Respecting Culture & Meeting Local Tribes in Myanmar

Myanmar is a melting pot of different cultures and traditions. With over 135 different tribes and ethnic groups, each has it’s own history, culture, traditions, and preserved ethnic language.

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Photo © The Broke Backpacker

Traveling or trekking to remote villages and meeting local ethnic groups is a great cultural experience, and Myanmar is hands-down the best country in Southeast Asia to meet with tribes that still live a traditional existence.

In recent years, ethnic minority groups in Myanmar have been struggling to protect their culture. Sustainable tourism in Myanmar can play a huge role, by helping to protect a tribe’s identity and, hopefully, future initiatives will enable the people of Myanmar to benefit from the influx of tourist dollars.

If you visit Myanmar, it’s extremely important that you try to engage in ethical tourism and, if you choose to visit tribal groups, you do so in a responsible way.

Respecting the Local Culture

In Myanmar, people are normally very polite and accommodating to foreigners. However, sadly, there are plenty of visitors to Myanmar who act without thinking.

Always be considerate and ask before taking a picture: this isn’t a photo shoot. Show them the photos you’ve taken, as they also appreciate looking at them. I took an instant Polaroid of a lady with her family, and she was beyond thankful for the picture!

It’s a good idea to bring a small gift to help break the ice. I took a big bag of lollies and school supplies for the kids, and betel nut for the adults. Hand over the gift with your right hand, putting your left hand under your elbow, as it’s a sign of respect.

Learn the local language: "thank you" or "hello" in the tribe’s native tongue goes a long way. “Tar Blu Pador” is Karen for “thank you very much”.  

To reduce the environmental and cultural impacts of tourism, it’s recommended visiting these communities in small groups. Don’t bring foreign items like alcohol, cosmetics, and energy drinks with you into the villages.

Ethnic Tribes in Myanmar

The Chin People, Chin State

The Chin people are a large ethnic group in Myanmar, and they live in remote areas close to the Indian and Bangladeshi border. The area has very recently become open to foreigners without permits, and is quickly becoming a popular place to go on multi-day treks.

I sat down with a tattoo-faced Chin lady, on her bamboo matt, listening to her story as my guide translated.

This woman plays the flute using her nose. Photo credit: Will Hatton, thebrokebackpacker.com

To protect her from being stolen by marauders, her parents attempted to make her “ugly and undesirable”. At eight years old, her aunty tattooed a spider web, using a sharpened bamboo stick over her face and even eyelids. It took about a week to finish her tattoo, and she cried herself to sleep every night as the pain was unbearable.

However, full-facial tattoos are seen as a sign of beauty for Chin women. The term ‘Apuyea’ is Chin for beautiful. The Chin are proud of their cultural traditions, but today Burmese authorities have banned the practice of tribal facial tattoos.

There are just over a dozen tattoo-faced ladies living in the Chin villages along the Lay Myo River, in Mrauk U, and soon this part of their culture will sadly be gone.

Facial tattoos on a woman in Chin State. Photo credit: Will Hatton, thebrokebackpacker.com

The H’mong Tribe, Pu Dao Region 

H’mong people are known for their beautiful textiles and weaving. Their traditional tribal costumes are made from brightly-colored fabrics, representing their range of farming industries.

The H’mong sell their handmade craft and textile products to tourists who trek through their villages in the Pu Dao region.

The Moken People, Bo Cho Island

The Moken people are, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating ethnic groups in Myanmar. I traveled to the Mergui Archipelago in search of the semi-aquatic Moken sea gypsies. They roam the sea, living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, only returning to land during wet season.

I visited the Moken village, Ma Gyun Galet on Bo Cho Island where the grandparents, women, and children live. The young boys are so free and happy, swimming around naked, paddling their kabang (canoe), jumping off boats, and free diving into the depths below.

They’re known as people of the sea, and their entire livelihood is based around the ocean. Most babies can swim before they can walk or talk. Unfortunately, their way of life and culture is under threat, with the government attempting to assimilate their culture into society.

The Shan People, Shan State

The Shan people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Myanmar, however much of the Shan state is still restricted due to ongoing conflict between tribal groups and government forces.

On my trek from Kalaw to Inle I passed through Shan and Pa-O ethnic villages. Pa-O people also live in the Shan state, and are the second largest ethnic group. Pa-O villages are typically found in low lying areas, and are also referred to as ‘Black Karen’, as the women wear black or dark blue clothing.

Karen People, Between Myanmar and Thailand

Karen people live between Myanmar and Thailand in small mountain villages. The long-neck Karen women, known as Padaung, attract tourists from around the world. Women stack their neck with brass rings, which give the long-neck illusion.

Karen mythology claims the tradition arose to prevent tigers from biting their necks! This, sadly, has given rise to ‘long neck zoos’, popular with Chinese tourists.

When visiting tribal groups, use your gut – if something feels wrong, it probably is. You should aim to meet tribal groups on their terms, in their villages, and in a manner where they will directly benefit from any money exchanging hands.

Treat those who you meet with respect and dignity, and you will have an incredible experience in Myanmar.

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