Don’t worry, I didn’t know what it was either until I came to Myanmar. Discovering it was one of those fun little surprises that I learned about on my own. No one mentioned that almost all women and children and many men in Myanmar apply “thanaka” to their faces every morning.
Thanaka is a small tree that grows in the dry regions of Myanmar. The trunks along with the bark are cut into small rounds that are dipped in water and ground on a flat stone to make a whitish paste. It is most commonly used as a cosmetic to condition and protect the skin. It’s external application is primarily to guard the skin against the sun, help prevent wrinkles, freckles and acne. Constant use of thanaka has proven to leave the skin soft and fresh.
Other parts of the tree like the fruit and leaves are used to help ulcers, epilepsy, headaches and malaria to name a few. The wood has a nice sandalwood-like scent and it is even carved into combs, beads or small statues.
Thanaka has been used for over 2000 years, initially by royalty and later on by common folk as well. It is sometimes applied loosely in giant slatherings across the cheeks and other times in more careful designs and shapes like delicate leaves.
Most of the in depth details I learned about thanaka I gathered at the one and only Thanaka Museum in Nyaug U, near Bagan. There you can read about the tree itself as well as the history, its application, growing regions, thanaka festivals and its importance in the culture and lives of the people. Thanaka is so uniquely Burmese, it would be wrong to write about Myanmar and not mention it.