Quin's Progress


Beauty Night In Mandalay

P1140812There’s an old saying in Asia that the most beautiful women have Indian eyes, a Thai smile, and Burmese skin.   I wouldn’t dream of disputing that, but it’s not as easy as you’d think to verify the last component of that combination. Why? For the same reason that the adage is true. Thanaka. Burmese women cover their faces with it.

P1140469When it comes to unique norms of beauty coming out of Myanmar, most of us who grew up with National Geographic automatically think of the Padaung or Kayan women of the Karenni ethnic group, who wear brass coils around their necks, making them look long and stretched. But the Long Neck Ladies of the Kayan are an oddity even within Myanmar. A far more widespread cosmetic custom—and just as much a cultural identifier to all the people of Myanmar as the brass neck rings are to the women of the Kayan—is the use of thanaka.

IMG_8751Thanaka (pronounced “tah-nah-KAH”) is a cosmetic made of the ground bark of the thanaka tree that grows in the drier areas of Myanmar. Combined with a few drops of water, the ground thanaka bark makes a thin, creamy paste of a color my mother would have ever so daintily referred to as “baby shit yellow,” but that I’ll call more of a Dijon mustard color. Thinly applied to the skin while wet, the thanaka dries to a soft, powdery, buttercup yellow.

P1140400The people of Myanmar have used Thanaka for centuries. You can see ancient thanaka grinding stones in museums, so it’s been a part of their cultural identity for a long, long time. Today, all over Myanmar, even in the big city, people use thanaka as a daily cosmetic, sunscreen, fragrance, and overall skin protection/improvement treatment. It’s supposed to perform all manner of complexion magic, from preventing acne, lightening sun damage, shrinking pores, even killing fungal infections on the skin. But, mostly, folks just think it’s pretty to paint it on their faces. Or their arms. Or hands, especially if the person works outside. But mostly faces.

Usually swiped lightly across the cheeks and forehead, or boldly painted into decorative patterns, thanaka is used by everyone.  It’s an equal opportunity beautifier. You don’t see it on grown men too often, but pretty much everyone else uses it every day.  Women:





Thanaka Logs

Thanaka Logs

In the local markets, you can buy a chunk of a thanaka branch, and use the special round stone and some water to grind your own thanaka paste, like so (if video doesn’t show below, click here):

IMG_8946If that looks like too much of an upper arm workout for every day, you can buy a cake of pre-ground bark paste, and just rub that on a wet surface—even your palm—to create the thin lotion to put on your skin.

P1140901Alternatively, it comes as a prepared concentrate, in jars, sometimes mixed with other cosmetic additives or fragrances.  Everyone I talked to said to avoid the ones with added stuff and just get the plain, organic one. Don’t mess with a classic.

IMG_8815Everywhere I went, women were trying to smear me with thanaka. I had a thanaka massage—which was lovely and refreshing—and before she let me up, the massage therapist thanaka’d my face, to go. I visited a rural village, and the matriarch dragged me to the thanaka stone and fixed my face (that’s her in the video above). I just looked unfinished to them without it.

IMG_8842It smells nice, kind of soft and fresh, faintly woodsy, and herbal. But the most awesome thing is that it gently tingles and cools your skin, which is so welcome in the Myanmar heat. It also keeps your skin dry, when it would otherwise be glistening with schwitz.

IMG_8745I got some expert advice from some girls who work in a department store in Mandalay. They busted me, in what I thought was an empty aisle of the store, singing and doing the cha-cha to the Asianized instrumental version of Copacabana that was on the piped music system, and once we were all done laughing at what a dork I am, they started patting my cheeks and saying “you need thanaka!” So, I enlisted their help in choosing a prepared product to try at home, because I wasn’t investing in a stone to grind my own anytime soon.

IMG_8746I knew to get the plain, organic kind, but still, you have to be careful which brand you choose. Some factory-made thanaka products are banned all over Southeast Asia because of dangerous impurities that have caused nasty cases of lead poisoning. Apparently, some kids in Missouri died of lead poisoning after using tainted thanaka paste (it was news to me that there was a Burmese community in Missouri, but apparently, there is). So, beware, and make sure you get the pure, organic kind. P1140898The girls at the store told me this one—“Shwe Pyi Nann”—is good. Several other women later told me, yes, this one is their trusted brand, too. I think you can even get it on Amazon now. I just never would have known to look for it before, or what to do with it if I had discovered it by accident.

IMG_8749My department store girlfriends told me to dig out a small glob of the paste and mix it with a little water until the consistency is right—like paint—and then go to town. So, I went native and had myself a little thanaka party. I think I need some practice.  Okay, so maybe this was a lesson in how NOT to wear thanaka!

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt.  What?  KISS wore lots of makeup.

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt. What? KISS wore lots of makeup.

Although I don’t think I’ll be sporting thanaka-face in public outside of Myanmar, I didn’t toss that jar of thanaka when I left. It makes for a nice weekly facemask that really does shrink your pores, and leaves your skin feeling so clean and fresh. In fact, I’m using it now, as I write! So, thanaka you very much for the wonderful beauty tip, Myanmar! My pores and I are ever grateful.



She saw me coming a mile away.

She saw me coming a mile away.

In the streets of Yangon, and at temple gates in various cities in Myanmar, there are girls with baskets full of finches. Perky little finches, cheeping cheerfully and hopping about. For 500 Kyat (about 50 cents USD), the girl will reach into the basket, bring out one of the wiggling birds, and place it in your cupped hands. Then, you make a wish and set the little birdie free.

finchesBuddhists believe that such small acts of kindness give them extra merit points in their karma banks, to be totaled up with all their other good deeds and weighed against all their bad deeds when it comes time to be reincarnated. Every little bit helps, especially if the balance is already tipping toward reincarnation as a dung beetle or one of those birds that picks dead meat out of crocodiles’ teeth. And, although superstitions are generally inconsistent with Buddhist beliefs, many people consult astrologers to tell them how many of these little birds to set free to balance out a bit of naughtiness, or give extra power to especially important prayers.

You go, little finchy!

You go, little finchy!

It’s quite an uplifting feeling to watch that little creature flutter into the sky from your outstretched hands, carrying your good intentions into the world. The first time I tried it, I was so exhilarated, I ended up buying out the girl’s whole basket of birds. At 30-something finchies, it was the best fifteen bucks I’d spent in a long time. If it keeps me from being reincarnated as a Muni driver, so much the better.

Finch LadyThat girl was waiting for me on the same corner the next day. I knew I was being had, but I was happy to go along with it, and cleaned out her finch inventory again. It really puts you into a good mood to release those little guys and watch them streak off to freedom. That and a good breakfast pretty much ensure that you’re going to have an awesome day.

Girl with finches-2Then some killjoy told me that the birds are trained to return to the owners, and they end up back in the same basket the next day. I didn’t want to believe it, so I asked around, and it’s apparently true. I have no idea how you train a finch, but I guess it’s doable. So, perhaps I released the same bunch of birds two days in a row. But, I say, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! It’s still magical to hold that quivering little body in your hands, feel it pinch you impatiently with its dainty beak if you take too long formulating your wish, and see it take off and reclaim its liberty. Setting it free is all I can do; if the bird has been trained to surrender itself again after being emancipated, that’s on someone else’s karma account. And, maybe one or two of those tiny guys took advantage of the chance to make a real break for it, and didn’t come back. I hope so.  Unless they get eaten by bigger birds or lizards or something.  If so, then I hope they were back in the safety of their basket by nightfall.

Basket of finchesI was so entertained by this finch thing, that I even took some requests from friends back home, and made wishes for them by proxy when I would encounter the finch girls at a temple. I was running out of things to wish for, anyway, so it worked out.

One day, at a temple in Bago, after I had made finch wishes for health and happiness for all my loved ones, strength to those I know who are going through something, peace in places of conflict, and all the selfless, benevolent things I could think of, and placed the special orders given to me by folks back home, I figured I had earned a selfish one that I could use for something vain.

A bird in the hand.

A bird in the hand.

So, on my last birdie of the day, I cupped him lightly in my hands and wished to drop a couple of dress sizes. Now, I’m normally pretty sorted out about being on the fluffy side, but I’ve been traveling in Asia for almost a year now, and I’m here to tell you, if you aren’t built like Olive Oyl, you will be told several times a day, by well meaning, smiling people, how fat you are. It isn’t malicious, but it isn’t exactly a compliment either, and it kinda gets to a girl after a while. So, there I stood, fervently wishing on a finch that my booty be a little less…well, just less.

Go on, little guy!  Please?

Go on, little guy! Please?

I stretched my arms up and opened my hands to release the finch to the sky…and he didn’t budge. I brought my hands down and had a look at him. He just sat there. I shook my hands a little, to encourage him, but he just looked at me and cocked his head to the side.

Nothing doing.

Nothing doing.

The girl, probably concerned she would have to give me a refund for this one, got up and tapped pretty hard under my hand to boost him into the air.  He just hopped down to the cage and got back inside. He wasn’t going anywhere with that wish.

So much for that. Looks like I’d better hang on to my stretchy pants!


Whatever You Do, Don’t Crap Bananas

Myanmar FlagMingalaba, gentle friends! Greetings from Myanmar.

Oh, Myanmar. You really made me work for it, didn’t you? Having your embassies reject my visa applications because I wasn’t applying in my home country, giving me the run around about the visa-on-arrival program, and then finally having mercy on my passport in Singapore, notwithstanding the “Don’t Even Think of Applying for a Visa Here if You’re Not a Legal Singapore Resident” signs at the consulate.  And, now that I’m finally here, you’re trying to kill me.

Myanmar restaurant, but not the one where the fish bone got me.

Myanmar restaurant, but not the one where the fish bone got me.

First, there was the wily fish bone. I am not a picky eater, but I am a bit fussy about fish with little, thin bones. Perhaps there is a repressed, early childhood trauma at the root of it, I don’t know, but the idea of getting a fish bone stuck in my throat strikes such dread in me that I normally will have nothing to do with anything made from a fish smaller than a coffee table.

Mr. Ko in the Shan mountains.

Mr. Ko in the Shan mountains.

But, when my driver, Mr. Ko—who I only later discovered was not named Mr. Ko at all, but had told me to call him by that name (which, apparently, translates essentially to “Mr. Sir”), because he correctly surmised I would never be able to pronounce his real name—took me to a restaurant in a rural village in northern Shan State, and communicated as best he could in his limited English that the fish soup, made from a smallish catfish caught that day in the rice paddy, was the best, freshest thing on offer, I reluctantly acquiesced. And, of course, even though I was hyper-careful, I promptly got a bone stuck in my throat.

Evil fish bones.

The evil fish bones.

Pandemonium ensued in the little café. Good god, they couldn’t kill a foreigner, it would be terrible for business! After much shouting in Burmese and arm waving, the owner’s daughter rushed over with a bunch of bananas. Mr. Ko grabbed them, quickly peeled one, and handed it to me, urging me through hand gestures to eat it to knock the bone down my gullet.  I put a hunk of banana in my mouth, and as I began to chew, Mr. Ko exclaimed, “Don’t crap!”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Don’t CRAP!” he insisted.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” I assured him, as I continued to chew the banana.

Shan bananas.  Shananas.

Shan bananas. Shananas.

“DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DOOON’T CRAAAAAAAAAAP!!!!” he exhorted anxiously. Then, he put the back of his hand under my chin to stop me from chewing, and I finally got it. Makes sense, of course.  The banana has to be in one piece to knock the offending bone down, not chewed into goo that would slide around it. But, I could, at least, breathe with the bone stuck in there, and I was imagining a plug of banana getting lodged on top of the bone and cutting off my air, so I was hesitant. But, they all seemed to think it was a good idea, so, lacking any better solution, I complied. And it worked. As soon as I swallowed a piece of uncrapped banana, the bone dislodged, and peace was restored.

Hsipaw Train Station.

Hsipaw Train Station.

Then came the treacherous train. Two days after the fish bone incident, I got on a train in Hsipaw headed toward an old British hill station in the mountains north of Mandalay.  Myanmar RailwayI decided to spring for the extra forty cents to have a seat in the “First Class” car, which, as far as I could tell, differed from the “Ordinary Class” only in the assignment of individual seats, instead of open seating on benches.  Definitely worth forty cents.

MR BoobsWhen I got to my assigned seat, I noticed these fabric seat covers printed with a symbol that resembled saggy breasts. Having also seen this symbol painted on the entrance to various ladies’ restrooms, and noticing that the only other person seated in that area of the car was an elderly woman, I concluded that the symbol must be the Burmese character representing “women,” and these seats must be reserved for ladies.

LadyI made a conscious decision not to think any further about whether they were specifically reserved for old ladies with saggy breasts, and whether or not it was fair that I had been relegated to that zone without a proper inquiry.

Ladies' Room.

Ladies’ Room.

Turns out I was wrong, anyway. I later learned that the symbol is the Burmese word “ma,” which means both “women” and the abbreviated form of “Myanmar,” which is why it is printed on the seats of the Myanmar state railroad.  So, there you have it.

Bag o' tea.

Bag o’ tea.



My seat neighbor turned out to be quite a dame. She brought out tins of dried, sugared mango slices, tied plastic baggies of milk tea, and packages of cheroots—small, hand-rolled cigars—and passed them around to everyone, before producing a deck of cards and inviting folks to come play.

Game3She didn’t have to twist anyone’s arm, let me tell you.  Before I knew it, someone had upended a vegetable basket between the seats and placed a cushion on top to form a card table, and an ever-growing group of people crowded around, laughing, and smoking, and happily gambling away the meager contents of their respective wallets. Game4She offered to deal me in, but I couldn’t figure out what game they were playing, so I judiciously declined.

Systematically, that fabulous old broad took each of those guys to the cleaners. When one of them busted out of the game, she offered to buy his cheroots off him so he would have money to keep playing. Game2He went for it, and then she won the money back off him, leaving him without smokes or coin. She did it with such affable charm, though, none of her victims seemed to mind. I really admired her.

In the meantime, the train was bucking through the mountains like a bronco with a bee in its butt. Kids on a trainThe coaches jumped and jerked so violently, there were times when even my ample behind was thrown all the way into the air. We all had to hold on to keep from being pitched onto the floor, not that it disrupted the card game in the slightest. You could see through the aisle door how the coach ahead of ours was jerking and rocking back and forth like a metronome on amphetamines. It was more than a little disconcerting, but none of the other passengers seemed worried, so I figured it must be normal, and tried to roll with it. No pun intended.

Now I know why they included life insurance in the ticket fare!

Now I know why they included life insurance in the ticket fare!

I was concerned about angering Dale, though. He’s been pretty tame lately, and the fear of antagonizing him with this rock n’ roller coaster ride was real. Ultimately, after about five hours of being relentlessly jolted and jostled, I got off the train and got a private car down the remainder of the mountain.

Shan Noodles.

Shan Noodles.

That is why, when the train derailed in the forest about a half hour later, I was happily stuffing my face with Shan noodles at a roadside tea house, watching the “Chinese Horsemen” come down the highway from nearby China, carrying cheap, refurbished motorcycles—jocularly called Chinese Horses—on the backs of their own motorcycles, illegally importing them to waiting customers in the rural hill tribes.

Pyin Oo Lwin.

Pyin Oo Lwin.

I would never have known about the train crash, but the next day, in Pyin Oo Lwin town, I was accosted by a woman shouting “Hey, there you are! What happened to you?” When she caught up to me, she said she recognized me from the train, and that they had looked everywhere for me, but no one could find me. To the nonplussed look on my face, she said, “Did you get off early?” I said yes. “So, you don’t know that the train derailed?” No, I most certainly did not.

From the train window, shortly before I got off, and it crashed.

From the train window, shortly before I got off, and it crashed.

She then told me all about it. Apparently, three coaches, including the one I had been in, jumped off the tracks in the woods, far from any town or station, or even the highway. I worried about the card playing granny and her cohorts, but I was assured that no one was hurt, thankfully. The coaches had gone off the rails to the left, into a clearing, instead of to the right, which would have sent the whole train tumbling down the mountainside into a very deep ravine.

Shortly before it derailed.

Shortly before it derailed.

Someone called the police from a mobile phone, and the Gendarme soon came with pick-up trucks to get people out and down to the next decent size town, which was Pyin Oo Lwin.  All train service between Mandalay and Lashio, the last town before the Chinese border, was suspended until further notice, so they could clear the mess off the tracks.

It all sounded very dramatic and inconvenient. I was so grateful not to have been there. Can you imagine? I would have crapped bananas.