Customs and Traditions of Myanmar
After decades of a military junta rule, Myanmar is opening up and is becoming a must-see destination. Much of the country is untouched and rich in fascinating cultural traditions, historical and architectural heritage. We invite you to discover some features of this golden land.
As with all countries in the world, there is own set of unique customs and traditions of Myanmar. Some of them draws curiosity, some need visitors to adjust, but all combine to make a wonderful country.
Each country has its own traditional costume which represents its cultural and social status. The type of clothes worn by Burmese is contributable to the history of their country, traditions and ethnic groups. In Myanmar there are 135 ethnic minorities and the traditional clothing of Myanmar diversifies from region to region. Clothes are very colored, beautifully crafted and decorated. Burmese people wear it for special occasions or different celebrations such as wedding, national celebrations, etc. The costumes are then decorated with jewels and many accessories.
What is very popular among the tourists is Myanmar traditional Longyi, a sarong-like tube of fabric worn by men and women. This “longyi” is called paso when worn by men and htamein by women. Since South Indian immigrants introduced the longyi to Myanmar in the 19th century, this cloth looking like a sarong, has been the traditional mode of dress for many of Myanmar’s people. It is wrapped around the waist and worn floor-length.
Men and women, however, fasten their Longyis at the waist in different ways. Whereas men fold the garment into two panels and knot it at waist level, for the ladies it is a wrap-around skirt tucked in at the side of the waist. A fitted, sometimes matching, blouse cut just to the waistband accompanies it.
The patterns of longyi vary : men’s longyi is a thin plaid or woven stripe, for women it is of colorful, bright batik patterns, traditional woven zigzags called acheiq, stripes or flowers. For special occasions they are richly embroidered. Men sometimes wear a turban called “gaung baung” at formal events and ceremonial gatherings.
The longyi is very comfortable in Myanmar’s tropical climate. Often made of silk, a fabric that regulates temperature well, longyis retain heat in cooler weather while allowing air to circulate during hot days.
There is a look that often startles visitors to Myanmar : women and children have a strange yellowish paste on their face! That’s Thanaka, the secret to Burmese beauty!
This cosmetic product comes from the bark of the tree of the same name found mostly in northern Myanmar. The gold-colored paste is made from grinding the bark against a circular stone (Kyauk Pyin) with a few drops of water to obtain a yellow paste which is then applied to the face and to the body. Women and children, and sometimes young men, have yellow circles and lines of thanaka on their face applied with care and worn with pride. They are using it as a skin- and sun-protecting cream. You can find it in all markets.
Thanaka paste has many advantages. People of all ages, young and old, men and women, use it as a skin care. It has a refreshing effect because it acts as a thermal insulator which protects the epidermis from rays and sunburn. It prevents dehydration and drying of the skin by blocking perspiration. Astringent, antiseptic, and fragrant, the Thanaka makes the skin softer. It also serves as whitening and fragrance for women.
Thanaka tree must be at least 20 years before it is considered mature enough to provide the raw material of good quality. The Thanaka can be bought in markets across the country in its original form (small individual logs or bundles), or as a cream in a plastic pot, and in powder form, which can be used just after adding water.
Besides the yellow facial makeup, another curiosity that you will discover on arriving in Myanmar is the particular smile of the Burmese. You will notice that many people chew something weird that makes their mouth and teeth red.
That’s the Betel that is as vital to life in Myanmar as cheese is to France or tea to Britain. You can easily buy in small street stalls.
A betel quid is the name given to small parcels that typically contain areca nuts and tobacco, wrapped in a lime-coated betel leaf. Some people add lemon, coconut or cardamom seed according to taste. The betel quid is placed between the cheek and gum. This mix is chewed for a few minutes or several hours. Chewing betel causes salivation, and therefore it is necessary to spit copiously. That’s the reason why red spots are all over the street. Heavy users of betel quids reveal their addiction when they smile. Their teeth are stained a reddish-black, dyed from years of chewing betel.
Betel is omnipresent in Burma in either daily or at most extraordinary occasions, ceremonial and religious festivities. It’s a mark of politeness and sociability to offer an acquaintance a betel quid. When two parties meet each other during a trip or during transactions or negotiations like those which lead up to a marriage, there is a sharing of betel. Similarly, the chewing is still present today in Burma in discussions between businessmen. It is the way to open a relationship, a prelude, a step towards further exchanges.