April 18, 2014
The Great Cambodian Experiment: XI
As you’re about to enter his home, on your left, you’ll see Mr. Nhek’s well. Round, poured of cement, and very deep, with a cracked up plastic bucket tied to a rope resting on the rim on top. I’ve been down the streets of Koh Kong City many times, through the back alleys and hotel mainways, and he’s the only man with a well out on the sidewalk leading to his house’s front gate.
You can’t help but wonder why Mr. Nhek’s well is more famous than you’d think a well could be until you’ve spent some years traveling across Cambodia. To veteran distillers as far away as Koh Kong and Kampong Speu – even as far as Kuala Lumpur – Mr. Nhek’s well isn’t just a pit in the ground. To them it’s the very emblem of classic Oud Cambodi.
“Listen: Forget about your old Cambodi. You can’t make it without Nhek’s water. It’s the secret behind all the great Cambodian ouds. But today, even if you got some buckets of Nhek’s water, there’s no one around to help you distill anything.” Advice I’ve heard time and again, but never fully appreciated until now.
As his distillation pots and the pots of others around the province are now home to spiders and their prey, today Mr. Nhek and his family use the well water for their food, their washing and cleaning. It’s been years since it’s drowned and bubbled up a batch of agarwood dust.
But why all the hype about water?
There are a number of things that come into play in chiseling the ‘profile’ of each oud oil, not the least of which is your water. The mineral content of the water you use during distillation has a spectacular effect on the oil. Distil an Indian oil in Evian drinking water and you might just end up with Oud Yusuf, as we’ve done with ouds like Assam Sur Fleur.
But water is only one out of a dozen factors. The material the pot is made of plays a major role, as does the soak. What the drums you soak in are made of matters, too, as do the ducts inside the boilers. And don’t forget the condenser. You might distil 100-year-old Bhutan raw materials in copper with zero soak and get a rosy Oud oil, yet if you soak them for two weeks and cook in steel the oil will smell more like champaca and tuberose.
You might soak in Evian for a week and cook in groundwater; or soak in groundwater for a month and cook in Evian. You might soak in Evian for two weeks then re-soak in groundwater for another two weeks; or soak in groundwater for a week followed by a three-week Evian soak. You might soak in plastic or in clay or in ceramic. You might cook in copper or in stainless steel or in glass. The variables are many, and the ways you can combine them virtually endless….
To recapture the vintage pure bred Cambodis from twenty years ago you have to get everything right down to the tee, the way old timers used to do it. This meant that for the water we had to go all Nhek, from the soak through to the cooking. But it was way easier said than done! I couldn’t have imagined the effort and expense it took to make it happen.
Our distillery is in Thailand, about an hours’ drive from the Cambodian border. In addition to two customs clearances, you have to answer to four police checkpoints on the way back. “It’s just water” should ideally suffice as an explanation, if only it were that simple. You might get away with telling the officers that you’re bringing the water to your aunt who needs it for her shower because of the water’s special mineral content. Only, when the same guards stop you a second time, a third time, a fourth time, a fifth, they’ll start to wonder about this aunt of yours. So we had to budge, and like with any good old broken down bureaucracy and underpaid law enforcement staff, telling the truth about the blue tank filled with close to one ton of red-brown liquid didn’t make things less of an ordeal.
The way it goes in the oud business is that you can’t trust anybody, not even to fill a tank of water. It’s very easy to tell you that we got water from Koh Kong because that’s what the guy who brought the water will tell us. But it’s all too easy for him to make a quick buck by filling your tank from the nearest tap. Problem is that you don’t just need any water from Koh Kong. You have to get well water… from Mr. Nhek’s well! The smell we’re after depends on it. To make this happen, you have to be there and watch it happen. Just like you have to see to it that the incense-grade chips that are so widely available if you go on the word of others, are in fact incense-grade.
So far I told Kruger that this will stay between us. Nobody will ever know about Nhek’s water. But at the end we decided against keeping it secret. It took many trips to get enough water to start distilling the line-up of oils in our Great Cambodian Experiment, and we continue to go to Koh Kong for more.
As for what’s brewing in Mr. Nhek’s water, keep an eye on our website and on upcoming posts here.
For now, here’s a taste of smells to come…
April 12, 2014
The Great Cambodian Experiment X
Men dressed in khaki shirts with technicolor stripes stitched all over their pockets, tucked into khaki pants held up by big black belts, starred epaulets decorating their shoulders, stand watch over the throng of people passing by within a few meters of them. A barricade funnels people toward their security post and you have to squeeze past the row of officers to get into the purgatory road that takes you out of Cambodia to the Thai checkpoint; a stretch of about a hundred meters where I suspect you’re in no-man’s land.
In the past we slipped through without bother, carrying only our suitcases. They were always stuffed with agarwood, but who would ever guess as much? This time around, suitcases alone wouldn’t cut it. We had wagons full of large 30kg sacks to account for — and they wouldn’t let us go before we did.
As we approach the road block, one officer casually walks over and in broken English asks where I’m going and what I’m doing there. At the sight of the bags, he calls over another officer, and another. “These yours?” Soon, curious bystanders start to gather around. I take out the import permits, export permits, CITES certificates, purchasing receipts, declarations of safety and politely try to clarify that we come in peace. But hardly anybody understands me, of course. I might as well speak Turkish.
We’re not trafficking anything harmful; quite the contrary. Yet, even with all the legal paperwork in your pocket, when the time comes to explain what’s up with all the wood we’re carrying, it’s like trying to talk your way out of a drug bust. Eventually there’s a mash of policemen and customs guys asking about our bags. Every now and then an army officer with more gold stars on his shoulders than the rest shows up and I think he’ll settle things down. But he just repeats what they all do, tears open another one of the bags we took great care to wrap. Some of them pass around a lighter to burn a piece of the wood. “This is agarwood” I hear whispered in passing before another officer grabs a handful of wood and shows it to yet another. My hands up in the air and a bulging vein starting to outline the frame of my temple show them I’ve had enough, as I try to bring things to an end. Raising my voice never helps. The confused shouting just echoes back and forth. At least I’m not like Kruger, who’s in the same boat a few meters away, with his own crowd of policemen and bystanders, bags ripped open. He means no harm, but his frank non-compliance in these situations quickly rubs government officials and security personnel the wrong way.
Like always in these situations, it ends abruptly when, amidst the scurry, everyone arbitrarily agrees that we owe the authorities $xxxx for us to pass through. I protest as much as I’m able to, knowing that all they understand is the Khmer the guy next to me is shouting at somebody else. I give up and visibly disgruntled hand a lump of cash to the nearest policeman, gather the now scattered bags of agarwood onto the wagons and move on. That is round one. The Thai crossing is up next.
The sun was high up when we got to the border; gone by the time we crossed it.
Days later, ceramic barrels were soaking at the distillery and inside the barrels our aged Cambodian wood was drinking a fine brew. Explaining to border police why two bearded foreigners wearing funny hats were carrying carts full of bags stuffed with bits of wood was one thing. Why they now needed to bring in a one ton tank full of red-brown liquid was another. And why, a few days later, they had to do it again. Then again. And again.
March 27, 2014
The Great Cambodian Experiment: IX
Flickering through the backseat window like a film reel, my tired eyes wonder at the romance of truck drivers asleep beside the road. Midnight, wives and kids and dreams spread across a creased country map folded up, tin canned tuna, benzene for the truck, caffeine for the driver. We make a pit stop to pray the evening prayer, stretch our necks, our cramped legs, then hit the mist hovering over the bumpy potholed gravel road. The moon dangles in one place while trees flash through the headlights in a discord of green-grey at a steady 40 miles to the hour.
We’re not a big outfit, and one that operates on the fringes of this trade. Here, we can’t use freight ships or airplanes. Instead of cargo boxes, we’re stuck with suitcases or wheat sacks. Instead of being loaded onto a courier van, the suitcases go into the boot of 2007 Toyota Camrys (the car of choice for long distance taxi drivers in Cambodia).
With false dawn just in, I awake from a half slumber. Ahead, a gravel curve leads into a straight stretch of tar. A three hour long chorus of rocks flung up against the metal bottom of the car fades into a verve where four rubbers roll to the steady drone of four pistons pumping. But then the brights start to shine off center. The Camry sways, breaks the rule of the white spotted stripes, then slowly swerves back to the right side. I look to the steering wheel but see the driver’s chin against his chest. I shake his shoulder: “You want me to drive?” He says he’s fine, we’re almost there.
We pull over to pray fajr at the first of its time and Ensar goes to sleep as soon as he straps himself back in. At daybreak, I roll down the window to drink the humid morning breeze. The driver slaps his own face a couple of times then points ahead and says, “That’s us there.” Ensar rocks up his head, looks at me with bloodshot eyes. “What’d he say? We’re there?” He looks left and right wide eyed like someone who only now realizes the sun’s up. “We just cleared the dirt road, we’ll be there in 30 minutes, in sha Allah.” He rubs his eyes, yawns, and suddenly starts to dig out his passport as he says, “Couldn’t do this in the dark.” I then watch him craftily pull out an expired Cambodian visa from page 43.
I’ve got about ten of those glued in my passport, four more that I tore out and stuck on the jackets of two pocket sized notebooks, a couple that form part of the collage on my laptop, another one or two folded up somewhere. Sometimes they don’t notice, but when they do it always slows things down at customs, who take offense and demand you explain why you disrespect their country by removing the visas. What can you do? I’ve hardly had this (extra-paged) passport for a year and the pages are almost maxed out. The South African embassy in Bangkok says it’ll take three to four months for a new one.
The street lights along Koh Kong City’s sidewalks are still on and the shops closed, but Mr. Supachai’s been expecting us. We’ve been storing our precious agarwood piecemeal at his house over the months, and we’ve come to finally collect everything. He invites us in for breakfast before we head out, asks about our last few weeks on the road, what we have planned for the distillation, and if we know how crazy we are for doing this. With a fresh flush of caffeine we load everything onto his truck while he explains to the driver where to drop us, and sees us off… “You owe me a bottle when you’re done!”
At the border, nine locals line up with their two wheeled push wagons weighed with wheat sacks stuffed with agarwood with orders to wait until we get our visas and signal for them to start bringing the bags over. When we get to the visa counter, Ensar goes first. And like me, he’s got some explaining to do…