Myanmar etiquette is based upon respect for others. From early childhood the idea of respect toward elders and anyone who holds an important or prestigious position, such as teachers and monks, is ingrained in the Myanmar people. Monks (called phongyi in Burmese) are especially respected, even by their parents and teachers. If you wish to greet a monk, put your hands together in a prayer gesture and bow your head. The higher you place your hands, the more you show respect. Provided below, are some basic points on Burmese culture and etiquette.
- Women must avoid touching a monk or his robe; strictly speaking, a monk must take a shower even if her shadow falls on his! Similarly, women should not touch Buddha images in a pagoda.
- To be respectful, one must not touch or pat another’s head. Even young children should not be patted on the head.
- The feet are considered the most inferior part of a person. Therefore, it is insulting to use your feet to point to something, or push something, like a stool, for someone to sit on.
- Shoes should only be placed on the floor. While inside any pagoda or monastery, shoes, socks and slippers must be removed. Sometimes shoes must be removed even on the approach to the entrance. Be ready to remove your footwear where everyone else is removing theirs, or when someone motions you to do it. It is recommended that you bring a plastic bag with you to put your shoes in so you can carry them with you, otherwise you will be charged for one.
- Traditionally, the right hand is used for eating, the left for “personal hygiene” in the bathroom. So it is preferable to use the right hand when you give something to someone. At the same time, to use only one hand seems half-hearted, so to show warmth Burmese people sometimes use both hands to shake hands. A variation of using two hands to give something to someone (to show more respect or care), is to touch your right forearm with your left hand, particularly when exchanging business cards and handing someone money.
- Myanmar traditional dress covers the body modestly from ankle to neck and wrists. It is slightly improper to display one’s body except at sport. An exposed hairy chest, short shorts or dress, or deep cleavage are embarrassing. Be especially mindful of what you are wearing when visiting a pagoda, as you are expected to have your shoulders and knees covered.
- When visiting a home or office, you are usually served something to eat or drink. It is better to eat a little. You should always make a show of accepting everything offered, even if you don’t want it. This applies to presents as well. For Myanmar people, absolute refusals are bad manners, but being overly excited seems materialistic and greedy. So don’t be disappointed if your guest seems under whelmed by a gift you give them.