If you’ve ever considered going to Myanmar (Burma), you’re probably the kind of traveler who enjoys a bit of a challenge; weird foods that don’t abide by your regular diet, customs that make you scratch your head, and a language barrier that demands you to get creative with your communication skills. Maybe for you, those challenges are what you love about travelling. If that’s the case Myanmar is the place for you, but before going to a new place it’s always helpful to know a bit about the cultural norms. It will make you feel like a seasoned pro in your first week in the country.
One of the cultural norms to be aware of is that feet are considered dirty and Burmese people will find it disrespectful if you point your feet towards them. The bottoms of the feet are the most offensive part, but if you’re sitting on the floor avoid pointing the toes towards someone even if the sole of the foot is flat on the ground. This can be a challenge for western bodies because we are not necessarily accustomed to sitting on the floor. Being cautious of the direction the feet point is an added obstacle.
Burmese people often eat, do school work, clean dishes, and do laundry either squatting or sitting on the floor so they don’t understand why it may be uncomfortable for some people. In Myanmar, both men and women sport a long wrap around skirt called a longi (however men and women tie them in different ways). Wearing a longi can be a helpful solution to travellers who struggle with where to point their feet while sitting because the longi can cover the feet and help you to sit more comfortably.
It is especially frowned upon to point the feet towards a nun, a monk, or a Buddha statue so be particularly aware when in temples or meditation spaces. It is also good to be aware that temples, homes and even some shops will require you to remove your shoes, so wearing flip flops is a good idea.
There are two reasons why this social norm may have come about. The first is that people wear flip flops and streets are dusty, so feet tend to get dirty. Perhaps an aversion was developed towards feet because they’re always dirty and over time this caused people to find feet offensive out of habit even when they’re clean. The second potential reason for this social norm is that many Eastern philosophies see the body as having symbolic properties. The feet are the closest part of the body to the ground so they symbolize a connection to early evolutionary stages and animalistic tendencies. Traditional Theravada Buddhism tends to emphasize purifying the mind and detaching from the physical body. Maybe in some way, their common philosophical framework has affected something as seemingly insignificant as the way their culture reacts to the feet.
In general, Burmese people are very kind and accepting even when they don’t understand why sitting is a challenge, or why we don’t realize that feet are offensive. This is one reason why it’s good to be aware of small cultural norms before going. It is easy to do something offensive in Myanmar without knowing it because Burmese people are often timid, don’t know much English, and may be too awestruck by seeing a foreigner to explain your breeching of their social contract. Different cultures see things differently, but we all intend on putting our best foot forward. When you go to Myanmar, be aware that resting your ankle up on your knee is as offensive as picking your nose in a New York subway.