Useful “Dos and Don’ts”
With her great potential for economic development and her wide range of tourist destinations as yet “unpolluted” by commercialisation, Myanmar today sees a steady increase in the number of foreign visitors, be they tourists or business people. If you happen to be one of those visitors, there are some things you should know about the customs and beliefs of the Myanmar people that will go a long way toward making your stay more pleasant. The knowledge will also help you get a lot more out of the country’s tangible assets, like her numerous and ubiquitous Buddhist pagodas, as well as her “intangible” assets like people’s deep-rooted tradition of kindness towards strangers. Myanmars are a mixture of many different races, so the nation is made up of many diverse cultures. But however diverse we may be racially, we have many things in common with one anther. A key concept for Myanmars is cetana, an originally Pali word that occurs frequently in the teachings of the Lord Buddha. Although the word has no exact translation in English, it is generally employed in the sense of goodwill, good intention or benevolence. Cetena is manifested in a thousand ways. In the life of a Myanmar, it is applied everywhere and all the time. It is practised in both his religious duties and daily dealings with others. Since any act performed out of true centana is greatly appreciated in Myanmar society, you also should never hesitate to ask for help whenever you feel the need for it. Anybody would be happy to help you, without harbouring any selfish desire for material gains. Belief that merits, i.e doing good deeds for others, especially strangers, will accrue is widespread. It even makes us feel enraptured. Thus, gift of money or things should, if at all, be given courteously to a Myanmar who helps you. You should be aware that the help is cetana, regardless of whether it actually involves expenses. Most Myanmars feel that cetana can be repaid with gratitude rather than money. Tipping as a system us thus confined to such service people as taxi drivers, porters, bellboys and waiters, since they expect a small extra payment if they are indeed, of service to you. In other instances, a Myanmar would most certainly feel offended by “tips” and the like, feeling his cetena has been cheapened.
FEELING OF RESPECT
In Myanmar, feelings of respect are spontaneous in almost any situation. Deeply rooted in our hearts, this attitude has become second nature to us. We pay respect to whomever honour is due. In our society, Tisarana, literally meaning the Three Gems, refers to the venerable trinity of Buddha, Dhamma (His Teachings) and Sangha (members of the Buddhist Order). Among the Three Gems, Buddha is the most exalted. So much so that each Buddha image must be treated as reverently as a Living Buddha himself. Also to be revered are shrines housing the images, and precincts where in shrines, stupas, temples, monasteries and any other religious edifices stand. So what does a visitor do? “Observe decorum and protocol” when seeing places and meeting people. Other than socks and stocking, footwear is strictly prohibited on sacred religious grounds. Too much bare skin is considered sacrilegious in public places where religious ethos, prevails, such as on the grounds of a pagoda or temple.
Let’s see how the above consideration would apply when you visit a Myanmar friend or acquaintance at home. You will see the household shrine, kept usually in the front room, which means that the whole house is sacred ground. Remembering the etiquette about footwear, you try to take off your shoes. To your surprise, you will almost certainly be invited to keep your shoes on as “You have already shown respect for what we revere.” You should also remember that carpets, mats and other kinds of floor covering are meant to be sat upon, so you should avoid walking on them, especially if you have kept your shoes on. In Myanmar, as in many other Asian cultures, the head is considered the most sacred part of the human body, with the degree of sacredness diminishing as you go down the body until you get to the feet, which are the least clean part. So you should be aware that to pat somebody, even children, on the head or to pass something over his head, is considered offensive, even if you mean no harm. Similarly, if you happen to be sitting and your feet should, however unwittingly, be pointing toward, say, a Buddha image or a monk or an older person, it would be considered offensive. Whenever you sit at a table or in a room, where there are higher and lower places according to the rules of protocol, you should be careful not to take a seat above Buddhist monks or older persons, as that would be considered a breach of etiquette. It is also worth bearing in mind that, apart from the clergy, age, rather than wealth or professional position, is the most important criterion of social standing. In short, respect for elders above all.
INTRODUCTION AND GREETINGS
When meeting someone for the first time, there are no stiff exchanges of formalities and cliched phrases. Instead, careful smile or a graceful bow would do nicely. The originally western custom of shaking hands when introduced has, by now, become something of a vogue among urbanised Myanmars. But this applies only to men who are not of the clergy. If you are introduced to monks, you would bow or bring your palms together. If you, a man, are introduced to a Myanmar lady, you should not stretch out your hand to shake hers – unless she does so first. As demure and shy as a Myanmar lady might appear at first to a foreigner, she is the upholder of centuries-old traditions that make up the fabric of Myanmar society. To remain unblemished and pure – this is a virtue considered to be the ideal of womanhood. Thus a proper Myanmar woman will most certainly be reluctant to have any sort of social intercourse with a man who is not intimately related to her. In urban areas, once again, better- educated ladies are less likely to adhere rigidly to such a conservative code of behaviour. Even then, they would not feel comfortable about a male stranger or acquaintance touching any part of her casually. It would be considered impolite at best and, more likely, downright offensive.
EATING AND DINING
Why not try the local cuisine while in Myanmar? Available virtually anywhere, it is usually a mixture of rice with two or three kinds of curry, sauces and green salad. As in other Asian cultures, the custom is to eat with the thumb, forefinger and middle finger of your right hand, up to the first joints. The clean left hand is used for handling serving spoons. Spoons and forks, for the usual eating style of Southeast Asian coffeehouses, will of course be provided for foreign guests. In all city quarters where tourists gather, you will encounter eateries offering a good selection of Myanmar, Chinese, Indian, Thai and European cuisine. There are also small roadside food stalls, where prices are about a quarter of what you pay in restaurants, but you would be eating at your own risk, as such stalls pay little attention to food hygiene. For those with a strong stomach.
HAVE A GREAT TIME
We have barely scratched the surface of the complexity of Myanmar social customs, but the information herein may serve as an orientation for the uninitiated visitor. We hope that this basic knowledge of the etiquette and customs will help new visitors enjoy themselves more in Myanmar, the so-called “Golden Land” of splendiferous cultural treasures and genuine cetana-based kindness of the people.