Myanmar, known colloquially to many Westerners as Burma, is a one-of-a-kind travel destination in Southeast Asia. The nation is filled to the brim with a dizzying array of archaeological, natural, spiritual, and historic attractions. Additionally, the Burmese people are famous for being kind, easygoing, and inviting to each other and foreigners alike. However, several etiquette rules in Myanmar often wrongfoot visitors. You’ll need to have a firm grasp of the do’s and don’ts of Myanmar to get the most of your travels there.
Generally speaking, the people of Myanmar are deeply religious and hold their own unique customs and etiquette when it comes to religious sites. They expect respect, if not reverence, of their symbols. One disrespectful action you might make without even realizing it is pointing. Usually pointing is seen as impolite when directed at a person. Pointing at one of the sacred religious sites of Myanmar is sacrilege!
In Myanmar, they hold the body to be sacred in varying degrees based on height. The head is holy and pure, while the feet are seen as dirty and vulgar. A slight bow of the head is a common greeting and a show of respect, and most Burmese people will reply in kind. If you gesture towards someone or something with your feet, though, you’ll have just performed the Burmese equivalent of swearing. If you feel like gesturing towards a holy site with your feet…just don't.
The other major nuance of ‘body etiquette’ relates to the sacredness of the head. Touching others in public generally ranges from socially tone-deaf to seriously insulting, if they’re a stranger. In particular, touching or patting someone’s head is seen as highly offensive and inappropriate. Avoid touching strangers of the opposite sex, as well; this is a significant breach of physical boundaries and social rules in Myanmar.
You need to give strangers their space in Myanmar, but you also need to avoid being too touchy with your friends and significant other as well. The culture of Myanmar is quite modest and socially conservative; acts such as kissing and hugging in public are outside the norm. This is not a matter of people viewing it as shameful but at their own discomfort of peering at the window into your personal life. There’s a saying in Myanmar that goes, “The perpetrator is not embarrassed, the viewer is.” However, hand-holding and other more reserved forms of affection and intimacy are perfectly normal there.
Part of the conservative tendencies of the people of Myanmar is not taking photos of someone without their permission. The people of Myanmar see it as an intrusive, inconsiderate action. Someone doing something novel or wearing clothes that are unfamiliar to Western eyes is not an invitation to take a picture of them. However, if you ask politely you may well receive permission. The worst that’ll happen is that you’ll be rebuffed in an equally polite manner.
Another part of Myanmar’s culture of modesty ties into their respect for religious sites, so don’t wear any revealing clothes inside temples. This means avoiding things such as muscle shirts, shirts that bare your midriff, and particularly short shorts or skirts. One thing that you should consider doing during your visit to Myanmar is wearing local clothing, such as the Burmese Longyi. The people of Myanmar appreciate foreigners engaging with their culture in such a manner, and you’ll automatically sidestep any issues of etiquette.
In Myanmar, many locations are off-limits to tourists for one reason or another. The country is home to protected tribes and government-recognized nature preserves that are not open to tourism. Whether you want to visit these places or not, you need to appreciate that you’re a visitor in this country and you need to follow its rules. The police and government of Myanmar don’t hesitate to hold tourists accountable for violations of travel restrictions, which is something to keep in mind.
This practice may seem odd, given the cultural view that feet are dirty, but shoes and socks are not any better. In fact, you need to leave your shoes and socks at the door before entering the pagodas and religious sites of Myanmar. This includes the older pagodas, which may not be the most comfortable to walk barefoot.
While the small money changers in the markets won’t necessarily try to cheat you, the possibility of meeting an unscrupulous money changer is always there. On the other hand, you simply aren’t going to find better deals from the most scrupulous of them than you will at a bank. Dealing with the ‘black market’ money changers is a bit of risk and no reward.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make during your trip to Myanmar is rushing to hit as many landmarks and attractions as you can. Myanmar is a deeply historic country that’s brimming with architecture from across the millennia and lush, natural beauty. The ideal is to take a longer trip and sink into the country, get to know the locals and appreciate everything that Myanmar has to offer. If that’s not possible, it’s a good idea to spend two or three days on a major attraction and plan a second trip.