Cultural Immersion in Myanmar: Up Close Encounters with Burmese Locals

Myanmar probably possesses one of the most intriguing and enigmatic cultures in the world as it continues to charm millions of people—tourists and even researchers into exploring its wealthy history and heritage preserved painstakingly by the state. Burmese culture is largely influenced by the Mon tribe and Buddhism. It has also been molded by its neighboring nations such as China, India and Thailand as well as the British colonization and westernization.

The country has eight national races: Mon, Shan, Kayah, Chin, Barmar, Kayin, Rakhaing and Kachin. These eight main groups are further divided into 67 subgroups by the Burmese government. Given this diversity of people, you can expect an equally sundry set of culture encompassing arts, music, dance, cuisine, traditions and beliefs.

Burmese Arts

Burmese art is historically based on the Hindu and Buddhist myths and cosmology. Almost each region has a distinct representation of Buddha. The Burmese people take pride in their 10 traditional arts (pan se myo) composed of the following:

  1. Goldsmith
  2. Blacksmith
  3. Woodcarving
  4. Masonry
  5. Stone Carving
  6. Stucco Relief
  7. Painting
  8. Bronze Casting
  9. Turnery
  10. Lacquerware

Aside from these, Burmese arts also include pottery, silk weaving, gemstone engraving, gold leaf making and tapestry making.

Burmese Literature

Just like the traditional arts, the country’s literature is generally shaped by Buddhism, particularly the Jataka Tales. British colonial rule also introduced a lot of genres of fiction. However, different factors such as lengthened attainment of printing permit, censorship and economic crisis caused the decline of Burmese literary production.

Burmese Music

The local music makes use of a wide selection of conventional musical instruments gathered together in “hsaing waing,” a type of orchestra in Myanmar. Traditional folk musical pieces are often characterized by sudden shifts in melody and rhythm in combination with alterations in timbre and texture. Classical Burmese music can be found in the “Mahagita” a collection of classical songs, which are divided into outdoor and indoor ensembles. Currently, homegrown and foreign pop music rule the airwaves in Myanmar.

Dance in Myanmar

You will find different types of dances in Myanmar such as folk, dramatic, village and nat dances. Each one possesses distinct qualities and have been influenced by the neighboring countries specifically Thailand. Burmese dance is usually characterized by fast-paced, angular and energetic movements. Emphasis is given on pose and not on the movement itself.

The Dress Code

Burmese people typically wear the Indian lungi (long gyia sarong). For formal occasions and business events, Bamar men don the Manchu Chinese jacket over a collared shirt with a “gaung baung” (turban). Bamar women wear a buttoned blouse called “yinzi” or “yinbon” and a shawl. They also wear the “hnyat-phanat”, a kind of traditional sandal. The British also influenced the Burmese clothing and hair fashion and these are evident in the cropped hair (bo ke), amauk, and the traditional hair bun. The sarong (htamein) of the women became shorter and the sheer muslin blouse was introduced.

Burmese Customs and Traditions

Don’t be surprised when Burmese people are noticeably conscious of their speech or action because in general, the Burmese society lives by “ana” which is characterized by reluctance, avoidance or hesitation to carry out an action because they don’t want to offend or embarrass a person or themselves. Also, the older people are still considered to be the most experienced and they possess wisdom, hence, they are respected.

At meals, elders are usually served first and in their absence, a spoonful of rice is always set aside as a sign of respect. The young people are taught to venerate the elders and they avoid sitting on a higher position than the older people, or passing in front unless inevitable. The society sees the parents as solely responsible for their children’s behavior, and saying “thank you” is not part of the custom among friends and within the members of the family.

Touching a person’s head and feet are considered rude in Myanmar. Also, pointing your finger at a Buddha image is blasphemous. You need to remove your shoes before entering a temple and visitors are instructed to walk in a clockwise direction. Showing affection in public is a common practice among friends of the same gender and among family members but rarely between lovers.

Burmese Cuisine

The food in Burmese cuisine has been molded by the Thai, Chinese and Indian. Burmese cuisine is often characterized by mildly spicy taste and the cooks use limited amount of spices. A traditional meal has some meat curries, steamed rice, fermented fish sauce, vegetables and soup.

The intricacy of all the influences and evolution of the culture in Myanmar is what probably makes it different with other countries. The people generally have a bright disposition and would readily pose with you in front of a camera. If you want to get up close with such unique culture, make sure to schedule a vacation in Myanmar.

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