Unreliable Bangkok 1: Smell

Photograph of Khlong Saen Saeb Canal, Bangkok

When I arrived in Bangkok a fortnight ago, the first thing I noticed was the smell. But before I discuss matters of odour, let me explain how I’ll bring you my traveller’s tales…

As I’ve mentioned before, I wanted to spend my time in Thailand experiencing the country, not writing. I didn’t want to see it through the viewfinder of a camera either, but directly with my own eyes. So I didn’t take notes, and my only photos are a few pimple-cam images for reference.

Now that I’m back in Sydney, I’ll write a daily essay. Each one will be a personal, even idiosyncratic reflection. I probably won’t write about tourist things. Indeed, ’Pong and I avoided most standard tourist sites. But without notes, this will be an Unreliable Bangkok memoir — hence the title.

So, smell…

’Pong and his friend Yo met me at Suvarnabhumi Airport (ท่าอากาศยานนานาชาติกรุงเทพ-สุวรรณภูม) late on a Monday night. I wound down the window of her small sedan and the smell hit me. At first I thought it was smoke, something like wood burning but not quite. But the smell stayed with us as we took the expressway west towards central Bangkok and I started to notice its subtle complexity.

Smells trigger memories. The smell of Bangkok triggered memories of mangrove swamps, or that black, sticky mud that collects near weed-filled rivers. And of course Bangkok is a river city, sitting on a broad flood plain and threaded with muddy and sometimes stagnant canals like Khlong Saen Saeb (คลองแสนแสบ), the one in the photo.

I’m far from being the first person to notice Bangkok’s unique smell. In London, Xanthe lists “as you step outside the airport doors in bangkok” as one of her favourite smells. Conversely, Werewolf doesn’t seem to like it — but he grew up in the fresh air of the Atlantic coast, so I can understand. Plus his description is wonderfully detailed.

For me, that first smell of Bangkok said “You are now in a strange land,” the first real message that I’d left Australia. It wasn’t unpleasant, just different. It was exciting, too, because it told me there’d be more to discover the next day, once I had sunlight to see by.

By the way, that boat on the canal is part of the Khlong Saen Saeb Express Boat service. I’ll have more to say about that in another essay.

Smells… If you know Bangkok, what are your thoughts on its unique smell? And what other places have their own unique smell?

This post is part of my series “Unreliable Bangkok”. Why not explore the others?

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14 comments

  1. Benn Glazier’s avatar

    Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City both have a very similar smell. It’s one thing I’ll always remember about travelling in Asia.

    The strong overpowering smell — it’s like durian on steroids. The continuous high heat means that the garbage festers 24 hours a day. All that said, I think the smell is far worse in HCMC due to the lack of sanitation services compared to in Thailand.

    Now, I happen to like durian — but I guess there’s a reason it’s banned in hotels and on airplanes. Now overlay it with the pollution, the humidity, oh and did I mention the heat? Mmmm….

    Also, I’m not sure if you’ve been to Bangkok before this trip, but the old airport Don Muang had a certain aroma to it as well.

    Fond memories. How I do love SE Asia.

  2. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Benn Glazier: No, this was my first visit to Bangkok — indeed, my very first journey outside Australia. So I’ll admit, I’m not going to be sure what’s just Bangkok and what’s south-east Asia in general.

    We spent a day in Don Mueang, ’Pong’s old patch, which I’ll cover soon. However we were at the local government offices and generally wandering the streets, not visiting the airport.

  3. Nick Hodge’s avatar

    I landed in New Delhi once and it smelt like Adelaide just after a bush fire.

    Being the country lad, I was rather concerned.

    Until I realised that Eucalypts are grown in India as firewood; and the New Delhi-ans (sic) use our native trees to cook and keep warm at night.

    However, the dissonance of bushfire smell in India will never leave me.

  4. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Nick Hodge: Smells really are the mind-killer, aren’t they!

    Author Ray Bradbury is best-known for the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, but I remember that his short story collection R is for Rocket included stories that were about a childhood nostalgia for the age of rockets — and they used descriptions of smells to evoke that nostalgia. The smell of burning rocket-fuel kerosene on a summer’s evening, and a son whose father was too modest to wear his rocket-pilot uniform in public convinced he could smell star-dust on the fabric when he sneaked a peek into the wardrobe…

  5. Sheila’s avatar

    My first place overseas was Hong Kong just pre Chinese takeover, in 86, and it was like I’d just been plugged into life. It was hot, dripping with the promise of a typhoon stalled off the coast, the air wet and somehow invigorating, gardens, people, food, and an underlying scent of sewer — for a girl from Perth in Western Australia, was an awakening. Perth was barbecues, dry sand, the sulphur smell of borewater, bushland, and salt. Hong Kong was frying food, hanging red duck carcasses, expensive perfume, and the rotting marine smells of the harbour.

    I ran into the the dissonance Nick mentions, in Greece, beautiful gum trees everywhere, (more big ones than tended to be around WA), until I didn’t know where in the world I was. That still happens, I catch a scent and bam! I’m dislocated, unsure where or when I am. 🙂 thanks for triggering the memories

  6. mike’s avatar

    Those Eucalyptus get around, they are commonly grown in Thailand, particularly Issan, as well. My GF told me I “have Thai tree in garden” — no dear, you grow Australian tree!

    Arriving at the old Don Muang airport was an olfactory assault, after hours in the sterile aircon of the plane, then the terminal, you would step outside into the thick night air, thick from the humidity, the diesel fumes from the adjacent expressway mixed with the cooking smells from the hawkers at the railway station… somtam, kai yaang and who knows what else, overlaid with a whiff of aviation fuel.

    The new airport is more sanitised, away from the smells of urban BKK, now I have to wait until I get out of my taxi before I receive a long awaited sensory assault. Even after 15 years of visiting Asia I look forward to the smells, sounds and sights of Thailand.

  7. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Sheila and @Mike: And thank you for prompting me to re-read this post and think that, yes, I really must get back to Bangkok again soon. I wonder what the smells on Tanzania will trigger once Project TOTO gets under way!

    The cause of the eucalypts’ adoption around the world is that, as Wikipedia confirms, they’re a fast-growing source of wood, and can be used to drain swamps to reduce the risk of malaria.

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