Those of us who have been visiting Bangkok for a few decades often reminisce about the good old days and the things we miss about the Big Mango. And bitch about the changes we are not thrilled with. Gone are many of the bars that used to thrill; a bit of naughtiness as opposed to today’s explicit shows is missed by many. Twilight’s 10 pm naked gogo boy dancing always packed the house and is an event that stirs memories in many of us, too. Favorite shops and restaurants, the nonstop deluge of smiling locals, cheaper prices . . . all gone, all pleasures of the past, all missed. Even as pleased as I am with the BTS, I miss the open air along Sukhumvit, now a dark area of shadows thanks to the elevated Skytrain line.
But then bitching about what is no longer there is one of the joys of repeat visits to any locale. It’s almost as satisfying as fondly recalling pleasant memories. At the same time, some changes are for the good. Some things are not missed. And one of those, for me, is the stench of Bangkok’s streets.
Don’t take that as a positive comment about the city’s current air quality. It still stinks. Just not as much. In days gone by, as soon as you deplaned at the old Don Muang airport, the bouquet of Bangkok hit you like festering roadkill on a hot summer day. Smack in the middle of a busy international airport, the air should have been heavy with the scent of jet fuel and diesel fumes tinged with a faint whiff of burnt rubber. But those smells could not compete with the overarching aroma of Bangkok. The smell of Thailand’s capital city was too powerful, too oppressive. Airport smells never stood a chance.
Eau de Bangkok was a memorable odor. Combining the very worse Asia has to offer, it attacked the senses, an onslaught bloody enough to make a grown man cry, or at least foul enough to make a grown man’s eyes water. There was no escaping the city’s divergent odors; the sweet perfume of plumeria, the heady scent of incense from the thousands of shrines and temples, the reek of the river and canals that form an important part of the city’s transportation system (as well as a major part of its sewer system), the aroma of street side cooking on every block, weird tropical fruit that smelled as if someone had died beneath its skin, and the fragrance typical of a bustling Asian City overflowing with humanity and its offal. The aroma of Bangkok was a physical presence. It lodged in your throat like a pig wallowing in yesterday’s slop.
Each morning in the shower was a personal one-on-one experience with the city’s essence; you’d hack up a large glob of the atmosphere you’d inhaled the previous day. And hoped it swirled down the drain instead of growing legs and climbing the walls to attack. Yes, thanks for the memories . . . that glob of mucus made a return trip daily, and for weeks after returning home. You may have left your heart in San Francisco but Bangkok hitched a ride home in your lungs. The only way to rid your olfactory senses of Bangkok’s pervasive scents was a quick trip to Hong Kong and a slow walk past any of the open-air meat stalls of Kowloon. Then, Bangkok never smelled as sweet.
Thanks to the hunk of aromas the city was known for, scented items were, and still are, available everywhere. Incense and candles to perfume the air; soaps, lotions, and colognes were readily available to make sure people didn’t think that stench was wafting off of you. A plethora of scented items and scents to wear were on display at every store and at every street market. Shops at the airport fill their counters with fragrant merchandise. Every upscale mall had small boutiques specializing in various brands of aromatherapy for your home, body, and soul. The city doesn’t smell as bad as it once did, but every trip I make, there are more new brands of scented merchandise to sniff. Everywhere you look, fragrances are for sale. Thais love smelly stuff. Even if their town doesn’t reek as badly as it once did.
Though Thais tend to bathe a dozen times a day, cologne has always been a de rigueur part of their after-bath regime. You’d think their collective consciousness would advise drenching oneself in a scent to ward off the surrounding smells of the town, but instead locals fail to make the mistake so many Westerners indulge in. A spritz or two does the job, a light application to delicately tickle the noise is the norm. Thais know you do not use cologne to mask smells, you use it to add to your aura. Too many Western visitors think the bottle of cologne they just bought is a valid substitution for a shower. Please, take a hint. The gallon of Channel you bathed in is an offensive smell and is worse than the aroma of meat ripening in Kowloon’s sun; a personal scent should be noticed when within its wearer’s personal space, not from down the street.
Some personal fragrances are more appropriate for hot climes, while others are better suited for colder areas. Perfumes with a note of citrus are lively, refreshening, and the right choice for Bangkok’s hot and humid weather. Even some masculine scents, like sandalwood, are a good choice; a tinge of the exotic that still leaves a clean and fresh smell. One of my favorite is lemongrass. It too speaks of the exotic, and couples a hint of citrus with its slightly tangy aroma. I’ve found a version in shampoo available at Watson’s that I stock up on every trip. It’s refreshing to use both as a shampoo and body wash. And it’s one of those scents that immediately elicits visions of Thailand in my mind. In a good way.
My friend Noom, like most Thais, loves smelly stuff. So we often hit specialty shops at the malls when out shopping for the day. Even when it is a place we’ve visited before, he carefully sniffs every single scent before deciding on one: the same cologne he always buys. He too used to prefer lemongrass fragrances. Then, one day at a shop in Central World, a clerk told us Thais do not like lemongrass for a personal scent because it smells like food to them; they cook too many dishes that use lemongrass as flavoring. Now he avoids that fragrance and always repeats the clerk’s opinion as gospel. I still like the scent, and buy it. Whether it causes him to sniff me or eat me makes no difference in my book.
One of my favorite stalls at Chatuchak is an aromatherapy place. They’ve dressed it up like a London apothecary, and all the clerks wear white aprons. It’s really far too upscale for the Weekend Market, both in ambiance and price. But it is air-conditioned and makes for a refreshing stop, a cool little oasis to dodge the oppressive heat and crowds, if only for a few minutes. Noom likes the place too. Not because it’s a good shop to cool down in, but because he knows he’ll get to pick out an item or two and his ‘loom’ will smell like a garden of earthy delights for the next few weeks.
Cutting through Gaysorn Plaza to get to the BTS on a recent trip, just before exiting the building onto the elevated walkway, I noticed a new restaurant had opened its doors. The walls and ceiling were festooned with beige colored leaves and vines, a forest of cardboard cut out greenery. It was an enticing decor, different enough I had to pop in for a closer look. There were no customers, but lots of staff, and they were happy that I’d come in even if it wasn’t for a meal. Perhaps they realized that they were never gonna get rich off the menu, because they also had a small area devoted to scented merchandise. Which, of course, drew me in after the initial cool decor did its job.
A knowledgeable clerk was on-hand. That he was a cute little gay boy made me more susceptible to listening to his spiel. That the brand they’d decided to carry was Thann, one of my favorites, didn’t hurt either. Thann offers a line of personal products, shampoos, washes, soaps, and various lotions and creams, in several different scents including a lemongrass based scent called Oriental Essence. It’s pretty good. They add a bit of lime that gives it a special zing. They also market under the Harnn brand and their line of Oriental Herbs fragrance, also a lemongrass based scent, is divine; earthy, refreshing, masculine, and redolent of the scents of a tropical garden. It’s even better than the Thann brand. More expensive, too. All the scents in both brands are well done, though I’m not a real fan of a few of them. And neither brand could be called cheap. A bottle of shampoo alone will run you about $12.
As a reward for the clerk’s help, friendly service, cuteness, and superior taste in preferring men, I’d decide to buy a few different concoctions of the lemongrass products. But he, possibly also thinking it smelled too much like food, was busy singing the praises of a new scent the company offered: Aromatic Woods, a heady masculine mix of tangerine, orange, and nutmeg. Nutmeg is an unusual fragrance choice to add to a personal scent. Same same as lemongrass; it’s food. But works surprisingly well.
Thai Air has bought the scent to offer in their goody bag as a small tube of hand cream for their international flight first class customers. Little gay boy thought that was the big selling point. But the scent spoke for itself. It is pure heaven. I bought some shampoo, some conditioner, and some hand cream. I passed on the scrub and moisturizer. Because I’m not that gay. And I got a candle for Noom, too. Also some massage oil, supposedly for Noom though I’d end up enjoy its application more than he. But the best product, which I loaded up on, was a shower cream made with rice bran oil. It’s a creamy white lotion that lathers up in the shower and leave your skin feeling silky smooth and wonderfully scented. Come to think about it, maybe I am that gay.
Aromatic Wood is now my go-to scent whenever I visit Bangkok. The town doesn’t smell as bad as it once did. And I smell pretty damn good now, too. There’s a lot about the Bangkok of fifteen years ago that I miss. Ten years from now, there will undoubtedly be many things about the Bangkok of today that I miss too. But those memories won’t smell quite as bad.
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