I was never a particularly big fan of the smell of incense. It’s always kind of reminded me of poorly ventilated dorm rooms and poorly “deoderized” people. I generally gravitate toward lighter scents like fresh linen or clean cotton.
When I first landed in Bangkok in January, I was overwhelmed by the smells. It has a uniquely “sweeter” smell than anywhere else I’ve been. Anyone who has visited Bangkok knows exactly what I am talking about… It’s impossible to describe, and even more impossible to forget. I’ve had many conversations about the distinct smell of Bangkok with other travelers after leaving, and the best description we came up with was a combination of rotting fruit (specifically Durian, a sickeningly sweet fruit whose scent just clings to the air and lingers forever), rancid cooking oil, decomposition, and that steamy every-big-city sewer smell.
When I arrived, incense just got lumped in with all of the other smells that bombarded me. But as I traveled deeper into Asia, and away from the big city smells, incense took on a familiar and peaceful significance. Naturally, you expect to find it in the temples, but it wasn’t limited by the walls of holy places. You find incense everywhere. In Vietnam it’s in the lobby of every hotel, in altars up and down the sidewalks, and in the doorway of every tailor shop or store. In Indonesia, you could find it sticking out of tree trunks and propped up in bamboo altars on the hoods of cars. After taking motorbikes to the beach, I found that it made me feel like we were “close to home” when I started smelling incense again. After camping in bamboo huts in the-middle-of-nowhere Thailand, I smelled incense on the trek and felt like I was “almost home.”
I moved to the Upper West Side of NYC last weekend and as I was exploring my new neighborhood, I caught a whiff of incense. I was immediately whisked away, back to Asia, back to Bangkok, back to Hoi An, back to Bali. I followed my nose to a little Thai restaurant and felt this deep longing for street vendors hawking $1 pad thai and people bowing their greetings, thank yous and goodbyes. Incense has taken on such a secure and familiar significance to me now that for a moment I felt homesick… for Asia.
In 2013, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. After four months of backpacking I returned to the States and fell in love with a guy whose job sent us straight back to Asia. Nothing has gone according to plan... and it's been absolutely magical.