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traveling to burma? show respect with these 7 helpful tips


Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is a relatively large Asian country with over 50 million citizens. Bordered by over 1,200 miles of coastline, Burma also shares borders with India, China, Laos, Thailand, and Bangladesh. This mostly Buddhist country was ruled by a harsh military dictatorship for decades, and ethnic in-fighting and civil war continue in some regions, even though a democratic and civilian government is now in charge.

However, because of the changes that have come to the country since the military dictatorship’s rule ended in 2011, an influx of foreigners have made their way into this once-hermetic nation, and more and more tourists are finding out just how remarkable a place it is to visit. Because the country has seen so little outside influence over so many years, however, there are some cultural mores that must be heeded. If you’re looking to tour this enigmatic land, here are some tips on how to be polite in all situations.

1. Know Its Name

imageOnce you start looking for flights to Burma you’ll notice that the country seems to be in a bit of an identity crisis in regards to its name. While the government calls itself Myanmar, many people still prefer the previous, colonial name “Burma.” However, many others feel that name is an offense due to its association with British colonial rule. Pay attention to the company you’re in, and adopt the name that is being used by those around you.

2. Show Religious Respect

Religion is of deep importance throughout Burma, and while the vast majority of citizens are Buddhist, some practice Christianity and other practice more localized folk religions.

Wherever you go, you’ll most likely see plenty of Buddhist monks in crimson robes, and no matter what your religious tradition — or lack thereof — it is common courtesy to show these monks great respect. Never point your feet at a monk, and if you have a seat on a crowded bus or train, you should give it up to a monk if one boards. Also, women are never to touch monks — even a handshake is outside the realm of what is considered polite.

3. Accept Hospitality

While the money flood does seem to be arriving on Burmese shores as foreign investors eagerly work to exploit the country’s bountiful natural resources, the vast majority of Burmese are poor and survive on subsistence farming. However, their lack of money and resources does not affect their generosity. Buddhists believe it is rude to eat in front of someone without offering food first, and declining hospitality is considered the height of rudeness. Therefore, if someone offers you food, it is best to at least accept a small portion in order to avoid the risk of offending your host.

4. Mind Your Feet and Head

Burmese Buddhists consider the body in terms of what is sacred. The head is deemed the most holy, and the feet are believed to be the lowest and dirtiest. Because of this belief, you should remove your shoes whenever you enter a private home, temple or indoor space. However, after you’ve removed your shoes, be careful to keep your feet to yourself and refrain from pointing them at anyone. Also, because it is considered sacred, touching another person on the head is taken as an insult.

5. Dress Appropriately

imageBoth men and women are expected to dress appropriately when visiting pagodas and temples. Shorts, tank tops, and other casual, revealing clothing should be avoided. Women should wear skirts that go below the knee and should take care to make sure their shoulders are also covered. Of course, everyone should also remove their shoes and socks before entering any holy site.

6. Show Respect to Elders

Elders are treated with great respect throughout Burma, and this practice has some specificity applied to it. At meals, the eldest are always served first, and whenever you cross in front of someone who is older than you — whether it’s on the street, in a temple, or in someone’s home — it is considered polite to bow slightly to them.

7. Proper Greeting

While many Burmese know the English word, “Hello,” it is best to greet others with the common greeting, “Mingalaba.” This greeting can be used for any class or gender, including monks and elders. It roughly translates to “Have a promising day.”

Burma is a land of many wonders, from its countless Buddhist temples to its vast coastline. For foreigners looking to experience it for the first time, be sure to follow these tips, and you’ll stay safe from offending anyone in this beautiful country.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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