Suan La-Ong Fa is a small organic durian orchard that has
recently gained notoriety not only for its unique durians but for its
unique owner, a quiet man named Chatri Sowanatrakul. Chatri is
an accomplished artist, and he finds both his work and inspiration in his durian trees. His orchard is a sanctuary for the more rare, “lost” varieties of Thailand that were mostly wiped out in the 1942 floods.
I was warned that getting to orchard would be difficult. Located in the Nakhon Nayok
province just 2 hours north of Bangkok, the city is a popular weekend
destination for Bankokians, but rarely sees westerners. Few people speak English, and most signs are in the Thai script. Thankfully,
a reader of our blog put us in touch with an English speaking tour
guide and gave us explicit instructions on how to get to there.
It turned out to be one of our easier
excursions, although we did end up getting lost. The driver of our
minibus dropped us off not at the bus station, but in front of the
hospital. With no idea where we were (and no mobile telephone), I went inside to ask someone to
call our tour guide, Natto. “Your western friends are at the hospital,”
the lady at the front desk told Natto in Thai. This nearly gave poor
Natto a heart attack. When the phone was passed to me, I explained to
our panicked guide that we were fine, we had just been dropped off at a random place.
Chatri’s farm was a 15 minute drive from the hospital, which turned out to be just across the street from the bus station. At the entrance, we left the car and walked an undulating path through the durian trees inter-planted with glowing gold pineapples, bananas, and papayas. Chatri was working when we arrived, his grey shirt soaked with sweat all the way to his belly button. With his small wiry frame,
curling ponytail, scruffy mustache, and placid temperament, he reminded me of a Taoist monk, who, laughing, had achieved enlightenment. His wife invited us to sit on the porch of his simple, rustic hut on
stilts while she flipped through photos of his recent gallery exhibition
on their laptop.
Chatri graduated from the Bundit Patanasil Institute’s College of Fine Arts before inheriting the farm from his father in 1992. The story of the Suan La-Ong Fa durian farm begins 50 years earlier, in
1942, when floods destroyed many of the durian orchards around Bangkok.
Chatri’s father, Chom, collected cuttings from the dying durian trees
and seeds from the garbage cans of the wealthy. While many of these
varieties were forgotten in favor of the more commercially viable trees,
like monthong and ganyao, the old types can still be tasted on Chatri’s
farm. That is, if you come at the right time.
Unusual durians like the “Little Lady” are only part of what draws crowds from Bankok, durian-lovers willing to drive
the 2 hours to experience something a little a different than the typical Monthong or Ganyao. The promise of high-quality organic fruit grown with love adds to the enticement.
The love Chatri feels for his orchard is evident is in his artwork. In many of his more abstract work, the brush lines create
subtly ragged spheres, ovals, and dewdrops – like the ghosts of durian
come to linger in the background of his colorful and magically mobile
creations. Organic farmers tend to make far less money than their
chemical-dependent peers, and are usually motivated by something other than money. In Chatri’s case, its like the durian and the man have subtly combined on multiple levels of consciousness, so that durian colors his perceptions and philosophy as well.
Chatri attributes the health and success of
his trees to his belief that creating a healthy ecosystem, by allowing his trees
to grow naturally, unmolested by chemicals or other interventions, is the best way to create a healthy orchard. As he explained the workings of the farm, these common-sense approaches merged into philosophic treatises about humanity. For example, if a
tree grows sick, he allows it to either recuperate on its own or to
die. “The orchard is also a teacher,” Natto translated. “It teach us
about our life too – if
you take care of someone too much they will be too much sick than strong. If
you let grow themselves in the environment they were born, with wind, sunlight,
and rain, these are the best hormones for healthy growth.”
His all-natural approach seems to be working. Chatri’s place is renown for the quality of the fruit. Other organic farms are plagued with worm infestations that destroy the edible portion of the fruit, leading customers to believe that organic means lower quality.
Chatri says he has no worms on his farm,
and I believe him. Unlike other organic durians we have tasted, not a
single one of the durians he served us had a worm.
|Our tour guide, Natto|
Only one thing stuck us as odd and out of alignment with the rest of his philosophy; like every other durian farmer in Thailand, Chatri cuts his fruits unripe from the tree. We asked him why, since durian naturally falls from the tree when its ready to be eaten. He replied that he treats durian as he does all other fruit. “You don’t wait for a mango to fall from the tree before you eat it,” he said. “You pluck it. The same with durian.”
Chatri’s farm was our main event, but Natto had a few other suggestions for us. We completed our adventure in Nakon Nayok with a visit to some of the
area’s quirky tourist attractions. In addition to a temple advertising
the World’s Best Toilet (always worth a pit stop), we stopped by the
largest Ganesh statue in the world. Between Chatri’s farm, the beautiful
scenery, and the amusing tourist spots, I really enjoyed our trip. As we parted ways, Natto gave us each a little durian souvenir.
|Durian boy piggy bank|