Brunei Darussalam – ‘the Abode of Peace’

One thing you can be certain of - no matter where you go in the world, they're gonna have McD's!
One thing you can be certain of – no matter where you go in the world, they’re gonna have McD’s!

It sure feels different here! When I relocated to Kuala Lumpur from Toronto, I found the pace of life to be rather slow. Its even slower here in Brunei… but in a different way. Being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it seems everyone is content and therefore very laid back. I got the same feeling in Qatar, another tiny country with a whole lot of wealth.

But let’s get to business. Agarwood. There’s plenty of it here. And what’s amazing is how accessible it it. You don’t have to travel deep into the jungle to come upon agarwood trees.
But there’s one fundamental difference between how folks here treat agarwood trees, compared to neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia (and pretty much all agarwood producing countries for that matter). They treat agarwood trees with respect.
Whereas its common in Indonesia for poor villagers who dream of becoming overnight millionaires to chop down agarwood trees indiscriminately, young and old, healthy and sick, in Brunei its the very opposite. You see massive agarwood trees standing, some very old. But if the tree is not showing any signs of containing very old agarwood resin inside, they’ll just let the tree be.

3 Assamese workers 'imported' from Assam, at Haji Ridhwan's plant. Unfortunately, they're quality standards are too low for Agar Aura.
3 Assamese workers ‘imported’ from Assam, at Haji Ridhwan’s plant.

Here’s another unusual thing… this should really drive the point home, w.r.t. ‘respect’. In Brunei, they never spot an old choppy-chop-worthy tree and chop it down the same day. No. This is considered disrespectful to the tree. What they’ll do is, the first day they’ll simply hit the tree with the axe and let it stick in the trunk, then they’ll come back the next day to actually chop it down. They have this belief that if you spot & chop the tree down the same day then it will yield no resinated agarwood, even if it displayed all the signs of sickness/dying/containing old, high grade oleoresin. Its considered disrespectful to the tree; disrespect the tree and it will not give you resinated agarwood. Perhaps what’s even more intriguing – to me at least – is that if another hunter comes across a tree and notices the axe stuck to the trunk, he will not usurp it. Talk about ‘respect’.. ha!
I can’t help but smile just thinking what would happen in this scenario, had this been in a jungle in, say, Malinau (Indonesia).
The old kindergarden tantra ‘finders keepers…’ holds a little too true in Brunei, and is disregarded pretty much everywhere else.

So I mentioned above that there are plenty of agarwood trees here in Brunei. But that’s not the same as saying plenty of high quality agarwood trees. Those are hard to get here, just like in every other agarwood producing country, although they seem to be more abundant here than most other countries.
There are strict anti-felling laws though. If you try to chop down a tree near the Indonesian or Malaysian border, you get shot to death. Its very common  for Serawak (Malaysian) hunters to cross over to Brunei to hunt down trees, and in fact most of the Bruneian agarwood trade is carried out by Malaysians, and what’s even more surprising is that the majority of the Bruneian wood sold by Bruneian wholesalers was acquired by them from Malaysian hunters! I guess the risk of getting shot to death is not a strong enough deterrent for the Malaysian and Indonesian hunters though… I’ve heard of agarwood being ‘more precious than gold’, but I guess to some its ‘more precious than life’…

Further north (away from the borders), the government is not that strict, so local Bruneian hunters usually focus more on these areas — even though its not technically legal. But its also not uncommon for folks to own hundreds of acres land of wild jungle, and there is of course even more jungle area that’s cleared to set up plantations of cash crops. In these latter 2 cases, felling of agarwood trees is completely legal since the land and all that it contains belongs to the owner of the property. Just last year, a 200+ year old tree was felled and it yielded over 60kg of sinking grade wood (!!!!). If you know anything about anything about agarwood, you’ll know that’s an absolutely insane amount of sinking grade wood. Usually you don’t get more than a kilo of sinking grade wood from a tree. 3-5 kg if you’re very fortunate.

Outside Haji Ridhwan’s humble distillery. The equipment was shipped from Assam, and the wood is cooked the  Assamese way here.

In Brunei, the biggest name in the oud world (which is a tiny one compared to the Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur oud markets) is ‘Haji Ridhwan’. If you have a Bruneian oil, chances are it was distilled at his facility. I spent a long time at his distillery inspecting his equipment and understanding his distillation technique. Unfortunately, although the quality of wood he uses for distilling oils is great, his distillation technique and set up are not congruous with Agar Aura’s distillation philosophy.

But the good news is: I’m partnering up with 2 other guys, one of them a distiller who is SO passionate about agarwood and oud oils, that he burns something like 1kg of wood every month (not that I endorse this, I consider it a waste), and uses a small pot to distill oils for his personal use extracted from the most insanely high quality wood.
These guys are agarwood nuts, and I could tell immediately that they would align perfectly with Agar Aura’s quality standards. Whereas most distillers flinch when I explain to them what I require, these 2 guys listen with perked ears and they’re eager to absorb everything I tell them. They are absolutely passionate about oud, and I think that the Bruneian products we create are going to be a resounding success. So stay tuned for those!

And stay tuned for more updates from Brunei. Until next time, selamat tinggal.

2 Comments Add yours
  1. Hello! I am just learning about Agar and all things essential oils.By luck,I found your site!Your journal/blog is fascinating.You are a good travel writer! And it sounds like you have ethics,a rarity in this field! I am interested to keep reading! Safe travels! Flynn

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Flynn!
      By the way, I’m traveling to Myanmar in about a week an plan to post about that as well. I hope it’ll be a successful trip.

      Stay tuned..

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