Thanakha faces from Burma

One of the first things most people seem to notice when arriving for the first time in Burma is the centuries old, uniquely Burmese tradition known as Thanakha.

What fascinates me as a professional photographer is how beautiful and unique this form of cosmetic artistry is. Unlike most western cosmetic schemes that seem to have as the ultimate goal making everyone look the same, Thanakha is a wonderfully Burmese extension of the wearers unique personality and attitude.

The two banana shops on 17th and Strand.
At once both bold and subtle, Thanakha (pronounced Te-naw-Ká) is a yellowish-white paste made by mixing fine sawdust from the branches of the Shwebo Thanakha or Shinmadaung Thanakha trees and water. These trees grow in abundance in the central valley of Burma.

Shot at Shirpa's 30th Birthday bash.
It is most commonly worn by women and children and to a lesser extent by men. Mostly worn on the face it also can be applied to the chest, arms and even the whole body.

It is a favorite of very small children as a way of wearing a depiction of a favorite animal or character.

The belief is that Thanakha paste, usually made fresh each morning by sanding down a little bit of the wood on a rough stone or specially made ceramic tool,  then mixed with water, is good for keeping the skin healthy and protecting it from the sun.

Tuesdayt in Nay Pyi Taw.
It keeps the skin dry in the sweltering heat, heals blemishes and scares, and also helps lighten the skin, an attribute highly prized by most Burmese.

Having a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood it also gives the wearer a long lasting cooling sensation.

With antibacterial properties this ancient ointment is believed to have many benefits few modern medications can match.

One of the interesting things about Thanakha is how it changes throughout the day as sweat, contact, and movement affect the look. It is never "touched up" but rather the evolution is worn with pride.

A bold application in the morning can look faint, or grow bolder by late afternoon. Just as the person wearing it, Thanakha evolves as the day does.
Thanakha is an extension of the wearers unique personality, circumstance, and attitude. Sloppy, indifferent, passionate, or meticulous, Thanakha can reveal much about the person wearing it.

It can be haunting or comical.

It can be subtle or grotesque but always, just like the face underneath, there are no two the same.

Tuesdayt in Nay Pyi Taw.
Thanakha is equally worn to work, to socialize, or when going to the temple.

For many people, not putting on Thanakha would be considered immodest.

A little or a lot, there is no wrong way to wear Thanakha.

In a way Thanakha visually epitomizes the personality and spirit of the Burmese people. Calm, proud, very patient and ferociously resilient, but always with humor and joy.

Wangon Central Railways station
The only Burmese trait more ubiquitous than Thanakha is the laughter...

But those images are for another day's post.

Thank you for taking a look as some of my work. You can explore more of it on my website, Time permitting I periodically post short photographic studies on a topic on my blog There you can explore, comment, and share some of your image ideas and adventures.

Please feel free to contact me at

Thank you to Nikon Rumors for sharing some of my work.

Julian Ray Photography

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  • Andrew

    Beautiful pictures and the post, thank you for sharing.

  • fixit

    We should try this in Toronto

  • Thank you. Lovely, candid photos. I’ve never heard of Thanakha.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed them.

  • Global

    The authentic name of this country is Myanmar. The British imperialism just called it Burma for no particularly good reason. There is a good documentary on it on Netflix right now, called, “They Call it Myanmar.”

    Myanmar not only suffered 3 wars with the British, but it was invaded by Japan afterward in their attempt to rape and enslave East Asia (when you know the past, you understand more why the US was in the Philippines, and is around the world, it was never just to piss off China, etc). Unfortunately, the local military took over the country in order to provide stability, which turned into dictatorship and finally totalitarianism. The country is currently experimenting again with democracy and opening up the media and allowing visitors and is institutionally changing in small positive ways encouraged by the US and increasingly friendly states.

    The people of Myanmar are very terrified of cameras as they lives under a police state comparable to North Korea without the cult of personality. The people are beautiful, but very poor and most kids dont have more than a few years education, but they are one of the most traditional Buddhist countries with gorgeous monuments and temples. Its complicated to describe Theravada Buddhist culture suppressed by a Military Junta under the continuous fear of prison and lack of education, enduring severe brutality on an otherwise very life affirming culture. Its very sad, but increasingly hopeful if wary, and itd be a mistake to compare it directly to Tibet. But you do have that shitty Russian/Chinese/North Korean style of kleptocratic regime leadership that occurs when single parties rule a country too tightly on a landscape of beauty.

    Photographers are not likely in danger of violence, but they will be highly suspect and forbidden from filming faces (out of the legitimate fear of those individuals… everyone knows someone jailed for tiny reasons, even if they like you and would other want to be filmed, they are terrified with good reason). In other cases, there are many places illegal to film and you could be held or jailed, but more likely have your equipment taken.. even by those without authority to take it (in those restricted areas) again out of fear– so you should consider permits and advance planning and local contacts.

    And advanced medicine is nearly nonexistent. So dont get hurt or even a toothache. : )

    • Andy Aungthwin

      People shouldn’t get too hung up about the name Burma. This is how it is known generally.

      You know, the Germans call their country Deutschland. As a matter of fact the majority of people in Burma are Burmans which comes from the word Bama, which is what they call themselves. And they speak Burmese, not “Myanmarnese” or anything like that.

      So, stay cool. If anyone should get upset about what the country is called it should be me. The first 4 letters in my last name are as Burmese as it gets.

      Nice photos, BTW.

      • Thanks

      • Sahaja

        Yes – why should what a people or government name their country in their own language have to change what it is called in English?

    • Well things are changing, albeit slowly. I traveled about every year to Myanmar since the mid-90s. Yangon is hardly recognizable these days and people say freely what the think about the government.

      The minorities yes, they’re still afraid, but in the capital no one seems afraid of the military anymore. The much bigger worry is the cost of living.

    • Toddy nosed

      Fantastic images no doubt! Although the first paragraph above needs a history visit.

    • Tooki

      While everything you say may be true, it’s my understanding that because the military dictatorship promoted the use of the country’s original name, many of the country’s people prefer to use Burma as a sort of opposition to totalitarianism. Not speaking from first hand experience, that’s just what I’ve read.

    • Sahaja

      @Global – Many political opposition groups and ethnic groups continue to use the name “Burma” because they do not recognise the legitimacy of the ruling military government or its authority to rename the country.


      “In the Burmese language, Burma is known as either Myanma ( မြန်မာ [mjəmà]) or Bama ( ဗမာ [bəmà]). Myanma is the written, literary name of the country, while Bama is the spoken name of the country.”

  • koenshaku

    That was educational, artful and beautiful. Great captures!

  • Excellent work — what camera and lenses did you use?

    • Thank you.
      These were shot with either a D4 or D4s and 24-70 or 70-200.

  • Sahaja

    Nice photos

  • Mel

    We were in Myanmar in January and the people were so friendly. I always ask if I could take their pictures and not once was I told “no.”

  • Zippy

    The authentic name for this tradition is bukkake…

  • Alex de Monet

    Call me crazy, but I find it ridiculous on a photography website that this article and many others like it do not mention what camera or lenses were used. After reading the comments I can see, but put it in the article.

  • For those that got hung up a little on the name here is a short video that might help explain things a bit.

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