A Keyhole into Burma – You’ve got something on your face

There’s just so much to process for a new arrival in Burma that often anything short of basic survival (money, food, clean water) has to take a backseat until reasonable acclimation has been satisfied. I reached this stage after several coffees on day two.

Once I’d solved the riddle of the gum disease epidemic, I moved on to crack the Mystery of the Smudged Faces. The majority of women in Burma walk around with gold/yellow powder smeared on themselves. Usually just the cheeks are covered, but some, children in particular, often have it on their foreheads, noses and even their arms.

I tapped the encyclopedic knowledge of my guide in Yangon for enlightenment. Conveniently, we were in a market – where I’d just concluded a triumphant meet-and-greet with a gaggle of rotund, amorous ladies at the shredded fish booth – so he led me to the stall where they were selling lengths of sand wood. My guide explained that, once ground down to a powder, the sand wood is believed to protect the wearer from sun exposure, while being generally good for the skin. Furthermore, when prudently applied, sand wood powder performs the same vanity functions as make-up does for Western women.

That explained that. I certainly understood the need for relief, after all it was April, the height of the hot season and the sun was searing. Oh hey, I burn easily. Should I put some on my arms?

Oh no. Sand wood is only meant for women and children [pause] “and sometimes men, if they are the gay”.

Never mind.


The beautification effects of sand wood on the face eluded me for several days. However, once I’d grown accustomed to it, I found that a few judicious swipes indeed had an alluring effect. Even better, having often known the singular pain of sitting on the couch, 30 minutes late for dinner plans, while my date lingered at the mirror, I happily noted that applying a little sand wood powder took a fraction of the time of a full make-up ritual. Burmese boyfriends and husbands are undoubtedly more sane as a result.

Though admittedly far less dynamic than a full make-up kit, a small amount of creativity can be employed with sand wood powder (which is almost certainly the upper limit that most men will attain in make-up awareness anyway). Basic, yet charming styles or designs can be achieved by simply using a comb to make dozens of perfect, smooth parallel lines or shaped sponges, used rubber stamp-style, to make flawless circles or squares.

Western women take note (I’m just saying…).

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.