Kep: A Durian Beachside Retreat

In the year that Rob and I spent combing Asia for durian, we visited the beach maybe five times. Durian typically prefers the slightly elevated interior regions, and so we spent over two months in Thailand avoiding those gorgeous stretches of white sand I always see in travel magazines.  Rob actually does hate sand. But I would happily be a beach babe, and in Kep I finally got my days of sun, sea air and durian. In Kep, they even sell durian on the beach! How sweet is that?

Kep was built in 1908 as a seaside resort for French colonials. It had a hard time during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, who had real issues with those those wealthy enough to keep summer homes (or mansions).  The Khmer Rouge must have loved that sea breeze too, because they were really reluctant to give Kep up. Occasional visits by guerrillas continued  to scare the living daylights out of Kep's inhabitants until 1997. Not a great reputation for a tourist destination.  Kep is now making a slow come back and is a popular, if quiet, place for ex-pats living in Phnomh Penh to spend the weekend and get away from the oppressive heat of the interior.

My friend Jess, an amazing yogini and devourer of durian, met me in Kep with her Cambodian boyfriend Alex. Alex was kind of enough to be used (hopefully not too abused) as a translator.  He was really instrumental in getting a good understanding of Cambodian durian and a start on cataloging the various varieties, something we struggled to do last year. Thanks to Alex, I have now consciously tasted over six varieties and was introduced to thurain sre, Cambodia's version of backyard or village durian. I have to say, thurain sre is very nice.

That's a motorcycle tied on the back
I had planned to meet Jess and Alex a day earlier, since they had a few days off work, but I got distracted looking for durian in Koh Kong. I arrived in Kep the next day, slightly bedraggled after a five hour ride in a minivan that should win a prize for efficiently used space. Two men squeezed into the front passenger seat, while a third hovered in the empty space around the stick shift. Just behind him, no less than seven grown-ups and one six-year-old child shared the front row. Including me.  Wedged into the corner with my arm sticking out the window, I actually got slightly sunburned. Thanks to inheriting my grandma's olive skin, I can count on my fingers the number of times I've been burned. Now I can count another.

When I arrived, it was durian go time. I knew we had time for only two durian feasts before Alex and Jess would have to leave, so we had to make up for lost time. Jess and I hopped onto the motorbike behind Alex and we cruised down to the beach, where Jess and Alex had befriended a lady with some really quality Mon thong durian. Normally I am too stuck up to eat Monthong. It's not just an attitude thing. Often I find fresh Monthong barely palatable - sickly sweet with a strange metallic aftertaste. I figured it was a characteristic of the variety. This Monthong was amazing. Rich and chocolatey, with a perfectly creamy texture, I now have to rethink my bias.

Monthong: no longer something to scorn

Still, I was a little disappointed to find that most of the durian being sold up and down the beach was Monthong, but Jess said we would find a lot more varieties at the Crab Market (Phsar Kdam) in the morning. As a seaside town, one of Kep's main attractions is fresh seafood. Not my style. But the Crab Market seems to be only half dead sea animals, and the other half durians. They should call it the Crab-Durian Market, or maybe just the Stinky Stuff Market.

The next morning we headed to the Stinky Stuff Market for a late durian breakfast. There was more durian than I have seen in a while. There were piles of it all over the place, sold by women squatting under colorful beach umbrellas. Thanks to Alex's language skills, we found a vendor selling several varieties right away and plopped down. While we negotiated with the lady for a Nungoye durian, a pretty grey-brown fruit with a golden hue,  Darrick flitted here and there through the crowd, bringing back different durians for us to sample. Between our own purchases and Darrick's contributions, we had quite the pile of shells when we were finally full.  I didn't feel hungry for the rest of the day.

Jess and Alex

Sadly, Jess and Alex had to tear themselves away that afternoon. Darrick and I were left to our own devices, which meant durian. Darrick got wind of a durian orchard somewhere in the Kep area. Most of the durian at the Crab Market is trucked in from Kampot, about 25 km away, so local Kep durian was an exciting find. The hitch was to go there with someone who spoke English.

Luck was on our side. While out exploring, Darrick and I ran into a tuk-tuk driver named Vet at a sugar cane juice stand. Vet started telling us stories about his life under the Khmer Rouge tyranny, and we knew we had our man. He knew where the durian orchards were, and for $12 was happy to take us.

We visited two durian orchards that afternoon on a hill or small mountain inhabited by the Khmer Rouge in the 1990's. For years local people steered a wide berth around the mountain, which was riddled with landmines and hungry insurgents. As we crossed a gleaming rail road track on a deserted dusty road, Vet stopped the tuk-tuk. He pointed at the tracks and told us that here was where the Khmer Rouge kidnapped three tourists, burying their bodies somewhere on the mountain. I started to feel nervous, but then Vet kicked the engine to life and we continued on.

The durian orchards were planted about 10 years ago, after the government removed the landmines. As we drove, I kept seeing field after field of mango trees. There are only three durian orchards on the mountain, growing Monthong, Thurain Sre, and Oyekak, which is the same thing as the Thai Chanee. Two of the farms also grow the famous Kampot pepper. When we pulled up to the farm, I was excited to see that the durian trees were interplanted with pepper! I've seen durian planted with cocao, or coconuts, or banana, but never durian and pepper. I'm a huge fan of interplanting, as it creates a more stable income for the farmer while encouraging biodiversity of insect life and decreasing the need for pesticides.

We sampled one durian on the farm, a small round fruit that Darrick said looked a lot like the Thai variety Kradum. The woman on the farm said it was a thurian sre, an unknown variety grown from seed. Maybe it was a distant relative of Kradum. Either way, it was delicious. We were hungry for more, but at nearly double the price of durians sold at the Crab Market we decided to reserve our durian budgets for cheaper fare.

I'm glad we did, because the next day I tasted the best durian of 2013 (so far). I'm constantlyt on the hunt to taste new Cambodian varieties, and that day was looking for one called Dongkat. Against my better judgement I had bought one the day before that tasted terrible. Like a durian noob, I had let the durian vendor push a yellowed, splitting fruit on me. No surprise, when we opened it up it was both overripe and under ripe, a tasteless, translucent glop that gives a bad name to durian everywhere. With vendors like this peddling crap durian to anyone stupid or ignorant enough to buy, no wonder most western people don't like durian their first time.

But back to that glorious melt-in-the-mouth, drives-me-crazy durian that was so perfectly sticky, creamy, rich and bitter-sweet that even now I am practically drooling just remembering it's coffee essence. This durian rivals Malaysian durian more than any other durian I've had in the other countries. The woman at the stall said it was "Dongkat," and you better believe I'm going to be looking for more.

Drool away, durian friends. This one's worth it.

Next stop: Kampot, Cambodia.