Sandalwood, Durian, Petrol, Cigarettes - The Smells of SE Asia
Rudyard Kipling wrote, “the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” No kidding. I’ve spent a great deal of time in South East Asia. My senses have been abused beyond what I thought possible, to the point where the sight of some things don’t affect me like they once did. A dead, hairless dog on a spit, for example, piles of garbage at the side of the road, a cubic ton of furniture and steel poles stacked horizontally on the back of a moving motorbike. And my ears absorb the ferocity of Asia’s chaos like an old veteran… almost. Vietnam might be a little bit different. They use their vehicle’s horns here like they’re competing to see who can make the unsuspecting foreigner jump the highest.
But sense of smell is something special; it can draw you back in time even more than a song or an old photograph, particularly because it arrives to meet you so randomly, in the most unusual of places. It can dredge up feelings long since packed away. It sometimes makes me wish I was anosmic. When I first started my teaching job in Indonesia I entered one of my classrooms one day and was hit by a wave of nostalgia. Suddenly the year was 2012 and I was back in Portugal with my husband on the veranda of the little apartment we’d rented. It overlooked the other whitewashed homes and the Mediterranean Sea. We’d sit out there drinking Sagres beer and smoking cigarettes after days exploring the hills and beaches and surrounding towns, back when we were still together and had just started travelling. The place we stayed in was made of stone and painted white to keep it cool during the hot summer months. Its blue tiled floor was cold underfoot as we padded around barefoot at night. The whole place smelled like fresh squeezed oranges, which were in abundance at that time of year. They fell from the surrounding trees and lay squashed on the road, or sat soft and overripe beneath the trees. At night we plugged in the heater to cut the chill, which made the place smell of heated blankets and pillows, sort of like a hairdryer smells after a long use. But the smell of the cleaner that had been used before we arrived is what I remember the most. It had a fake citrus scent. Oranges and lemons and perhaps pineapple with the sharp scent of a cleaning agent. It wasn't a bad scent, not entirely natural but it gave the feeling that the place was properly clean, like under the sofa and bed, behind the massive buffet, inside the closets, and you can lick the toilet kind of clean. It was a smell that made me trust using the kitchen cutlery without having to either inspect or wash it first. And then one Tuesday morning, nearly three years later, I walked into my kindergarten classroom in Indonesia and there it was. Seems that same cleaner was used on the other side of the world and appeared at precisely my most vulnerable time. At once, the past three years of my life and the decisions I’d since made flashed before me and momentarily threw me off kilter. I sat and waited for my students to assemble themselves and tried to not breathe through my nose so as to avoid experiencing any emotional repercussions over events I could not undo. Such is the power of scent.
That scent of clean however does not accurately represent Asia. Now that I’ve visited six countries in South East Asia, I will say that Thailand wins for its unique blend of scents. Walking down a soi (small street) in Bangkok will have your mouth watering from smells of barbecued chicken and sautéed garlic and fresh cut fruit right to that precursory watering that happens just before you vomit for the smell of the road juice that collects below the seafood stalls in the 43 degree heat index and smacks you in the face when you least suspect.
In urban Indonesia is a rampant smell of petrol, clove cigarettes, and toilet. Some people I knew whilst living there also referred to the toilet smell as drain. What does toilet/drain smell like? Not unlike urine but a bit more like the slimy, black gunk that most people have had the morbid pleasure of extracting from their clogged shower drains when their leftover shower water reaches intolerable depths. It is similar to that smell but also marinated in urine and excrement, and it surrounds many an Indonesian bathroom.
The roads in Indonesia offer something different, of a more toxic variety. Many times on my motorbike I have been stuck behind a rickety old truck that chokes out clouds of black exhaust as it rumbles down the road. I feel it coat my face and cling to my clothing and sure enough I am wiping it from my bare skin later in the day. And then there are the local cigarettes I stupidly smoked once upon a time (sorry smokers) at the height of my insecurity when I first lived in Indonesia. Their filter tips are syrupy sweet I discovered as I licked my lips after a drag, and they crackle as they burn. Their sweet scent of cloves produced an image in my mind’s eye of a situation I haven’t actually been a part. Of old, wrinkled Asian men with missing teeth and macchiato coloured skin and sparse gray hair like an old broom, sitting next to a fire on a packed dirt floor. They squat Asia-style exposing their bony knees and sinewy legs. Perhaps I enjoyed the exoticness of the scent. Now when I smell clove cigarettes that image is replaced by a feeling of never wanting to go back, to a “thank-goodness-that-part-of-my-life-is-over” sensation, like shrugging off an old dirty shirt at the end of a long day. But Indonesia’s smells aren’t all bad. It’s home of saus kacang (peanut sauce), and the beautiful and fragrant frangipani flower. And in spite of all the fetid scents it is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been to.
I loved Laos for the smell of river and nature and fire, which at times can leave you feeling like a woman of the earth with matted hair and dirty fingernails, and whose menstrual cycles are in sync with the moon. That of course depends on how much time you spend outside but what else would you do in Laos?! Also are the smells of fresh cut shallots and mint and salty fish sauce for its local dish laap, and of rich, roasted coffee from the Bolaven Plateau that makes you want to spend your afternoons sipping it lazily from a hammock next to the Mekong. Now going back to fish sauce for a moment. It’s a disgusting concoction of fermented salt and anchovies left to ferment in wooden barrels, how could it not smell bad? But it’s a prime ingredient in and provides delicious flavour to many Asian dishes. Just don’t sniff it on its own.
I confidently say that Vietnam presents the worse smells I’ve ever encountered. Whilst Calcutta, India was no walk in the park, the overwhelming attacks on my vision trumped any smells that were most certainly present. As I walked the streets of Hanoi with my Catalan friend, weaving through the markets and street stalls she remarked, “Oh the flavours are very incredible, no?” A mistranslation that, reflexively, has me imagine what such incredible smells would taste like. They are so strong they could very well be flavours and you’ve got to be careful you don’t open your mouth and risk them attaching to your taste buds. The synergy of these smells is beyond any nasty anything I’ve experienced. If the buzz of energy from the people and the horns and the lights make me feel alive here in this Vietnam city, then the combined scents of life make me wonder for how much longer. In the middle of durian season you want to wear a gas mask. If you’ve not had the displeasure of smelling durian before then I will describe it. It smells like rotting cantaloupe (orange coloured melon). Cantaloupe already has a thick, sweet, syrupy scent, the kind of scent that is very pleasing for a short period of time but that can become vile as it begins to go off and damn well horrid when it’s bad. It’s the Little Miss Muffet of smells. I suppose this is the case for many tropical fruits that have a kind of creamy sweetness to them: custard apple, mango, banana, among others. You lock their leftovers in a vacuum sealed bag and send them straight to the trash instead of leaving them in the bin of your seventh floor apartment overnight. Durian is so bad that there are signs all over South East Asia, particularly Singapore, that do not permit it in public or enclosed spaces, for good reason. I’ll be happily walking down the street, enjoying the backdrop of mountains against the cityscape, the colourful lanterns hanging from the awnings of tiny shops, and feeling momentary relief from the thick breeze that wafts over me, like heavy silk. And then, that breeze packs the scent of durian so strongly it saturates the air. I can’t focus on anything in the midst of that smell. I can’t even stand around long enough to marvel at how some people put that smell in their mouths and chew it.
But durian is just one of the rotten scents here. The juice, dripping to form puddles on the road, from seafood that is expiring under the sun at the local market stalls, to dried buffalo jerky and salted fish, to raw animal carcasses, red and fatty, to overflowing bins of sour, sticky waste, falling out of stained plastic bags. To the strong, acrid smell of urine in the squat toilets, whose stalls are absent of a nearby bucket of water with which to flush, so you’re left with a cocktail of urine, from several different dehydrated people. No wonder it stinks. The combination is suffocating in the thickness of a damp 38 degrees. I scrub the smells from my skin at the end of the day but every new day they attack once again. Even with a head cold and diminished olfactory glands I try to weave my way around such smells when I am vigilant enough to see them in my path, a skill of the long-term traveller. Thankfully, incense is used widely in Vietnam. The sweet, smoky scent of sandalwood drifts from many shops and shacks and it is most certainly one of my favourite scents.
Why do I travel to these places that often smell so bad? I actually appreciate the obscene scents of Asia. There is nothing quite so indicative of the full-on life that happens in a place than by the smell it produces. There’s no apologising for assaults on any of the senses here, it’s just how people live. The same way that if I let my natural self emerge, free of soap and razors and toothpaste, I’d emit a similar scent of life.
Photo: At the side of the market in Sapa, Vietnam. Some images are indicative of how badly a thing may smell.
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