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A scent more precious than gold

Wild and plantation-raised agarwood from Cambodia next to a bottle of oil extract. The wild wood fetches $150 a gram, while the farm-raised goes for $40.
Wild and plantation-raised agarwood from Cambodia next to a bottle of oil extract. The wild wood fetches $150 a gram, while the farm-raised goes for $40. Bennett Murray

A scent more precious than gold

Cambodian agarwood makes for great perfume, but its days in the wild are numbered

From his condo in Kuala Lumpur, Canadian internet entrepreneur Taha Syed sells agarwood, or oud – one of the world’s most valuable fragrances. The dark oil has an otherworldly smell that defies comparisons – spicy and a bit piney – and an almost narcotic allure.

“There is an element of something people may translate as psychoactive, or something that affects their minds, their spirits, their emotions,” said the 30-year-old, who operates the website AgarAura. His lifelong love for oud, he added, stretches back to his boyhood as an expatriate in Saudi Arabia, where it is especially popular.

Agarwood comes from the dark, resinous aquilaria and gyrinops evergreen trees of India and Southeast Asia. Formed as an autoimmune response to fungal attacks, the wood chips can be burned as incense or converted into a fragrant body oil.

Although it is most popular in the Persian Gulf, Chinese artisans sometimes use the rare wood to make luxury handicrafts. Some syncretic religions, such as Sufism, also use oud in religious ceremonies.

Agarwood chips from Malaysia.
Agarwood chips from Malaysia. Bennett Murray

Various regions are prized for their agarwood’s unique qualities – some are said to have a smokey aroma, others have a hint of grass or earth. Others are said to have a particularly calming effect. Syed said he tries to get the entire spectrum, from deep in the forests of Myanmar’s Kachin state to Malaysia’s Titiwangsa Mountains.

It has been two years, however, since Syed has handled the coveted, elusive Cambodian al-Cambodi oud, as it is known by Arab connoisseurs. Along with Vietnamese and Indian oud, it has a reputation “like from no other place”, he said, adding that agarwood from other countries is often misrepresented as Cambodian to reap the Kingdom’s grand reputation.

The scent and clean burn makes it some of the best in the world, said Syed, adding it is “sweet, narcotic, cinammony, with some nutmeg, and a healthy dose of berries and figs” when burned.

Once relatively common in the Kingdom’s forests, the international agarwood trade has rendered the aquilaria crassna, from which Cambodian agarwood is sourced, critically endangered.

Oud oil extract from two types of agarwood.
Oud oil extract from two types of agarwood. Bennett Murray

The tree is illegal to fell in areas deemed protected under the Kingdom’s forestry laws, though wild trees elsewhere and those raised on plantations are legal.

But Joel Jurgens, project manager at Flora and Fauna International, said it is virtually extinct in Cambodia.

“If we’re talking about natural forests, there are very few,” he said, adding that one of the best ways to help the species’ survival is to encourage traders to source their agarwood from plantations, which he estimated number in the hundreds in Cambodia, instead of felling the few remaining wild trees.

Aquilaria crassna is likely beyond recovery in Cambodia, said Syed, who is trying to “milk the cow” elsewhere in the region while it lasts. The exorbitant price of Cambodian agarwood, he added, ensures that no tree grows undetected forever.

“It’s statistically extinct now, but every now and again, once every two years or so, a wild tree will be spotted,” he said, adding that loggers brave forest rangers and land mines to retrieve a tree.

Taha Syed in his Kuala Lumpur condo.
Taha Syed in his Kuala Lumpur condo. Bennett Murray

“If you’re very fortunate, you will come out instant, overnight millionaires with your future set, as well as the future of your children and their children.”

Cambodian-Malaysian Ahnad Syehrul, a self-described agarwood “hunter”, considers the Cambodian product far superior to that which he hunts today on the Malay Peninsula. Although Ahnad was born and raised in Malaysia, his father and grandfather passed on the family trade to him after they fled Koh Kong in the Khmer Rouge era.

“It gives you the best aroma and smell, and it sticks on your skin when you apply the oil,” said Ahnad, 30.

Teng Bunthy, a Phnom Penh-based agarwood exporter, said the natural oud is also superior to the plantation products.

“The forest [tree] is very nice and strong, and the tree is older than plantations,” said Bunthy, adding that his products are from farms in Koh Kong and unprotected forests in Pursat.

While it is almost gone from the wilds of Indochina, the trees are relatively plentiful in Maritime Southeast Asia. Ahnad works mostly on the Malay Peninsula, where he has permits to fell a limited number of trees.

The trick, he said, is to accurately guess how much oud is in a tree. Clues, such as the colour of the leaves and presence of insects, indicate to Ahnad whether or not the tree is worth felling. Age is also important.

“If we can see the trees are too young, we should not touch them,” he said, adding he looks for trees at least 60 years old.

“The more ancient the trees, the more good they may be.”

But Syed said the market is full of illegally sourced oud. At times, he will even find himself buying wood of questionable provenance.

“I will admit there have been cases I get wood and I try to give them the benefit of the doubt … and I will assume hopefully they went about it without breaking any laws,” he said.

While Syed said he would like to travel to the Kingdom to find wood that is at least plausibly legal, his concerns over the prevalence of poached wild wood have prevented him from stocking it in recent years.

“I prefer not to go that way. And for that reason it is harder for me to get [Cambodian] stuff, so for that reason I am dry,” he said.

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