If you’re visiting (or staying in) Myanmar there are a few do’s and don’ts that you need to make yourself aware of before you get here. And it really is your responsibility to be fully informed of them, because although for minor infringements you’ll often be excused (and someone might helpfully point out your mistake to make sure you don’t do it again) there are some things you just shouldn’t do because you’ll really upset people. There are even a few things you could do that will get you kicked out of the country or at worst (as sadly happened to a mate) sent to prison.
I did a lot of research before coming here, and when I first arrived I found myself awkwardly going through a mental checklist when meeting people, to make sure I didn’t unintentionally cause any offence. Although these behaviours have now become second nature, I am still always on my guard to try to make sure I am not doing something dreadfully wrong. Though I have to admit I’ve made a few errors in my time here and learned some of the rules experientially, thankfully my mistakes on the whole seem to have been forgiven.
In Sagaing one morning whilst standing with a group of men who were loudly and energetically emptying the contents of their lungs and nostrils from a balcony onto the pavement below, I blew my nose into a tissue and then put it into my pocket. They collectively paused in their evacuations and looked at me with such disgust that you’d of thought I’d just wiped my arse with an Andrex puppy. Mental note made.
In Shan state I was once chastised for eating too slowly – it was a sign to my host that I wasn’t enjoying the food. In Mon state I was reprimanded for eating too quickly. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’ve foolishly got it wrong (again), keep trying, and keep learning.
I knew that you shouldn’t give or accept anything with your left hand, (the one you clean your bottom with) you must use your right hand, actually it’s more respectful to use both (which I don’t really get) but I’ve learned that you should always have both feet on the ground when doing so. I knew that it’s not acceptable to encourage someone to come towards you, for example a waiter, with your hand if your fingers are positioned upwards, this is considered an aggressive challenge. But then I’ve learned that it’s OK to attract their attention by making a loud cringe worthy kissing sound.
It can get confusing, there’s a lot to remember.
One important thing that you should always bear in mind is the distinction between the upper and lower parts of the body – the head being considered the most sacred and the feet the dirtiest. So for example you shouldn’t wave your underpants over your head (if that’s the kind of thing you do) nor should you touch anyone on their head. It is rude to tower over someone, especially someone older than you, and if you walk past someone sitting down then you should stoop slightly. And at the other end of the body you shouldn’t put your feet up on the furniture, or use them to touch or point at anything or anyone.
And you must never point your feet at the Buddha.
I’ve just spent the last month visiting villages in remote parts of Myanmar, and that involves sitting in a lot of houses observing one of my team members conducting a survey. The first thing I always do when entering a house (having taken my flip-flops off outside) is find out where the shrine is. In every Buddhist household there is a shrine to the Buddha somewhere, and when I have located it I position myself in the room so that I don’t have my back to it and that there is no way I could accidentally point my feet in that direction. I’m not someone who can sit crossed legged for an hour, so I end up switching positions every 10 minutes, but I’m always mindful where my feet are pointing.
This week I’ve been to some villages in Kayah, which is a predominantly Christian state, and one such visit involved a hike up a mountain on a track that not even the Land Cruiser, nor my flip-flops could handle. The ground was so boggy that I had to walk barefoot though the thick, sticky and decidedly glorious mud. When I arrived at the Chiefs house (to respectfully receive his welcome and permission to visit the village, as you must do) I washed my feet and then entered, looking for the shrine before sitting down. This shrine has a ceramic statue of Jesus, flashing lights and tinsel, it’s not hard to miss, and I carefully position myself on the floor crossed legged checking where my feet are – assuming that the same rules apply to Jesus as they do to the Buddha. I receive the lengthy welcome, drink some nice green tea, smile and nod at what I thought were the right moments to do so, and after about ten minutes I switch positions, moving into what could be best described as the mermaid pose – feet together behind me, leaning over on one arm.
Suddenly there is an almighty ruckus, one of the girls beside me has leapt up screeching and is pointing at my feet (which I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to do) and before I know what is happening one of the elders sat next to her has grabbed me by the ankle.
I’m in an unfortunate position now, half sat, half laid with one foot held firmly behind me. I can see Pope Leo VIII admonishing me over my shoulder from the July page of the 2015 Greatest Popes calendar, a dusty and very young Pope John Paul II to my right is waving a disappointed hand at the soles of my bare feet, whilst the gilt framed Pope Francis on the other side of the room seems vey much in agreement with his disgust. The Roman Catholic Church has me surrounded, and they are clearly not impressed with my feet. The instigator of the ankle grab has managed to drag my leg from under me to present the offending article to the room, and now everyone is insulted and talking about my offensive appendage.
In possibly the most disrespectful position I have ever been in, in my life – with a team of heavyweights from the Roman Catholic Church, himself and a dozen village elders all staring down upon me, and (I kid you not) two girls and one lad from my team that screamed and ran and are now outside looking back in disgust through the door alongside a small gathering of people investigating the noise – I lie waiting for a lynching, or at the very least a lightning bolt.
So it comes as some surprise to hear laughter (amongst the squeals from outside), and fearfully I open my eyes in time to see that the source of the amusement is a long slimy black object poking out between my toes. A leech firmly attached to the soft skin between the piggy that went wee-wee and the piggy that had no roast beef is happily slithering to and fro.
Relived that it was only a blood sucking parasite that was my problem and not a massive cultural faux pas I was just about to reach for my camera for a souvenir snap to commemorate my first ever leech and the Chief calmly leaned over, ripped it from my foot, threw it out of the window and then poured me some more tea.
After lots more laughter, and some serious searching on their legs and feet by my fellow bare footed hikers the Chief granted his permission for us to continue into the village and no more was said about the matter. Though word travels fast in a village of only twenty-five households, and I received plenty of big smiles for the rest of the day.
So my advice if you are travelling, or staying in Myanmar, is take time to learn about the do’s and don’ts, and whatever you do, watch where you put your feet.