After a late night flight into Siem Reap Cambodia, I could not wait for a fresh, full cup of coffee with my morning breakfast to prep me for a day of photography at the temples. Bleary-eyed, I stumbled with fatigue to a small restaurant along a dusty dirt road that had a total of five tables (if that) desperate for my wake-up surge of caffeine.

I woke up alright…but just not in the way I envisioned. When the coffee was delivered to my table I smelled a pungent waft of unpleasantness. I thought maybe they had seated me next to the restroom…but I was sitting outside with nothing but plants and the cooks nearby.

Perplexed, I took a closer sniff of my coffee and realized that I had never smelled something so terrible in my life. In fact, it didn’t smell like coffee at all. I could only think of the famous Weasel coffee that is known in Asia for its “processing” methods through the digestive system of weasels. Could this be some form of Weasel coffee? The only thing that could rival the smell and subsequent images in my head of what might be penetrating my sniffer was the taste. Let’s just say it tasted just like it smelled.

While this experience was an isolated incident during my time in SE Asia, it does conjure up an unpleasant, yet necessary discussion about travel. Sometimes it just stinks! I don’t mean stinks as in travel issues…I mean, many places you visit outside of your own country come with their own distinct smells.

If you’re lucky, your travels will always land you in French lavender fields. I however, have never been so fortunate. The olfactory footprint of a country tells as much about its culture or heritage as native craftsmanship and visual stimuli like architecture.

All countries have a distinct smell. That’s not necessarily good or bad–just something we don’t really consider. Perceptions about smells also differ from country to country. For instance, while Asians find the smell of dried fish pleasant…Westerners and Europeans find it pungent. Similarly, while Americans find the smell of cheese or garlic edible…it does not carry the same appeal in other countries.

So where do all of these “different” smells come from? It boils down to food, hygiene and environment.

  • Food. In many cases, it is ingredients in food which provide aroma while cooking. Food staples and diet also play a role in the scent of the people. For example, in India where curry is in many of the main dishes, the scent can be smelled coming from the pores of the people who live there. The same is true for Americans who travel overseas–believe it or not– we have an American smell that is distinctive to our diets.
  • Hygiene. Every country has different standards for acceptable hygiene. Many third-world countries don’t have the luxury of worrying about acceptable standards as the people are just trying to survive. I watched a man in Vietnam who lived in a small shack along the Mekong jump into the filthy water and brush his teeth. In some countries deodorant and /or perfumes are not used. In other countries, perfume is used to mask body odor. Every county is different. And whether you think so or not–they can smell you too.
  • Environment. Cultural smell is also due to the environment. Countries that have a lot of rural landscape might smell like animals or mud. In Cambodia for instance, it was dusty and dirty..and the air always smelled musty. In Laos, however where it is plush with greenery and waterfalls, the air is naturally scented with lemon-grass and green tea.

Believe it or not–there are even some countries who define everything in their world by smell. The Ongee people on the Andaman Islands name every season after a particular smell depending on the “aroma force” that is present. Even their calendar is designed from the different odors of flowers that come into bloom at various times during the year.

In India, smelling one’s head is a traditional greeting and a sign of affection. In many Arab countries, breathing on someone while speaking is a sign of friendship. In Brazil and Senegal, a person’s smell assigns them a personal identity.

Who knew that such a stinky encounter during my desperate quest for a cup of coffee would unravel such an exploration into the culture of scent – and scent of culture. It tells us as much about a place as our other sensory cues. So on your next trip–don’t forget to sniff…you might learn something new about the place you’re visiting.