Bangkok is a strange and wonderful city. There is so much here to see and do and experience. And smell.
Firstly, one of Bangkok’s most frequented spots is the Chao Phraya river. The Chao Phraya flows through the centre of Bangkok and has been hugely important to trade in Thailand. It has been an important transport route for decades as there are many canals that stem from the river, most of which are frequented by river boat taxis. However, the thing about this river that stands out to me, is the everpresent smell of fish. Despite recent pollution, this river is home to many species of fish and therefore provides an income for many locals; seafood. By any river in Thailand you will find a seafood restaurant, be it on the street or inside. It is easy to become enticed by the aroma of the freshly cooked fish.
Speaking more broadly, wherever you are in Bangkok there is no doubt you will be close to a huge variety of street food. In order to avoid the stifling heat, many street food vendors come out in the evening (though a large number of stalls do uncompromisingly come out in the morning and stay well into the night) and walking down a crowded street full of street food vendors after the sun has gone down is one of my favourite things to do in Bangkok. Walking down one street you can smell fried chicken, fried squid, fried fish, seafood pad Thai (sweet noodles), meat kebabs, fried rice, spicy soups, mango sticky rice, exotic fruits and innumerable other delicious foods.
Which leads me onto the smelliest of all the street foods, Thailand’s infamous durian. If you are unfamiliar with durian, it is a fruit available in many Asian countries, but has become a symbol of Thailand and Thai culture. It is a large fruit with spikes like a pineapple. To be eaten, it has to be chopped open, and the insides scooped out. Durian can be found on most streets, especially when it is in season, and you know durian is being sold on a street before you even step onto that street. If you have ever once smelt a durian you’ll remember it. In many hotels, shopping centres and taxis are signs specifically banning durian from being eaten. Do you know of any other fruits that aren’t allowed in hotels purely because of how smelly they are? I didn’t think so. The smell to me, though everyone has a different theory, is that of onion, wine, and gone-off custard.
A similarly bed smell that is seemingly unavoidable in the city is, unfortunately, that of sewage and rubbish. This nasty odour is particularly prevalent in the rainy season though it is certainly not exclusive to this time of year. One minute you can be enjoying the sweet smell of mango sticky rice, and the wind changes and you’re left with something rather pungent. The streets of Bangkok, despite the continuous and uncompromising presence of street food, rarely have bins. Instead, rubbish gets left on the side of the streets, and is taken away at night. It is not uncommon to see rats and cockroaches rummaging through, looking for their dinner. The city could smell so much better if only there were more bins around. With lids!
Finally, one of my favourite aromas I’ve come to associate with Bangkok, and Thailand more broadly speaking, is incense. Buddhism is the major religion here in Thailand, and incense is often used at ceremonies and during prayers. Walking down many streets you could stumble upon a shrine, and often there’s the smell of incense burning or of it having recently been burned. In temples there are incense sticks available to burn (often requiring a small donation) during prayer, not dissimilar to candles in churches in western Christian culture.
So there you have it. My thoughts on the smells of Bangkok. Though some of the smells I mentioned are less than desirable (to say the least), the huge variety and persistence of the smells of Bangkok are an integral part of the complex make up this strange and wonderful city.