rise tongkat ali - Forest Research Institute Malaysia



rise tongkat ali - Forest Research Institute Malaysia
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Words by Jon Chew
Photographs by Puah Sze Ning
Oe stares like he's watching a stripper
dance. But he's in a restaurant, not
a gentlemen's club. A middle­aged
Chinese man with a simple white T­
shirt and jeans, he's been spooning
his teh tarik while glancing towards
the back of the kopitiam for a full minute. A TV show
starring the young Sharifah Amani hasn't caught his
eye. He's taken up by visions of small sachets. Indeci­
sive, he wonders if he should beckon the store owner
to ask her for a price.
The eatery he's in, Restoran D'Chow Kit, is fa­
mous for three things. One, it's right in the centre of
the infamous Chow Kit Road. A relatively obscure
street caught in the maze of Kuala Lumpur's city
centre, Chow Kit has an almost mythical status for
its wet markets that sell everything you want, and for
more illicit activities like prostitution and drug ped­
dling. Named after millionaire entrepreneur Loke
Chow Kit, the street was immortalised by pop leg­
100,000 people and whose song, "Chow Kit Road",
contained some ironic observations about being
careful when crossing this particular junction.
Di tengah bandaraya walau baik orangnya;
Perlu berhati­hati di tipu pencuri.
Bila melintas jalan jangan sesuka had;
Ditangkap mata­mata barupadan muka.
Restoran D'Chow Kit is also known for its Ikan Ba­
kar Menangis, a dish they proudly advertise on their
shop­front signboard. It's stingray, marinated in lib­
eral doses of sambal and chilli. And while it looks furi­
ously red, its reputation precedes itself and the fish is
delicious without burning the naked tongue.
What else is the restaurant known for? A row of
aphrodisiacs that line their back wall.
John—that's how he wants to be addressed—has
a reason for gawking. He's a 50­something Singapor­
ean masseur who's spent the last 22 years making
house­calls to clients in the Lion City, using a combi­
nation of the more traditional Swedish strokes with
the stretching­style of Thai therapy. A skinny guy
who hunches, he swears his hands are strong enough
for the job.
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"Look at how many clients I have," he says, flip­
at me and a smile inches out. The sachets make for an
ping through his address book on his iPhone. People
come back to him, he says, because he's always up­to­
date with the latest in the kneading industry. That's
why he comes to KL so often, at least once a month
for a few days. He visits massage parlours here to get
impressive sight in the restaurant and they're most­
ly for display. But there are regular customers who
make a pit­stop here before they head to the night
market or nearby hotels for an escapade. It's a tidy
side­business she's running and as they say, location,
location, location.
"You want to try?" She dares my
tips, meet old friends and to try them out for himself.
Below: The laboratory
at the Forest Research
Institute of Malaysia is
stocked with tongkat
ali extract.
Even the dodgy ones. "Not often. you know, when they offer extra ser­
anhood. I think for a second and
nd myself doing the stare. The
vices, you just..." He stops there and
lood rushes to mv head.
What he's really interested in is *
the restaurant's infamous "Wall of
ave the plants, save
Flame". All kinds of love potions are available here—Kopi Kucing Galak, a
drink mix that includes herba kucing
galak, a small herb that causes cats to
moan after smelling it; Kopi Jantan,
which literally means "macho man
coffee"; goat's milk, with the curi­
ous image of what looks like Kelan­
the world.
The idea that
the botany around
us holds mystical
properties blessed
om the heavens have been around
nce time immemorial. More than
5,000 plant species have reportedly
tan's Menteri Besar Nik Abdul Aziz
een used all over the world for medi­
on the front of every packet. Every
product has one common ingredient:
an extract from the popular plant eu­
rycoma longifolia, more commonly
known as tongkat ali.
John's headingto a nearby massage
parlour off Chow Kit Road and he's
wondering if he should try a mix
labelled "tongkat ali cappuccino". "I
heard it's damn good. Very powerful."
"You haven't tried tongkat ali
al purposes and truth is, that num­
er could be much higher. In 1935,
nglish botanist Isaac Henry Burkill
ocumented no less than 1,300 plants
n the Malay Peninsula that have been
sed in traditional medicine. Our
and is fertile with urban legends of
eaves that cure malaria and of roots
before?" "No, but I think I should." He
calls the owner, a lady with bright
red lipstick, and asks her how much
for a sachet.
"RM23." She recommends another pr
Cafe coffee mix that contains ginseng an
He thinks for a while. Then he hands over RM50.
"Two packets."
As he leaves, Restoran D'Chow Kit's owner looks
Top: Studies into
tongkat ali and its
benefits have been
going on for more than
20 years.
hat restore your strength. Above this
ierarchy of potent plants lies a small
reelet with spirally­arranged leaves,
bitter aftertaste and powers that
ave aided men's personal uprising
jIlce t}je ear]y 1900s. It is, after all,
li's walking stick.
s a sex plant isn't a news flash. A
rub that can be easily found in rain­
ests situated in Sabah, Pahang and Malacca, its
pecial place in men's health was documented as
early as the 1930s in the seminal tome The Medical
Book of Malayan Medicine. The first official labora­
Let's be honest: I know there are many of
Road Test;
Stand And Deliver
Need to keep your pecker up?
What better than tongkat ali. One
overworked editor, husband and
father of two takes a course of
the famous stimulant and
recorded its effects.
Words by
Matt Bellotti
you only reading this for the sex. You can
sit there, stroking your chin and nodding
sagely, pretending to friends in the room or
strangers on the train that you're reading
Esquire for the intelligent, thought­provoking
journalism, the scientific analysis of the body's
reaction to an Eastern medicinal therapy.
But when push comes to shove, you're only
interested in the bit where I get laid. It's okay.
I'm not judging and I won't waste your time.
To skip past all the science stuff and everyday
experiences from my weekend of tongkat ali
testing, go straight to paragraph eight. That's
got all the juicy bits. You're welcome,
Okay, if you're still with me, I'll assume you
do actually want to learn about my fortnight
under the effects of Malaysia's most renowned
Day One: Thursday. The jar sits on my desk,
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tory studies took place between
1980 and 1990, conducted by
the eye. And he's leading a
charge to put tongkat ali on the
map as Malaysia's natural gift to
researchers at Univcrsiti Sains
the world.
Malaysia in Penang and in Uni­
versiti Malaya, showing that
tongkat ali could lift testoster­
one levels and increase fertility
blessed with
youth. At 62,
It took a landmark study in 2001 by a researcher named Dr
he looks just a
notch over 40,
Ismail Tambi to confirm the
concupiscence raising qualities
of the plant. Thirty married,
middle­aged men took 200mg
of a tongkat ali extract for three c
and after some time, Ismail noted that 73 percent
remarked they felt healthy, active and energised.
Sixty­two percent felt an increased sexual desire.
All showed a rising free testosterone index. Even
ith a fresh complexion and the
thusiasm of men many times
unger. At his clinic in Damai
Top: Little jars of
the plant known 35
eurycoma longifolta,
or better known as
tongkat ali.
their levels of DTIEA, a critical steroid hormone
produced by our adrenal glands—and is also banned
as an external dietary supplement for sportsmen by
the World Anti­Doping Agency—had increased from
26 percent after one week to 47 percent after three.
Science backed up generations of Chinese
whispers passed down by indigenous folk
to city citizens: tongkat ali fulfils your nee
lan Ipoh, where he's the con­
sulting clinical andrologist and also the reproductive
and sexual health specialist there, his room is filled
with the expected apparatus, including one to test pe­
nile strength by pushing tiny cushions labelled "soft",
''medium" and "hard".
Below: The leaves
are extremely bitter
when eaten, while the
roots can be pounded
into a powder.
Ismail is somewhat of a tongkat ali evangelist. He
first presented a paper on tongkat ali in 1986 for the
Asia Pacific Congress of Impotence Research, ad­
vocating that natural herbs like this one holds vast
possibilities for men's health. It was his re­
for speed and opens the right lane down the sex drive highway. But what's not so highly publicised is
the other parts of tongkat ali. How for gen­ B
erations, the Orang Asli believe that the
plants' value goes far beyond just boosting a man's libido. How scientists have since «
yielded some surprising findings about I
the herb. That, quite possibly, tongkat ali
could have intrinsic power to fight malaria,
reduce stress, has anti­cancer and pro­fer­
tility properties. In a nutshell, if harnessed W
correctly, tongkat ali is the miracle plant of
What does that mean for the potential of w
a small herb from the hilltops of Malaysia?
One man believes there's more than meets H
drawing furtive looks from colleagues. What
were they thinking? What did they think I was
thinking? It's for an article? Yeah. Sure. The first
thing to say is that tongkat ali is not like Viagra.
There were no straining erections to hide, no
tent­poles to cover with cushions, no impact
on the size or abilities of my penis. Maybe I was
doing it wrong.
That evening I was out entertaining
guests from overseas. They were in town for a
conference and I was helping to entertain them
and show off KL at night. After watching the
Time Out Comedy Thursday show, which would
have been a different kind of funny had tongkat
ali delivered me an erection as 250 people
watched me, we started a bar crawl around the
city. As I do after most shows, I quickly made up
for the fact that I don't booze before taking the
stage and within a few hours had got outside
three jugs of beer and a few glasses of bourbon.
To be honest, I should have been a paralytic
by now. Was tongkat ali delivering me clarity
and stamina? I suspect it was. The reason I say
this is, not only was I compos mentis in the eyes
of our guests, but I was busting some elaborate
shapes on the dance floor until after 4:30am.
More amazing than that, I woke up the next
morning and went to work with less than three
hours sleep, feeling awake, alert and—get this—
no hangover. Heavy drinking, wild dancing, not
feeling like someone had poured pints of earwax
down my throat the next morning...something
was up. And not, I feel you want me to report, in
my underpants.
Friday was another evening out and the lack
of sleep should have been catching up with me.
The head was feeling a bit fuzzy, but I certainly
didn't feel tired, I had less than five hours sleep
that night before being jumped on in bed by a
young blonde. It was my four­year­old daughter.
search on the plant that paved its way as
a legitimately proven aphrodisiac. If that's
not enough, he would point to himself as
living proof that tongkat ali has untapped
potential for lifting a man's overall well­
being. He should know—he's been taking
tongkat ali religiously for the last 12 years.
"Except for this bald spot here. Tongkat
ali can't help with that," he says, chuckling.
For all the aphrodisiac qualities of tong­
kat ali, it's the other findings that has Ismail
excited. Take the sports industry, specifical­
ly the arena of bodybuilding. Annual sales of
bodybuilding supplements in America are
reported to be around RM8 billion, and as
you can imagine those numbers are boosted
by steroids that have well­documented side
cffects, and arc deemed illegal by most gov­
erning bodies. Introduce a natural muscle­
Screw no sleep—I had to get straight into Daddy
mode. Nappies needed changing, clothes had to
be forced onto overhyped kids, breakfast made
and crammed into their mouths while they were
climbing over the couches, and after all this
we needed some new furniture, so we were all
going to IKEA.
This was the ultimate tongkat ali test. Could
it deliver a middle­aged, overweight man with
next­to no sleep through the horrors of Sweden's
greatest torture chamber­cum­home furniture
warehouse? If I tell you that at one point I had to
climb behind the shelves of flat­packed cabinets,
sliding and rolling like an army combatant to
catch my yobbish two­year­old son, you'll see
that the medicine was serving me well. But then
we had to get home and, when I should have
been even more exhausted, we still had the
rigmarole of assembling said table and chairs.
There we were on the floor, my wife and I,
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mass building product that seems safe and it's like
waving low­glucose sugar in front of ants.
Enter "longjack", the term bodybuilders have giv­
en to tongkat ali for use in their exercise regimens. In
a study conducted in 2000 at Universiti Malaya, 14
healthy adult males were split into two groups and
given a daily tongkat ali extract or a placebo. Both
groups performed an intensive strength­training
programme and when compared after eight weeks,
the bunch taking the extract showed improved body
mass index when compared to the other test batch.
In short, tongkat ali made them stronger. So it's no
wonder longjack has become a popular import into
the US and Canada.
"It's a bloody huge market," confirms Ismail.
"One thing as well, we did research on it recently and
tongkat ali has the potential to hasten fatigue recov­
ery. You do sports, after the game you feel lethargic,
tired. We found that if you take this, you won't feel it,
the aches, the pains." He points to a 2007 study done
at the Liaoning Sport Science and Technology Insti­
tute in China, where elderly male cyclists who took
a tongkat ali extract found that it facilitates fatigue
recovery besides enhancing free testosterone. Even
more pertinently, Ismail points out that the extract
has been found to be non­toxic even at high levels of
600mg to the body's vital functions. In other words,
you can't overdose.
Ismail has also done studies that show tongkat
ali's ability to treat men with infertility. When 75
patients completed a cycle of regular dosage with
the extract, there was significant improvement in
the volume of semen, sperm concentration and the
percentage of normal sperm in men with infertil­
ity issues. "It can act like a conductor, like a man­
du (driver) organising systems in the body to be in
place. In fact, I was able to place tongkat ali as an
adaptogen, compounds which can elevate stress,
and give wellness without any side effects. It's sup­
posed to help balance out the body's health system
as opposed to just putting it in one corner and label­
ling it an aphrodisiac."
It would seem that more colleagues in the men's
health community are also seeing the potent benefits
legs everywhere, as I was grinding away with
my big tool. The screwing was tough work and I
was puffing and panting away, but it looked and
felt great and in no time at all, I had produced
the desired result. So I did the same again. Next
time I changed position as my bottom had gone
numb, but the final result was just as satisfying.
At the end, my wife looked over at me with a big
grin and a single tear of pride running down her
face. I should say, the pictures we had laid out on
the floor were a big help.
Yes, those kids sure loved their IKEA table
and chairs. After all that exercise, Saturday
night was a quiet one with a few tins of beer
and football. Sunday was the last day of the
experiment and I took one last look at the
bottle before taking my final two tablets. In big
letters on the front: for good health and vitality. I
certainly felt healthier and more...vital. But there
was this slight fuzziness of the head I mentioned
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of the plant. "I can confirm what Professor Tambi
told you about the benefits of tongkat ali," says Ralf
Henkel, a South African researcher who is the dep­
uty chairperson of the Department of Medical Bio­
sciences at the University of Western Cape. He met
Ismail at a conference in 2002 and has worked with
him in studying the plant. While he's generally less
effusive and cautions against overhyping the plant's
strengths, he definitely knows the results speak for
themselves. "I see a huge market, as male infertility
is generally a globally, totally underestimated public
health issue. Globally, 10 to 15 percent of couples suf­
fer from infertility. If we also add the huge numbers
of elderly men who suffer from aging male symp­
toms, which include hypogonadism, erectile dys­
function and fatigue, this will make it worthwhile to
market the product," he explains.
Dig deeper and science is uncovering a wealth of
merits to this unassuming plant. A study by the In­
stitute for Medical Research in 2005 confirmed that
tongkat ali could help fight malarial parasites and
combat malarial fever. Another one in 2002 showed
that the tongkat ali extract could induce apopto­
sis of cancer cells, much like in chemotherapy. The
Vietnamese name for the plant, cay ba binh, literally
means "the remedy for 1,000 diseases". Put it togeth­
er and what's stopping tongkat ali from becoming a
super­tonic for the 21st century? Turns out, it starts
with the tiny square packets at the back of a restau­
rant in Chow Kit.
0ake a trip to the Forest Research In­
stitute of Malaysia, more commonly
known as FRIM, and you immedi­
ately enter one of the best­kept se­
crets in the land. Located in Kepong,
on the borders of Kuala Lumpur and
Selangor, the area offers more than 1,520 hectares of
untouched forests, gardens, wetlands with trails and
a thriving ecosystem that has invigorated early morn­
ing joggers for years. It is, quite literally, a breath of
fresh air. It also houses the government agency that
researches and promotes the best use of Malaysia's
vast forest resources. There are more than 20 differ­
earlier. If I'm going to credit my energy and
stamina to the pills, I should also suggest its
side­effects and the brain fuzz, albeit just a faint
sensation, was something I could do without.
That Sunday I chased the kids around
JungleGym for more than two hours, went
swimming in the afternoon and volunteered to
cook dinner.
on the Sabbath, but not this week.
I'm left to conclude that tongkat a
works. This study was hardly scientific. Wa
I consciously or unconsciously more
active over these days than usual? I
don't think so. I really think after four
days on tongkat ali that it does give a
boost to your health and vitality. I've not going to tell us the effects it had in the
I was asked by Esquire to write on my
experience with tongkat ali specifically because
I'm one of the few married members of the
team. Hence I could write about the lovemaking
aspect without it appearing seedy. The thing
nobody in the team realised was that by being
married, my sex life is so occasional that the
chance of me catching any during the testing
sample was virtually none. However, you may
be as pleased as I was to find this week
an exception. At the risk of
being vulgar, I can
ble legs were
even gone out and bought another bottle of it. Hang on a minute, you're thinking: Where's the sex? You took
tongkat ali for four days and you're
es. My best score
Page No
30 Apr 2012
ent research areas that occupy different parts of this
natural park, each tasked with getting the most out of
the country's tropical greenery.
Tongkat ali has always been of particular interest
to FRIM. Already, annual exports of the plant are es­
timated at RM100 million and the government plans
to make the brand synonymous with the country, the
way green tea is with Japan. Since 1999, FRIM has
coordinated research and development on the plant
through a biotech programme that includes local
companies and the illustrious Massachusetts Insti­
tute of Technology.
But what's proving to be a huge hindrance has
been the proliferation of fake tongkat ali products
on the market. Some estimate that over 80 percent
of tongkat ali products sold worldwide are coun­
terfeit, many of them online through eBay or other
underground websites. The problem isn't just over
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years. "I have been writing about quackery long be­
fore I wrote about tongkat ali, and more aggressively.
For example, the worldwide multivitamin hoax, or
the Atkins nonsense, or PayPal banking, or e­gold
scams. It's a very long list of topics and it goes back
40 years," he says.
His website, sergekreutz.com, has over 100 ar­
ticles on various internet scams, most of it related
to enhancing a man's Eros. Many of them detail
tongkat ali and how it has helped his own sex life­
he's been taking it for around 15 years—and how to
avoid the phonies that flood the market. One issue,
for example, is the use of stearic acid with some bo­
gus tongkat ali products. "Most stearic acid used in
supplements is made from dead animal parts, many
in a state of decay. The cheapest stearic acid comes
from China and is marketed throughout the world.
It's very uncontrolled." It would be of particular im­
our shorelines. In one FRIM study on 200 samples
portance to Muslims as this could possibly be non­
of tongkat ali coffee, only a handful contained the
plant extract. Even then, the active content inside
the drinks were found to be far too low to be of any
benefit. The reason is simple: The pure cxtract of
the plant is bitter. "Very bitter. If it's used in large
quantities, then the drink will be undrinkable," says
Dr Rasadah Mat Ali, FRIM's natural products divi­
halal in nature. "Those who fake tongkat ali by add­
ing illegal substances, who fake labels, who fake in­
gredients claims, are unlikely to have qualms when
it comes to printing halal on the label. You may want
to bring stearic acid to the attention of ulama coun­
sion director.
fake tongkat ali within our borders. The National
Pharmaceutical Control Bureau has managed to
register around 277 products with tongkat ali and
All coffee mixes you see in shops, for the most
part, contain too small a dosage of tongkat ali to re­
ally be effective. When it comes to a certified, bona
fide tongkat ali product, a water­soluble capsule
called "nu­Prep" produced by Biotropics, a govern­
ment­linked corporation (and FRIM's own bottles)
remains one of the most legitimate way to get a
true­blue tongkat ali experience. But a bottle of 60
nu­Prep pills cost RM160 from pharmacies and cus­
tomers looking for one will find cheaper alternatives
from peddlers on the street, or in kopitiams dotted
across the landscape.
Ismail acknowledges that a lot of the supposed
tongkat ali supplements outside are, by and large,
contaminated. "People think that tongkat ali is great
for sex and if they can get something that mimics it,
that can produce the expected result without know­
ing how or what's inside, then they'll still go for it."
Among the most popular ways of creating a dubi­
ous substitute is to mix a small dosage of tongkat ali
root powder and a PDE5 inhibitor drug, like Viagra.
Some add ash, stearic acid and even some form of
steroids to achieve the same effect, with dangerous
cils," he adds.
But efforts are made to help curb the export of
there's hope that the accessibility of the plant ex­
tract will cause people with an urge to turn away
from fakes. Ismail himself is trying to combat the
scourge with more research, including a study into
producing a tasteless tongkat ali extract that could,
if it enters mass production, revolutionise the drink
mix tongkat ali market. "It has so much potential,
and not just as an aphrodisiac. It has anti­aging el­
ements; it's supposed to interrupt the free radical
cycle. It just works."
Even FRIM is getting into the action, putting into
motion studies on the energy­boosting properties of
tongkat ali and its potential in the sporting ring. "The
studies are looking positive and interesting so far,"
says Rasadah. Once the community is in agreement
on the potent possibilities, there's no telling where
the path for Malaysia's ubiquitous healing plant
might go. Beyond the confines of bedroom walls and
seedy hotel chains. Beyond the back wall of a coffee
shop in downtown KL.
consequences. "If someone is not healthy, has heart
Ohe stares like she's watching a kid at
problems, or other medicinal issues that put him in
a toy shop. She watches as I hold an
the high­risk bracket, taking something that isn't
tongkat ali might cause a fatality," says Ismail.
The counterfeits are even more prevalent on­
internal debate.
line, where there are less checks and balances re­
quired to sell these tongkat ali variants. Some have
taken it upon themselves to educate buyers, includ­
ing Serge Kreutz, a 60­something online writer who
takes particular interest in uncovering scams on the
internet. Attempts to uncover his background hit a
brick wall—he refuses to divulge personal details—
but he's been passionately exposing cyber­fakes for
Maybe not.
I shake my head and walk out
without looking back. The shop owner bids me fare­
well, a cheeky smile still present. You'll be back, she's
thinking. They always come back.
Shame, because the sun was burning and I had a
throbbing headache. My tongue hurt. I was going to
get a parking ticket. So I'll be damned if I didn't find a
pharmacy and buy myself a packet of Panadol. M