To walk down any of Bangkok’s streets is to be bombarded by stimuli: bright colours, curious shapes, clanging sounds, heat, humidity, and, of course, smells, both pleasant and unpleasant. All kinds of aromas help make up the Thai experience; they feature not only in the obvious, our toiletries, but also our food, offerings, homes and transportation. Some of these scents make Thailand special and different from other countries.
Though some of our flowering plants bloom all year round, each season smells different depending on the natural phenomena occuring at that time of year. In the rainy season, for example, the smell of damp grass and earth makes the air smell fresher and the city just a bit greener. In the cool season, when we get wafted by cooler breezes for a week or two, the air is drier and lacks much of a scent at all. And in summer, the heat, dust and pollution collide to create smog. The atmosphere becomes oppressive and muggy, and the stench from garbage stronger due to the high temperatures.
Living in the tropics, perspiration is inevitable but manageable. The tradition of perfuming ourselves predates the arrival of modern deodorants. Talcum powder scented with essence from flowers and herbs has been used for a long time. As has Thai eau de cologne, nahm ob Thai: a complex scent made from flowers, fruits, spices, talc and minerals and scented candle smoke. Its fragrance can be overwhelming, so it’s used sparing by diluting in water for bathing. It’s also used to sprinkle on Buddha images as well as in the water we pour over the hands of elders as a sign of respect during Songkran, the Thai New Year festival that falls during the height of summer. In the olden days courtiers even scented their clothes with these powders and perfumes.
It has been said that Thai people are among the best smelling in the world, due mainly due to our attention to hygiene. We don’t want to offend anyone else’s nose, of course, but smelling good for us is also part and parcel of being perceived as desirable and beautiful. In Thai literature, plain and sweet-smelling flowers are seen as more attractive than colourful yet odorless ones. And for many if not most of Thais, the hom kaem – an affectionate sniff of another person’s cheek – is more sensuous than a full-on kiss. There are several ways we stay fresh. We shower a lot – some of us two or three times a day and pre and post-coital. Our diet is also full of herbs and spices which aids detoxification. In daily life, we also use flowers to deodorise as well as decorate.
Garlands, for example, are hung over the dashboard to mask any body odor that permeates the cab during the shift. And in Thai homes, garlands, a whiff of fresh jasmine or jampaca (Asiatic magnolia), or a maan (curtain) of flowers arranged along the window frame are used to scent as well as beautify.
Our food is also more scented than most. On the refined side, we use scented candles to add alluring aromas to desserts and even coconut milk and water. Water perfumed with rose and jasmine is used for khao chae (rice in iced water), a dish designed to cool us in the height of summer. Influenced by Chinese cooking methods, we also like to season a new wok before we use it. By season, I mean burning it so that your stirfried noodles are imparted with wok qi, a slightly charred flavour.
On the other reeking side, we also love pungent food such as fermented ghapi (shrimp paste), nam pla (fish sauce), pla raa (pickled fish), sator (stinky beans) and, the mother of all foul-smelling food, durian. Once cooked or combined with herbs and spices, these ingredients’ putrid smells are masked and complemented with other flavours and aromas. So it is all about balance to achieve a certain acquired taste. It’s been scientifically proven that scents trigger memories. So which smells will be forever linked with your memories of Thailand? Jasmine garlands? Wok-charred noodles? Fresh markets? Wet sand in the morning? Or, something less endearing, such as an open drain on a sweltering day, or a bar filled with cigarette smoke?