In ancient times, Thai society used incense for various religious rituals, traditions and so on. Many different types of incense were used. Some were made from perfume. Others from fragrant oils, beeswax, perfumed powder and/or white clay.
The most well known and most commonly used incense is made from the Thai perfume called Nang Loy.
This particular perfume (“nam ohp” in Thai) is a fragrant water made from fresh aromatic flowers such as jasmine, orange jasmine, sage rose, etc. Tree wood and sap from plants such as the bergamot orange tree, scandalwood, and the virgate tree are also commonly used. These ingredients are baked and mixed together to create a naturally refreshing scent. But by using this process, only small amounts can be produced at a time. Generally, it is made in batches daily because, if left out for a long time, the scent will change.
During the reign of King Rama V (His Majesty King Chulalongkorn), Thai people started using western fragrances and mixing them with the ancient Thai scents. Western incense making techniques were also adopted and the incense making process changed, incorporating both Thai and Western techniques. Since then, traditional Thai incense has decreased in popularity.
Thai “nam ohp” is made from water that is boiled with frankincense smoke or a baked wax candle; which is made from the bergamot orange plant, Siam benzoin resin, brown sugar, beeswax and nutmeg. Then it is mixed together with fragrant powders producing a light yellow-colored liquid. This process creates a scent that is unique from western fragrances due to the ingredients and techniques used.
These days, Thai incense still plays an important role in Thai society as it is part of many traditional religious and cultural ceremonies such as marriage, Buddhist monk hair shaving, Buddha image bathing, pouring water on the hands and heads of the elderly during the Songkran Festival, and traditional funeral ceremonies.
The Nang Loy brand of nam ohp has been well known in Thailand for more than 90 years. The business was founded by a woman called Grandmother Hiang or Mae Hiang (Mother Hiang). She learned the Thai fragrance making process from a friend of hers who worked at the palace and she developed and adapted the original fragrance recipe to her own style. She used various flowers and Thai herbs mixing them with western fragrances that were popular at the time. The result was the development of the unique Nang Loy fragrance.
The first place she sold her Nang Loy perfume was at Nang Loy Market, located near the Bophitphimuk Temple in the Chakkawatda district of Bangkok. At that time, there were no brand names or trademarks and goods were still bought and sold by weight. The buyers would bring a bottle to fill up and the price of the fragrance was set by the amount that could fit in that bottle. The unique scent of the Nang Loy fragrance caught on and rapidly increased in popularity. It became a best seller! At first, it was named “Mae Hiang’s Nang Loy Thai Fragrance” but the name was shortened to just “Nang Loy Fragrance” later on.
As time passed, the method of distribution was changed and it was sold by the bottle instead of by measured amount. The branding and packaging was also developed. The chosen logo was an image of an angel flying above a cloud and carrying a Thai fragrance bottle in her left hand. The bottle was adorned with traditional Thai line art and the three colors of the Thai flag; blue, red and white were also used in the logo to emphasize Thai nationality and pride in being Thai. Eventually, Mae Hiang expanded her booming business to selling other things such as powders, clays, and candles as well.
As her business grew, she decided to move out of the Nang Loy Market and open a new bigger shop at Mahachai Road in the Samranraj district, situated opposite the Theptida and Rajchanaddaram Temples. There, the company has continued carrying out business ever since.
These days, true Thai incense and fragrances are becoming more of a distant thing for the new generation. This is mostly due to the increasing popularity of fragrances from western countries. However, regardless of the passing of age and time, whenever we smell the gentle herbal scent of a Thai fragrance, we will always come away feeling refreshed and renewed. Hopefully, the traditions of making and using Thai fragrances, as well as other Thai traditions and customs, will be preserved, practiced and honored by all Thais forever. Let us not forget.