Thanakha: Ancient Pastime Turned Modern Indulgence

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My love affair with thanakha began nearly ten years ago.  It was first introduced to me in the US by my husband, who bought me a kyaukpyin (stone slab used for grinding) and two thin cuttings of thanaka wood that he ordered from an online store in New York.   

We unboxed it together. He ground the bark into a paste with water, demonstrating the proper consistency, then tenderly applied it on my face- the same way he did for his two younger brothers when they were school-aged boys.  “There, that will make your skin feel nice.  Doesn’t it smell good?” he cooed.

The memory still warms my heart.  Wearing thanakha was one of the few ways I could feel a physical connection to a culture I thought I’d never know intimately.

Sitting barefoot in my Yangon office this morning, clad in a comfy Karen-made htamain and reminiscing over a cup of Kyout Pa Dong-style tea, I contemplate this culture I’ve melded into and the two-thousand-year-old tradition of gussying up with ground-up tree bark.

Ten years ago, a lady wearing heavy thanakha on the city streets was as common as gentleman chewing betel quids.  The realization is that times, they are a-changin’.

Burmese make-up artists now have their own YouTube channels and make-up tutorials on Facebook.  Bella Cosmetics is owning it right now, with their nationally-recognized slogan, “Bella, be a star.”

“The popularity of modern western-style make-up is changing habits of people across SEA countries, affecting old-style traditional skin treatment or make -up,” said Supachai Jupanish,GM of De Leaf Thanaka. “[Companies] not able to evolve will be slowly becoming obsolete and out of trend.”

Nowadays, urban youth think wearing heavy thanakha is synonymous with looking like a villager. “However,” said U Khine Lin, the R&D and International Relations Manager for Shwe Pyi Nann,“they still use thanakha at home because thanakha naturally has good benefits of anti-wrinkles, oil-absorption, and skin brightening.”

Mr. Jupanish added,“There will be more and more innovative companies, like ours, for example, who come up with great ideas to create new products which are invented from essences of traditional/natural ingredients and make it a new trend for young consumers.”

His company, based in Thailand, offers five categories of products: Facial & Body Powder, Foundation Powder, Facial Moisturizing Cream, Body Moisturizing Serum, and Moisturizing Soap.  Consumer favorites are the soap and powder.

Shwe Pyi Nann, the leading thanakha producer in Myanmar, employees more than 1,000 locals.  They are evolving with the industry, with ISO- certified, TUV-tested products.  Their premium line, the Gold Series, features facial soap, compact powder, face mask, and sunscreen lotion enriched with natural thanakha.

Another contender is Taunggyi Mauk Mai, whose products are also tested by TUV Singapore and ISO -certified.  Along with thanakha powder, their other thanakha-based products are botanical-infused lotions, moisturizer, and sun block in their Caroline L series.

Thanakha has even found its way in perfume- like Shwe Thondary’s Myat Noe Wadi, a blend of thanakha, sandalwood, and fragrant blossoms.  Kenzo Amour boasts traces of Thanaka wood in its “olfactory voyage evoking Asia.”

These companies are constantly gauging the market to suit the modern tastes of contemporary consumers- and not just the Burmese.  De Leaf Thanaka is available in Southeast Asia,Vietnam,and China.  Shwe Pyi Nann ships to Thailand and can be found in Malaysia, the Philippines, eBay, and Amazon.

International cosmetics companies are taking note. “Now westerners are more exposed and excited [about] Eastern natural ingredients,” Mr. Jupanish said, adding that thanakha was among the most highly praised. According to U Khine Lin, Shwe Pyi Nannhas garnered interest from companies from the USA, Canada, Hong Kong, and Russia. “As our country’s economy is booming quite rapidly, our national and natural treasure thanakha is also getting more and more known to other countries,” he informed.

“I like natural thanakha best,” says Wah Thone, a teenager from a small village near Bago. Her cousin, Wah Lay, agreed. “But, if I’m in a hurry,” she added, “I like to use Shwe Pyi Nann with the lime scent.”  Like U Khine Lin said, “It makes us feel “homey” by using it, so Thanakha tradition will still be going strong in Myanmar.”

 

Photo : Brittney Tun & Ye Myat Tun (YMT Production)

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