The smells of travel: The good and bad smells we miss

The power of smell is a strange thing – you probably don't even associate it with travel. When you think of adventures you think of beautiful landscapes and amazing flavours and the warmth of sun on bare skin. You rarely even consider the things you smell.

This is such a subconscious sense, a pleasure you sometimes don't even realise you're taking. And yet it's a powerful driver of memory, perhaps the most powerful of all.

Think about it. You might not be able to name the fragrance an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend used to prefer, but if someone walks past wearing it now you know it immediately. You're transported straight back to that relationship (for better or worse).

It's the same with travel. You may not realise it, but there are some very distinctive scents out there that will take you straight back to the travel experience, to the world. If I could bottle and sell those unique aromas, this is what I, personally, would be peddling.

Coffee and exhaust, Vietnam

Yes, you can get coffee pretty much anywhere in the world, but coffee in Vietnam is unique. To begin with you have the coffee itself, drip-dripping from a mini percolator, pooling in the bottom of a glass that's layered with condensed milk. There is nothing in the world that smells like that. Instantly recognisable. Delicious. But then for the full Vietnamese experience you have to add the exhaust fumes from a million mopeds, because you're invariably drinking this coffee on a street somewhere, maybe in a city, maybe by a highway, but there are always the bikes, and there is always the good coffee.

Mediterranean salt, Italy

This is going to sound a little fanciful and I admit, it probably is. But I'm convinced that the Mediterranean smells different. Different to an ocean or any other sea. Particularly in Italy. It has a salty scent all of its own that you get to breathe in by the delicious lungful as you're lying on a beach in Sicily or sitting at a seaside restaurant in Amalfi, taking a ferry out to Ischia or riding a scooter along the coast of Sardinia. The beauty of this scent is affected, of course, by the joy you take in all of those other activities – but where's the harm in that?

Charring meat, Asia and the Middle East

Breathe in deep, and you know you're in for a good time. If you're in Muscat or Marrakech, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, and you smell charring, singeing meat, then get your wallet out and prepare to be sated, because somewhere close by someone will have a charcoal grill set up on the street, ready to cook you something good. It might be shish kebabs, it might be whole fish, it could be small, marinated satays. Whatever it is, when you catch that cloud of smoke, you follow it to its source.

Alpine forests, Canada

Beautiful Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Canada. Photographed at sunrise. satoct5cover
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TRAVELLER greenlands story by louise southerden
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Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Canada. Photo: iStock

You can't help by feel a glow of good health when you catch a whiff of a forest in British Columbia or Alberta. It doesn't matter that you've been eating nothing but pancakes and poutine and Tim Horton's doughnuts for the last however long it is: once you're out in the Rocky Mountains, breathing in that clean alpine air, enjoying the fine scent of pine and fir trees and cedar as you hike along a trail, you are wellness personified. Instantly cleansed. And there's nowhere else in the world you would rather be.

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"The Stank", south-east Asia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia- September 4, 2018: Very busy and crowded local market street on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. smells of travel tra28-online-smells

The unique smell of south-east Asia represents the joy of travel in this part of the world. Photo: iStock

I realise this probably sounds disrespectful, and for that I apologise. I just can't think of another way to describe the smell you pick up in certain parts of south-east Asia, the pungent and not exactly pleasant mix of street scents exacerbated by heat and humidity. If you know, you know. Of course the smell itself isn't nice, but what it represents is: the adventure, the joy, the beauty of travel through this part of the world. And it's instantly recognisable.

Wood smoke, anywhere with snow

I grew up in a warm climate, where no one had any business making a fire even in the depths of winter, so for me there has always been something hugely romantic and enticing about the smell of wood smoke on a cold, cold evening. Especially if there's snow on the ground. Especially if you're trudging around a village in Switzerland, or somewhere in Scandinavia, or even in Canada or the US. That smell of smoke, drifting from chimneys, from houses and pubs and restaurants, cosy places where everyone is huddled around the hearth, is the stuff dreams are made of.

Nescafe and dust, Southern Africa

Here's my second entry for coffee, and this time it's the humble Nescafe Blend 43. This is the stuff you drink when you wake up before dawn on safari. You pull on your warm clothes and wander bleary-eyed to the campfire and get the water boiling. You tip in some cheap instant coffee and a whole lot of sugar and make yourself a brew. You warm your hands on the tin mug and breath in: the coffee, the biscuity rusk in your hand, the wood smoke, the vegetation, the dust that still hangs in the air after being kicked up by a million hoofs. It's unique and wonderful and you would give anything to smell it again.

Tropical storm, Pacific Islands

Mexico iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. smells of travel tra28-online-smells

Photo: iStock

You know the scent of petrichor, even if you don't know what that word means. It's the smell of rain, the earthy scent that's made up of ozone, plant oils, falling water and so much more. You know the delicious beauty of it. But you can take that scent and multiply it by 100 when you're talking about a tropical storm on a Pacific island, when you watch as the huge thunderheads roll in, as the lightning flashes and the thunder claps and the sky just opens up in a flood of heavy, warm droplets. The scent is beautiful and natural and clean and it makes you feel alive. Give me some of that.

What are your favourite aromas from around the world? What are the scents that instantly transport you? Are there any you hope never to smell again?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Twenty things you never thought you'd miss about travelling

See also: Ten places with distinct 'smells' you should visit

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