A recent realignment in career direction has taken me from Asia’s bright lights, big cities and tequila bars to the town where I grew up, Ipoh, a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur on an expressway that snakes through hills and valleys.
In this city, formerly the world’s most prolific tin mining hub, the pace of life —and traffic —rolls along peacefully like the undulations of the postcard-perfect limestone hills that encircle the city like a natural fort. It’s also home, and as I get older, this takes on greater meaning. Home can be a place that gives us roots, giving a reassurance of belonging and familiarity and the knowing that no matter where we venture in the world or where we end up; there is always a place we can return to recharge and recalibrate.
So one Sunday, on an errand to buy top soil for my mother’s Rangoon Creepers, I find myself in a richly foliaged garden center stocked with the normal supplies and the rather unusual set-up of a table with a stand for tea. There, two men can be seen sipping from cups of hot water brewed not from tea leaves but from tiny pieces of wood. A chat with one of the men, Chai Enge Seng, reveals the tea derives from the wood of the various amber-colored barks and trunks, filling the garden nursery.
Chai tells me that the species, known in the wild as raja kayu or wood king, and as the garden variety cassia fistula, is sacred to the area’s indigenous people who never fell the trees, taking its barks and branches instead. Raja kayu is known to tap into the earth’s positive electromagnetic energy sources, and with each tree’s height and reach, good vibes are radiated to the rest of the jungle, keeping a calm equilibrium in what must probably be something comparable to the wild west of the tropics.
There is a story of an elephant that rampaged through a section of forest, devouring bananas, but the raja kayu was left untouched. The indigenous people who live in the jungles around Ipoh use barks from the raja kayu in their wells and other sources, to purify the water supply. While taking tea, Chai gives a quick chemistry class demonstration: he places four drops of iodine each into two canisters, one containing tap water; the other water from the raja kayu tea. The former turns a murky yellow; while the latter maintains its clarity.
The entrepreneurial plant nursery owner has created a variety of raja kayu products – tea, facial cleanser, shower cream, and beauty potion, all of which are based on the tree’s lab-tested detoxification benefits. I ask him about his future plans. “A spa, perhaps,” he replies, smiling.