Myanmar Customs and Traditions

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Religion

The religious life of Myanmar is dominated by the omnipresent Theravada Buddhism. Over 80 percent of the population call themselves Theravadas, the remaining are Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. Over 500,000 Buddhist monks live in monasteries throughout the country.

People

Although there are many ethnic groups in Myanmar, it can be roughly divided into four: Tibeto-Burmese, Mon-Khmer, Karen and Thai-Chinese. The first group includes the main Burmese people and more than 30 smaller tribes while the other three groups are less diverse.

Approximately 2-3 million Karen live in Myanmar, forming the third biggest ethnic group in the country. They are mainly farmers living either in the south-east near to the border with Thailand, or in the west of Myanmar near the Indian border. The women of the Padaung tribe, a subgroup of the Karen, are known for wearing heavy rings of brass around their necks and are called ‘giraffe women’ since the heavy rings push down the shoulders and elongate the neck.

The Shan consist of various tribes with a history dating back to the 3rd century BC. They are found today in the border regions of the north, north-west, east, and on the borders with Laos and Thailand. Although most of them are Buddhists, animism still plays a significant role in everyday life.
The Mon people, who are found mainly in the regions around Mawlamyine and Bago, have had a big impact on arts and culture. They are Buddhists and have their own language. Today, approximately 1.3 million Mon live in Myanmar.

The Kachin live in the remotest northern state. They include about 62 different tribes, some Christians and some animists. Their unique bamboo and wood houses are constructed in an oval shape; the first floor is used for animals and storage and the second floor is used as the living quarters.

Art & Architecture

Burmese arts and craftsmanship find their full flowering in the religious architecture. At times it seems that every river bend or hilltop boasts a temple spire, due to the Burmese penchant for balancing their structures on cliffs or towering rocks.
Literally meaning ‘holy one’, paya, is the general term referring to religious structures. Payas are either square, rectangular or bell shaped and house holy relics such as a hair or footprint of the Buddha. Decorative metal umbrellas, called hti, adorn the tips of most and their chiming contributes to the tranquil ambience.
Because monasteries and secular buildings were traditionally built of wood, unlike the more permanent religious structures, there are very few surviving examples of these elaborately carved structures.

Etiquette

– In Cambodian culture it is unseemly to show too much emotion so avoid losing your temper over problems and delays.
– You should always take your shoes off when entering a temple or when visiting private houses.
– You should never touch anybody’s head intentionally as it is regarded as a particularly holy part of the body.
– Accordingly, the feet are literally the lowest part of the body so do not point your feet at anybody or at a Buddha image.
– Sensitivity to politically related subjects in conversation is advisable.
– It is polite to ask permission before taking photographs of Cambodians, particularly monks.

Dance & Theatre

Classical dance-drama often features solo performances by female dancers who wear dresses with long white trains that they kick into the air with their heels during the foot movements. Yokthei pwe, or Burmese marionette theatre, uses colourful puppets up to a metre tall and is considered the most expressive of all the Burmese arts. It is also extremely skilful as some marionettes may have up to 60 strings, including one for each eyebrow.