Known as thanakha and prized for its sunblock and aesthetic qualities, the paste is as ubiquitous on Burmese faces as the colorful sarongs, or lungies, wrapped around their waists.
“I’ve worn thanakha my whole life and will until the day I die,” said Ms. Than Than Aye, huddling over her small cart overflowing with nail polish and combs at a boisterous outdoor market here. Both ritual and remedy, thanakha cools the skin, prevents sun damage, clears up acne and can reduce fevers and headaches when ingested, many Burmese say.
But even as the use of thanakha has outlasted countless Burmese dynasties, British colonialism and military dictatorships, this ancient practice is being challenged by a new power that has recently invaded Myanmar: multinational cosmetic corporations with seductive advertising campaigns that seek to moisturize, powder and slather this long closed-off nation.
Ms. Than Than Aye admits that the neon-colored beauty accessories she sells are part of the problem. “Young women now wear makeup when they go out,” she said. “All these cosmetic brands have changed their way of thinking.”
In the three years since Myanmar began experimenting with democracy after decades of isolation at the hands of a military junta that seized power in 1988, new ideas and consumer trends are altering age-old facets of Burmese daily life.
Billboards, once absent from a skyline of golden pagodas and moldering colonial-era edifices, have begun sprouting alongside a frenzy of recent construction projects. Many feature fair-skinned models hawking lotions promising a pale, aristocratic hue.
The corporate messaging seems to be making headway.
“A lot of girls think wearing thanakha makes you look like a villager,” said Sandi Oo, 24, standing behind a glass cosmetics counter in the Ocean department store here. Ms. Sandi Oo, wearing foundation, pink lipstick and sparkly mascara, was a walking ad for the cosmetics displayed on the surrounding shelves. She said cosmetic sales clerks at the store are fined if they wear thanakha. But once she gets home, Ms. Sandi Oo said she applies thanakha, just like the rest of the sales team. “Honestly, it’s a lot better than the stuff we sell,” she said.
While thanakha is common across Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the paste is particularly beloved in and around Mandalay, a former capital founded in 1857 by the last Burmese king and now home to a diverse array of ethnicities and religions. Despite recent riots between the local Buddhist and Muslim communities, thanakha is worn by people of all faiths and serves as a highly visible mark of Burmese cultural pride.
Demand for thanakha has spurred something of an industry, especially around the city of Sagaing, a center of Buddhist learning 12 miles from Mandalay, on the opposite bank of the roiling Irrawaddy River. Crowded with monasteries and gilded pagodas, Sagaing is also a destination for those seeking the bark used to make thanakha.
On a recent day, a group of women visiting the gleaming Kaungmudaw Pagoda lined up at a public thanakha stand. One pilgrim sat grinding a short piece of the fragrant wood on a wet stone slab, using a swirling hand motion akin to making a crepe. She then smeared the resulting residue on her cheeks before the next woman took her place.
Outside a ring of towering trees in the central courtyard, dozens of stalls were stacked with bundles of chopped thanakha wood. Thin Thin New, 35, whose face, neck, arms and ears were painted with thanakha, said she earned about $100 a month from the trade.
Generations of Burmese have passed down the regimen to their children. Holding his baby son in his arms, Pyoe Pyoe, 22, a nut vendor, said his mother introduced the child to thanakha at 7 days old. The devotion is institutional. Some elementary schools require that students wear the paste as part of their uniforms, to show that they have bathed.
In the dry Mandalay region, ideal for growing thanakha, the young are almost always seen with swirls and swipes of thanakha on their faces, though many teenage boys stop wearing it in public lest they be seen as feminine. But not all men are rejecting the tradition. “I put on just a little bit to make me look handsome,” said Kan Htoo, 37, a laborer with traces of thanakha on his eyelids and cheekbones. His thanakha-adorned wife approved. “It’s a different look from other guys, but I like it,” she said.
A short drive away, Myat Thu, 33, and his extended family tend to more than 100 thanakha trees they planted near their simple teak houses. Though the tree trunks barely measure six inches in circumference, they are over 20 years old. Thanakha is a long-term investment, with each tree selling for just $50 at maturity. “It’s a long time to wait,” said Mr. Myat Thu, streaks of thanakha glistening on his sweaty cheeks as a cow grazed nearby. In the meantime, his family earns a living by buying the wood wholesale from big farms, which they resell at the Kaungmudaw Pagoda.
Perhaps to compete with the latest trends in skin care, some manufacturers have packaged thanakha as a ready-made powder. But many Burmese worry about adverse side effects. Last year, two small children in Kansas City, Mo., home to a sizable Burmese refugee population, were diagnosed with lead poisoning that health officials traced to contaminated thanakha. In 2012, officials in Sydney, Australia, advised the city’s Burmese community to avoid using thanakha products after finding that they contained dangerously high levels of heavy metals. Medical researchers have yet to find any scientific proof that thanakha is as beneficial as Burmese claim.
Despite such worries, thanakha appears to be here to stay. In fact, many young Burmese women are blending it with Western notions of personal style. At work, Khin Mi Mi Kyaw, 25, a travel agent, favors a dusting of thanakha on her cheeks and forehead. The paste looks thoroughly modern juxtaposed with her eyebrow piercing, blond highlights and the delicate flower tattoo on her left wrist.
“For us Burmese women, it’s a tradition that lets us protect our skin and look gorgeous at the same time,” she said. “So why give it up?”