The scented water that gives Songkran its unique fragrance
Songkran is famous for water splashing, but did you know the Thai New Year also carries a special fragrance? No Songkran celebration is complete without the scented water known as "Nam Ob Thai”.
The perfumed water will be much in demand this week as people seek a respite from the heat of April.
Scented water is considered a traditional Thai perfume. The scent can be mixed with water because it is alcohol-free, unlike western perfumes. Nam Ob Thai is made from pure water and is also affordable.
"We turn pure water into a fragrance. We bless people by pouring fragrant water mixed with pure water over them. The water is refreshing as well as fragrant," said Thiwaporn Sektrakul, a former lawyer who has become a Thai traditional fragrance expert and has founded "Deva Phirom”, her own Thai traditional perfume brand.
She learned the ancient "Nam Ob Thai" recipes while studying under royal patronage.
Jasmine, Mon Rose, Champaka, and Ylang Ylang are the most common flowers used in scented water.
Thai flowers are harvested at precise times of the day in order to obtain the greatest scent from each species of flower. For instance, the “Saiyud” flower loses its fragrance after 10 am. To tap its smell, it must be picked before 10 am.
The aroma of Thai flowers coupled with smoke from the scented candle is the water's signature scent.
Aside from fragrant water, "Nam Ob Thai" also contains a powder component that acts as a scent carrier. It is a byproduct of the sea salt production process and has properties that help heal acne and skin blemishes.
A royal history
Thiwaporn explained that there is no firm evidence about the origins of scented water.
"According to my research, perfumes such as incense, sandalwood oil, scented oil, and skin conditioner were first brought to Thailand by Brahmins in the Sukhothai era," said Thiwaporn.
Records mention that Queen Nang Noppamart or Si Sudachan Devi used scented water as her cosmetic during the Sukhothai era. Scented water is thought to have been used since then.
Until the Rattanakosin era, King Rama II (Buddha Loetla Nabhalai) enjoyed using fragrant water on his face and body. "Nam Ob Thai" was once thought to be a cosmetic for Thais.
Perfume was particularly popular among the royal family throughout the reign of King Rama V (Chulalongkorn).
In the palace, there were competitions among royal households to develop a special perfume recipe for the king. Each royal residence had its own secret recipe with a distinct fragrance.
To this day, ladies of the court are famous for being wonderfully scented from head to toe.
People used to say, "Hom tid kradarn”, which referred to the wonderful smell of the ladies of the court and how the smell lingered when they sat anywhere, even after they had left the place.
There was a royal residence in the palace that belonged to Princess Puangsoi Sa-ang, King Rama V's younger sister. This place was well-known for creating the finest Thai traditional perfumery.
The princess was in charge of creating exquisite Thai perfumes for the king.
When King Rama V was in Europe on a business trip, the pleasant aroma of the princess' fragrance reminded him of his hometown, Siam, as described in the King's poetry (Klaibaan).
From birth to death
Thiwaporn stated that the perfumed water contains borneo camphor, which provides cooling and is refreshing. It's not just for the beautiful smell; it's also a treatment.
Scented water works similar to cologne, but it has an additional cooling effect on the body. It is a part of the daily life of Thai people from the time they are born.
"When the infant is one month old, we bathe the child in perfumed water to commemorate the birth and wish the newborn good luck in life.
"When Thai people marry, we pour perfumed water on the bride and groom's hands to bless them for eternal love.
"When there is a death, again fragrant water is poured on the hand of the dead body to bless the spirit and ensure peace in the afterlife," said Thiwaporn.
Unlike in the past, when we could use perfumed water on a daily basis, it is now used exclusively during Songkran festival and other special events.
After King Rama V came to power, there was a tilt towards western clothing and hairstyles, and slowly western perfume replaced Thai-scented water.