Saturday, January 8, 2011

Branding: Clove Cigarettes

Location: Sri Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand
One thing (among many) that I enjoy about foreign travel, or at least reading about other countries, is shopping. I like to see all the foreign brands and products I've never heard of, and I'm interested in seeing what the familiar US brands offer overseas but not in my own country.

My time in the goth scene imbued me with an appreciation for clove cigarettes. i began to develop my own favorite flavors: I liked Black because it came in a stylish box, though Sampoerna were my first love. I also really liked Bali Hai because they were so flavorful, but the bright blue box with a stylized surfer on it looked kinda goofy to pull out (when you're trying very hard to look cool). And once, I blew my shot at dating a very attractive woman because she insisted on pronouncing the "D" in Djarum. No matter how many examples of the silent D I provided—djinn, djellaba—she persisted in disingenuously asking me if I actually meant "Duh-jarum" cigarettes. I could have shut up and had access to her amazing body, but I probably wouldn't have lasted long with someone who posed a burr beneath my intellectual saddle.

Clove cigarettes are wonderful on their own: they smell sweet like incense, they make your tongue and lips a little numb, and they have sugar-coated butts (like my women (women hate that joke, so this'll probably be the last time I ever state it)). And then DUH-jarum came out with a vanilla-flavored cigarette! Such was my delight. I mean, I couldn't really taste the vanilla, but there was definitely a milder essence carried in the normally sweet smoke. Much later, I heard legislators in Minnesota were working on banning clove cigarettes on the pretense that they were being marketed toward teenagers as a flavored, and therefore juvenile, cigarette. This is ludicrous, considering how Camel has tried to market mint, chocolate, and orange-flavored cigarettes without penalty. This is a pretty transparent case of tobacco manufacturers buying a portion of the government and attempting to pass laws against their perceived competition. Clove cigarettes have somehow gotten around this by being wrapped up in tobacco leaf rather than paper, making it more like a cigar and patently altering the flavor... I don't know enough about this issue. I'm sure it's in the news for those who care to research.

I was told that clove cigarettes were popular with Balinese men and I thought I might buy a couple boxes to bring over and make friends with. Well, obviously they were very hard to find in my city, and when I showed up in Bali everyone seemed to have their own box of cigs, so nothing I brought would've been very impressive. They did have different flavors, however, and I picked up a very nice box of tea-flavored clove cigarettes. You could just taste the musk of green tea through the smoke. It was a pleasant alternate experience.

One of the last things I managed to do before leaving Indonesia, to be sure, was to visit the Sampoerna factory in Surabaya, Java. We were on the 2nd floor, overlooking the hundred women hand-rolling a certain style of clove cigarette, and I wish I'd gotten a quick picture of the process. I pulled out my camera and let it focus and adjust too slowly (it's getting old and the processing speed isn't what it used to be) and the guide had plenty of time to tell me that photos were not permitted from the 2nd floor. Nuts.

What's important to note is that the very nice-looking cigarettes commonly available everywhere are machine-rolled. The women here were making a very special brand called 234 (Dji-Sam-Soe). They're a little bit thicker on the end you light, they have no filter, and they are forbidden from sale outside of Indonesia. I made sure to pick up two boxes!

But like I said, we left Indonesia and one of the things I've noticed about Thailand—both in Bangkok and Chiang Mai—is that not a lot of people smoke. In some areas, and especially during celebrations or holidays, there are signs posted prohibiting both smoking (outdoors!) and drinking. (The Australians don't think much of the latter and wandered throughout the New Year's celebrations at Tha Phae with large bottles in hand.) So I've got two packs of this delicious and unique clove cigarette and few places I can actually have a smoke. I tried having one on the sidewalk one afternoon, carefully checking for any no-smoking signs, and a small woman in a cloth facemask made a point of following me or leapfrogging ahead, coughing and hacking, glaring at me accusingly.

Oh well. They make my backpack smell nice, just sitting around, and without question it's better for my health not to light them up. But still, but still...

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