SHALIMAR in SHANGRI-LA

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Shangri-La, a fictional, mythological, Asian utopia set in the valleys of the ‘Kunlun’ hills, is the ultimate Orientalist fantasy. In its own, inimitable way, so is Guerlain’s Shalimar. And while the setting of the place, with its Buddhist lamasteries and slow-ageing people who have found a mystical peace may have originated in a novel entitled Lost Horizons from I933, Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage town in North-central Laos where we have been staying for the last three days (following an ill-fated stay in the capital Vientiane) makes the fiction, almost, a reality.

Widely considered the most perfectly preserved ancient city in South East Asia, Luang Prabang is a tranquil and beautiful place set in a valley at the meeting point of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers that flow slowly, but inexorably on; a backdrop to a city of glittering, gold wats, elegant French colonial architecture, and lush, tropical vegetation.

At dawn, monks from nearby villages congregate in the streets to collect alms – the food they will eat for the day- from the Buddhist pilgrims who gather from the city and the villages in the hills beyond to hand out the rice and other assorted foods that they then place into the proffered forth bowls of the orange-robed devotees (young; many playing computer games or checking their emails on their iPhones before they join the daily procession), twentieth century realities not distracting  from the dream-like vision, in the early morning rain, of a boat, coming slowly in through the pre-dawn mists, sidling up to the river bank in the dark; robe-clad monks stepping off, gently, with their bowls and umbrellas, and ascending the river bank steps to congregate on the steps of the exquisite Wat Xieng Thong temple.

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At dusk – this is the rainy season, and fresh, early-hour monsoons would lead to spectactular skies later on in the day – the clouds often formed  blue and white pagoda-like formations that played beautifully against the white-dragoned corner pieces of a temple roof; frangipani trees – the flowers everywhere – satin-white; pink and yellow; or dark cerise red – scenting the rain-freshed the air as the flowers fell scattered, and new blooms readied to open.

When night falls in the town and the night market opens, the sound of the frogs and the insects down by the Mekong intensify greatly and the man-made structures, be they French or Laotian, contract; draw in on themselves- the mountains and the ‘out – thereness’ of the surrounding hillsides, deep waters, and forests at this time becoming more vivid.

Rich. Dark.

A dense, nocturnal thickness of velvet.

*

*

Taking the light purple box from my suitcase with its felt and fanned identation, I take Shalimar, lift up the stopper, and apply the perfume to myself in droves.  I can sense immediately that it is going to work. And unlike the other perfumes I have worn this holiday – good ones, naturally, which have been acceptable but not quite right – Shalimar at this moment smells like total perfection.

It fits me like a glove.

*

Perhaps it is the air. Giving the scent the expansiveness that she requires:clear, fresh, but heavy in the environs of mountains, the skeins of papaya leaves and their yellow, orchid or hyacinth-like flowers, breathing; gardenias, orchids, roses and jasmine sambac, or perhaps it is the space: Luang Prabang is a city that achieves a beautiful synergy with the natural vegetation surrounding it – feeling as though the buildings, either the exquisitely built temples, or the nineteenth and early twentieth century French colonial town houses that match them perfectly, breathe.

Unwelcome invaders they may have been, the ‘protectorate’ yet another example of wrongful, European arrogance, just one more notch in the long lists of our shameful conquests and misguided exploitations, but one thing the French certainly did do right was to make sure that the place they would be administering would look beautiful and harmonious in a perfect aesthetic fusion of French and Laotienne.

What a brilliantly kept secret this place is (I had never even heard of it until I came here). It is the Kyoto of Laos, its Florence, the streets reminding me more though, almost, of Cambridge: King’s Parade, and King’s College, grand but diminutive, except rather than England and its medieval colleges and green-kept gardens, this is Laos, with its delicately beautiful architecture, its quiet yet artful understatedness : the people here perhaps the calmest, the mellowest, I have ever met.

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In this context, Shalimar shines quite beautifully like a jewel, while also blending in artlessly with the night that envelops it. I was almost unable to quite smell it at first, actually,  its French, liquid gold and the crepuscular air intermingling like Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. Perhaps I am overstating these Far East gallicisms, but then the influence of France does seem in fact to pervade the entire city – its Laotian heart notwithstanding – from the signs in Lao and French that decorate all the state and municipal buildings, to the patisseries and cafés you find everywhere serving French cakes, baguettes and steaming café au lait.

*

The ‘oriental’ has perhaps been overdone in recent perfumery, from the warm and resinous oudhs, spice-laden ambers and hot, dripping florals you can’t escape from nowadays as niche perfume houses try to desperately outdo each other with their incensed, deep-laden cargoes, whetting the appetites cleverly with their ever more exotic sounding ingredients. Some of them are just too harsh for me, too strong. Yet Shalimar was always the original odalisque, the true precursor of all this – lilting,ingenious-  and in my view, in truth, it has never really been bettered.

The genius of the perfume, Jacques Guerlain’s most resounding commercial success, was to enfathom a velvety, rich vanillic accord – skin clinging, suggestive-  in a balsamic envelope of tolu, opoponax, and benzoin, a classic ‘oriental’ base then harmonized and refined with a cooler, earth-toned, counterpoint of patchouli and vetiver. Beneath, in the base, lie purring hidden depths of leather, ambergris, incense and civet, the concealed animalic resonances that have led to the perfume’s harlot reputation.

Yet Jacques Guerlain also knew how to keep these heavy-lidded ingredients in check, to preserve their essential elegance, and in Shalimar, romance, and a slice of temperance, is also provided with a powdery floral accord of rose, jasmine,and most importantly iris, fluted up top with a fresh and almost stinging, gourmet prelude of sharp citrus oils of bergamot and lemon.

Although the current version may lack the sheer lickable, delectability of the older parfum extraits (I once had a bottle picked up at a flea market that was almost indecent in the levels of both its beauty and its frank sensuality – so smooth, so made for skin and sex and deep, carnal obsession I am constantly yearning in vain to come across another), the editions available now do still capture the basic Shalimar essence ( I find the bergamot/castoreum combination in the contemporary eau de parfum a little jarring, but find the eau de toilette is still quite eminently sprayable: the end stages always as gorgeous as I remember them).

This perfume, like any well known scent, most certainly does have its detractors.Shalimar does not work on everyone. Many people can never quite get over the ‘soiled baby powder’ aspect of the perfume, its almost tediously decadent exhalations – too sweet, too cloying, too obvious – but for me personally this essential perfume is an absolute classic of perfumery I rarely tire of: a halo; a soft and sweet delicious aura that blurs the edges of harsh reality .

*

*

We are now leaving Luang Prabang, flying high over clouds and about to land shortly again in the capital Vientiane, and I can already sense that our stay in that delightfully hill-cradled place will soon begin to feel like a dream. We spent three delightful days just ambling or cycling round the outskirts, circling the centre, veering off down side streets and alleyways; stopping off whenever we felt like it in temples; roadside eateries; cafés.It was calming and replenishing, just soaking up the city’s positive energy,relaxing; energizing and good for the spirit.

*

The thing I will remember the most about Luang Prabang though is the magnificent Mekong river.

It draws you in, slows you down, commands and drowses the senses. We spent an afternoon yesterday just watching the waters go by, magnificent in their scale and depth, as the sunlight changed on the river’s surfaces, gradually, from milk chocolate brown and pewter; to blinding, illustrious gold.

We just sat there. Lost in thought.

Looking, watching the waters go by aimlessly until the sun passed behind the clouds, shadows fell on the water, and the evening slowly turned to twilight.

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41 Comments

Filed under 'Orientals'

41 responses to “SHALIMAR in SHANGRI-LA

  1. I am an ‘Oriental’ woman but I do not like Shalimar scent at all.. I love Roses, Jasmin, Plumeria and love Gardenia.. 🙂

    • It is the ultimate irony. Japan is also an’oriental’ country but you would never smell a woman there wearing Shalimar.

      Talking of plumeria, my god the flowers in Laos smell absolutely divine. The best I have ever smelled.Not just that typically creamy Hawaii smell, but fresher,deeper, with depth of blue sky. I would LOVE to find a scent that smelled just like that.

  2. What beautiful photos! Thank you for sharing. I used to wear Shalimar years ago, and I can still recall the scent of it although I haven’t smelled it for a long time. Perhaps I should revisit it.

  3. Glorious piece, glorious photos, and of course a glorious fragrance. I am so pleased that you both had such a smashing time, it sounds perfectly heavenly. I love how Shalimar made her appearance and melded right in with the surroundings. It was the perfect fragrance choice for the local!
    It is one of my top scents ever and by far my favorite comfort scent. Not to mention that it is my favorite Oriental scents ever; no oud, or syrupy glob for me, Shalimar is just perfection.
    Keep the photos and recounting of your journey coming..

  4. Holly

    I always thought I would like to visit this part of the world, but I’m thinking differently after following your series here. While the appeal of the sites and sounds etc remains, I ‘m realizing that the politics continue to remain a source of phenomenal strength for many people in the region and that philosophy doesn’t jibe with mine. That’s not to say it’s wrong – I can’t say. Part of the joy of traveling is encountering differences. It’s interesting for me to realize that this particular culture has established a large part of its identity in its refusal to bow down to outside influences (or forces.) I admire that immensely, but I’m also wondering how does that jibe with those who travel there? Obviously there are many places we travel to that offer a tourist’s vacation experience, but I sense a distinct disquiet here. Did you find yourself at peace there at any time?
    Thank god that you and Duncan mustered through him passing out in the bathroom. That sounds truly terrifying.
    And Shalimar. I know you love it. I still don’t get it. The base notes leap to the fore on me and it’s very dense with no space.

    • There is no space, you are right. But sometimes that is kind of what I want. That filling in the gaps, that binding quality.

      As for the area we visited, I mean the last place I went to was the U.S – Miami and New Orleans, and I loved it, but I also loved Vietnam and Laos. Yes, there was a ‘curfew’ at midnight (which people buck anyway), but it felt utterly unrepressed. For that, you just need to go to Japan.

  5. Nelleke Oepkes aka Booknose

    I cruise and gaze down along The river om your words, images, dreams into perfume. Your Debussy music is based on one of my favourite Baudelaire poems, Harmonie d’un soir. Beautifully captured!

    • Merci Madame. It WAS a bit over the top I will admit, but I felt I had to try and describe the magic there. In truth it was a bit TOO perfect, to be honest. It needed some dirt in the mix (Vientiane had too much of that and not enough of the magic). It really is, in some ways, a kind of Shangri La, and I am delighted that we went there.

  6. Of course Shalimar was perfection. Jin has worn it a couple of times but it somehow wears wrong on him, maybe because it feels like such a perfect fit for me? Loving following your holiday too. Inspiring.
    Portia xx

    • Come on P, you can’t just bandy it about and make everyone wear it. My D would smell VILE in it, for instance. No. Only certain extravagant personages can pull Shalimar off convincingly. And it really did smell just perfect that evening, as if there was no separation between me and the night. x

      • Ha Ha Ha ha! Hilarious. I remember when it was the safe option for nice Mums.
        As to bandying it about, I think a bit more Shalimar bandying might make the world a better place.
        Ha ha ha. I was chuckling, now smiling broadly at my computer.
        Thanks,
        Portia xx

  7. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    Just humour me today I need to mind travel

  8. MrsDalloway

    Heaven! I have a vintage Shalimar EDC which is very good; not as luxuriously decadent as the parfum obviously. I was contemplating wearing it to work today then thought perhaps I’d better settle for Fleur Oriental. But having read this…

  9. Reminding us how important context is in appreciating a fragrance to the full extent. I would love to smell vintage Shalimar in Luang Prabang. Just sprayed some Shalimar EdT on, gazing now at the pictures (brilliant, by the way), imagining, getting immersed, half a world away from this cool Canadian rain forest . . . Mind travel for the black narcissi. Thank you.

    Glad I looked at your photos first and formed a favourable view of Laos, because I then got curious and looked at some YouTube vids from young travellers. Yech. Booze binges on inner tubes, dancing on outdoor bar tables in bikinis to American pop with the locals looking on, looking . . . inscrutable, actually, but just imagine. Another of a bunch of tourists watching Friends outside at a restaurant in the middle of the day, all clustered together at the only touristy-looking place in on the street, sprawled out in the heat, expensive backpacks littered around, languid and oblivious, bored and spoiled and possibly deeply hung-over. “We went to Laos, it was so awesome, man, great place to party cheap.”

    So gratifying to see that you and Duncan travel respectfully, looking for beauty and culture. I would have liked to travel in that part of the world. I would also have liked to travel in Thailand, when it was unspoiled. I’ve tended to feel tourist guilt when I’ve gone to poorer countries. I remember as a 22-year-old travelling to the Solomon Islands to visit my dad who worked there as a scientist. In Nadi, Fiji on a stopover, my brother and I were hanging around the pool at the hotel, the only guests there (those were the days), talking to the man with the big net carefully clearing off the two or three fallen leaves from the surface, drinking fancy tropical cocktails that I knew cost as much as he made in a week. It felt awkward, embarrassing, not-right, indolent, undeserving, crummy to me somehow.

    • We think exactly alike.

      We had a phenomenal stay on a Javan vanilla plantation a few years ago ( all documented on here somewhere, and although it was by far the most exciting and fulfilling, and fragrant , travel experience of my life, all those issues do make you feel extremely uncomfortable ( HAAAAAAATE the whole backpacking thing to the core ) – yes sir, no sir, having your bags carried as though you were some colonial master..

      Actually staying with a family though and paying to do a course on how to grow vanilla beans ( and standing there in the curing room and smelling them ) was BEYOND EXHILARATING.

      When we came back we could hardly speak for two weeks because we were still in the dream.

      • I remember reading about your stay on Java; I think it was one of the first entries of yours I ever read, maybe even the very first. I was hooked!

        I am so glad you understood what I meant about the backpacking scene. I didn’t want to come across as some cranky old biddy. There is a way to travel humbly, sensitively and appreciatively, and I have no doubt that you and Duncan do. I also love that you don’t go all indiscriminately reverential about every last thing you experience. That salad (from Tropical Malady) would’ve been revolting, and that was pretty shitty about the driver who buggered off mid-tour with a whole trip’s worth of cash. I liked that you were generous after the fact about the inadvertently humungous tip. All in all very nice, you sweet young men, you.

      • I also love how you share your experiences being in foul temper with one another. Traveling has a way of doing that. It’s bloody hard work, for one thing, unless you’re doing some all-inclusive resort-type thing, which I KNOW could not be farther from your style.

      • In response to comments below:

        overly reverential ( ooh, it’s Buddhist ) is as bad as complete cultural deafness and gringo hell behaviour.

        you get waaay too much of that when people come to Japan : I think an intelligent balance is needed. Some of the food we had in Laos was FOUL and it haunts us to this day. I also dislike half of holy Japanese cuisine as well and so what?

    • I am not a travel writer but I think most travel writing is kind of crap, to be truthful,even in the New York Times. It doesn’t usually really reveal anything, neither about the place, nor the person recording it in words and pictures. There is also this PC anthropologophobic terror of getting anything wrong : I think it is more interesting to just be honest about your feelings and perceptions. Both Laos and Vietnam freaked us out in some ways (most definitely one of the right reasons to go somewhere different: that feeling of being shaken up is quite beneficial ):Japan just does your head in slowly, year after year

      • Couldn’t agree more.

        For me, being “shaken up” was traveling through South America with my boyfriend when I was 18 (I turned nineteen somewhere in the Amazon Basin) and I am glad that my innocence and recklessness led me there. It was six months of poverty, beauty, kindness and corruption, and no shortage of personal hardship. I would not be the same person if I’d done the usual breezy seventies Canadian-style six-weeks-with-a-student-Eurail-pass, that’s for damn sure. And I’ve traveled ever since.

        I remember an article in The Sunday Times by AA Gill, basically denouncing and indicting tourist travel in general, comparing the bloated expectation (based on the industry’s grossly, deliberately misleading colour-brochure hard sell augmented by the self-serving work of travel writers on paid junkets) to the grim reality.

        In a way, the usual bogus kind of travel writing does a disservice to its reader, because the actual experience can be so much richer.

      • I read his hilariously, ferociously vindictive diatribe against English people recently- The Angry Island- and it is some of the best writing I have ever read. It is so nasty but so spot on, if sometimes repetitive, but he was able to totally capture inchoate feelings about my ‘homeland’ that I could never have done myself.

        As for travel -whatever its merits and demerits I LOVE IT.

        Your Amazon experience sounds fascinating.

      • I meant to say, in a completely different way. The whole shangri-la-la-land deal sold by the travel industry, if it were actually a reflection of the true experience, would be inferior to the experience of being shaken up by poverty, beauty, kindness and corruption.

      • I don’t know. I can’t deal with too much poverty, corruption, nor even kindness, actually: I never rough it – I like hotels- but there is always the yearning for something ‘authentic’ – whatever that may be.

      • An excellent AA Gill book, the first I’d read of his after years of his columns. I’d like to read others. He is (or was, RIP) seen as a love/hate kind of guy, but it was love for me, even as I can see the other viewpoint, especially if you’re in the line of fire (“loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls:” the Welsh).

        I am with you, in fact, on the disposability of the poverty, corruption and even kindness of travel. Beauty, spirituality, authenticity, great food, unspoiled countryside, heavenly gardens. Those are good. I like to feel almost invisible, as though I’m not leaving a footprint; I’ve seen too many countries badly, irreparably warped by tourism. The worst cases seem to involve the poorest countries, understandably.

        I love to travel, but I wish I could be traveling in, say, the sixties. That would be cool. Italy . . .

      • Yes, authenticity perhaps meaning not geared to tourists.

      • Except for clean, comfortable, good-looking places to stay.

      • At the risk of sounding hypocritical, or elitist, or whatever.

      • Whatever being the operative word: after a while you just have to think fuck it and just go!

        Indonesia was like that as it was originally Madagascar and a last minute switch and we had no imaginings or expectations. We just went and immersed and glided, interacted, observed, lived.

        Never bettered. And me and D always want to do pretty much exactly the same things so it’s just heaven travelling together. The odd inevitable bust up aside, it’s when we are the closest.

      • And not forgetting architecture, and music, and flora and fauna and scent and exotic climates, and observing different ways of life, and, and, and . . .

  10. Zubeyde Erdem

    I’m really enjoying with reading your re-postings nowadays and of course,wondering about what will be the next flavour. In fact, it is like to see : too many especially chosen flashbacks of your memories (whether consiously or unconsciously ) according to that day’s mood that you want/need to consume same taste once more. As far as I know, Shalimar is the one of your most favorite perfume. And finally it came to stage once more with full of it’s all tasteful beautiful memories for you and for us when you lived in and when we read then and now except it’s scent codes.
    Sighhhh…. spechless, huh? Just beautiful!

    (Black Swan post will come soon ! A few taken steps more , yay!

    • You really understand me.

      I enjoy the contrast as well, between the hospital life and these other adventures ( which now seem SO exotic and exciting in comparison to being in this white room all the time).

      It’s like seeing myself from outside, quite interesting. Like I am the reader, not the writer.

      • Zubeyde Erdem

        Exactly what I meant to say is what you are saying. Believe me or not I understand what you are going through very well. But also, the days will come that you remember these days later you will just smile.

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