Thanaka: The Only Makeup You Need

Written by Kyle about Myanmar. Feelin' thoughtful
Thanaka Girls

Sometimes when you live somewhere for a while you forget about all those interesting things that soon become normal in your life.  Thankfully, when we were visiting family, a lot of them brought up questions about things that we just haven't thought about in a while.  In fact, I think the question that everyone asked after seeing some of our pictures was "What's that on people's faces?"

The simple answer is that most people in Myanmar, especially women and young boys, wear make-up called thanaka (pronounced tha-na-KA) every day.  So, what is thanaka, exactly?

First, thanaka starts from the wood of a tree that is plentiful in the central, dry zone region of Myanmar:   

Thanaka for sale at Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, Sagaing, Myanmar

It is then made into a cream by grinding the chunks of wood into a circular stone slab called a kyauk pyin.  What results is a soothing, cooling cream that both feels refreshing and smells good:

Thanaka at Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, Sagaing, Myanmar
Thanaka at Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, Sagaing, Myanmar
(note: I don't think most thanaka is made by kids.  This was a demonstration for kids to learn about the process.)

Of course, a lot of people choose not to make their own thanaka at home.  For something that is worn every day, it would become a tiresome process.  Many people instead will buy the cream ready made in a plastic jar or will get a powder form that just needs to have water added.

Thanaka for sale at Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, Sagaing, Myanmar

Now that you know what it is, the real question is why do people wear it?  For all practical purposes, thanaka is the all-in-one makeup and the only thing that most Myanmar people need.

  • It works as a sunblock, preventing the skin from getting burned wherever it is applied.  You will often see people completely cover their faces with it.
  • It serves as perfume as it has a slight flowery aroma to it.
  • It makes the skin look whiter (people value fair skin)
  • It cools the body when applied, making the heat of most days a little more tolerable.
  • It's pretty!
Lastly, I personally like thanaka as it is one of the few unifying things in a country that has a lot of differences between its people.  Just about anywhere you go in the country, you are likely to run into many people walking around with thanaka applied to their faces.  If you are lucky, you might even see some intricate drawings with thanaka as a medium: nothing says "awwww" like a baby with thanaka in the shape of mickey mouse on its forehead.

Kyiak-khauk paya, Thanlin, Myanmar


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