For a simple reason traveling in Burma / Myanmar requires to know about Thanaka for this is something that plays an important role in every Burmese, especially Burmese female's, everyday life; something seemingly so insignificant yet so obvious to the eye. Every female in Burma / Myanmar wants it; no matter how old or young, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, healthy or sick. Also, it does not matter whether they are unknown commoner, famous singer, actress, popular politician or whatever; Thanaka is very important to them.
The first known literary reference to Thanaka in Burma was made in 1384 AD by Daw Talamidaw a daughter of King Binnya U. She was the first consort (the second was Daw Thuddhamaya) of Prince Binnya Nwe, the later Mon King (Hanthawaddy) Razadarit who reigned from 1368 AD to 1422 AD But it may have been in use much earlier.
So, what exactly is Thanaka? Even if you already know the answer (or think to know the answer) will that what I am going to tell you most likely give you some interesting additional information about Thanaka and if you do not know the answer at all, well, then I will give it to you right now. Thanaka is a paste of usually light to dark beige color made from what most people simply call Thanaka tree. But to be more specific it is mostly the bark of Santalum paniculatum, commonly known as sandal wood, that Thanaka is made from. Also Orange Jasmine (murraya exotica or murraya paniculatum) or Wood Apple (limonia acidissima) bark is used. The wood of the former and latter is extremely hard. However, the most fragrant and longest lasting scent is given off from sandal wood. Once, for instance, the sandal wood tree has reached the mature age of about thirty-five years the branches are ready to be cut and give the best possible quality of Thanaka. The branches are cut into pieces and sold on markets in their natural state, which is the most preferred form in which Thanaka is made available and bought. But Thanaka is also sold as paste, as powder or tablets.
When bought as raw pieces of wood the preparation of Thanaka to be applied to the skin is quite some work and requires, naturally, the wood, some water and a stone slap that is usually round with some 30 cm / 12 inch diameter. If bought as paste Thanaka does not need any further refinement and when bought as powder or tablet it only needs some water to transforms the Thanaka into the 'ready-for-use' state into a soft paste or cream, that is. The necessary steps of the process of converting the Thanaka from its natural state into the paste needed are a) putting some drops of water on a stone slap called 'Pyauk pyin' and b) the grinding of the bark of the wood pieces on the stone slap. The next and final step is to apply the Thanaka to the skin. This can be done in an either simple or more artful style. Fantasy has no limits; leaf décor, round patches, stripes and circles, you name it. When the Thanaka is freshly applied with either the finger or a toothbrush it is almost invisible but it dries quickly and can then as intended be seen by everyone.
Where now do these trees come from and grow? Murraya paniculatum, the Orange Jasmine (also called, among others, Chinese Box or Mock Orange) is native of China, south Asia and Southeast Asia. Limonia acidissima, the Wood Apple, is native to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Santalum paniculatum, the Sandal Wood, is native to Hawaii but members of the genus species Santalum are native to Australia, India and several south and southeast Asian countries.
Especially the Sandal Wood trees are growing abundantly in Myanmar particularly in central Burma where the weather conditions are very favorable for them. Some of the am species are very slow-growing and are endangered owing to overharvesting and excessive illegal cutting because they are not only used for Thanaka but also for, among others, the production of other cosmetic and medicinal products or ingredients (oil), joss sticks, and wood carvings (statues, chess figures, etc.), scented sandal wood hand fans, prayer beads, tiles for flooring and ceilings, furniture and casings. I know, these products got nothing to do with our topic Thanaka but I will nevertheless mention it so that you get an idea of the full extent to which sandal wood is put to use and understand why it is a threatened species. Cross-border sandal wood smuggle is a huge problem in Southeast Asia. Forgive me my short excursion into the realm of sandal wood products other than Thanaka but, well, hmm, it does not do any harm to shortly mention also these things. Isn't it?
There are four places or regions in Burma from where, so I was told by reliable sources, the best qualities of Thanaka are coming from. Which one of these four the absolute winner of the contest is can certainly not easily – if at all – be said because there are several different criteria involved in the decision-making process. In other words, the decision on which one of these places the preferred one is does certainly to not a small measure depend on where the respective users are coming from, the price, individual skin conditions and personal taste; after all there is no accounting for taste. Therefore, I will abstain from voting and confine myself to the naming of the cities, regions and brands in question. These are the Sagaing Division (Shwebo Thanaka), Mandalay Division Bagan and Magwe Division (Shinmadaung Thanaka) and finally, the latest participant in the race for the title 'Best Thanaka' the southern Shan State (Maukme Thanaka).
So, now we know what Thanaka is, what the most preferred regions of origins are, in what forms it is available, how it is prepared and the different styles in which it is applied to the skin, but not why it is so much loved predominantly by Burmese / Myanmar females. As a footnote I want to give to your attention that the use of Thanaka is not confined to Burma / Myanmar; It is used in many Asian countries. OK, now we come to the answers to the questions what Thanaka's properties and the reasons for its being so much loved are.
Well, the most obvious reason Thanaka is used for is that of beautification ie to meet the Burmese beauty ideal of women. But there are, of course, several equally if not more important reasons for using Thanaka. Two of these reasons are that Thanaka is effectively protecting against the negative results of being exposed to sun rays such as sun burn and that it has a cooling effect. The others are established in the fact that Thanaka can be used at any age, that it is an absolutely natural product with several health properties, that it has a skin-tightening, anti-skin aging effect and that it can remove acne. Last but not least, Thanaka is also an anti-fungal. In a nutshell, Thanaka has a lot of both cosmetic and medicinal uses. Thus, Thanaka is more than meets the eye. Whatever the main reasons for the individual Burmese to use Thanaka are, it is certain beyond doubt that the common sight of people – especially ladies – with Thanaka patches and stripes on their faces (and perhaps arms) will be an important and very pleasant part of your memories of Burma.