimes or on public transport, and it is frowned upon to touch them (although you may find that the monks themselves do not take this convention particularly seriously). There is even a special vocabulary in the Burmese language for speaking to them!
Both men and women in Burma traditionally wear a type of sarong called a longyi, which to foreigners appears equivalent to a long skirt. Though both men and women wear longyi, the style and patterns are different between the two sexes. When worn by a man, the longyi is called a paso; when worn by a woman it is called a htmain. In formal situations, Burmese men usually wear a Manchu Chinese jacket over an English collared shirt, sometimes with a turban. Women, meanwhile, wear a button-up blouse and shawl.
Most of Burma's ethnic minorities, meanwhile, have their own, idiosyncratic costume by which they can easily be recognised.
For tourists it is advisable to dress modestly, as Burma is a relatively conservative country. Especially when visiting religious sites, you should wear clothing that covers your shoulders and legs, and remove your shoes and socks. It is also customary to remove your shoes when entering a private Burmese home.
Tipping is not the norm in Burma, however in tourist-focused areas it has become more common. In general no tip is expected at restaurants or in taxis, but it is generally accepted that those working in the tourist industry supplement their income through the tips they receive from their clients. If you are happy with the service that has been provided, our tipping guidelines are as follows (tips can be in US dollars or kyat; 1 USD = approx 1,000 kyat):
Guide (Full Day)
Single traveller USD 10 / per day
2 people USD 15 / per day
3 people USD 18 / per day
4 people USD 20 / per day
Driver (Full Day)
Single traveller USD 5 / per day
2 people USD 6 / per day
3 people USD 8 / per day
4 people USD 10 / per day
Short tour (1-2 hour) USD 1 / per person
Long tour (half day) USD 2 / per person
Overnight cruise USD 3 / per person
Cyclo, Tuk Tuk driver USD 1 / per person
Hotel porter USD 1 / per room
In the case of guides and drivers custom has it that this is given at the end of the time spent with them, which is usually at the airport or station from where you head on to your next destination, and can be given in an envelope if preferred.
As in most parts of Southeast Asia, a bit of good-natured haggling is par for the course in Burma. However, since everything is already so cheap (and since that last couple of kyat is worth so much more to them than to you), we suggest that you don't push it too far when it comes to bartering.
Table manners & eating customs
Traditionally, most Burmese families eat their meals from a low table whilst sitting on reed mats on the floor. In restaurants, however, you can expect to find ordinary tables and chairs.
Burmese meals tend to be served all at once rather than in courses, and unlike many other Asian countries, each diner usually orders one dish for themselves rather than there being a wide selection to share.
Burmese food is traditionally eaten with the fingers (using your right hand), but these days most local people eat with a spoon and fork. The fork (held in the left hand) is used to push food on to the spoon, while the spoon is used to eat from.
If you happen to be invited to eat with a local, you can expect your host to pay for your dinner. Likewise, if you invite a local to eat with you, you should provide for their meal.
Religious courtesy & freedom of expression
Since the 2010 reforms, talking openly about politics has become much easier in Burma - and although there are sore points (namely religious clashes and ethnic strife), in general there are not too many subjects that are considered taboo.
Despite this relaxation of attitudes, there are still areas where visitors should exercise special care. Perceived disrespect towards Buddhism, particularly, is not something that is taken lightly in Burma - for more information, see our section on Burmese religion.
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