What is the proper way to address to a young lady in Myanmar?

Photo: Sasint | Pixabay

Myanmar is a very conservative and traditionalist country. Ok, I know younger generation is different, and more open to modern ideals, but majority of the country is still quite conservative. Majority of people, even among urban young generation are still conservative about tradition and custom compared to youths of neighbouring countries. In addition, there is a Burmese culture of looking down on people who are not conformed to the traditional customs and traditional ways of life. (Ok, it may read more

Culture Shock – Beware of your Feet

I met many foreigners (mostly westerners) who do not feel anything to put their feet on the table while sitting on the chair. This seems a normal habit to them. They don’t feel like it is a strange or rude thing to do it. And I know they don’t mean to be rude. However, in the eyes of a Burmese (Myanmar) man, it is a strange behavior. Indeed, in the eyes of a Burmese, it is really a very rude thing.

For Burmese (Myanmar), head is the most sacred part of the human body while feet are the most inferior part. Being the lowest part, they are not only under every part of the body but also the dirtiest part. They touch ground, dirt, mud, garbage, feces; just think of all the dirty things lying on the ground. Invariably, feet become the most dirty and smelly part of your body. Just try to sniff your feet at the end of the day. For Burmese, dirty part should only be in the lower place. When you put that dirty part of yours onto somebody’s clean table, it is like an insult to that person; I mean if that person is a Burmese. There is nothing more insulting to a Burmese than to point your feet towards him.

So, if you want to win heart and mine of your Burmese friends, next time you visit him or he visit you, try not to put your feet on the living room table or point your feet towards him. Indeed, your feet should never be pointing to the direction of a person or a sacred place (like Buddha’s image or shrine, or a photo of an elderly). This is the rule you must strictly follow in Burma (Myanmar). Possibly, your Myanmar friend will not say anything even if you do it, but it does not mean he is ok with your behavior or approves of your behavior. He will not say anything but will consider you as a very rude person. Even if that person is your employee or your house maid, you should never do it to him/her.

Hope you find your stay pleasant in Burma (Myanmar)

Culture Shock – When a Myanmar do not say NO

Many a time, foreigners (especially western foreign expats working in Myanmar) will notice that things they ask from Myanmar friends are met with affirmative answers but never materialized. For example, a westerner expat might invite his friend to a dinner party. The Myanmar friend is not free on that day. Normally, a westerner will simply decline to the invitation and tell his friend that he cannot come because he is not free. In case of Myanmar friend, he would probably say yes, even though he knows he cannot come. On the day of the dinner, he is not appearing. He would not also call his foreigner friend that he cannot come. The next day, he will apologize his friend for not being able to come, blah, blah, blah. The foreigner might think that his friend is not trust worthy and not consistent.

Here lies that difference between western culture and Myanmar culture. Myanmar people are usually reluctant to say no, especially to foreigners. (Forget about those annoying taxi drivers and shop keepers. They are the exceptions.) The closer he is to you, the more he may be reluctant to say no. Thus, instead of saying “No”, he will simply choose to be absent, hoping that you might not notice his absence. Or he may choose to call you at last minute when you have prepared everything for the dinner.

This is not only with the foreigners. Many of my friends also act the same with me. Many times, they will say “may be”, “I think I will be free”, “I will try to come”, blah, blah, blah. As a Myanmar myself, I know that he will not come to the appointment.

For westerners not familiar with Myanmar culture and Myanmar way of life, this is a very strange and uncomfortable situation. It may appear to then as Burmese people are unreliable. However, the truth is, it is difficult for a Myanmar to say NO to other people. I personally don’t know how it happens that way, but I myself also find it difficult to say NO many times. It is bad, but it is firmly rooted in the life and culture of Myanmar people.

So next time, if you invite or ask something from your friend, and if he blah, blah, blah, make sure he will really come to the appointment or do what you ask him to do.

Culture Shock – The Story of “YES”

Myanmar way of saying yes
Myanmar way of saying yes

I worked for a French Company for over 10 years. When I talked with my boss and other French friends, I used to prompt the conversation with YES, not with “ah ha”, “I see”, “really” etc. like in western way.

After some times they came back and asked me if I have done their requests. I was puzzled. “I have never promised to do that thing for you”, I told them. But you said, “YES a few days ago” they countered.

This kind of incident happened not only to me but also to my other Myanmar friends.

The root of the problem lies in “YES”. Myanmar (Burmese) use the prompting word “YES” when conversing, westerners don’t. For Myanmar (Burmese), YES is not a promise or acceptance. It is simply a way of acknowledging the conversation: a simple way of saying “I hear what you say”.

So when we speak in English, our habit of saying YES in Myanmar (Burmese) is literally translated into English word YES.

We have our own special word when we accept something. It is a cultural difference. Later we had to explain it to our French friends to take our “YES” as a meaningless word.

At that time it was not funny at all; we used to argue heatedly in meetings. That is my story of YES.

Contribution by Ko Ko.

Burmese proverb – Destroy the Rafts

The king ordered his general to take a part of the army and pursue the opposing forces. The king said, “When you find them, do not attack but wait until I arrived with the main army”.

After following for several days scouts reported that they had found their prey. The general and his troops make haste and by night fall arrived quietly at the bank of a river.

On the other side of the river they saw the camps of the opposing forces unaware of the arrival of the general and his troops.

The opposing forces had many times more men then the general’s. The general thought he could win if he launches a surprise attack and decided not to wait for the main army. He gave order to prepare for a battle.

They make many bamboo rafts and silently cross the river during the night. After all the troops had crossed over, the general ordered to destroy all the rafts. His lieutenants objected that the raft would be needed if they have to retreat.

The general said, “If we lose, the king will execute us for disobeying him. It is better to die fighting then to be executed, so these rafts are useless for us. By destroying the rafts, I am preparing my men to fight to their death to win”.

The general and his men fought bravely and won the battle.

The general’s name was ‘Bayint Naung’. He later became a great king who unified Myanmar for the second time in its history. The battle was known as ‘The Battle of Naung Yo’.

The phrase ‘Destroy the rafts’ became famous. We use it when we have to win at all cost. It is similar to the American phrase ‘to go for broke’.

Editor’s note: This is the first post by our contributor Ko Ko. He had joined Myanmar Today since its launch but was quite busy to contribute any post. He is also writing a number of blogs and websites. He writes about PHP language in Burmese language, Korean movie stars (his favorite subject) and Korean film stars.

Destroy The Rafts

The king ordered his general to take a part of the army and pursue the opposing forces. The king said, “When you find them, do not attack but wait until I arrived with the main army”.

After following for several days scouts reported that they had found their prey. The general and his troops make haste and by night fall arrived quietly at the bank of a river.

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News: Start of Taung Pyone spirit festival

Taung Pyone natTens of thousands are gathering in Taung Pyone (Taung Byone) near Mandalay to celebrate the annual nat pwe (festival for spirits). The week-long festival starts this week with as many as 100,000 believers gathering to celebrate in the grand festival for the nats (spirits).

There are a number of nat pwes (spirit festivals) in Myanmar. Of these, Taung Pyone is the largest and the most important festival of all. This festival is to commemorate the fable of the two nat brothers Min Gyi and Min Lay, also known as Shwe Byin Nyi Naung (Shwe Phyin Nyi Naung or Shwe Byin Brothers). These two brothers were the heroes/worriors during the time of Bagan King Anawrahta. According to the legend, these two were drunk on their night of their duty to build a pagoda. This was found out by the king and were ordered to be executed. However, they were later proclaimed as nats by King Anawrahta, possibly due to their popularity among the ordinary citizens. Since that time, these two brothers had been worshipped by millions of believers all over Burma.

Ironically, the two brothers were not Buddhists. They were Muslim brothers. These were the only two nats in Burma who were Muslims.

Taung Pyone nat pwe
Taung Pyone nat pwe

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ken_san/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
During the Taung Byone festival, tens of thousands of believers all over the country gather at Taung Byone for the festival. Believers bring along expensive presents for the nats as well as plenty of liquors (they are really fond of good liquor). Ceremony is guided by the traditional spirit mediums (called nat-ka-daw or wife of nat) who are almost always transvestites. Participants in the festival believe the two brothers have power to grant richness and wealth to their followers. Many make pilgrimage to pay respect to the nats as well as to ask for fortune and favour from the nats.

Taung Byone festival is immediately followed by another grand but smaller Yadanagu festival.
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Mandalay entertainment – Mandalay Marionette (Puppet) Theatre

Mandalay Marionette (Puppet) Theatre

One of the best well known Myanmar traditional theatre performances in Myanmar is the Mandalay Marionette Theatre (also known as Mandalay Puppet Theatre). First founded by two ladies in 1986, the troupe started their performance by performing for the tourists coming to Myanmar. The two founders were Ma Ma Naing, daughter of U Thein Naing, the writer of Burmese Puppet Theatre (1966) and Naing Ye Mar. The troupe is supervised by Dr. Tin Maugn Kyi, a researcher on Myanmar puppet, U Pan Aye and U Shwe Nan Tin, seasoned and well respected puppet masters. The troupe has won a number of national awards, and has performed in various foreign countries.

The daily performance consists of two or three parts depending on the program. The parts are
Part 1 – Introduction to Myanmar traditional dance and music

  • Musical prelude by a traditional Myanmar orchestra
  • Traditional harp
  • Candle light dance (Bagan dance)

Part 2 – Myanmar puppet show

  • Traditional opening – worshipping of spirits
  • Himalaya scene – a traditional scene where the story teller recounts the creation of earth and universe
  • Alchemist (Zawgyi)

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Mandalay Entertainment – Moustache Brothers

If you want to have a glimpse of traditional Myanmar anyient (dance and comedy show), the best place to see is in Mandalay. The Moustache Brothers Troupe (Mustache Brothers) is a group of banned anyient comedians, once famous among the people of Myanmar but now banned from performing in front of general public for their political activities. They perform their show every evening at 8:30 PM at their home in Mandalay. Because of restrictions imposed on the troupe, the performence cannot be done in full traditional costume. They perform their performence in normal dress, announcing that they are merely demonstrating what the actual Myanmar traditional anyient looks like. This is a mean to circumvent their public performence restriction.

The three moustache brothers are Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw. Par Par Lay used to be a very well known comedian in Myanmar, until his arrest and prison sencente, together with one of his brothers, for seven years. They were arrested after their performence in 1995 at the Myanmar Independence Day performence at NLD head quarter (then at the house of Aung San Su Kyi). They were released in 2000, after serving five of their seven years term, but are still banned from public performence.

The following short video clip shows their performence in English.


Here are the videos of their performence at Moustache Brothers from Mandalay.

You can visit the Moustache Brothers at their house in 39th Street, between 80th and 81st streets, Mandalay. (Any taxi driver or trishaw driver knows their place). You can also buy the T-shirt of the Moustache Brothers at 5000 kyats each.

Editor’s Note: Many of the above information has been obtained from our reference book Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar (Burma). This is a very good guide book on Myanmar, and essential book that you must bring on your trip to Myanmar. The book can be obtained from Amazon store.

Myanmar Thingyan

Bagan Thingyan

Thingyan is probably the most celebrated, most joyous event in the culture and custom of Myanmar people. From the poorest to the richest in Myanmar, this is the greatest event for the year. Every body, poor, rich, uneducated, educated, young and old all participate and enjoy in this once a year event. For every Burmese, this is the event not to be missed. Even for those Burmese people in foreign countries, this is the time for a celebration in the memory of their homeland and their culture. Thingyan is indeed the event for every Burmese, in Myanmar or outside.

Thingyan is actually not a true traditional Burmese custom. It is an imported cultural event, incorporated and extensively modified over several hundred years to become essentially a true Burmese cultural event. The origin of Thingyan can be traced back to India where it is one of the events of Hindi culture. The culture of Thingyan was brought into Burma by many Indian Brahmins who came to Burma to serve in the courts of Burmese kingdoms. As these Indian Brahmins held important positions in the court of Burmese kings, their culture, tradition and believes had great influence on the culture and tradition of Burmese royal courts. Thingyan is one of their cultural influences in the life of Burmese people.

The recorded Thingyan in the history of Burma was in Bagan era in the 13th century. Burmese historical accounts described the celebration of Thingyan in the royal court of Bagan. In one event, the king of Bagan, Nara Thiha Pathae ordered the ladies of his royal court to throw water at one of his wives to soak. Taking this as an act of humiliation, the wife took her revenge by plotting assassination against the king. However, the assassination plot was found out and the wife, together with all her relatives, was executed by burning alive. This is the earliest record of Thingyan in Burmese history.

Myanmar Thingyan

The background of Thingyan is the celebration of the Burmese New Year (which actually is a modification of Indian calendar). Burmese New Year falls during the month of April. Every year, the Brahmins of The Burmese Calendar Committee advised on the government to the date of the Burmese New Year day. Thingyan is celebrated for three days prior to the New Year day. However, in certain years, Thingyan is celebrated for four days. The number of days is calculated by the Brahmins of the Calendar Committee.

Today, Thingyan is celebrated all over Myanmar. Every city, town and village celebrates Thingyan. This is the event for everyone. Rich and poor alike become the same during Thingyan. This is the time where all social and cultural barriers break down in Myanmar. If you have been to Myanmar before and you already have an idea of what Myanmar people are like, you will find a different aspect of Myanmar life and Myanmar people. You will see the most joyous, fun loving and wildest part of Myanmar people during Thingyan.

Youth in Thingyan

During Thingyan, people throw water at each other. People pour water from the cup, splash water from a bucket, spray water using water guns or pipes. In the past, people used to throw water in water balloons which can be very painful. Fortunately, this is now prohibited as it is quite painful and dangerous to the one on the receiving end. Another way of spraying water that used to be quite common was using water canons (strong water canons like those used by firefighters!) and pressurized water guns (the same one used by your car wash!). The former one can knocked you out of your car while the latter one is very painful and can cause serious abrasions on the skin. These methods of playing with water are now banned by the government.

Similar water festivals are held throughout South East Asia during Thingyan. For example, Thai Songkran is quite famous and well known among foreigners. However, Myanmar Thingyan is quite unique among all these water festivals. During Thingyan, all the offices, supermarkets and departments stores are closed while many shops and restaurants also close. Roads are totally blocked by pick up trucks and jeeps full of people who go out to get splashed and wet. Stages were constructed along main roads and people throw water from these stages at these on trucks and jeeps. Many people, including some girls, become drunk and there are occasional fights break out among young people. However, during Thingyan, most people restrain from getting angry and out of control. Boys and girls tease each other freely (which is not always permissible in normal circumstances) and this they take it without any offence. Every body get soak during this time and every body welcome a splash of water during this hottest time of the year. However, monks and pregnant women are exempted from this as it is considered very rude to throw water at monks and pregnant women.

After Thingyan is the Burmese New Year Day. On The New Year Day, everything returns to normal. Wild and mad people who occupied the streets of cities and towns all across Myanmar totally disappeared, replaced by clean, gentle and polite individuals clad in traditional longyi heading to pagodas and monasteries. A visitor might be quite amazed by this total change of behavior in the people overnight. However, this is how Thingyan changed behavior of ordinary Burmese citizens during that joyous three days.

For those of you who want to have a taste of what Myanmar Thingyan look like, here is a video documentary from Youtube.

Karen Bamboo Dance


The above is the Karen (Kayin) bamboo dance. It is quite similar to Chin bamboo dance. Dancers dance quick steps among the striking bamboos. This need high level of practice, skills and timing. One wrong move and your foot will be struck by the bamboo poles.

In Karen state and among Karen people, Karen bamboo dance is played whenever there is a ceremony: Christmas, Karen New Year, Church functions, Pagoda festivals. The Karen bamboo dance is also quite well known and popular among other races in Myanmar, while Chin dance is relatively unknown in Myanmar. (The first time I saw Chin bamboo dance was while I was in Hakha during Chin National Day in 2007.

Another well known Karen dance is Karen Done Yaine, a group dancing by Karen people. It is so well known that when I was in HIgh School, girls from our school form a Karen done yaine dance group to perform in school functions.