May 14, 2014 00:00 By Phoowadon Duangmee
Suan Baan Rao in Rayong is paradise found for any fan of durian
No two durian, it is said, smell the same. I remember hearing this when I was a child but it wasn’t until a recent visit to Suan Baan Rao, a large durian farm in the eastern province of Rayong, that I really understood the truth – the power – of this statement.
Spread over a hilly landscape and surrounded by high and leafy rubber plantation walls, the garden is home to more than 1,600 durian trees and offers fans a joyride of different odours and exotic flavours varying from a light whiff of the yammawat to the extremely forceful smell of the cha-ni.
“Over the decades our family has spent a lot of money and time collecting durian varieties from different places,” begins Kajohn Puttisuknirun, the co-owner of Suan Baan Rao farm, as he shows us around his 40-acres of orchards.
“With 111 varieties, this garden has the highest number of durian species in Thailand if not the world. What you see us is the result of years of blood, sweat and tears.”
Southeast Asian in origin, the “Durionaceae”, or durian as it’s more commonly known, is a decidedly unromantic fruit.
With its distinctive odour and spiky appearance, there’s little to admire about the durian. On the road, it makes for a much worse travel companion than a snoring partner. It’s banned on all airlines as the smell has a tendency to travel and penetrate from an unbelievable distance, no matter how well wrapped the fruit. Hoteliers unfailingly refuse to let it into the lobby. In the bus if you belch after eating durian, you won’t win a single friend.
However, beyond that forceful aroma is an ambrosial nectar. If you survive the pungent smell, you’re rewarded with a pleasantly sweet and fresh taste. Alfred Russel Wallace, a British biologist and the very first Westerner to taste fresh durian while on an expedition to Southeast Asia in the 19th-century, opined that it had a custardy flesh that tastes like almonds.
“Our family has a strong passion for durian,” says Kajohn, who was born and brought up in this eastern province, which is famous for the finest durian.
“My mother and my sister had a durian stall in Bangkok’s Chinatown. My brother and I grew up with piles of durian.”
Durian was the pride of Rayong, adds Kajohn, before being supplanted by rubber, which brought better prices. Local farmers cleared their durian orchards and planted rubber trees instead resulting in several durian varieties dying out completely. Today, only the monthong, kanyao and cha-ni are grown in the province’s orchards.
“It’s really tragic,” laments Kajohn. “We’ve lost some distinctive flavours. Our mission is to bring back those missing flavours through hundreds of varieties.”
We jump into the safari bus to cruise around the farm and are amazed at the small kingdom of durian that unfolds before our eyes. Thousands of these tropical trees stand side by side and we chuckle at the unusual names that include “kra toei na khao” (white-faced ladyboy), “ha luk mai theung phau” (five fruits that never reach the husband) and “thoranee wai” (earthquake). Some of the fruits are oval in shape and look rather like a spiky rugby ball, while others are round and flat.
“How are the durian named?” I ask Kajohn, as he shows us his “kra toei kan sun” or short-stemmed ladyboy.
“Every durian here carries its original name. We didn’t make any of them up,” Kajohn replies. “In fact, we’ve even done DNA matching to ensure the origin.”
He admits though that many of his durian are more valuable for their heritage than their marketing success. The “kra toei” family, for example, is not popular among the consumers because it has a big seed and little flesh to savour.
“Most people go for monthong because of its generous luscious flesh and small seeds. It’s the best value for money,” says Kajohn.
“But, if you’re a picky durian aficionado, the monthong has a rough, slightly chewy, texture.”
The farm tour at an end, we settle down to some serious durian tasting staring with the least pungent kra toei to the super nasty cha-ni. After a while, we begin to understand what it is that appeals about this “king of fruit”.
My sister prefers monthong to other kinds because she loves its sweet and chunky fresh. My girlfriend loves the chat si thong (golden umbrella) for its smooth texture and milky sweetness. Earth, my six-year-old nephew, cannot tell the difference, scoffing every glob of custardy flesh as if he were the original durian monster.
And it’s true: no two durian smell the same. We find that out to our cost on the way home, as four of us breathe durian fumes into a small car for 200 kilometres. Next time, my sister says firmly, we pack toothpaste and some breath freshener.
If you go
_ Suan Baan Rao is located in Klaeng, Rayong province.
_ We turned the visit into a day trip, leaving Bangkok on Highway 7 (Bangkok-Chon Buri) then turning on to Highway 344 (Ban Bueng-Klaeng).
_ Suan Baan Rao is about 10 kilometres before Klaeng. The monthong are at their best from mid-May.