The fascinating face-painting of Burmese women

A Burmese girl wearing thanaka face paint in distinctive patterns.

If one has travelled to Myanmar, there are three things that would have certainly caught one’s attention – the scorching hot weather, women with painted faces, and red spots that artfully bedeck the floors.

Why do Burmese women paint their faces? Is it medicinal, decorative, or merely an age-long tradition that is prevalent in the region?

Thanaka: The Burmese way of beauty

Thanaka is harvested from the bark of the Murraya tree.

Known as thanaka, the yellowish-white substance is derived from the barks of the Murraya tree.

It has been used for over thousands of years in Myanmar as cosmetics – simply by grinding the bark into a paste that is applied onto the face in patterns deemed the most appealing for each individual.

On top of that, thanaka is also loved for what is claimed to be its protective properties.

Young Burmese boys with thanaka face painting in Kyaikto.

It is used on a day-to-day basis as a natural sunscreen to dutifully shield the skin from harmful UV rays and the sweltering weather.

This form of beauty is perhaps what makes Myanmar so incredibly unique.

While many native cultures are on the brink of extinction, the usage of thanaka is fortunately still widely practised among Burmese women, children and a large number of men.

It has become a part of the Burmese way of life, effectively distinguishing the country from the rest of Indochina.

Nevertheless, the application of thanaka can be marginally observed in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, where the practice has spread.

The making of Thanaka

Thanaka is made by grinding the bark with a small amount of water on a kyauk pyin.

The paste is made by grinding the bark with a small amount of water on a kyauk pyin – a circular slate slab.

The barks can very commonly be found and the grinding process usually takes place at home.

Readymade paste, however, is becoming increasingly available as technology has gradually taken over the way things are produced in Myanmar.

Thanaka application and styles

The paste is customarily applied to the face in the form of circular patches on the cheeks.

A Burmese toddler with beautiful thanaka painted in the shape of leaves.

Those with more distinct patterns will instantly catch the eyes of curious passers-by, whether in stripes or playful zigzags.

The product bears the subtle fragrance of sandalwood while containing active ingredients such as coumarin and marmesin that makes it highly effective despite being completely unprocessed.

Heading to Myanmar? Get ready to be wowed by the countless fascinating and intriguing Burmese cultures there.

This article first appeared in

Grace Ng is a serial wanderluster, solo female traveler, award-winning recipe developer and travel writer.