Myanmar: Beliefs and Traditions | Thahara Blog
A man prays in Bago, Myanmar

Myanmar: Beliefs and Traditions - All You Need to Know

When visiting Myanmar you might find yourself coming across many different beliefs and values that you are not aware of or used to. These beliefs are one of the main reasons we think Myanmar is such a fascinating country to visit. Whether you’re coming for a whistle stop tour or a long vacation, it’s worth familiarising yourself with some of them, as it’ll make your experience in Myanmar that much more rewarding.

 

Listed below are what we think are the most interesting and important beliefs in Myanmar

 

Table Manners

During your time in Myanmar, if you are lucky, you might find yourself being invited to eat with a local family. This is a great honor and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Bear in mind these next few points before diving in and offending anyone:

  1. At a typical meal, all dishes are served simultaneously. It’s important to wait until all of the dishes are on the table before helping yourself to anything.
  2. And on the note of helping yourself, out of respect, the eldest diner is always served first. Even if the parent or elder is absent, the first scoop of rice is still set aside as a sign of respect. Everyone else is then served afterwards.
  3. While your tummy might be rumbling, it’s always seen as polite to serve others before yourself. If you see a dish you like, then spoon some onto your neighbor’s plate before adding any to yours.
  4. Knives and forks are gaining in popularity in Myanmar, but some families still use their hands to eat. Food should be touched only with the right hand, and never with the palm, only with your 5 fingers. Form the rice into a ball with your fingers, and then dip this into a curry on the table.
  5. Ever thought about where to start eating from on your plate? In Myanmar this is very important. Imagine your plate as a clock. If you start eating from the 12 o’clock position you can be seen as proud or greedy. However if you begin by eating from the 6 o’clock position this is seen as humble. 

Eating dinner at a homestay in Hsipaw, Myanmar

Upper and Lower Body Parts

Which part of your body do you consider the most important? Well in Buddhism culture the upper body (above the waist) is considered sacred, while the lower part (below the waist) is considered inferior or even dirty. With this in mind, bear in mind how you use your body when interacting with others:

  1. The head is the highest point on your body and as such it is considered the most sacred part. Touching someone else’s head (or patting it) is seen as a huge insult. A simple gesture such as patting a child on the head is thought to be dangerous to the child’s very wellbeing.
  2. If heads are the most sacred, then feet are the most inferior part of your body. Using your feet to point at anything is an extremely rude gesture. Want to sit back and relax with your feet resting on the table? Think again.

 

Lifestyle & Home Etiquette

How should you handle yourself around others, especially when you are invited into their home? We’ve got you covered.

  1. Shoes of any sort should always be taken off before entering someone’s home or building. Even after you have done this, it is still seen as impolite to walk over rugs as these are for sitting on. A top tip is making sure your shoes are never left upside down. If they are then it is a belief that poverty will follow you.
  2. Receiving a gift of any sort should be done with both hands as a sign of respect.
  3. Nail clippings are pretty disgusting. The belief in Myanmar though is that they can even cause problems for families and poverty. As such, just putting them in the dustbin is not enough, they must be thrown out of the house.
  4. According to religious beliefs in Myanmar, different sleeping positions have different meanings. If you incline to your right side and sleep, this is seen as a positive sign. Conversely if you incline to your left side, this is seen as a negative sign. Worst of all is if you lie straight, which is seen as resembling death. Bear in mind when sleeping that most Myanmar houses will have a Buddha image. Make sure your head, and not your feet, are pointing towards the image as you fall asleep.

Removing shoes before entering a home in Myanmar

Buddhist Religious Beliefs

Myanmar is a very religious country, with around 90% of the population being Buddhist. Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are all practiced in many parts of the country as well, but it is Buddhism that is most apparent in everyday life in Myanmar. So what are the most interesting beliefs surrounding Buddhism in Myanmar?

  1. You’ll find caged sparrows sold everywhere and particularly at religious sites. It is believed that setting these birds free earns you merit and goodwill.  
  2. Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Good deeds will be rewarded by being reincarnated as a human, however bad deeds can result in being reincarnated as an animal, or worse, an insect.
  3. Much like sleeping, the dying position is considered important to Buddhists. A dying position with the head inclined to the right helps the person reach a good place in the next life.
  4. No deed is considered more worthy in Myanmar then the construction of a pagoda (or temple). A high ranking monk often makes the decision on where to build the pagoda, with the decision often based on visions they have received.
  5. On the point of pagodas, it is important to always walk around religious sites clockwise, keeping the building on your right hand side.
  6. While religious buildings look magnificent and it is tempting to take photos or pose in-front of them, this is considered sacrilege. Nowadays it is often tolerated from foreigners, but it is something to bear in mind the next time you whip out your camera.
  7. There are many ceremonies celebrated in Myanmar and in Buddhist culture, but one of the most important is the novitation ceremony (or Shinbyu). This coming of age ceremony is for a boy under the age of 20. After the ceremony the boy will become a novice monk and spend some time, in a monastery. It is regarded by most Buddhists as the best religious gift that parents can give to their son and it is believed to have a lasting effect on his life.

Men pray at the Golden Rock in Myanmar

The Final Word

There are many more beliefs and values that you will find out about during your time in Myanmar, we’ve just listed some of the most interesting and important. To really experience Myanmar, it’s important to pay attention to these when visiting. Your understanding will be seen as a sign of respect that can open doors that would otherwise be closed. 

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