The Chanthaburi World Durian Festival is probably the most famous of the durian festivals, although there are actually no less than 6 durian festivals in Thailand. (Count 'em and weep with joy, durian fans). The festival attracts hundreds of visitors from Bangkok and neighboring provinces, and a fair number of foreigners too. Despite the heavy rain, this year's festival is even bigger than last year.
It's an impressive turn out when the fact that the festival was postponed by nearly a month on short notice is taken into consideration. Many of my fellow durian fanatics from around the world had bought plane tickets to Thailand specifically for this event, only to arrive to an empty park and no durian.
Take it as a sign of global warning, the return of Nemesis, or God's dislike of human happiness, but the weird weather this year has altered the durian season in many regions of Asia. A heavy out-of-season rainstorm hit Chanthaburi in April, knocking down so many of the immature fruits that any attempt at a durian festival would be pathetic.
This year's festival is so big, it took me a good hour and half of walking on two evenings to see it all, and even then I'm not sure I did. Booths encircle the mile-long circumference of King Taksin Park lake, spilling over on one side into a labyrinthine network of food stalls, street restaurants, and vendors selling every object a person could ever need, from t-shirts to china tea sets, bathroom towels, balloons, and bras.
Most fruit-related events happen during the day, when the festival is reasonably quiet. The festival doesn't get really busy until around 4:30 PM, when the food carts start appearing and steam, smoke and weird smells start billowing up and down the street. It's the quintessential Thai street market, replete with octopus shish kabobs, an Asian take on hotdogs, piles of glistening fried noodles, and the requisite fried insect cart, all of it wet and shiny from either oil or the latest downpour.
The rain is an ever present threat, growling from blue-black clouds hovering just over the mountains. It can strike at any time in big, heavy drops that instantly soak clothing, dissipate crowds and ruin cameras. The postponement of the festival into June means that we are now getting a taste of Thailand's monsoon season.
By this point, you might be wondering where the durian part of the durian festival is. I wonder that too.
I mean, durian is around. I see small durian vendors everywhere, lining three sides of the lake including the street with all the carts of insects and roasting crayfish. But to be honest, I haven't actually seen anybody except me and my farang friends chowing any durian. What gives?
Maybe there was more durian action on the weekend. I did miss the opening ceremony, the parade, and the Miss Durian Beauty Pageant because I wanted to check out the Laplae Durian Festival. But I would think that at a durian festival of this size and prominence, somebody should be savoring a golden drop of durian at any given second.
Besides me and my friend Jake.
The main fruit events take place in the early afternoon, when the festival grounds are fairly deserted. The Fruit Tasting booth is the first do-not-miss event, a free fruit free-for-all that you get by signing your name in a little book. It's an unlimited table piled with mangosteens, rambutans, longkongs, snakefruits (salacca), and yes, durian, that you can eat to your hearts content. Dumbfounded, Jake said "They were not expecting me."
The next best part of the festival is Durian Tasting tent, which offers samples of rare durian varieties from the Horticultural Research Center, like Foithong, Kob Suan, and Kampun Tapaeng. The varieties available are different every day, driving me back every evening to check. It's good to be around 5:30 or 6 PM, when whatever durian is left is simply given away.
The schedule also lists a fruit product demonstration and a fruit eating competition, but although I've searched I haven't been able to find either, or anybody who knows anything about it.
I expect the festival to ramp up in durian fun when my friend Grant, an Australian durian fiend, arrives. Grant is the three time Durian Speed Eating Champ, and gobbles durian like no one you have ever seen (I promise. Check him out in this video from last year). If he can find this year's fruit eating festival, the durian side of the festival is bound to get more interesting.