On the road with Ensar

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…

Rubies, Prison and Agarwood

The Great Cambodian Experiment: VIII Agarwood-Prison-Blog

He’s a short man, slightly plump, and he always wears a three quarter pair of pants and button shirt. Many a time we’d drop in at his farmhouse to find him at his dinner table. There’d be no greeting, hardly even a glance in our direction. All we can do is take a seat in the front room a few meters from the open dining area and listen to forks and knives scraping plates. A thick scent of fish sauce permeates our side of the room, as it does so many houses in Thailand. His wife is always friendly enough to make us a cup of coffee while he and whoever’s with him finish their dinner.

Eventually he walks over, still chewing on his last bite. I think he mumbles a greeting as he squeezes into a tiny round chair behind an oval wooden desk with overhead rack space coming out from the wall with a window looking out at the front garden. It feels like I’m in the company of a retired sailor; the captain of the ship in his case. On the counter top files fall out from folders stacked up too high, oxidized oud samples roll off the edges at the slightest touch. You’re forced to shove aside old books and bottles to find a spot for your coffee cup. Three of the most uncomfortable chairs in history curve along the half-moon shape of the desk facing him on the other side. Round, crooked and a nightmare for you back. It takes me a while to balance myself on mine. Kruger doesn’t even bother and stays standing.

We skip the small talk. He knows our get-togethers aren’t for chit chat, and prefers it that way. Either I’m here to see what he’s cooking or to pick his brain. I’m sure his heart pumps oud oil instead of blood and his brain’s wired with resin. He’s perfected his olfactory sense. Or maybe he was just an aromatic savant to begin with. He can pick up a drop of water in your oud; if there’s a speck of dust left, he knows about it.

He used to deal in rubies. In fact, a number of the older distillers I know are ex-ruby men. ‘If only we knew back then!’ he told me, “if only we knew what we were digging up to get to the rubies! Those days are long gone now. Some lucky hunter must have quickly cleaned up after us – the blackest wood you’d ever see. If only we knew!” To fund his ruby enterprise he sold satellite systems during wartime in Cambodia, where much of the precious stones were dug up. ‘There were two sides in the war”, he’d say, “the Reds and the Whites.”

“I supplied one side with satellite dishes they used for their phones. This was before mobiles, of course. Rapid communication channels are as important as guns in a war, so I was in the perfect niche. I used to be ahead of the times back then – always in touch with the latest techno trends. Now I don’t own a computer and I don’t know the first thing about the internet. Go figure. The computer can’t make oud anyway, so who cares? And the internet kills your brain. I know that much. I see it all around me. Anyhow,  someone ratted me out and I got caught and charged for conspiring with the enemy; got locked up soon after. They tell I was in there for a couple of months but while you’re down in those dirty cells time stands still. I would have believed them if they told it had been a couple of years.”

“How’d you get out? From the little I know, nobody ever really got out from those prisons.”

“It was an ugly time. I just got lucky. Fate would have it that my close friend, Mr. Daw – you know him… Jian’s father – was one of the few with a license to export and import rubies between Cambodia and Thailand. Precious stones was a rough business back then, so a man with a license was a man of power. He had contacts in the Khmer police and ties on both sides of the battle. I heard his voice got all the way up Hun Sen who helped to get me out.”

Jian remembers meeting him when he just got back from prison. “He had a beard down to his chest. Not bad for a few months,” he joked. When he got out of jail he also got out of rubies and out of Cambodia. He’s been in agarwood for thirty years since.

I ask him about checking for ‘spotted grains’ in agarwood. It’s one of the resination patterns that distinguish kien from sieah, the strands that shows the transition of the former to the latter. When it comes to making oud, this is a big deal. Most people don’t even use kien to make oud oil from; certainly, nobody uses sieah. He doesn’t laugh much, but you’d see him grin and pop his eyeballs upward when I tell him about all the latest ‘incense-grade’ ouds on the market. Or when he tries my samples of all the new ‘wild harvested’ ouds on offer. It’s not done out of jest on my part. I show him the samples to learn from his all too genuine impressions.

It’s rare to meet a master of his craft. Masters, the ones I’ve known, are not ashamed to speak the truth. They struggle to tolerate mediocrity and their criticism can make grown men cry. It’s a kind of honesty you can trust. They turn a mere opinion into a verdict. When he tells you such and such an oud oil is bad or merely so-so, it’s not his subjective view; not just his experienced taste in oud that makes him pass judgement. He’ll tell you the distiller probably had the cooling pipes at the wrong angle, or soaked the wood too long, or obviously didn’t keep an eye on the pressure gauge. He’ll tell you that with the kind of agarwood the distiller used (and then he’ll actually tell you the wood that was used, the quality, if it’s cultivated or wild) the top note could have smelled like this or like that, but it doesn’t and that’s a shame. Even if it were just for taste, his taste was for well distilled oud, not merely for a novel smell on the surface.

We worked together on Oud Ishaq, on Encens d’Angkor (running low now) and Oud Dhul Kifl. I consulted with him at length before undertaking this project and I look forward to get his opinion – his verdict – on it once we’re done.

This Time, 4 Years Ago

The Great Cambodian Experiment: VII

I was sitting in the back of a pick-up truck with my head squeezed in between a web of red ropes bound around a huge empty blue tank. Sort of half-way seated on a dirty oil container toward the back of the truck, my legs awkwardly tucked between the ropes and the blue tank which took up most of the loading space. I gazed out at the ocean as we crossed the longest bridge in Cambodia. Judging from how hard the wind slapped my cheeks we were going over 80 miles an hour, and with squinting eyes I began to think about how I ended up here.


I had been in the oud business for a while and was all too familiar with Cambodian oud. Recognizably more fruity than oud from anywhere else, Cambodian oud was ideal for newcomers, since it’s fruitiness made it especially accessible to scent lovers who came from a tradition of designer fragrances catering to an olfactory palette used to an overly sweet (synthetic) scent.

It wasn’t until early 2010 while visiting a veteran distiller in Phnom Penh that everything changed. Until then I found that despite its sweetness and fruitiness, its accessibility and its availability, there weren’t many Cambodian ouds I considered extraordinary. Along with Indian oud, the Cambodian variety was at that stage probably the most popular in the world. But nothing I tried stood out. Even after several years in the business, it wasn’t until later that year that I launched the first Cambodis on our site. Yet, the thing that haunted me most ever since that trip was the two bottles of oud I tried at the distiller’s house. One was from Pursat, which he’d made himself around fifteen years earlier; the other was one he got from a friend, a pure Koh Kong Cambodi from twenty years ago.

But when it comes to aged oud we should be careful how we use the rule of thumb that ‘old oud equals good oud.’ Age certainly can mean something, but it’s not the alpha and omega of what makes great oud. A Cambodi from 1980 doesn’t automatically qualify as the greatest oud in history. It might well just be the worst oud distilled that year and aging it for a hundred years will do it no good. So there’s a huge difference between ‘old oud’ and ‘quality oud, aged well’. It takes oud like these two to show you how the wonder of quality and maturity joins together perfectly.

I offer to buy the two ouds from him every time we meet. But they’ll forever stay in his prayer niche next to incense sticks and vintage pieces of wood; sacred offerings money can’t replace. ‘I already gave them in offering to my god,’ he’d explain, ‘taking them back for money would be an insult.’ At least he always lets me smell them.

All I’ve done since 2010 was hope to find the likes of those oils, somewhere, anywhere. I’ve explained the smell to every distiller I know and they all instantly smirk as if to say ‘of course we know that smell, but forget about finding it today.’ When I discovered those oils were no more than unicorn relics older generation distillers reminisce over and that those two bottles might well be the only proof that oud like that even existed, it was clear what any insane man in my shoes would do.

“You realize you’d have to find wild wood for this, don’t you? But not just wild… old wild wood. The kind they would have used back then. And how would we make it? We’d have to find somebody who was around back then and knows the system. And how on Earth would we get the same water?”

He wasn’t saying no, but Kruger was understandably skeptical when I told him what I had in mind. He’d been around long enough to see what we’d have to go through.

“The wood, you’re right, I don’t know how we’ll pull that off. As for an old school guy who knows the system, I know just the man. At least that’s a start, isn’t it?”

At that stage Kruger had never met him. All he knew was that this was the man behind Oud Dhul Kifl. That was enough to throw some doubt on his skepticism.