Detour through Paradise Island

1 | There are several leads I want to follow up with in Sri Lanka. Not the least of which is to visit the new distillery an old friend of mine is setting up there. There’s a lot of agarwood talk going on in, around, and about the island, so it’s not difficult to see why he’s headed this way. More than 1,000,000 young agarwood saplings have reportedly been imported from places like Vietnam and Thailand in the last few years alone, and several new plantations have popped up out of the blue. With a guaranteed 30-fold return on your investment in 8 years, companies like Asia Plantation Capital have been working hard to encourage investors to start planting agarwood. Others, like my friend, are looking ahead and starting up full-on distillation instead.

But aside from continuing my visits to plantations around the country, the main reason I’m heading to Paradise Island’ this time is the call I got from someone boasting a stash of rare collectible agarwood pieces he says I’d want to see.  And the pictures speak for themselves… Pitch black, insanely resinated pieces of agarwood newly harvested in the jungle.

A single piece runs into the thousands, so I’m flying in from Singapore (while Kruger’s heading over from Amman) to see what the deal is…


2 | Kruger and I arranged to meet our caller in Colombo at my hotel’s lobby at noon, where we sat waiting. Signaling to us as they entered the rotating front door, two brothers and their father showed up… empty handed. I expected them to bring at least one piece of wood. Instead, as we sat down amidst the buzz of tourists wandering to the tune of a live piano, the younger brother flipped out his iPad to show me more pictures of the wood chunks; told me how much it weighs, pointed out the flow of the grain, the resin content, and why wild collectable Sri Lankan agarwood pieces like these are so hard to come by.

‘So where is it?’ I finally asked.

He explained that the wood is being held in a remote village several hours’ drive away, and that we could see it in the morning. I then understood that they probably didn’t own the pieces and first wanted to meet me to make sure I’m not a dodgy character to deal with. From this it also dawned on me that these guys might be in over their heads. I’ve seen many prospective brokers taken for long rides hoping to make a good buck when they get home, only to be cheated out of thousands of dollars along the way. So, I insisted I accompany them to the village. It would be a waste of my time and their money if they showed up in the morning with just another glued-up log painted black, the kind I’ve seen too many people duped into buying. They insisted that they knew what they were doing and that it was a long journey: no need for me to tag along. Understandably, they wanted to keep their source private and earn some commission. We agreed to meet for breakfast upon their return…

When they arrived at the hotel we showed them up to room 181 where they didn’t spare any time to unwrap the arm length piece from the black bag they walked in with. Eagerly they handed me the heavy, deep dark colored log, stood back and awaited my verdict.

“You see this?” I asked Kruger.

He took the wood, straight away stuck his nails into it, scratching it like a lottery ticket, then flipped it around a couple of times searchingly.

“The worst paint job I’ve ever seen,” was all he had to say as he handed the piece back to me.


3 | It turns out that the father was a big business owner, dealt in precious stones. But he was clueless about agarwood, so he must have fronted his sons the money to buy this wood. When I asked them how much they paid for the piece, you could see the panic brewing in the young guy’s eyes.

“I told you I should go with you. This isn’t even agarwood!”

On their way out, I advised them to stay clear of this business. Agarwood is one of the most treacherous trades in the world. Afterwards, they tried to get in touch with the men they bought the wood from, but as you’d expect, there was no trace of them.

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