There isn’t a more distinct image of Burmese women than their golden-painted cheeks. Young or old, Buddhist or Muslim, almost all females in Myanmar make up their faces daily with a paste made from thanaka. But what is thanaka and why do the Burmese paint their faces with it?
It sounds so beautifully exotic and foreign until you realize that it’s a local name for a type of sandalwood tree. The botanical name is “Limonia acidissima” and you might also know it as a wood-apple or elephant apple. The tree needs to grow for 35 years to be large enough for becoming the paste source. It will be cut into little logs and sold in the markets. The bark and the roots are the sources of the paste-making powder.
To make your paste you need a stone slab, the size of a small pizza – called kyauk pyin, a bit of water, and a piece of a log of thanaka tree with the bark on it. Wet your slab and rub the bark against it until you have enough paste to apply to your face. Bear in mind that it will look quite watery and colorless at the start and will gain the beautiful golden color once it dries on your skin.
Home-made paste only works well when freshly made, so it needs to be prepared before every application. It takes just a couple of minutes and not much work to have enough of the cosmetics ready.
The first mention of thanaka in Burmese literature appears in the 14th century. However, the stone slabs used for making the paste have been found in excavations of sites dating back as far as 2000 years.
The painted faces of Burmese ladies are embedded in every book or a movie set in Burma. They were certainly popular during the colonial days and were described by George Orwell in his “Burmese Days”.
As soon as you land in Yangon and Mandalay, you will realize that the golden-painted cheeks you know from the Internet are no myth or fake tourist attraction. From toddlers to the elderly – almost every woman, teenagers, and even some men have their faces marked with what looks like watery gold paint. It’s so common that after a day or two you take it for granted and it doesn’t look out of place even if worn with very formal attire.
The most common way to use the paste would be to first apply a thin layer to the whole face and neck – just like a daily moisturizer. Then a second, thicker layer should be applied to the cheeks, nose, and forehead – the parts of the face most exposed to the sun. It is typical to stroke the cheeks across with a paste-covered finger, to create a thick layer with one move.
Brushes can be used to apply the paste but to create a fancy look the popular way is actually using a big leaf to make a leafy imprint on each cheek.
In a country as sunny as Myanmar the most precious quality of the thanaka paste is that it has a high natural SPF (sun protection factor). It is known to protect the skin from the sun as well as to help soothe sunburn.
This natural cosmetic is known to keep the skin healthy and young thanks to its many active ingredients and healing properties. It is an antioxidant as well as a moisturizer. It protects the skin from pollution, is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, and even anti-fungal thanks to the Vitamin E present in it. The enzyme known as Tyrosinase helps melatonin synthesis which in turn has a brightening effect on the skin and improves complexion.
Looking at the beautiful, healthy Burmese faces only confirms the above. There have been numerous studies carried out on the effects of thanaka and scientists confirm that the paste has several positive effects.
Ladies of Myanmar, especially in urban areas, do use some modern makeup, such as powder or mascara and lipstick. However, this is done along with and not instead of the traditional cosmetic.
You will hardly find a woman in Myanmar who wouldn’t use this traditional cosmetic daily. Even the young professionals paint their cheeks before heading out to the office. Thanaka is in use regardless of age, social status, and ethnic background. This yellowish paste is truly believed not only to have a healthy effect on the complexion but simply golden marked cheeks are considered stylish and the thanaka look is seen as beautiful. Which we cannot deny!
If you feel like trying the wonderful effects of thanaka on your skin, you can get yourself a little wood log and prepare the paste on your own or simply buy a ready-made paste or thanaka powder. They are gaining popularity these days and are easy to find in the shops across towns and cities in Myanmar, as the tourists are more and more interested in this miraculous natural cosmetic.
If you’re planning a cruise of Myanmar you can choose from multiple cruise options or consider a package with pre and post extensions. Regardless of your choice, the thanaka painted faces will be all around you – as photogenic as they can be!
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