Meet Aye Woon and Lun Meh. These two Palaung sisters apply Thanaka before heading to work each day on their family’s green tea farm deep in the Shan mountains. Yet Thanaka has not been around all that long for the Palaung people.
The Palaung are an ancient and native ethnic group within Myanmar made up of twelve tribes. Aye and Lun Meh are descendants of the Ru Plong Palaung. Though each tribe varies in its traditions, Palaung men and women are known collectively for their eye-catching costumes. They wear vibrant red, pink, black, and blue jackets with corresponding red-striped longyis, or sarongs. Many Palaung women wear colorful turbans to mimic the form of their Dragon Mother, whome they believe their people are all descendants of to this day. They also wear lacquered bamboo rings around their waists, silver torques, and multiple strands of decorative beads as emblems of maturity and marital status.
The Palaung's long, layered outfits are equally practical as they are beautiful. The long sleeves and floor length longyi help to protect their extremities from both the dangers of tea farming on sharp mountain slopes and the cool temperatures that overwhelm the region. The chilly climate of this elevated mountain state is an anomaly within Myanmar and a source of pride, as it is said to be perfect for growing Shan's chief crop: green tea. The Palaung know from generations of trial and error that, starting at 700 meters, tea gains quality with elevation, and thus the best tea is found at the highest peaks.
The chilled climate of Shan State, though perfect for tea farming, is just the opposite for Thanaka farming. As Thanaka trees grow best in hot arid zones, they are practically nonexistent in the Shan mountains. So the question remains—how did Thanaka culture extend into this cool mountainous region?
The answer lies in the village Shamans. These revered healers, both men and women, were the only people who traveled frequently among the Palaung villages and beyond. A good Shaman ventured to parts unknown in order to gather the best medicinal ingredients and learn of the latest remedies. Those who trekked as far as the arid central lowlands soon discovered Thanaka, a centuries-old medicinal tree in Bamar culture. The Bamar taught intrigued Palaung Shamans of Thanaka’s many uses: to protect from the sun, treat infant stomach sickness, and heal rashes and insect bites. Since Thanaka trees do not grow well in the mountains, portable-sized logs were toted back eastward by foot or mule. In this manner, Shamans spread the word and practice among the twelve tribes.
Impassible mountain jungles isolated the Palaung tribes and severely delayed the discovery of Thanaka in this region. Many Palaung elders recount their fellow villagers started using this magical tree within their lifetime, around sixty years ago. This provides quite the contrast given that the Thanaka tradition was established as long as 2,000 years ago in central Myanmar.
Just as we persistently search for better cures in modern medicine, the Palaung were eager to get their hands on new medications to treat common ailments. As such, when individuals brought their concerns about infant illness and skin problems to the Shaman, he began to recommend Thanaka. When asked why they use Thanaka, many Palaung simply retorted “because the Shaman said it was good” or “because the Shaman told me to.” No further explanation was needed in their minds; what the Shaman says, the villager accepts.
The advent of Thanaka signifies a generational shift in the Palaung world. More access to foreign Thanaka concurrently means more access to the world at large. The tangled mountains no longer pose as daunting a barrier as they once had. Motorbikes, instead of mules, make the steep mountain trails to nearby cities less intimidating. The recent introduction of cheap telecom services and smartphones allows young people to travel instantaneously around the world and back. Mass-produced beanies, t-shirts, and sweats have taken place of handmade turbans, jackets, and longyis. The trail leading west, first tred by the Shaman, began as an inroad for Thanaka and knowledge. Now this westward highway has grown to unimaginable proportions and, in turn, given the Palaung global access from their isolated mountaintop villages.