Shwe Lan Excerpt: Purity On Display

In this excerpt from the book, we pick up an entry from our "Health" chapter. Following is a short excerpt from the section on water:
Purity on display

Foreign travelers are rare enough in Myanmar that the locals will be very aware of your presence, especially when visiting monasteries and temples off the beaten track. Burmese are in general very proud of their religious culture and many will show a great deal of interest in how you perceive the treasures of their homeland. They can also be very hospitable, and you will undoubtedly be offered cups of tea or coffee at the places you visit.

If you are concerned about water purity in general or at a particular location, it is essential that you protect your health in the way you feel is appropriate. However, conflict or tension can arise when the desire for self-preservation butts up against the desire to show gratitude for a host’s hospitality. This can crop up in a variety of situations, so no one approach will work every time. The most important thing to remember is that when foreigners show concerns that something commonly used is unsafe or unclean, it can be immediately felt and make others feel uncomfortable.

If you feel the need to refuse something offered to you, do so gracefully and with a sincere smile. Another option is to accept but not partake. Face is important in Asia, so outward shows of gratitude will be appreciated, even if the cup of tea is not actually consumed. Travelers who choose to purify their water are urged not to do so in public. Going through your purification routine in your hotel or in the relative privacy of a bus seat is much preferred to carrying out a chemistry experiment in a monastery dining hall or someone’s living room. If you have no other choice but to treat your water in a public place, do so discreetly and without any fanfare. This may also be a good time to point out the Burmese take on the proverb “When in Rome…” Here, one says amya mo kha ye thout, thout tan, meaning “if others are taking rain water, drink up!”

The three-tank Reverse Osmosis purification system at Sun Lun Monastery in Taunggyi