The Sense of Smell

The Sense of Smell

When I first arrived in SE Asia 12 years ago, I remember my olfactory system being constantly bombarded with scent. It started the moment I walked off the plane into the stiflingly humid Bangkok air. The taxi from the airport had the surprisingly pleasant fragrance of a type of jasmine from the Buddhist offering garland that hung on the rear view mirror. Getting out of the taxi near Khao San Road, the slight stench of sewage filled the air.

Yes, I remember these and many other smells, but after being here again I have gotten quite used to the daily aromas. I knew when my sister Wendy visited, she would notice some of the things that have become so normal to me. She did indeed, and one of the first things she noticed was the overwhelming scents that are everywhere.

As far as cities in SE Asia go, Chiang Mai is immaculate, but if you’re not used to Asia, it could be pungent. First, you might smell the not-so-clean moat water, then the exhaust from tuk tuks, songthaews, motorbikes, and other assorted vehicles. Next is the is the mouthwatering aroma of garlic and chilis frying up in a wok, and the skewered grilled meat. The sweet juicy pineapple scents get mixed with putrid durian. Just when you’re basking in the fragrance of a flower, there will be a strong fishy scent that might be fish sauce, shrimp paste, or the dried flattened squid that gets sold all over. Sometimes the burning mosquito coil smoke is right under your table at a restaurant, otherwise the cintronella scented insect repellants waft through the air.

If you get a massage, you’ll smell the ubiquitous tiger balm mixed with the herbal ball of camphor, turmeric, ginger. There’s that odd bathroom fetor that reminds you not to flush down toilet paper, because if it overflows, unpleasantness is nearby. Walking around the old city, there is the occasional sewage odor. The rare times I picked up this stink in the US, I found it oddly comforting because it made me long for Thailand. In comparison with SE Asia, the US is devoid of smell. Even though I adore the sweet summer flowers in Portland, their scent just isn’t as in-your-face as the blend of Asian assaults on the nose.


Lovely fragrant frangipani (or plumeria) flowers hang on trees everywhere in Thailand. My Thai teacher explained that they used to be called lan tom meaning sorrow and sadness, but the princess of Thailand liked them and renamed the flower ลีลาวดี “lee-laa-wa-dii”. Now, apparently everyone likes to plant them. My landlady clearly did as my garden has several plumeria trees that seem to bloom continually.

Once outside the city where rice fields abound, depending on the season, depends on the scent – sometimes it’s watery and swampy, but in the dry season the dried grassy odor soon gives way to smoke from the incessant amount of burning fields. Initially I always like the aroma, but the smoke pollution gets really bad and the air quality decreases. A little smoke is fine, but in March it’s downright pollution. Bamboo huts can smell dry and woody, though sometimes there is a slight hint of mildew as well.

Now in July is the scent of warm summer rain, rain, rain.

Smells can be a wonderful meditation reminder in the way they come and go. The olfactory system goes through its own meditation process to let us know even if something seems unbearable, we’ll get used to it, and it will quickly pass.


2 thoughts on “The Sense of Smell

  1. Hi there, my girlfriend loves the Frangipani flowers, she calls it the “sa ran tom” but this is her private thing. The “deep sadness” is I think “ra tom”. The original “lan tom” has another meaning I think???

    • Hi, you could certainly be correct about ra tom and lan tom. I hope I haven’t written something offensive. Trying to write what I hear in Thai in phonetics script is a losing battle, which is why I have done my best to learn the alphabet and ask for things to be written in Thai. Besides phonetics not translating, there are tones, which are always lost in phonetics. Not to mention just plain and simple homophones in Thai. Thank you for commenting and letting me know lan tom might have another meaning. Glad that it’s now called leelawadee or better ลีลาวดี

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