Every morning for the eight months I lived in Rangoon, Burma—a nation that, in the iron grip of a harsh military dictatorship, was more or less cut off from the rest of the world for decades—a lady named Mrs. Campbell would apply a pale yellow paste named Thanaka to my cheeks, nose and forehead.
It was 1979 and Mrs. Campbell—born of an English father and a Burmese mother toward the tail end of the British Raj—was my tutor. Every day, she traveled across Rangoon (now called Yangon) with a small amount of Thanaka nestled in her purse, a powder made from the bark of a tree that grows in Burma and has been a Burmese beauty staple for centuries. As she mixed it up into a smooth paste with a bit of water, she told me it would protect my skin from the harsh rays of the tropical sun and leave it soft, smooth and clear for years to come.
Back then, though, I was a child with no notion of aging, sun damage or the passage of time, and I despised the cakey feeling of the Thanaka as it hardened on my face. The moment I could, I scrubbed it off, much to Mrs. Campbell’s chagrin. “Just 20 minutes,” she would beg. But I wouldn’t listen.
Flash forward to today: I am in my mid 40s and, for better or for worse, my skin is what it is. Burma (aka Myanmar) is slowly transitioning toward democracy. And the Grande Dame of the Burmese opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, after remaining under house arrest for 15 years, plans to run for president in Burma’s 2015 elections.
Long an icon of freedom and human rights, Suu Kyi is quickly becoming a beauty and style icon, too. This year, TIME included the 68-year-old on its list of 100 most influential people in the world, while the British newspaper The Guardian featured her in its “50 Best-Dressed Over 50” list.
When I see Aung San Suu Kyi’s perfect skin, I regret my lack of diligence with Thanaka. But I do believe that it’s better too late than never at all, particularly because science shows that Thanaka has valuable properties for anyone at any age. Even today, says David Honegger, founder of St. Gallen, Switzerland-based Argo Naturals (which earlier this year began importing pure Thanaka powder from Burma), when westernization is sweeping through Burma and international cosmetic giants are eying the country as the next great frontier for their products, the Burmese still swear by what’s been their beauty staple for more than 1,000 years.
“In Burma, women, children and even men apply Thanaka first thing in the morning,” Honneger says. “Some of them paint designs on their cheeks, some cover their entire face with it. Some leave it on for half an hour, some keep it on all night. It really is a unique Burmese tradition and the Burmese are very proud of Thanaka.”
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