Rubies, Prison and Agarwood

The Great Cambodian Experiment: VIII

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 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.

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