Life sure has its twists. Here I am, a New York Muslim convert, accompanied by a South African boer on a rubber tree farm run by an aspiring Buddhist monk, in Thailand, distilling 12.5 kilograms of incense-grade Cambodian Oud wood harvested over a span of two decades by a survivor of Pol Pot’s Reign of Terror.
‘If we can pull this off, it’ll go down as the most memorable Oud in history!’ I hummed.
One Way Ticket
‘Let me try to explain this: I’m flying into Cambodia, but I’ll be crossing the border into Thailand by foot, so why can’t you just give me a one-way ticket?’
‘Sir, it’s airline policy. You have to buy a return ticket, regardless.’
From one queue to the next, I speak to just about every airline supervisor at Suvarnabhumi Airport. They all insist that when I pass through Cambodian customs they’ll ask for proof of my intended departure, and if I don’t have any I’ll be deported while the airline that sold me the ticket gets penalized.
I had a meeting scheduled in Phnom Penh in a few hours that I couldn’t afford to miss. Problem was that I was stuck in Bangkok with only so much cash on me, and no credit card. Long story... Normally, buying a return ticket in order to catch the appointment wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I simply couldn’t afford it that day.
I was eventually saved by a newbie at the Bangkok Airlines sales counter who was, to my great relief, clueless of their ‘return only’ restriction and printed my one-way boarding pass. I had a 50-50 shot at getting in - customs might give trouble; they might not. Mind you, this is the same customs crew that took (or stole, depending on which way you look at it) $2,000 from me on my previous trip.
Acting like a first time tourist while the customs officer asked for my ID and entry form, I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t skip a beat every now and then. Missing the meeting would be a greater loss than being sent back to Bangkok with an empty wallet....
Back in '89
My heartbeat continued to skip a few beats, but this time out of excitement. I got my visa and passed through the airport without any hick-ups. Loaded my bags into the first tuk-tuk I could find.
In Cambodia, he’s known as the pioneer of Oud distillation. Before him, you found only a few small family-run distilleries that operated according to the much older Indian tradition. He opened and paved the way for what came to be known as ‘Oud Cambodi’. He also taught others who eventually made their way to Malaysia, Indonesia, and other areas throughout the Far East, spreading their knowledge and setting up distilleries all over. According to the biggest name in agarwood in Malaysia, we have this man to thank for most of the Oud that’s now being produced in places like Borneo.
A few years ago, he showed me two boxes filled with all sorts of tiny black Oud chips. He told me the story of how he started out in Oud, decades earlier. Later in his career, in 1989, he started putting aside small chips and granules from each batch of incense grade wood that passed through his hands. I was looking at a ‘Best of Cambodia’ montage, right in front of me; a treasure box that captured the history of Cambodian Oud.
The first thing that came to mind when I saw the chips was, ‘This would make one incredible oil!’ When I asked about buying the wood from him he declined, saying, ‘This is my history.’
‘... I have tons of regular (oil-grade) wood I’d be happy to sell, but I know your taste... what you want is basically a thing of the past, so don’t get your hopes up.’
It was only after I showed him some of the oils I’d produced that I really got his attention, and for the first time I could see that he began to understand what I was talking about. He’d been witness to many great Oud oils, but couldn’t believe what he was smelling when he tried the likes of Kyara de Kalbar and Encens Khmer. When he smelled these, he realized I wasn’t joking when I said I wanted to use his agarwood collection to make Oud oil (instead of burning it as chips).
‘You know, nobody else would even think of doing such a thing,’ he said.
‘I know, but where else do you think these came from,’ I answered, pointing to the bottles I had brought with me.
Journey to the Border
The drive from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong takes about 5-6 hours. The flat, golden landscape that greets you as you make your way out of the city eventually turns into a mountainous province marked by tall trees hovering above a thick jungle as far as the eye can see. I keep wondering how on Earth people made their way up north through such dense greenery before there were any roads.
An uncomfortable darkness engulfs you at night. The only sign of any civilization once you enter the Koh Kong jungles is the potholed road ahead of you. Once, on my first trip out there, nature called and I asked the driver to make a pit stop. I hadn’t even left the car for a minute before getting back in. I’m game for many things, but the jungle is simply too alive! It feels like a thousand kinds of oversized insects are waiting to ambush an unsuspecting victim like myself. ‘Once we reach the town, everything’s fine,’ I kept reminding myself. The hustle and bustle of mainland Cambodia coupled with the ensuing dark-jungle claustrophobia mellows into a tranquil seaside vibe as you start to see signs of life flickering on the horizon. Streets are empty. Everyone’s asleep. It’s just you and your Oud-loaded suitcases.
I got to the border just before sunrise, waiting for the guards to open the gates for the day’s traffic. Once the sun clears the morning mist, merchants of all trades unpack their goods near the crossing as you watch overpacked trucks coming to and fro. It’s the best time to pass through border control without being interrogated. The guards have their hands full enough. I just made sure to keep my (suspiciously large) brown bags out of view until I got my visa.
The distiller who was going to work with me on this Oud was waiting on the other side in anticipation. It was about time he got to see this wood I’d been telling him about for the last few years. I was relieved to meet him with my bags intact, unchecked, ready to head off to the distillery.
The multiple police checkpoints on the way from the border leading into the countryside look like extensions of the military camps just off the road. They almost make me want to join the Thai police service. They’re located in wonderfully scenic areas that remind you of riverside holidays. But, of course, to any outsider they remain just that: police checkpoints. So, when we were pulled over I wasn’t expecting a casual campfire conversation.
The road across the border’s been witness to tons upon tons of agarwood being transported between Thailand and Cambodia over the years, but our brown bags carried arguably the most sought after batch in its history. The idea of these chips being confiscated was not something I wanted to imagine. We were on our way to distill the most significant Cambodian Oud oil of the last century, and if it didn’t happen the story of Oud Cambodi would be left without its final chapter.
I told the distiller to stay in the car, thinking that maybe because I’m a foreigner they’d give me less trouble. Agarwood is well known by all, and if you’re bringing some across the border you’re usually required to have the proper paperwork. We didn’t. The officers asked me to open the bags loaded on the back of the van. The possibility that our bags would be checked was very real, so to give ourselves some leeway I made sure to stuff the top of the bags with regular plain white wood shavings, hoping that if we ever got stopped I wouldn’t have to explain the suspiciously dark and all too notorious Oud chips.
One of the officers took a handful of the shavings and showed it to his colleagues. One of them seemed to understand very (very) basic English, and he asked me what I was doing with the wood. I told him it was ‘for the good smell,’ as I picked up a little twig from the ground. I wanted to show them what I meant, so I took some moist earth and wrapped it around the twig: a simple incense stick. Nothing wrong with that, now, is there? They understood, and didn’t bother checking the rest of the bags.
Grinding up History
Embraced by anger, sympathy and sadness as I listened to the distiller’s story, I was reminded of the memorial stupa in Choeung Ek, a landmark that bears testimony to both the madness and the courage of man.
‘But what do the killing fields have to do with Oud?’ is a question I’m sure anti-ad readers will demand to have answered. Tragedy and marketing don’t belong together, after all. Yet, often somebody who’s been through unspeakable suffering pulled through by holding fast to some dream, some light at the end of the tunnel. Something as small as a drop of Oud might have meant the whole world to a young man, left bare. A box filled with wood might be just that to some, but to him each piece has a story to tell, a memory of days others would rather forget. Pouring the wood chips into empty bags for you to drive off with, the distiller sees his past moving forward, and suddenly you’re entrusted with a strange sense of responsibility; outwardly, distilling the perfect Oud oil; inwardly, honoring a man and the rope that pulled him out from the depths.
Back at the distillery, as we prepped the grinder, I mentioned the history of this batch of wood to the farmer. I thought he’d appreciate the story because to many, even across the border, what happened under Pol Pot’s experiment is everything but a distant memory. He reciprocated by letting me in on the life of the man who was helping me load the wood into the grinder.
Some twenty years ago, this worker was hit by a period of intense mental illness. Still in his youth, he'd just arrived from Cambodia and was a new worker on the farm. The farmer’s family, instead of seeing him as a liability and sending him back to his war-torn past, extended a helping hand. The distiller’s mother, a rather spiritual woman, suggested that he visit one of her gurus, believing that he’d be able to cure him of his ailments. This he did.
After a long retreat, the young man returned to the farm and from that day forth pledged never to abandon what became his new family. At first, he refused to work for money even though he basically ran the whole show. ‘But he’s learned to accept the gifts we give him,’ the distiller told me. ‘As much as he might want to, he can’t live on nothing...’
During my stay on the farm to distill this Oud, we shared many meals and conversations, and as I came to learn, just about all the workers on the farm were the children of war, whom the farmer had taken and continued to take under his wing. Like the Cossacks who return home after the harvest jolly and content in Tolstoy’s novels, I learned something about the beauty of simplicity from these folks. I also couldn’t help but smile when I thought of how this whole scene played itself out. I felt that in some way this was exactly where this wood was supposed to end up; that it was the happiest ending for my distiller’s story.
24 Years Later
It’s like you’re thrown into a flowerbed, met with a thousand smells at once. Your eyes move rapidly about trying to figure out what’s what, but they dance about too fast to keep pace with, your soul souring all over the heavens.
A few days later, you catch a glimpse of the woods in the backdrop; a flirting moment right when you take your first whiff, but then it disappears. Guava, white water lilies and an illusive buttery blue lotus flirt about at the surface but never unveil themselves, agrip in a tuft of effulgent white kinam smoke; a flare of spicy-on-the-verge-of-sweet that you’ll only smell again later on.
You don’t recognize pears or berries, or darker notes of figs or plums - the more obvious notes you expect to pick up early on in Cambodian Oud. It’s as if you should be smelling these, but for the life of you can’t… the exuberance of the aroma hides them.
A bright, heady effulgence keeps you guessing, with a floral crispness that’s got you wondering if the kinam note lurks behind the flowerbed. Green smells of vetiver and lemongrass are nowhere to be found. No mint. Instead, imagine mixing blue cypress and neroli, and adding the balanced tenor of myrrh and eucalyptus, atop a base of white kyara.
But as with any description of unearthly scent, this one, too, falls short. Cambodi Kinam is 24 years of passion and longing, distilled. It is a chronicle of Cambodian Oud history, bottled. The final chapter of the Cambodian Oud saga, looking back at what is never to be had again. Oud Cambodi is gone, and all that’s left is the story of its olfactory glory...
Behind the Scenes
Neroli acorus rum powdery pineapple vineyard peach (the old sort of peaches, very small, greenish yellow with very pale flesh, very aromatic, not too sweet) suede quince autumn harvest myrrh CO2 orchard in bloom yarrow is the best I can come up with at first try. The floral element I can't define, like orchard blossoms, or field flowers.
We have a piece of land, with vineyard, orchard (mostly apples and pears, but peaches, quinces, walnuts, sour cherries as well) ornamental bushes, some bromberries, raspberries, woodland strawberries, hazelnuts, wild flowers, acacias. Now somehow Mission Cambodi reminds me of all of it, or some part but I can't figure out which. – Andrej, Croatia