The thanaka country
he name of Burmese makeup has a certain ring to it; it sounds like music: Thanaka. It catches your attention at once because nearly everyone wears it. Women, children and many men paint their cheeks with a kind of yellow clay that also protects their skin from the sun. And they don’t think twice about sharing it with visitors, tourists who feel the heat, tireless explorers of temples and new converts to the charms of Burmese fashion.
Thanaka is almost always homemade. It is produced by grinding the bark of a tree, dissolving it in water and then applying the paste on the face or body, usually making a circle, although they sometimes draw complicated designs with the help of a little stick. However, this timeless version of body art is not the only accessory we’re missing. The traditional costume, the Longyi, a sort of tube-shaped skirt that is worn by both men and women, does not seem to be made for us, since we are incapable of tying it like the locals do, without the help of belts or zips.
Monks take over the city
85% of Burmese people are Buddhists and it is common to see monks and nuns of all ages, with shaved heads, collecting donations first thing in the morning. Many people give more than they can afford because it ‘attracts good karma’.
The Burmese people’s cheerful nature makes us feel better. ‘Mingalabar’ is much more than a greeting. It means ‘have a prosperous day’ and we hear it at the entrance of every pagoda, in the stalls of the Bogyoke market and on the banks of the Inle Lake. With a permanent smile on our faces we enter into what travel agencies call a ‘hidden paradise’. Or that is what is was until only recently. After 25 years of military rule, in 2015 the first free general elections were held, handing a landslide victory to the National League for Democracy, the party led by ‘la Dame’, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Since the country’s tentative opening, there has been an increase in the number of visitors – people who seek an authenticity that is in danger of extinction in other South Asian countries. You find it in the unsurfaced lanes and street-food stalls of Anawrahta Road and Chinatown, in Yangon. The people selling bracelets and puppets here even have time to go up to the tourists and ask them their names. They also introduce themselves (Mingalabar!) and patiently wait until their visit has ended to sell them their colourful ‘souvenirs’.
Momo, a very young Burmese girl with a low ponytail and a ready smile, follows us from temple to temple in the garden of stupas that makes up Bagan. This archaeological site encompasses 2,230 temples and pagodas that date back to the 11th and 13th centuries. A delight for the eyes, especially at dusk, when the country’s nickname, ‘the land of the golden pagodas’, is fully justified. When we leave, Momo is still there. She offers us an endless assortment of items: enamel boxes, thanaka, teak Buddhas, masks, and even motorbike helmets.
Nearby is Mount Popa, another excursion we can’t miss in Myanmar. We wake up early to reach the top of the extinct volcano, and visit the Buddhist monastery that stands on the summit. We needed to climb the 777 steps cut in the rock and we had to do it barefoot (you are allowed to wear socks for just the first 200 steps). There are tourists, but it’s mainly Burmese pilgrims who make the journey to honour the 35 ‘nats’ or spirits that live on this 1,518-metre mountain.
Despite the stifling heat we manage to do it, thanks to the protection of thanaka of course. The ‘mingalabar’ along the way have taken effect: we’re feeling really prosperous.