Nestled on the north east edge of South East Asia, the diverse country of Myanmar enjoys an eclectic array of influences combining that of its neighbouring countries, Buddhism and former British colonial rule.
Home to over 54 million people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, the country’s turbulent but beautiful history and ancient religious traditions have moulded this fascinating country into what it is today.
No matter what your reasons for visiting the magnificent country of Myanmar, it is important to value the country’s culture, religion and politics in order to fully understand how to best adapt during your trip.
Laying on a major trade route between China and South India, modern day Myanmar has been inhabited for several thousands of years. The first people that arrived here were the Pyu people from Southern China in the second century BC.
During the 9th century, the modern day Burmese people, the Bamar ethnic group migrated north of the Irrawaddy valley and built the Kingdom of Pagan in 1044. They ruled over the ancient city, now called Bagan until 1287 when the Mongol invasion began. During this reign and after the fall of Bagan, the Burmese culture evolved into what we know today.
As the 16th century arrived, the Taungoo Dynasty unified a series of disputing states under one nation, before being replaced by Konbaung Dynasty. The Konbaung Dynasty was the last reigning Burmese Kingdom before the 1824 British colonization.
During the British rule, between 1824 and 1948 many changes were made to the country’s administrative system and economic infrastructure before Myanmar gained sovereignty.
As a result of a complex history, Myanmar’s culture is colourful. Although based heavily on Buddhist beliefs, Myanmar’s culture is eclectic and celebrated by a vast array of festivals. These include Thingyan, the Burmese New Year. Phaung Daw, a large Buddhist festival of respect and Thadingyut, known as the festival of light. Myanmar presents many opportunities to experience unique ethnic groups and traditions.
Family life is exceptionally important to Burmese people and plays a major role in the culture of Myanmar. Families live close together, several generations in the same house and members that work outside of the village return to visit regularly. Both the men and the women cook and look after small children in Burmese households. Traditional food can vary considerably across the country due to an array of Chinese, Indian and Thai influences but rice, noodles and tea leaf salad are staple foods amongst locals.
Myanmar’s traditional dress can be identified as the longyi. Worn by men in dark colours and tied to the front and by women in brighter colours and tied to the side, the longyi is deemed appropriate for all kinds of occasions.
Even though there is no official state religion in Myanmar, Buddhism has played an important part in Burmese life and culture for over two thousand years and accounts for 89% of the population. Today Buddhism plays a pivotal role in everyday life for Myanmar’s locals and is evident throughout the country’s many temples and stupas.
Some smaller religious minorities include Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
Christianity is Myanmar’s second largest religious group. Making up about 4% of Myanmar’s population, Christianity was introduced during the 18th century and is primarily practiced among the Chin, Kayin, Kachin and Eurasian populations.
A smaller population of somewhere between 2-3% account for Muslims in Myanmar. Islam has a long history in the country and has mainly been practiced in Rakhine State since around the 15th century.
Although only 2% of the population follows Hinduism, its influence can be found heavily ingrained into modern day Burmese culture. During the British colonisation, many Indians migrated into modern day Yangon, bringing with them the religion of Hinduism. Today, although there remains only a small population of Hindu’s in Myanmar, its traditions live on and Thagyamin, the king of Nats is based on the Hindu god, Indra.
After gaining sovereignty in 1948, Myanmar began to struggle with local conflicts and politics which ended in a civil war followed by a strict military regime until 1988. In 2016 the first non-military leader was elected and even though Myanmar is now a democratic country, there are still times of political and civil unrest.
Instability between religious groups is a common occurrence in Myanmar and the senior government and military closely monitor minority religions because of this.
How to adapt
A beautiful, rich and open country, Myanmar is proud of its unique set of beliefs and traditions. As such, it is important to respect customs of the local people and the country whilst travelling.
With Buddhism being the main, sacred religion of Myanmar, Monks and Nuns hold an important, revered place in society. They shouldn’t be touched or spoken to, and should always take the highest seat available.
You should never touch any person on the head or the feet. In Myanmar culture these two points represent the highest and the lowest points of the sacred body and it is deemed inappropriate for them to be touched by others.
Although western style clothing is becoming increasingly popular in Myanmar, revealing clothing can be frowned upon. Modest clothing is seen as much more appropriate and legs and shoulders must always be covered when exploring religious sites such as temples and pagodas.
Couples showing signs of affection in public are generally frowned upon.
It is customary in Burmese culture to remove shoes before entering someone’s home and shoes and socks must always be removed before entering monasteries, pagodas and shrines.