Thanakha lingers on the cheek

[Wanderlust Tips April 2018] While burmese men have dozens of ways to tie longyi to express their personality, there are many messages hidden in every painting line when burmese women make up with Thanakha.

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What do you want to bring back from your trip to Myanmar – the surprisingly pure and beautiful land? You may want to take some photographs of the magical moment when the thin mist lingers around thousands of temples at dawn or sunset in Bagan, the Longyi which becomes so familiar to you though being the traditional clothing of another country, the greeting “Mingalabar” still echoing in your ears, a gemstone bracelet, or thoughts of life after a train ride around Yangon. Perhaps, there will be different answers as everyone feels nostalgia for Burma and love for different things in the land which is not far away but so strange. As for me, I brought back the nostalgic memory of Thanakha which still remained on my cheeks.

There is nowhere else in the world where the Longyi – a traditional clothing of a country – becomes so familiar and friendly to tourists like in Myanmar. And perhaps, there is no cosmetic that is as ordinary yet carry so many stories like the yellow powder, ground from the tree of the same name, Thanakha.

In dusty Bagan, there is also a unique Thanakha Museum, the only one in the world. Thanakha is a kind of powder applied on the face that the indigenous people of South America always use for make-up, and with just a little rain or cleanser, there will be no trace left.

For me, after leaving Burma, the Thanakha on my cheeks is what remains in my mind. It is round and rich yellow, which reminds me of friendly smiles from the girl working as an immigration controller at the airport.

Burmese people are as ordinary as life in this country, being gentle, slightly blue yet full of emotions. That may be the reason why their greeting is so simple – “Mingalabar”. Mingalabar can be used for any time of the day, regardless of morning and afternoon as in English. Mingalabar expresses the magical friendliness and openness; it is the smile of both the speaker and the listener. In the same way, Thanakha is filled with the pride of those who grind the powder to apply on your face, and a bit of curiosity of those who apply it on their cheeks.In the small museum amidst Bagan, there are hundreds of stories revolving around Thanakha from its history, habitat, plantation, varieties, to a series of souvenirs made from branches and stalks.

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However, when the locals grill the powder and apply it on your cheek with their big smile, it will become your most memorable moment on the journey. This cosmetic has been used for more than 2,000 years and is believed to have a protective and nourishing effect on the skin, prevent wrinkles, and make the skin fresh. At first glance, Thanakha reminds Indigenous people from South America, but once you get used to it, you will find it so beautiful on the young honey-coloured skin without a bit of acne, under the dark eyes and curved eyelashes, on the passionate cheeks of the Myanmar woman. Thanakha is processed in a very simple way and has not changed for centuries.

This national cosmetic is also extremely cheap and can be bought anywhere in Myanmar for only 1,000- 2,000kyats (about VND16,000- VND30,000) for a branch of about 15-20centimetres. You will rarely find a woman who does not apply Thanakha on the streets of Myanmar.

Myanmar’s women will grind the branches on a small rock with a little water to make the viscous yellow liquid, then apply this liquid on their faces without adding any other additives. People use fingers to paint the Thanakha on their faces, two cheeks, nostrils, foreheads, chins, and even arms. More stylish people will draw Thanakha in round shapes, leaf shapes and patterns to look more beautiful and outstanding.

Nowadays, there is also the ready-made Thanakha powder, which means you do not have to grind it from the tree trunk anymore, but the majority of Myanmar people still grind it every day.

Not only is Thanakha used every day, it is also present in religious ceremonies or was used to show social status in the past. The imperial maid often had to prepare Thanakha in bright and light brown colour with gold dust for royal ladies. The princess used Thanakha mixed with gold dust, while citizens used Thanakha mixed with a very fragrant and attractive pollen.

At the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, the most sacred temple in Mandalay, every morning, people hold a ritual for washing Buddhas face with towels coated in Thanakha or in Rakhine, on Songkrans Eve, young girls begin to crush the bark of Thanakha to make a smooth cream, while the boys dance and play instruments.

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On a ferry from Yangon to Dala, I kept looking at a 6-7 year old girl drawing funny shapes on her face with Thanakha powder. In that moment late afternoon, when the whole river was covered by the golden colour of sunset, the flock of birds still gathered around the ferry waiting for food from the passengers, some crows were shouting, the stream of people who were on their way home. The little girl sat in the corner of the ferry, drawing hearts, balls, and rhombus shapes on her face. Those amazing moments at the Shwedagon Pagoda when seeing a young Myanmar lady sitting and praying in the light of thousands of candles with her face full of Thanakha painted artfully made me feel that life was so pure and pellucid.

While Burmese men have dozens of ways to tie Longyi to show their personality, there are many messages hidden in every painting line when Burmese women make up their face with Thanakha. In the poorest village on the other side of the river, in contrast to this busy Yangon, both little boys and girls laughing and playing in the fields as well as the man driving us through the dirt roads of Bagan to watch the temples all have Thanakha painted on their healthy dark brown skin. In the dawn of Bagan, a Burmese girl gently pours water into a bottle by the roadside for the travellers to relieve their thirst, her gentle shining smile seems to dispel the thin mist and welcome a new day. Students go to school, public servants go to work, a woman goes to the market. All of them are so attached to the magic Thanakha on the face.

Burmese people are so gentle, they impress you by the simplest things like the smiles at the airport, the Longyi appearing everywhere on the streets, taxis without metres overcharging, the kids in the poor riverside village or the cheerful police officers, the colorful Yangon capital, the fancy Bagan, the crowded Mandalay and the picturesque Inle Lake. From the scent of sweetsmelling Thanakha to the soft smooth fingers that apply the national cosmetic on your cheek, Burmese people make you forget the past, forget the future and just live for the present. A present where people give each other good things and loving moments. And the future for them is probably the children who grow up in the embrace of Longyi and the scent of Thanakha which has been there for thousands of years in a prosperous Myanmar.

Tran Giap | Wanderlust Tips

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