Friday, December 13, 2013

Lao Road Trip February 2013 Day 2

This is a reprint of a post I originally wrote for AbsoluteTrygve in 2013

Day 2

Mr. Sompat came early in the morning for me and off we went, heading inland and bypassing Pakading. Pakading is one of those places most people have never heard of. Pakading is the Hojai of Laos; it’s the agarwood nerve center, much like that other one in India, Hojai, the nerve center of Ajmal. Pakading was once home to about 30 agarwood distilleries and now to about 8. Indian and even some Arab dealers used to come to buy directly from the source. The few tiny restaurants served Indian food with chutney! I do not know the current state of Pakading as we went up into the mountains, formerly remote and covered with dense forest.

The presence of Chinese and Vietnamese companies is everywhere, along the roads they are building through the forests they (and the Lao) are logging. It goes something like this: a company is granted a concession, builds a road, logs everything along it, and then builds smaller arteries, which are then logged in their turn. At the same time, Lao settlements pop up along the road, in cleared forest, as people try to make a living in these new villages. I have been asked not to write about the specifies and cannot confirm them anyway, regarding which company and what deal, and the like.

We stopped in one of these new, nameless villages, and unloaded our spare engine. We passed every checkpoint, despite the back of our truck filled with huge coffee sacks and wood. There was nothing technically illegal about the rosewood we carried. Rosewood is not CITES for some reason, but it is valuable, slow growing and over harvested. It’s also aromatic and gorgeous. It’s Pterocarpus pedatus and it bleeds when cut. Carrying something valuable, though, is dangerous enough, as police, officials, and the like will ask for taxes or fees (bribes) just because they can. However, our pieces were end pieces and not so great in quality so no one bothered us.

It might not look as though there is much fun food in Laos, but that changes when you keep a sharp eye out. A Lao type of Beignet, deep fried and filled some sweet yellow bean paste became my favorite immediately and I looked for them everywhere. Mr. Sompat of course speaks fluent Lao and knows all the good spots, the small stands where they might make great rice crackers, corn on the cob, or sausage.

We puttered along the main North-South highway, averaging 60-80 Kph, through villages, and great stretches of open road. Parts of the road are eaten away and potholes appear, African style, needing quick reflexes.

Still we passed sad agarwood plantations, along with healthier, happier rubber trees and even teak. Eventually we arrived at our goal: a small dirt track leading off into the forest--the distillery.

Mr. Sompat cheerfully told me to decide what I needed as we had a walk of some kilometers ahead, in the sun, crossing a couple of rivers, walking with the luggage! The days of traveling with my trusty backpack are long behind me. Now I schlep my computer, a good camera, chargers, etc. and a small suitcase on wheels. This was something I used to mock as a teenager and here I was, faced with carrying it over backpack terrain.
 We managed to drive in through most of it, it turned out, to a river too wide for the truck,  and we parked and I took all the things I didn’t want to leave parked in an unknown remote space and we piled it all into a small canoe and poled our way across the river. Reaching the other side, we gathered our things and marched off--I was very slow as my overnight bag was heavy and banging my legs, and I also had my camera, purse, a litre of water and 2 big bags of fruit! But I did manage to walk to the distillery, longing for a cold shower and air conditioned room, but made do with the smoke from the boilers and a tree stump in the shade. As everywhere in Laos, plenty of nice pups soothed and smoothed the scene.

This distillery is technically inside a National Park, which, as we would understand it, means it’s a protected area. But here there was not only a distillery but also a plantation of agarwood trees, many of which were in various stages of infection by inoculation. Mr. Sompat is using this grove as an experimental one, with different mixtures and different processes, to see what might make a good infection.

Agarwood is still a sought after product, even more now that plantations cover the countryside. But by “agarwood” or “oud,” I mean naturally occurring (not man-made) infection in wild trees, meaning old (probably) trees. And if not that exactly, something that smells as close to that as possible, and Mr. Sompat is trying to find something close, but he’s not trying too hard. It’s more chance, and something nice that might happen; you can’t rely on it. It can take any amount of time or never occur. Then you have the harvesting, soaking and the distillation to manage well. Farmed and inoculated oud is too unsure and costly to base a business on. Boyah is still in demand but not really worth it either unless you already have good customers who are willing to pay. And there are not too many Boyah buyers. Most of the Indian companies, who make oud for the Arabs, make their own Boyah anyway. In this sense, Mr. Sompat is still in the game; he’s one of the few.

Back inside the distillery, we ate a small lunch of rice and some river fish while the smoke swirled around us. Agarwood, in this case Boyah, is soaked as long as possible, even a month or two, then distilled 5 days, running the hydrosol back into the still throughout, and then taken out and soaked another month or two, then distilled another 5 days. It’s ridiculous. The amount of time and fuel required are immense, and to recoup those costs you need something more valuable than Boyah. Currently Boyah sells for less than a fifth of oud. Still expensive, compared to other essential oils, but a poor and crude cousin indeed to oud. Incidently, Boyah is completely different chemically, from oud and it’s still covered by the CITES regulations anyway.

I know people are going to ask if this farm/distillery conforms to CITES, if it has the paperwork and the answer is: of course not. But of course it does. Both. It can buy the certificate if needed. The whole CITES thing is a farce, sorry to say.

In the end, we decided not to stay the night and left in the back of a little cart, crossing the river in a slow spray of water, and slowly drove out of the park, stopping en route to say hi to some guys cutting down rosewood, chain saws screaming. Forestry trucks parked a short way away, their occupants out somewhere.

There was now not enough time to get to the cave Mr. Sompat wanted to show me, and so we spent the night in Nahin, or so he says. I can’t read Lao.

There is a sweet little guesthouse down by the river--it’s a small riverlet actually, and moves briskly thanks to energy turbines upstream. The restaurant sits on a huge wooden balcony perched over the river, which swirled and undulated in the full moon. We ate a huge dinner: Steamed river fish with herbs, one of my favorite Lao dishes, sautéed morning glory vine, and another fish dish I couldn’t identify but scraped the plate of. I retired to my bungalow and slept like a dead person.

No comments:

Post a Comment