Myanmar, which used to be called Burma, borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand.
Yangon (Formerly known as Rangoon)
Our first stop was in Yangon. We will come back here at the end of our trip to catch our flight back to Bangkok. We didn’t really know what to expect of Myanmar. It’s still relatively unchartered by other south East Asian countries standards. Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city with bustling markets, green spaces, shopping malls and it’s crowning glory, the Shwedagon Pagoda, containing Buddhist relics which date back to the 6th Century.
Our hotel, The Panorama, was basic but clean and situated near to the train station. (Somewhere we would be seeing a lot of soon enough!) It had an old fashioned charm. We needed to collect our train tickets as we were travelling to Bagan in a few days time and were told to collect our tickets from a building called the ‘Fantastic Condominium.’ We had to get there quickly as the office was closing for the weekend.
The Burmese New Year, called ‘Thingyan’ was approaching and the city felt like it was gearing up for a big party!
We enjoyed our first visit to a Burmese Buddhist Pagoda, the Sule Pagoda which is situated in the heart of down town Yangon. It’s said to be over 2,600 years old with legend saying it contains a strand of hair from the Buddha that the Buddha gave to the two Burmese merchant brothers.
We then spent the evening in the nearby park called Maha Bandula Gardens. It was Friday and very busy with local families, couples and groups of friends relaxing and talking in the evening sun. There was a local band setting up and crowds were gathering. The music gradually got louder.
We noticed most people were wearing the long skirt called Longyi. Men were mostly in dark check and women wore brightly coloured styles with little blouses and jackets to match. We were curious to see the women and girls, and, to a lesser extent, men and boys, were wearing a type of powder on their faces we learned was called Thanakha. Everyone was was wearing it.
What is Thanakha that Burmese people paint on their faces?
Thanakha is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste which comes from the bark of a tree. We learned it is a distinctive feature of the culture of Myanmar. It is applied to the face and sometimes the arms. They have been using it for centuries, and prepared using a small round piece of log. The bark is ground against a stone slab with water to make a paste. I read that the tree must be at least 35 years old before it is considered mature enough. The Burmese have been using it for over 2000 years. It has a fragrance similar to sandalwood.
The most common style we saw was circular but we also saw other designs like swirls and leaf shapes. It’s belived to cool the skin and protect from sunburn. It is also believed to remove acne and smooth the skin.
We were provided with some Thanakha to use at one of our hotel rooms but decided it was best left to the locals to carry on the tradition. They also sell it on trains and market stalls in little rolled up leaves.