Myanmar comprises of 135 distinct ethnic groups that include eight official national races: Shan, Kayin (Karen), Rakhaing, Chin, Kachin, Bamar, Kayah and Mon. Nearly 70% of the local population descend from the Myanmar (also referred to as Bama, Burmese, or Mranma) and arrived from Tibet or central Asia in the 10th century. With exception of the Indians and Chinese, the vast majority of the minority ethnic groups have taken up residence in the hills. Most of the people that do live in the hills use a language that is entirely unique. Also, the religious practices of the hill people are mainly worshipping the local spirits – although some are Christians or Buddhists.
The family life in Myanmar is quite large. A single home can easily see three to four generations living together, which can consist of a simple thatched hut in a rural district or a two or three room house in the more built up areas. Nearly 25% of the country’s population earns its living from agriculture with most of local life taking place in the countryside or around local villages.
A great occasion is the birth of a child. Even though a baby boy is more favoured, a baby girl is still favoured nearly as much. Children in later life are expected to help take care of their parents. Also, it is essential to attend the funeral of a family member – missing a funeral is regarded as an incredibly shameful act.
The local people seen on the Myanmar tours are appreciated for their friendly and welcoming behaviour and will without hesitation help others. Plus, they affectionately refer to each other as brother or sister.
Most of the country's population is devoted to Theravada Buddhism and have no qualms about supporting the local monks, monasteries, temples and stupas.
Eight national races
The Bamar (also referred to as the Burman or Burmese) are the largest national race and amount to 68% of the population. They first started to dominate the country from the 11th century, and hold a very strong devotion to Buddhism. Plus, they continue to maintain the faith in animist beliefs in spirits (nat). The Bamar lifestyle has had the greatest influence on not only Myanmar’s art and customs, but also the dialect which is used in the majority of schools throughout the country. This also means that most of the non-Bamar speaking Burmese have the ability to use the Bamar tongue as a second language.
The Chin people are located in a mountainous region that is close to the borders with Bangladesh and India. Most of Chin state has restrictions in place for travel, but can be reached subject to receiving government permission. The local people refer to themselves as Lai-mi or Zo-mi which means “mountain people”. The chin has a language, culture and eats food similar to the Zo who are their neighbours in Mizoram state, India.
The traditional practices in the region include hunting and gathering for food and a shifting type of cultivation (a method of using fire for clearing the land which is left for several years to regenerate).
Many of the animistic ceremonies include animal sacrifices with the Chin state having the greatest share of animists in the country. But there are an estimated 80-90% of the Chin people that believe in Christian which resulted from the American missionaries in the country for the duration of the British colonial era.
The local Chin culture can have some odd traditions such as playing the flute by the nose and bizarre traditional dances
The Kachin people mainly inhabit the Kachin state and part of the Tibeto-Burman racial set. These people are split into several ethnic sub-groups, including Lisu, Rawang, Zaiwa, Lashi, Lawngwaw, and the majority group, the Jingpaw. The traditional following is animists, but this region was targeted by Christian missionaries in the colonial times, which have led to nearly 36% of the local people following the Christian faith, majorly Catholic and Baptist.
The Kayah (also referred to as Karenni or Red Karen) are located in an isolated and mountainous region of Kayah state, which is not accessible to tourists and not possible to visit on the Myanmar customized tour. The traditional following is animism – though the local people were targeted to convert to Christianity by the missionaries that once toured the country. The Kayah are one of the smallest races and only amount to about 1% of Myanmar’s population.
The Mon was once rulers of early Thailand and the first ethical races to make Myanmar their home. Over time the influence of these people has declined and are now most unknown outside the borders of this country. The Mon amounts to about 2% of the Myanmar population – although their culture and art have had a more influential impact on the country.
The Rakhaing (also called Rakhine) people are mostly devotees of Buddhism, and seen as one of the first to start following Buddha in Southeast Asia.
The traditional dialect is quite similar to Bamar, but with their close proximity to the Indian subcontinent they have copied quite a bit of the customs and culture. Many see the Rakhain as a combination of Indian and Bamar.
The culture is able to exhibit a lot of Indian influence which is mostly noticed in regards to the music and food. The people are skilled at making garments such as the longyi with intricate and eye-catching patterns.
The Kayin is a tribe of people with diversity in dialects with nearly a dozen intelligible languages used in the local region. The most popular religion for the Kayin people is Buddhism, while the next most popular is Christian at approx 20% and a small amount that follow Islam. One particular sub-group of this national race is the Padaung tribe, which are known for the women that wear brass neck rings that leads to the long necks. Most of the people live in Tachileik and Loikaw. A visit to Hpa-an on the Myanmar holidays is one of the few place to see the Kayin race.
The Shan is the second largest ethic tribe in the country with the majority of the people following Buddhism. These people refer to themselves as Tai and follow similar dialect and culture to those in neighbouring countries like China’s Yunnan province, Laos and Thailand.