MYANMAR

Myanmar( Burmese) People & Culture – All you need to know before travelling to Burma

With Myanmar gradually opening up now is the time to visit and the best way to do this is to study up on Myanmar people & culture before you visit this beautiful and fascinating country.

Language

The country’s official language is Myanmar, though English can be spoken in the big towns such as Yagon or by elderly people. Besides, with 135 different national races, there are also many languages & dialects. The modern alphabet consists of 33 letters (consonants) and 12 basic vowels (sequential extensions result in 21 vowels) which are combined with various symbols (4 in basic, 11 in total consonant combination symbols) to indicate the tones.

 

Religion & Beliefs

Almost 90 percent of the people are Buddhists, and the proportion is higher among the Burmese majority. Burmese follow the Theravada form of Buddhism, which is also known as Hinayana Buddhism and the doctrine of the elders or the small vehicle. In Theravada Buddhism, it is up to each individual to seek salvation and achieve nirvana. Buddhism is believed to have been introduced to Burma by missionaries sent by the Indian emperor Ashoka in the third centuryB.C.E.

Buddhism is followed by many of the non-Burmese ethnic groups. While all these groups follow Theravada Buddhism, there are some differences between the in beliefs and practices and those of the Burmese. Buddhist beliefs and practices include animistic elements that reflect belief systems predating the introduction of Buddhism. Among the Burmese, this includes the worship ofnats,which maybe associated with houses, in individuals, and natural features. An estimated 3 percent of the population, mainly in more isolated areas, who adhere solely to animistic religious beliefs.

Tips: Neat and respectful dress should be worn in all religious shrines. It is not considered polite to visit religious monuments in shorts, miniskirts or hot pants. Though shoes can be worn in temple compounds, they should be removed before entering the chapel of the principal Buddha image. Indeed, all Buddha images are regarded as sacred, regardless of size, age or position, and should all be shown due respect. Buddhist monks are not allowed to touch or be touched by a woman, or accept anything from a woman’s hand.

Another 4 percent of the population is Christian (3 percent Baptist and 1 percent Catholic), 4 percent is Muslim, 4 percent is Hindu, and 1 percent is animist. Christian missionaries began working in the country in the nineteenth century. They had relatively little success among Buddhists but made numerous converts among some of the minority groups.

Burmese (Myanmar) people groups

Myanmar has a population of around 51 million people, roughly 68% of whom belong to the majority Bamar ethnic group.

The Myanmar government identifies eight major national ethnic races (Bamar, Chin, Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Mon, Kayah and Kachin). Together, these encompass a total of 135 individual ethnic groups – a misleading classification that lumps ethnic minorities together by geography rather than by linguistic or genetic similarity. For example, the Shan “Major National Ethnic Race” includes a total of 33 groups, amongst which are found at least four widely differing language families.

In addition to these “official” ethnic groups, there are an array of minorities who are not recognised by the Burmese government. These include the Burmese Chinese, Panthay, Burmese Indians, Rohingya, Anglo-Burmese, Lisu, Rawang, Naga, Padaung, and Gurkha, who together form around 10% of the country’s population.

Myanmar’s Culture

Myanmar’s decades as a pariah state have ensured that it ranks today among the most staunchly traditional nations in Asia. And it’s not just the peripheral, remote and mountainous regions where picturesque, antiquated traditions still hold sway. Even in the cities, adherence to traditional values remains to the fore – something you’ll notice from the minute you step off the plane. Traditional dress is ubiquitous, and the Burmese are remarkably polite and deferential towards their elders and strangers. Conventions of hospitality remain strong, as do the beliefs and practices of Theravada Buddhism, fervent adherence to which is a fact of daily life in a country where monks queue in the street each morning to accept alms from lay people and the terraces of huge gilded pagodas throng from sunset to sunrise with pilgrims and worshippers.

Because they comprise by far the largest and most dominant cultural group in Myanmar, the following account refers principally to the Bamar, the overwhelming majority of whom are Buddhists.

It is also considered improper to lose one’s temper or show much emotion in public, but the Burmese are a very friendly and outgoing people. The Burmese and other Buddhists follow the Buddhist custom of not touching a person on the head, since spiritually this is considered the highest part of the body. Patting a child on the head not only is improper but is thought to be dangerous to the child’s well-being. A person should not point the feet at anyone. Footwear is removed upon entering temple complexes for religious reasons, and it is polite to remove footwear when entering a house.

Thanaka

 Women everywhere apply yellow paste to their faces called thanaka. Ground bark is mixed with water to create a paste which is then applied to the desired areas. Some women make fanciful patterns on their cheeks, but most opt for circles or squares. As well as being a fashion and sign of beauty, it’s believed to protect the skin from the sun, so you’ll see young children and even some men wearing it like the Intha man above!
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