In Thailand the moment you step out of the airport, taxi, bus or tuk-tuk your olfactory sense is under assault from odours both pleasant and unpleasant, natural and chemical, pungent and subtle, all of them heightened by the sultry humidity and fierce heat that wrap around you like an unwanted woolly blanket.
A mere mile from the sun
As you make your way about the tourist spots, dripping with sweat, with the sun seemingly a mere mile above you in the midday sky, your mouth still humming from the chilies and spices that are now wreaking havoc in a strangely pleasing and mildly disturbing fashion in your digestive tract, the smells of Thailand slowly and inexorably imprint themselves on your olfactory memory to linger long after your journey’s end.
Chillies, coloured red for a reason!
To the uninitiated it’s a challenge to appreciate how powerful this sensory experience can be. One moment you smile beatifically as the fragrance of frangipani flowers wafts effortlessly on the air to be followed seconds later by the potentially noxious, but oddly addictive, smell of petrol fumes from a passing tuk-tuk.
The ubiquitous tuk-tuk.
The driver, long inured to their fatally fragrant charms, casts a weary bloodshot eye in his rear view mirror at his passengers, one hand clasped firmly over their lower faces, the other clinging on for grim death, as the flimsy vehicle lurches away at a stomach-clenching speed into the melee of traffic jams that only foreigners with a death wish would navigate alone without a local guide.
Even on the water you can’t escape the traffic jams
Shaken but not unduly stirred, you are deposited at a floating market where the myriad scents of food cooking, flowers, vegetables, herbs, spices and fruits, nothing like your subtly European apples or pears, but the aggressively assertive odours of durian (the favourite fruit of tigers), sweet mangoes, rambutan, mangosteens, papaya, dragonfruit and guavas compete for your attention.
The Durian, king of fruits. Tastier than the average human!
In the jungle always carry a durian in your backpack just in case you run into this fellow. It could save your life.
The tea-brown waters on which this floating parade makes its daily rounds brings with it the detritus that has travelled from the far north, driven by torrential downpours through forests and jungles and sun-scorched plains, dragging with it along its tortuous journey all the decaying vegetative matter and deceased insect and animal life that serves to feed the microbial organisms that swarm within its murky depths.
Food vendors line the waterways, but the miasmal vapours are always free.
These malodorous miasmal vapours, warmed by the sun, make their own indelible mark upon your olfactory memory, as distinct and definitive an evocation of the Thai experience as a whiff of the Ratchaphruek, Cassia Fistula Linn, the national flower of Thailand. And, the longer you stay the more you find that it is this unique fusion of smells, fragrances, odours and aromas, sweet and sour, that serve as a stimulus to the recollection of precious moments in time that will never be lost.
You may find that long after you have returned home the sudden whiff of diesel fumes from a passing truck will transport you back to Thailand, and even if you never became attuned to its intoxicating allure, you will find yourself smiling at the memory nonetheless.