Scent Adventure: Bangkok and the Scent of Oud
For Australians, Thailand is a popular holiday destination boasting great food and beachside resorts. This trip wasn’t a holiday, I was in Bangkok for work meetings but I was fortunate enough to have a day set aside to explore the city before taking a flight home to Sydney. If you haven’t been before, there is a difference between Bangkok city and the island resorts splashed across the pages of travel agency brochures. Far from the tranquil beauty of these tropical vacations, Bangkok is a bustling paradox of congested traffic, modern glass towers and unkept cement buildings that show their age – no white sand or a palm tree in sight. My day began with an exploration of the shopping district around the city’s central Siam Station. Siam Paragon is one of a handful of western-style shopping malls that contain a variety of international brands. Hermes and Chanel both offer their exclusive line of fragrances in their Paragon boutiques and Paragon department store has a cosmetics floor dedicated to the expected names in perfume. At the entrance of the mall Shiseido was celebrating 40 years in Bangkok with a large display of their rose scented Eudemine Essence, a limited edition product coincidentally celebrating the 140-year anniversary of the brand. The product stand was surrounded by a stage of models that looked more like a Nicki Minaj fan gathering than a 140-year old Japanese beauty brand event. I walked away feeling humoured, but I could not quite make out the meaning of it all. This became a bit of a theme for the day.
Walking under Bangkok’s Skyrail I found Central World Plaza. Japanese department store Isetan is located here. They too have a perfume section, almost identical to Paragon with the addition of Creed and minus Jo Malone. On the corner of Ratchadamri and Ploenchit Road is Gaysorn, another of Bangkok’s luxury shopping complexes. At Prada I sampled the latest adaptation of Prada’s irises- Infusion d’Iris Absolue. It is a warmer, cuddlier iris that has reduced soapy notes, something I loved so much in the original. Hidden away, a few levels above Prada are Florentine apothecary, Santa Maria Novella. The store staff are friendly and we discussed their limited edition fragrance Ottone. The displayed bottle is the last one available for sale in Thailand. The prices of their popular colognes are just over 6000 Thai Bhat.
Outside Gaysorn I could smell burning incense. I followed my nose and crossed the road to one of Bangkok’s famous four-faced Buddhas. The altar was filled with incense and flower offerings. A local friend explained that believers would travel from around the world to visit these Buddhas. If the Buddha answers their prayer, they must return to the same Buddha or face the karmic reaction of bad luck if they do not return to show their thanks. In this way, some Buddhas gain cult followers as stories spread of their generosity in granting visitor’s wishes. This particular Buddha that resides at the Erawan Shrine features the four faces of Bramha. It was built at the advice of a famous astrologer to cancel bad energies that were said to be causing issues and delays to the construction of the Erawan hotel. Locals have many stories of this Buddha’s mythical powers.
The previous evening I had dinner in Bangkok’s Chinatown. The streets were filled with food in all varieties. Different meats, seafood and the smell of coal-fired grills are the defining smell of this area.
After dinner I visited a durian fruit seller who is famous in Bangkok for her ability to know the perfect time to open each fruit. By tapping her stock with a wooden stick she selects the perfect fruit to open in front of you. The durian is popular for its flavour but less so for its sulphurous scent. Some areas of the city have banned the offending fruit because of its rotten fecal odour. I smelled a few of the opened fruit and agreed it is not the most pleasant of smells. Instead I opted for fresh mango in coconut milk.
By the following afternoon I knew that if I were going to find an interesting perfume story in Bangkok, I would need to leave the main shopping district in search of something local. With the increasing number of oud perfumes being launched in the past two years I had seen many of these brands using oud oil sourced from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I was curious to see if I could find a source of pure oud oil in Bangkok. Research led me to the city’s Arab quarter, three stops past Siam BTS Station on the Bearing train line.
Here I felt as though I had taken one foot out of Asia and stepped into the Middle East. Young men lazed in street side cafes smoking shisha and older men gathered on sidewalks to discuss current affairs. Many women were navigating the busy streets in traditional burkha and their powerful perfume sillages of precious woods, saffron and roses, were a pleasant distraction as I followed my hand drawn map through the streets. I knew I was heading in the right direction when I began to see street vendors laying out bags of agarwood chips for sale. I walked into a side street bazaar and knew for sure I had found what I was looking for. The street was lined with sellers dealing in perfume oils and agarwood. The stores were lowly light, making my task of getting a decent photograph a challenge. The other challenge was the far from amiable storeowners who were less than welcoming. After two failed attempts to hold a conversation with the store staff I entered another store with customers to observe and understand the culture of buying this type of perfume. Thankfully the staff was hospitable and she explained the oils and how they are sold. Oud oil is measured and sold in tolas, a Vedic unit of measurement. Each vendor has his or her own supplier and grades of quality. She explained to me they offer top grade oil for around 6000 Thai Bhat per tola and they have lower grades that go for around TBH 2300. The owner encouraged me to try everything and because the perfumes are based in oil, they need to be worn on skin not paper. After her enthusiastic offer I ran out of skin to sample her wares. One oud was from Cambodia and the other was from Malaysia. Each had different characteristics that began to make themselves known half an hour after applying them to my skin. As I thought about my expectations of oud oil and what I was smelling, I was surprised by the spicy nature of the scent. It is much more reminiscent of perfumes such as Yves Saint Laurent’s M7 and Ormonde Jayne’s Ormonde Man than the ouds I have smelled at Montale or Creed, which feel less rustic. The perfume names are foreign to me and I notice the word Mukhallat in many of the titles. I later learn these are mixes of oud blended with other fragrant oils. Most of these stores blend oils that mimic famous European compositions. I guess one argument for plagiarism is European perfume houses only offer alcohol based perfumes and these are forbidden in Muslim culture. The store staff is proud to show me they have created an oil-based copy of Dior’s Fahrenheit.
For those that wish not to stray too far from the beaten path, I found a new boutique that was about to open inside the Bangkok Intercontinental Hotel. The boutique is due to open in July and specializes in bespoke and ready to buy oud perfumes. Whilst the Arabian perfume street has more of a market feel, I am suspecting the product and pricing of this new boutique will be premium.
After my oud adventure I decided to head to Chatuchak market for lunch. Taking the Skytrain to Mochit station I could smell the waft of oud and I think the rest of the train were joining me on my scent adventure. The intensity of oud oil builds with time so I also recommend wearing the oil for at least 30 minutes before committing to a purchase. Of the ouds I sampled the Cambodian oil was my favourite. At Chatuchak market I was again surrounded by the smells of food, burning coal and the scent of the street. The market is a labyrinth of shopping; everything from clothing to pottery and even animals can be bought here.
I decided to try my luck and walk the maze to see if I could find perfume. A stall was selling decants of popular fragrances and I also discovered a local Thai range of perfumed products called Anya Dharu. The range had an Asian inspired theme and included perfume sachets, incense and body products. The small boutique was a quiet oasis away from the busy market corridors.
By now my day had come to an end and it was time make my way to the airport. I wanted to browse the duty free stores at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport however an incident involving me dropping a tester bottle of Prada Homme in one of the stores, forced me to take refuge in the business lounge to hide from a very upset sales woman….oops!