Myanmar is an ethnically diverse society. There are many ethnic groups that can be roughly divided into four: Tibeto-Burmese, Mon-Khmer, Karen and Thai-Chinese. The first group includes the main Burmese people and more than 30 smaller tribes. The other three groups are less diverse, but certainly not homogeneous. For a long time the ethnic variety of Myanmar has been the cause of many conflicts, which has also hindered economic development.
Approximately 2-3 million Karen live in Myanmar today, forming the third biggest ethnic group in the country. The Karens are mainly farmers and most of them live in the southwest, near the border with Thailand, and in the east of Myanmar, near the Indian border.
The women of the Padaung tribe, which is a subgroup of the Karen, are known for wearing heavy rings of brass around their necks and are called 'giraffe women' since the heavy rings push down the shoulders and elongate the neck.
The Shan consist of various tribes and their history in Myanmar dates back to the 3rd century BC. They are found today in the border regions of the north, northwest, east, and on the borders with Laos and Thailand. Most of them are Buddhists, although animism still plays a significant role in everyday life.
The Mon, today found mainly in the regions around Mawlamyine and Bago, had a big impact on arts and culture. They are Buddhists and have their own language. Today, approximately 1.3 million Mon live in Myanmar.
The Kachin live in the remotest northern state. They include about 62 different tribes, some Christians and some Animists. They have a unique way of constructing their wooden houses.
The usual Asian rules of conduct apply in Myanmar, plus a few specific Burmese ones. It is unseemly to show too much emotion, losing your temper over problems and delays gets you nowhere; it is better to stay calm at all times just as the Burmese do.
You should always take your shoes off when entering a pagoda or temple and when you visit private houses, and you should wear appropriate clothing. For men and women it is advisable to cover your shoulders and wear knee-long skirts or trousers. Wearing bathing suits or trunks should be limited to the beach or hotel pool.
The head is regarded as a particularly holy part of the body. You should never touch anybody's head intentionally, and offer an excuse if you do so by chance. Accordingly, the feet are literally the lowest part of the body - do not point your feet at anybody.