Home' Nova West : August 2010 Contents Petra O'Neill shares an impression
of the secretive land of Burma.
"Thanaka!" Whenever I asked
what the dried yellow paste was
applied to the faces of most
women, children and even men in Burma,
the reply was always "thanaka."
As with any country, there are
traditions that, for the first time traveller,
are new and fascinating. And so began my
quest to discover more about "thanaka".
At markets and shops, there were
small packets of clips and tie backs for
decorating hair and long strands of tiny,
one use only, packets of shampoo and
natural hair dye. A very limited range of
western style beauty creams was actually
sold, but featured prominently on
shopfront signs as "Lizard Cream", "Nivea
Cream" and "Paris Shampoo". There were
large billboards in all the small riverside
towns I visited, of wealthy looking men
and women with very pale skin, wearing
Western style clothing and large watches,
advertising creams that promised a whiter
complexion. Such advertising appeared
to have very little impact. No one I saw
dressed that way -- all wore the traditional
longyi, similar to a sarong, and no one wore
hats to prevent the skin from tanning. I
continued my search for the yellow paste.
Many market stalls sold bundles of
cuttings or small logs of lightly coloured
timber with a mild fragrance similar to
sandalwood. I was intrigued and asked
one of the stallholders, "thanaka"? Lots
of laughter ensued, and then the young
woman demonstrated how it is made.
With a little water, a paste is produced by
grinding the timber cutting on a circular
stone slab called a Kyauk Pyin. This prized
beauty product doesn't come from a
factory, but from the forests of central
While it is becoming less common
for travellers to see such widespread use
of a natural product, the origins of many
cosmetics come from natural preparations.
In fact thanaka has been used in Burma
for over 2000 years.
The product is made from the
branches of the thanaka tree. The trees are
perennials and must be at least 35 years
old before they are mature enough to
yield quality cuttings. The creamy paste
is applied mainly to the cheeks. Brush or
finger strokes or leaves are used to make
While it is applied as a cosmetic, there
may be medicinal benefits as well. After
a day of viewing the temples of Bagan, a
fellow traveller became badly sunburnt.
On seeing this, a local woman approached
her and applied thanaka to her sunburnt
legs. She experienced none of the usual
discomfort associated with sunburn and
all signs of redness soon disappeared.
Thanaka is also used to treat acne and as an
antiseptic. The unblemished complexions
of the Burmese suggest there may well
be benefits in using thanaka, for next to
nothing at all.
Travel allows people to share their
culture and gain economic strength and
in the case of Burma or Myanmar to gain
some understanding of what is happening
there. In August 2009, Aung San Suu
Kyi made a statement dropping her
opposition to travelling to Myanmar. The
local people who own and operate cyclos,
taxis, small hotels and guesthouses, shops
and restaurants all stand to benefit from
tourism and responsible tour operators
create employment opportunities. Do
your homework when choosing one. ●
© NOVA AUGUST 2010 5
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