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