“There’s a smell,” the man seated next to me explains as we circle the airspace above Bangkok. “I can’t describe it … but … it’s this smell. It’s distinct. It’s Thailand.”
I smile at him, weary from traveling for 24 hours and not looking forward to an overnight at the airport.
“Ah,” I remark half-heartedly. “I’ve never been.”
“Well, you will know when you step off the plane, it’s unmistakeable.”
When we step off the plane a few minutes later, it’s hard to get a whiff of anything as we move slowly from the jetway into the massive airport. But, when I step outside, it hits miss.
It’s overpowering, really. A mix of diesel, incense, the lingering pungent smell of fires. And, it’s intoxicating in an odd way.
Standing there, as bright pink taxis drop their fares and line up to return to the city with a new explorer in tow, that smell gives way to excitement. An unmistakable feeling that anything can happen.
Of course, that first trip to Thailand changed my entire course of life. It introduced me to Lek Chailert and Save Elephant Foundation, and it opened my eyes to the realities of elephant tourism. That first deep breath of Thailand air filled me … and never left.
Even after being gone for 10 months, I know the smell. There are times I long for that familiar scent. It’s comforting. It’s muggy nights listening to geckos, sitting outside with friends into the wee hours of the morning swapping life stories. It’s watching the elephants roam freely at Elephant Nature Park. It’s love. It’s grief. It’s life.It’s home. All in one breath.
Since I left Thailand, I’ve struggled. I’ve struggled with starting over, not once, but twice. I’ve struggled with visas. With adjusting to new customs far different from the Thai customs I’d become used to. I’ve battled culture shock. I’ve questioned the path I’m on and the path I want for my future. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve grown. And yet, I’m still me. And, Thailand still holds this whimsical, romantic, jungle presence in my every moment.
In two days, I’m going back. It’s the longest I’ve been gone from a place I have called home … ever. This trip is a mix of business and pleasure, and I’m fine combining the two. Particularly since the business portion encompasses spending time with some of my closest friends in the world, and the pleasure part rounds that out even more.
There is such a joy bubbling in me, knowing I will soon be home. Knowing I will see my friends, walk familiar streets, create new memories as the person I am today. I cannot wait to step into the Thai night (because I arrive in the middle of the night), feel that humid air on my face and take a deep breath in, inhaling Thailand into my blood once again.
14 thoughts on “Thailand: That Old, Familiar Smell”
It is my dream to have feelings like this towards a place. I find this truly inspirational, and I am so excited for you that you get to travel back. I haven’t been to Thailand, but San Francisco has a smell that I rave about. I can imagine it in an instant! Safe travels to you!
It is really a blessing to have it, honestly. No matter where in the world you are. I love that Thailand has a special smell. And, it can’t be replicated. It’s a mix of so many things, and then sprinkled with my own memories which define me and the country. I’m glad you have that with SF!
Beautifully written. Isn’t it funny how smells can evoke such strong memories? The mere whiff of a perfume I wore years back can transport me straight back there – for better or for worse!
Thanks, I too know just what you mean! Welcome back!
Thank you! It’s wonderful to be here. Even if it is just for a few weeks!
I’ll add that’s also one of the noisiest places I’ve ever been to. I stood in a Thai Yai village one day, buying an alarm clock so that I could get up for the 4.00 a.m. two hour silent meditation session. Behind the alarm clocks, there were loudspeakers that would grace any metalhead concert.
“What’s the point of that?” I thought to myself, as I made my way to the cave Temple that was to be my home for the next nine days. The cave was bored into the bottom of a hundred-foot cliff – and the Temple was opposite a Lisu village. Bliss – I thought, until the first dawn, when several hundred cockerels had a stand off with the village dogs. Luckily I had ear plugs with me.
“You okay?” asked the Shan Nun as I stood staring at the cliff. This wailing noise was reverberating, sounding like a Nuclear War siren fighting it out with a bad-tempered ghost. “It’s a Friday, Lisu religious day. hey play music all day.”
“From the giant speakers they sell in the village?”
“Yes – and if you think that’s bad – you should hear it at New Year. One month of wailing like that,” my new friend replied, with a faintly distressed look. A whole month of sirens v ghosts, interrupted by the daily cockerels v dogs debate. A smile cracked from the Nun’s beautiful Burmese face.
“Good news, this year, I am going with the Head Monk on a mission into Burma. We are taking medicine and blankets to the poor in Shan State.” I was suitably impressed, and let my new friend know.
“Ah, the Head Monk was impressed when I suggested the idea. Don’t tell him I wanted to go in January to escape anther Lisu New Year.” Her eyes dropped, a confession too far perhaps?
“If I were here in January, I’d be coming with you. So I won’t tell him, it’s our secret,” I smiled. A moments recognition settled upon us, interrupted when the head cockerel decided that the head dog in the village was an idiot – and off they went again.
Of all the types of peace you’ll find in Thailand – escape from noise is not one of them.
I’ve just commented on one of your blog post a few minute ago. Since you have been to CM and you love winter here, I’ll leave another comment to tell you this year’s winter seems to come earlier than usual. The cold winter wind has been all around the north for 2-3 days.
May be, while reading this comment, you might already enjoy it here.
Glad that you’are back to be our guest again. 🙂
Oooh!! I can’t wait!! Thanks for letting me know!
I will never forget the first time I stepped outside of that airport in Bangkok either. That thick muggy air is intoxicating and I miss it like crazy any time I leave. See you next week! 🙂
YES!! I can’t wait to see you.
Oh Diana, how I share your passion and love for Thailand! I even have a few dresses that I won’t use, because they smell of Thai washing powder and I want to keep them that way forever ^-^ How long are you there for this time? I’ll be there in January and can’t wait!
Haha! I LOVE that smell! 🙂 I am back in Madrid already, but heading back in March, if all goes according to plan.