Our happy discovery of the original Puangmanee durian tree started at an ungodly hour of the morning. It was still dark when Hnong pulled round in his pick-up truck and we three squeezed in beside him on the narrow bench. It was way too early to even think about breakfast, much less a breakfast of this little Snickers of a durian with bright orange-gold flesh.
We were on our way to a small village morning market in Khom Bang, in the countryside of Chanthaburi, Thailand. My friend Grant (@rawaussieathlete) was on the hunt for good tree-dropped durian to feed his annual Health and Adventure Retreat.
I had rolled out of bed because….well, Grant mentioned the word durian. I was hoping for Puangmanee, but I didn’t have expectations. I certainly didn’t expect to meet Manee herself.
Chanthaburi Local Market
By the time the sun had cast pink across a grey sky, everyone at the market was wide awake and bustling. Grant was running around to all the individual vendors collecting tree-dropped durians into a large basket.
Tree-dropped durian in Thailand is a bit of a rarity that you find most often at very small, local markets where people who don’t have big orchards come to sell their produce. In Thailand, most farmers cut or “pick” their durians. It’s the people who have just one or two trees, or whose trees are too tall to climb, that sell tree-dropped durians.
Tree-dropped durian in Thailand is amazing (just ask for thurien loan). Tree-dropped Puangmanee is about the pinnacle of the durian-eating experience.
So my friend Alicia and I just watched as Grant searched up and down the street, frozen in place by this:
How Puangmanee Tastes
Puangmanee is a small, green durian with a lustrous yellow-gold interior. It’s often sold in Malaysia during the off-season as Musang King or Red Prawn or whatever is most hip and expensive (see Sri Hartamas Stall in Kuala Lumpur, Durian King in Taiping, or 1818 Stall in Penang)
Malaysians like Puangmanee. Everybody likes Puangmanee.
It’s hard not to like a durian that tastes somewhere between toffee and the almond version (and obviously better version) of the Snickers candy bar.
But it’s smooth and sweet and chocolatey, like milk-chocolate over almond brittle. Sometimes it even reminds me a little bit of Penang’s Kun Poh, another durian that often tops my best-of-the-year lists.
It was already a good morning, watching sunrise with a friend over a cache of freshly fallen and sticky Puangmanee. But then Hnong talked with the vendor and turned to us.
“She knows Manee.”
I’d been looking for her for a long time.
Manee Chalermpong is the namesake of the Puangmanee durian. She’s 89 years old and a tiny 4.5 feet or so of sweetness.
She thinks it’s pretty silly that a durian carries her name, but she kind of likes it. It’s one of those pleasing and random surprises in life that her durian, and her name, have become so well known.
About 30 years ago, her very shy husband entered Puangmanee in a durian contest in Rayong. This is her around that time:
They had given the tree, and it’s durian, a name that was sort of a joke. It was called Ee Nua Daeng, which translates directly as “Red-fleshed” but has some saucier nuances.
The durian won first prize at the Rayong contest, and then again at a Bangkok contest, and then again at a Chanthaburi contest.
When the judge asked her husband what the durian was called, he was too shy to answer. So the judge asked him for his wife’s name. He found his tongue enough to reply, “Manee.”
Manee and her husband were primarily rubber farmers, but they had an orchard around their house with trees planted by the previous owner, and Mr. Germ and Mrs. Ping. Around 1955, when Manee was 22 years old, her mother-in-law purchased the land for the young couple as a wedding gift. The tree was already there.
The tree is still there.
Just last week I brought my Durian Tour group to see it. We braved a torrential rainstorm to stand beneath it’s old snaking branches.
Seeing the tree is like coming to the center of a tiny-tiny-tiny universe. It’s one of those places where you feel yourself at the start of something that was insignificant until it wasn’t anymore.
How could it stay insignificant when it tastes like this?
How to Identify Puangmanee
Puangmanee is a small durian. It rarely weighs more than 1.5 kg, and is camouflage green. It’s pre-fix, “Puang” refers to both it’s small size and tendency to grow fruits closely together in clusters of 10 or more little durians. “Puang” means a cluster of flowers.
“Manee” actually means gems, so if you directly translate Puangmanee it means “jewel cluster.”
This is a page taken from my book, The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Thailand.
- Each section tends to have only one or two seeds (instead of the usual 3)
- As it ripens, it develops dark, kind of translucent patches
- The seed very often shows through the flesh, like this:
The color and texture can vary a lot, depending on how ripe it is. A Puangmanee that is cut off the tree and not very ripe has smooth, shiny flesh with a pale wheaten glow. Kind of like this:
When its really, really ripe, and even overripe, the color can deepen to a shocking sunset, like this:
It’s a beautiful little durian, and it’s no surprise that it comes from a beautiful garden.
Visiting Puangmanee Garden
This year, Manee and her son Mongkhon and his wife Jitta opened their garden to durian visitors.
On their porch they’ve put out a fruit buffet of mangosteens, rambutans, and longkongs, as well as comfortable tables and chairs, fans, and even a misting system to keep guests cool. I thought that was very high tech.
We pulled together two tables to accommodate our large group and hung out as it started to drizzle, then rain, then downpour.
We didn’t mind, protected under the roof with plenty of good durians to distract us.
In addition to Puangmanee, they have Monthong, Chanee, Ganyao, and one very old tree they call Chat Mongkhon with huge yellow pillows of flesh.
If we’d wanted to, or it wasn’t sopping wet out there, we could have also holed up in one of the gazebos spread around the very well manicured garden.
It’s a lovely, understated farm to visit, and it’s relatively unknown. For now.
Like the Puangmanee durian, it’s likely Puangmanee Garden will get popular in the future. Puangmanee is just a really good, reliable little durian, and the farm is like that too — solid, understated quality.
It’s also the only place in the world where you can see the original Puangmanee durian tree, and meet Manee herself. For now.
Like people, durian trees don’t last forever. It’s unknown how old the Puangmanee tree is, but it’s probably around the same age as Manee herself.
In another decade, there will still be Puangmanee durian. It’s too delicious for durian lovers to ever forget it, plus it’s small size and gorgeous coloring makes it convenient enough for commercial success.
There may be Puangmanee forever. I hope so.
But for the present, visiting Puangmanee Garden is a pilgrimage to beginnings of something. It’s a real gem.
Plus, tree-dropped Puangmanee is awesome.
How to get to Puangmanee Garden
Manee’s Garden is located off Highway 3328 south of Chanthaburi City.
GPS: 12° 31′ 22.64″ N 102° 8′ 56.64″ E
Use this map to navigate to blog posts about other durian farms in Thailand.