Although it looks like a blip on the map of Borneo, Brunei is
not as tiny as you might think. At over 2,000 square miles, it doesn’t
even make top 15 of the world’s smallest countries. Nevertheless, Rob and I thought it was one country we could miss. It’s surrounded on three sides by Sarawak, so we didn’t think Brunei could offer anything of durian interest that we couldn’t find in bordering Sarawak.
Our decision not to go was solidified when we met a traveler whose reason for going was: “Well, I heard it’s really Muslim. Like, really really Muslim.” We don’t have anything against Muslims (except the 5 AM morning prayer call – unforgivable) but we’ve been in Indonesia and Malaysia for almost 6 months. We get the Muslim thing. So we happily crossed Brunei off our list of places to go and focused on researching durian hotspots in Sarawak. But then I came across a study titled “Collection, Establishment, Conservation, and Documentation of Durio
Species of Brunei Darussalum” by a Mr. Jumat Haji Alim, and actually
managed to get Mr. Jumat to agree to meet with us. Could Brunei hold some durian secrets?
The most interesting thing about Brunei is the Sultanate. Not only does his Majesty have possibly the longest name in the world (Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien) but he has the largest palace. At 1,788 rooms and over 2 million square feet his palace hides five swimming pools and a stable housing 200 ponies. The Palace opens to the public only one day a year on the holiday following Ramadan, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and you can’t see anything from the gate except the giant slanted roof. The sultan also purportedly has a fetish for durian, which rumor has he imports from Singapore by the ton.
Hoping to avoid the six hour bus ride from Sipitang, we took the 1:00 PM ferry to Labuan (45 minutes) and then the 3:30 ferry to Muara, where we got stuck. Apparently public transportation in Brunei is really unreliable, because in this oil-tycoon of a country everyone owns their own car. We saw loads of large, shiny SUV’s passing with only one passenger, but no room for three foreigners stranded at the entrance of the ferry terminal. After waiting an hour and a half for a bus, we took a taxi to Bandar Seri Begawan for $40 Brunei dollars. Ouch. The Brunei dollar is tied to the Singapore dollar, so everything feels expensive compared to just over the border in Malaysia.
Luckily we found a cheap place to stay at the Pusat Belia Youth Hostel, the only hostel in Bandar Seri Begawan. This hostel was…interesting. It’s a large government building, some sort of community center, with a pool, a free wifi zone, and about 20 unused washing machines and ovens sitting in the hallway. The men and women’s dorms are separate, and the only place to hang out together is in the open hallway outside. The biggest problem arriving guests have is getting a bed and a key from reception, because the employees are almost never there. We were lucky, but the manager left shortly after we arrived and everyone else just had to find somewhere else (much more expensive!) to stay.
Despite the weird set-up, at $10 a bed it was totally worth it, and the location was great. The Youth Hostel is only a 10 minute walk from the main fruit market, the Floating Village (Kampung Ayer), and the Royal Regalia Museum, and is right across the street from where Express Buses leave for Miri. The only way to get to the Floating Village is via tiny speedboat for $20. I don’t understand what makes Kampung Ayer a tourist attraction. It looks like any other coastal slum in Southeast Asia – a bunch of houses piled haphazardly on uneven piles over the water. The Royal Regalia Museum on the other hand, is free and is worth a good 45 minutes of air conditioned awe at the opulence of the Sultan’s life. There were so many fancy gifts and trinkets I wondered if this museum just served as overflow because he had run out of shelf space in his giant palace.
Later in the afternoon we met up Mr. Jumat Haji Alim to talk about durian and our plans for the following day. An impressively laid back guy, Mr. Jumat retired from the Agricultural Department in 2005 and spends his days defending his 4 acre durian orchard from wild boars. We made plans to see his durian orchard the next day, and expressed our wish to go to one of the germplasms at the Agricultural Research Stations. He gave us a copy of his book, and told us about the six species of durian found in Brunei. Then he offered to take us to the night market to look for durians. Yes, please!
|durian pulu; durio kutejensis|
The night market is near The Mall, a large shopping complex with a strange, mosque-like design. It’s about 5 km away from the Youth Hostel, making for a long walk on roads designed for cars, not pedestrians. Since we had Mr. Jumat as tour guide, for once we didn’t have to figure out the public transportation and I have no idea which of the purple mini-buses will take you from the Hostel to Center Point. We had a nice time wandering around the durian stalls with Mr. Jumat, where we found one new type of durian species: durian pulu.
The next day, Mr. Jumat picked us up at our weird hostel at 7 in the morning and drove the 30 minutes out to his orchard. Only one of his trees was dropping fruit, but we were able to see several species of durian hanging on the trees. While he had a few Musang King trees, Mr. Jumat had focused on planting the red varieties of the graveolens and kutejensis, because they are the most popular and expensive durians in the market. In Brunei, red-fleshed durian species sell for $13-15 a kilo!
Neighboring Mr. Jumat’s is an 80 acre durian and fruits farm. Just our luck (we seem to have really good luck) the family was sitting in the road sorting durians. We stopped by to ask some questions, and they started sharing durians. First they shared a crossbreed between a graveolens durian and a zibethinus called durian suluk. It had creamy orange yellow flesh, and the pungent punch of a graveolens, but sweeter and with lighter, creamier flesh. Then they shared an orange graveolens that was truly sensational. It was much fleshier than any graveolens we’ve encountered so far, super thick and sticky like cream cheese that’s hard to spread. The flavor was full on, lighting up the tongue in the back and sides. I felt like a child delighting in the bright, nearly neon orange color, so bright it seemed artificial.
Maybe because we oohed and aaahed and made such a fuss, the family sent us home with two of these amazing orange graveolens and one white kampung durian, which was also great. Anyone can buy these durians at the family’s fruit stall in Jeradung, near the Asma Hotel. The stall is called Syarikat Abdullah Sdn Berhad, and it’s less than a five minute drive from the beach. Since it was so close, Mr. Jumat swung by the beach to let us get a glimpse of a pristine, Brunei beach. If only bikinis were legal!
Unfortunately, the Agricultural Research Center was closed for a national holiday, so we weren’t able to see the full collection of Brunei’s durian variety. But we get the picture. Currently, most durian in Brunei comes from across the border in Sarawak, but that’s likely to change in the coming years. The Brunei government has allocated large areas near each village for people to grow fruit trees. Durian is by far the most popular, as we saw when we drove through one of the growing areas. There were young durian trees everywhere.
Mr. Jumat gave us a few ideas for where to go in northern Sarawak and what to look for. A bus goes straight to Miri from right next to our hotel, so that’s where we’ll be next. Much thanks to Mr. Jumat for taking so much time out of his day to spend looking at durians with us! We had a lot of fun and learned a lot about durians in Brunei, which without his help, I don’t think I could say.
|Thanks Mr. Jumat!|