Famously known as the ‘Golden Land’, Myanmar is a country of many idiosyncrasies that come together to make a welcoming and friendly nation. Still, newcomers are likely to experience some difficulty adjusting to the local culture in Myanmar.
As a result of years of isolation, Myanmar is largely undeveloped and much of its population lives in poverty, which may be quite jarring for new arrivals. Nevertheless, expats moving to Myanmar will soon come to appreciate the slow pace of life and the locals’ kindness and trusting nature.
Language barrier in Myanmar
With 135 ethnic groups, Myanmar is a melting pot of cultures. Owing to Myanmar’s huge geographic size, there are approximately 100 languages spoken across the country.
Burmese is the country's official language and is used as a medium of instruction in schools as well as in business settings. As a result of more than a century of British rule, English is often spoken as a second language in Myanmar, especially in urban centres such as Yangon.
Dress in Myanmar
Myanmar is a conservative Buddhist society, so locals may take offence to suggestive and revealing clothing. Expats should ensure they take off their socks and shoes when entering a holy place or a private home to show respect. Legs and shoulders should be covered when visiting temples and monasteries.
Religion in Myanmar
Buddhism is integral to Myanmar’s society, and the religion plays a role in both private and public life. As such, monks and nuns are highly regarded and typically offered privileges such as first-class travel on public transport, as well as the highest place at the dinner table. Newcomers should be aware that monks and nuns should not be touched as a sign of respect and reverence.
Social customs in Myanmar
As is the case in most Southeast Asian countries, respecting elders and saving face are important in Myanmar. New arrivals should slightly bow their heads when passing an elder to show respect. They should also avoid confronting or embarrassing their Burmese counterparts in public, as this could cause them to lose face.
Expats must also be aware that the concept of saving face means that locals will generally say yes even when they mean no, and would rather give wrong information than admit they don't know something. It is also critical not to touch anyone’s head or feet, even children, as these are considered sacred parts of the body in Myanmar’s culture.
Couples should avoid public displays of affection. While it is perfectly acceptable and common for friends and family members to embrace in public, it is rare for partners.
Politics in Myanmar
Politics is a sensitive topic that is best avoided in Myanmar. Interethnic and religious conflicts are particularly delicate subjects, especially since the Rohingya conflict and the 2021 military coup. Some parts of the country remain under rebel control and despite talks of holding democratic elections, the political situation in Myanmar is volatile. New arrivals should steer clear from demonstrations and political conversations to stay safe.
Are you an expat living in Myanmar?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Myanmar. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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