Thanaka–the face of Myanmar


A young woman selling bananas at the market in Bagan, left, and a young boy eating his breakfast both wear thanaka paste on their faces. Photos by David Lansing.

You see it everywhere you go in Burma. On the cheeks of a young woman selling bananas; spread widely across the face of a toddler eating noodles for breakfast. Thanaka, a yellowish-white cream made by grinding the bark of particular trees which grow only in places with lots of rainfall—30 inches or more a year—in dry, rocky soil.

Here in Burma thanaka is a sunscreen, cold cream, fragrance, and topical cure all in one. Smelling a bit like sandalwood, it is smeared on cheeks and noses to keep from getting sunburned, and rubbed on chins and foreheads to prevent acne and control oiliness.

Yesterday at the market in Bagan I saw a dozen women or more selling branches of thanaka. According to my guide, Sai, most of the branches come from trees at least 35-years-old. “It take 5 to 10 years just for trunk of thanaka tree to grow 2 inches in diameter,” he said. Which makes you wonder, since the Burmese have been using thanaka cream for over 2,000 years, how there are even any trees left.

A woman at the Bagan market sells branches of thanaka. The bark is then ground up and mixed with water to form a yellow paste. Photo by David Lansing.

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