How not to be a bad tourist in Burma

Interacting with monks
Interacting with monks
Burmese family

Before I begin – let’s get one thing straight. Being aware of etiquette when travelling isn’t the minefield that some people make it out to be, and should absolutely not be something to worry about before or during your trip. In almost every case, any well-meaning mistakes will be cheerfully forgiven by your local hosts, who understand that not all outsiders are au fait with their culture. In fact, you’ll find that people often jump at the chance to introduce you to their customs – so making mistakes becomes a vehicle for cultural exchange.

BUT! There is a world of difference between making an honest mistake and flagrantly disregarding the customs of the country you are visiting. Accidentally standing your chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice = honest mistake. Posing for nude photos at a place of religious worship and deep national pride = downright disrespectful. You know the difference, really.

Respect your elders

Amongst some tourists and backpackers, there seems to be a sense that normal rules don’t apply to foreigners – perhaps because the consequences of their infractions are not always obvious. But whilst it might be fun to cast off your inhibitions and throw caution to the wind, this attitude is hugely damaging and promotes the conception (common in many countries) that tourists are rude, thoughtless and badly behaved.

Don’t be one of those people. Familiarise yourself with the local culture – just the bare necessities will do – and if in doubt, watch how the locals act and do the same. The more effort you make, the more people will respect you in return. Simple!

So what do you need to know to be a good tourist in Burma?

1. It’s all about face

In Burma, as in most Asian countries, the idea of “saving face” is of the utmost importance. To lose face or to cause somebody else to lose face is anathema – so avoid doing anything that might embarrass, belittle or humiliate anyone, no matter how cross you are with them. Raising your voice in anger is very unlikely to get you anywhere in Burma. You might also find that Burmese people will often give you an answer to a question even if they don’t really know – it all comes back to face.

2. Respect your elders

Age is still highly respected in Burma. Elders are 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.

3. Know your body language

As one of the most devoutly Buddhist countries in the world, many of Burma’s customs come from Buddhist teachings. In Buddhism, the head is sacred and the feet are profane, so in Burma it is taboo to touch somebody’s head/shoulders, to put your feet up on the table, or to point at anything with your feet. Burmese people will even make sure that they sit with their feet pointing away from other people or religious icons.

4. Get a room

Burma is a conservative country, and public displays of affection between couples are frowned upon. Even mild displays of affection like holding hands or hugging are unusual – although between friends such gestures are actually much more common than in the West. There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding this one, and you may see couples being more overt than this – especially in major cities.

Holding hands as friends is perfectly usual in most parts of Asia.
Holding hands between friends is perfectly usual in most parts of Asia – but less common between couples.

5. Dress modestly

This is an area in which it’s easy to cause offence without realising it – because you don’t even need to interact with anyone to rub them up the wrong way. In hot countries the temptation is always to wear as little clothing as possible, and you often see travellers walking around seaside towns in their bikinis or trunks without so much as a “tut tut” from the locals. You might take this to mean that nobody minds what you’re wearing, but in actual fact it’s more likely that the locals don’t want to embarrass you by telling you off (all about face, remember?).

In Burma (as in any Asian country, in fact), it is advisable to dress modestly, which usually means covering shoulders and knees – especially at religious sites. In cities the rules may be relaxed – just have a look at what the people around you are wearing and adjust accordingly.

Our Enfys demonstrating appropriate dress at Shwedagon Pagoda.
Our Enfys demonstrating appropriate dress at Shwedagon Pagoda.

6. Have extra respect for monks

Monks hold a special place in Burmese society, and as such should be accorded the utmost respect. They always sit in the highest position at mealtimes or on public transport, and there is even a special vocabulary in the Burmese language for speaking to them! It is also frowned upon to make physical contact with monks, and a woman shouldn’t even pass something directly to them (she must first pass it to a man, who then passes it to the monk).

That said, we have found that in practice the rules are often interpreted very loosely, and it is always sensible to take your lead from the Burmese themselves. For instance, the monks below were very happy to be touched!

Touching monks
Touching monks

7. Understand money matters

Lots of confusion and embarrassment can surround money when travelling – so let me elucidate. Tipping is not the norm in Burma, so don’t worry about leaving a tip at restaurants, bars or taxis. Due to the rise of tourism, tipping has become more common in the tourism industry, so you might like to tip guides, drivers, boat crews and hotel porters. See the “culture” section of our website for guideline tipping quantities.

Haggling, meanwhile, is par for the course in Burma – although bargains are not driven quite as hard here as they are somewhere like Vietnam. Try not to push it too far, as that last couple of kyat is generally worth much more to them than to you.

8. Beware of Buddha

In recent times, there have been a few incidents involving foreigners and religious iconography – namely images of the Buddha. One or two travellers have been deported for having a t-shirt or tattoo depicting the Buddha, and one New Zealand bar owner in Yangon was handed a two-and-a-half year prison sentence for promoting his establishment with an image of the Buddha wearing headphones.

The bottom line is to be careful. You don’t need to walk on eggshells – but please do make every effort to behave with respect toward Buddhism while travelling in Burma.

No disrespect
No disrespect
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