Fragrances of Asia


Leaving Cambodia behind us today it occurs to me that there’s a pervasive element of the last few weeks that I’ve failed to mention – the smells. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have been redolent in exotic fragrances, and sometimes just plain smelly.

The underlying smell throughout has been woodsmoke. There is always something burning whether it is cook fires or just little piles of rubbish at the side of the road. Sometimes it was cloying and overwhelming, other times it was just an ever-present background.

Then there was the smell of things rotting. Sometimes it was from the muddy fields, or the mangrove swamps. It is the smell of a hot, humid place; not something you seek out, but not really unpleasant either. Sometimes it was the smell of rotting food or garbage, strong and pungent enough to have you holding your breath to prevent it getting in.

Animals featured strongly. The sharp smell of ducks and chickens. The stronger stink from buffalo and cows, and that distinctive heavy smell pigs produce when kept in confined spaces.

Every now and again, especially when riding, we’d hit a clean, fresh smell of things growing. The sharp smell of lemongrass, the deeper green of other herbs, the tang of mint; or just the freshness of healthy vegetables.

And then there was the cooking, wafts of spices, drifts of cooking meat, breezes full of appetising hints of food.

As we kayaked yesterday there was the smell of fish. The locals make fish paste, partly by allowing the fish to ferment and then the smell is strong and distinctive.  And of course the rivers have their own distinctive aroma.

Over all of this, there was the smell of incense. Roadside shrines, street stalls, little drink shops they all have cans with sticks of incense. Sometimes they are there for religious reasons, often they are there simply to mask the other smells.

And now having arrived in Bangkok we’ve already identified a new smell… exhaust fumes.


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