Leave it to the Brits to be on top of good manners around the world! Just this week, I read a recent post from the UK Business Insider listing some of the things travellers should avoid doing in different countries, either to avoid offending locals or just to demonstrate good manners.
Which reminded me of an interesting little book of cartoons that showed up in a couple of hotels while we were travelling through Myanmar (Burma). I’m guessing it was published by their Tourism Ministry, as an inoffensive way of explaining what might be considered offensive in the country – and as an art director, I found it equally interesting to see how locals and travellers were visualized in cartoon form:
Here are a couple of my favourite Do’s and Don’t’s cartoons from the book:
I had actually learned about this and the reason behind it, before going to Myanmar, so I wasn’t surprised by this one. In Myanmar culture, since the head is the most sacred part of the body, the foot is considered the ‘lowest’ part of the body as in the most inferior. And after walking around temples barefoot all day, they are also the dirtiest! So not only do you not put your feet up on chairs, but you shouldn’t point them in anyone’s direction, either, especially the Buddha’s. And as this cartoon suggests, don’t use them to identify that piece of fruit you want in the market.
And speaking of pointing…
You know how we have a way of using a middle finger to invite trouble from someone? Well, in Myanmar, using your index finger to ‘invite’ someone over apparently invites trouble over as well! So don’t use your finger to call over the waiter or you might be getting more than what you ordered. Instead, the polite way to call a waiter over is to make a ‘kissing’ sound (you know, pursing your lips together as if you were going to smooch someone). We saw a table of young Myanmar guys do this to get a waiter’s attention, and as strange as it looked to us, this is how it’s done. (We opted for a full-hand ‘wave’ because we weren’t sure we had mastered the kissing technique!)
And speaking of kissing…
A definite Don’t. At least not in public. Myanmar people are warm, loving and care about their families as much as anyone, but PDAs (public displays of affection) aren’t how they show it. Which I have to admit was kind of hard to get used to for hubby Henk and I. Not that we are particularly handsy-feel-y, but we don’t think twice about holding hands in public, and we had to make a conscious effort not to do so during our trip.
Boobies were out, too. As in: keep them in, not out.
Myanmar is a conservative country, and most women and men dress modestly, not just when visiting religious sites, but pretty much everywhere. Only in Yangon, the largest city, did we ever see short skirts (and only then on younger women), but even so, the outfits were not nearly as revealing as what passes for street wear in North America. So if you’re big in the boob department, best to keep them under wraps in Myanmar.
It wasn’t all about the Don’t’s. There were some Do’s, too:
The booklet wasn’t all about what not to do, but also encouraged us to experience Myanmar culture, like using local transportation for example. We never did try this tricycle/sidecar thingy out, because I actually felt like it would be cruel and unusual punishment to ask a local rider to pedal our 5′ 9″ and 6′ 2″ bodies around in the heat of summer! (even though Myanmar folk are in much better shape than we are in North America – which I think comes through in this cartoonist’s interpretation of the ‘average’ tourist – yikes! Time to hit the gym when we get home!)
The biggest ‘Do’ of all:
Perhaps the biggest ‘Do’ in this little cartoon booklet was the one that suggested travellers try to take part in local festivals, since Myanmar people love to have visitors come and participate in their celebrations. Normally, we try to remain as unobtrusive as possible when we see local celebrations and are happy to stay on the sidelines as spectators, so it was interesting to read that visitors are welcome at local ‘do’s’ in Myanmar. We were delighted to learn this truth first-hand, as Henk and I found ourselves invited to several celebrations during our visit, and even into the homes of some of our guides and their families. In fact, the welcome extended to us by the Myanmar people could not have been more generous or more genuine.
Whatever the country you are visiting, it always pays to do research into local customs before you go, because you may not always have the benefit of a cute little cartoon book to help you with the do’s and don’t’s once you are there. At the very least, a little knowledge can help you better appreciate the country’s culture, or in the worst case might keep you out of serious trouble.
And in every case, it helps us become better travellers.
TIP: Another thing to remember in Myanmar is not to touch a monk’s robes – a reminder I kept repeating to myself when this monk asked to take a photo with me. “Don’t touch his robe. Don’t touch his robe. Don’t touch his robe.” was all I kept thinking as we posed for a selfie!