Myanmar’s beauty secret

Walking through the streets of Yangon, I see painted faces. Not the kind smiling down from giant signboards advertising vitamin supplements, but real people faces. Painted. Women young and old, little boys and girls and (some) men sport the paint like it’s part of them, as natural as wearing clothes or applying moisturiser. In the sundrenched streets, in the bustling wet market, at the airconditioned supermarket, in packed buses, I see cheeks and foreheads sporting circles and streaks of ochre, like a sort of war paint.

Myanmar girl in Thanaka

This “war paint” is thanaka or thanakha (pronounced tuh-naa-kaa), and it functions as a potent weapon to protect Myanmar people from the harsh sun.

Myanmar folk believe thanaka is a wonderful antidote to the harmful effects of too much sun. It keeps their skin de-tanned, safe and non-greasy.

Made from the bark of the wood apple tree that grows across Myanmar, thanaka paste has a gentle fragrance that vaguely reminds me of Indian sandalwood. Market vendors sell chopped pieces of thanaka bark at different prices, based on size. You choose your bark, take it home, and pound it into a paste with some water in a special grinder called kyout pin (pronounced chow-pi-ye).

Here’s the bark I spotted in my neighbourhood wet market (Hledan Zei):

Wood apple or thanaka bark Myanmar

And this is the grinder (kyout pin, picture courtesy Myat Su San)

Thanaka grinder Myanmar

If you don’t own the grinder (like me) or don’t know how to make the paste, you buy ready thanaka paste from the supermarket (like me). It’s less effective than home-made thanaka but still works, according to this experiential feature in Myanmar Times.

Thanaka in Yangon supermarket

Thanaka in Myanmar supermarket

Take some paste with a spatula or fingers, apply on your cheeks and voila! You’re ready to soak up the sun. You can also apply thanaka on your forehead, arms or any body part exposed to the sun. Some artistic Myanmar moms paint flowers on their daughters’ cheeks with thanaka. So cute!

Thanaka can stay on all day, but I’ve only used it for short periods of time, and my skin feels radiant, soft, bright and fresh after washing it off. Most importantly, I don’t get a post-sun headache and my skin feels cool when I’m in the sun. So yes, I believe it works. And the nearly blemish-free, bright skin I’ve seen on most Myanmar people is proof enough for me.

When people ask me what thanaka is, I say it’s sunblock, sunscreen, gentle exfoliator, face pack, cream, all rolled into one. You only need to try it to feel its magic!

Sunday Street Stories: Yangon’s skaters

In my first weekend in Yangon last June, I was on my way to the mall supermarket for groceries when we passed the Hledan bridge (more like an overpass). Under the bridge were a bunch of young men on roller skates and skate boards. I was fascinated, having seen skateboarding only in some Hollywood movies.

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A few months ago, the skaters were  campaigning for a dedicated skate park. With crowdsourced funding, the park will soon be built in Yangon. Till then, skaters and skateboarders come to the overpass to practise and learn. A fun way to spend an evening.

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Picture taken on: December 4, 2015
Location: Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Nay Pyi Taw’s golden pagoda

All Myanmar cities and towns have at least one pagoda worth a visit. Now Nay Pyi Taw may be the ghost capital of Myanmar, but the military has made sure there’s a fantastic pagoda there.

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The Uppatasanti Pagoda is built on the lines of Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, but with an open hall within for prayer. There are Buddha idols in the centre and marble carvings around the inner circumference depicting scenes from Buddha’s life. And then there are the magnificent carvings and texts on the inner dome.

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With this stunning place of worship and 16-lane highways, clearly no stone was left unturned to make the Myanmar capital as grand as possible.

Date: October 31, 2015
Location: Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Thadingyut in Yangon

This week was Thadingyut, the Myanmar festival of light. That evening, as fireworks and lanterns lit up the streets and kids played with sparklers, noisy crackers resounded across Yangon. And then the city plunged into darkness. Thanks to a power cut that went on for a good three hours.

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Street vendors marked the festival with small candles around their wares, even as several took the day off to spend at home or seeking divine blessing at pagodas.

The season of festivities across Asia has begun, as Thailand celebrates Loy Krathong and India celebrates Diwali aka Deepawali, both different versions of the festival of lights.

Picture taken on: October 28, 2015
Location: Hledan Market, Yangon (Myanmar)
Device: Google Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Old Rangoon

On Strand Road, just as downtown “begins”, you see a series of dismal-looking buildings. Waiting for a paint job. Or a facelift. Or restructuring.

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These old buildings are an integral part of Yangon’s identity, and they remind of the rather risky old buildings in Mumbai. Whether these buildings are rock-solid or slightly shakey is anyone’s guess, but if there is one thing I believe, it’s this- preservation of heritage buildings is crucial to maintain the city’s unique personality. Just as important as safety of its occupants.

Picture taken on: October 17, 2015
Location: Strand Road, Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Google Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: At the local post office

Visiting a post office in Myanmar is like taking a step back in time. The bare furnishings, the wooden benches and the old signage are all remnants of the previous century.

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In a wonderful surprise, the helpful lady at the stamps counter spoke English and explained the difference between the red and yellow boxes (Red for regular mail, yellow for one-day delivery). The postman helped me lift the flap of the box to post the letters. A well-spent 15 minutes on a warm afternoon, I say. Didn’t miss the air conditioning.

Photo taken on: October 6, 2015
Location: Post office at Shwegondaing, Yangon.
Device: Google Nexus 5

Crazy Craving: Chocolate Modak

This is the first time ever that I’m not in Mumbai during the Ganpati festival. And while the noise, pollution and traffic jams are quite a pain, I enjoy checking out the Ganpati idols in my neighbourhood.

It’s also the only time in the year I get a chance to indulge in modak, and I always eat a couple of them (or more) without guilt. 😀 Unfortunately the few Indian mithai shops in Yangon have laddoo and gulab jamun, but no modak. So I’ve been trying not to think of modak the past few days, till this picture popped into my inbox today.

Hazelnut Fudge Modaks by COO

This image of handcrafted hazelnut fudge modaks from Mumbai bakery Country of Origin has intensified my modak craving by a gazillion times. Chocolate and modak?! Sigh…

Hazelnut Fudge Modaks by COO

Those lucky enough to be in Mumbai right now, don’t miss this chance to try this awesome combo of chocolate (everyone’s favourite) and modak (almost everyone’s favourite).

Country of Origin is located at Nepean Sea Road (23642221), Bandra West (65635222) and Juhu (26244422).

Sunday Street Stories: The Lady on the streets

Yesterday a street seller appeared on Yangon’s Pyay Road while I was headed downtown, selling calendars featuring large pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi (aka The Lady). I was surprised since this is one of the most open displays of her support I’ve seen in Myanmar since I landed here in June.

Aung San Su Kyi calendar

Till a few years ago, even speaking about The Lady privately could get you thrown in jail. The few who dared mention her did so in whispers and never in public (you never who was eavesdropping or was a spy). Since the country is slowly moving toward a full democracy with nation-wide elections scheduled for early November, Myanmar folk are now free to support Aung San Suu Kyi and her party NLD (National League for Democracy).

Here’s to peaceful and fair elections in Myanmar!

Picture taken on: September 19, 2015
Location: Pyay Road, Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories is a series of images recording street signs from my travels. They could be significant in some way, funny, or have an interesting story behind them.

Sunday Street Stories: The touristy Bagan sunset

I was in historical, beautiful Bagan last weekend. One of the typical touristy things to do in Bagan is to watch a sunset from the top of a pagoda. Once you climb up three storeys of steep stone steps, you can hope to settle in to watch a wonderful sight in quiet solitude. Or not.

Bagan pagodas sunset with tourist

While the sun setting over the pagodas is a stunning view, the popular pagodas are crowded with tourists. And all of them are on a quest to make the perfect Bagan sunset photograph. We were one of them till we decided to put our cams away and enjoy the moment (after I took this picture).

And yes, I recommend Bagan to everyone!

Picture taken on: September 6, 2015
Location: Old Bagan, Myanmar
Device: Nexus

Sunday Street Stories is a series of images recording street signs from my travels. They could be significant in some way, funny, or have an interesting story behind them.

Sunday Street Stories: Inya Lake Park

Walking by Inya Lake is among the most wonderful experiences in Yangon. There’s usually a gentle breeze blowing from the lake, you’re surrounded by a large expanse of water and lush green trees, and the traffic noise is a bare minimum.

Needless to say, like everything in Myanmar, some rules need to be followed. So there’s a list of rules for the park as well, written in Myanmar and English to make sure locals and tourists “get” them.  Written with the most serious of intentions, some of these rules state the obvious but I guess they need to be mentioned anyways, especially since couples and aspiring musicians with their friends flock the park every evening.

Yangon Inya Lake park rules

Almost all these rules are flouted, including the “no sex” one (ahem!). Amateur fishers, bicyclists, (extremely) amorous couples, guitarists,  singers, snack vendors– they’re all there! But I haven’t seen any swimmers in the lake yet.

Picture taken on: August 24, 2015

Location: Inya Lake (west side), Yangon, Myanmar

Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Signs is a series of images recording street signs from my travels. They could be significant in some way, funny, or have an interesting story behind them.