The search for wild jungle durians is on. So far we’ve found three: durio graveolens, durio oxelyanus, and durio kutejensis. I want more. In fact, I have my heart set on finding all nine edible durian species.
Our durian contact in Brunei, Mr. Jumat, thought that we could find a few more of the edible species in a tiny town called Bekenu, just south of Miri. We decided we would have to check it out – but in addition, I contacted Mr. Bajut Guruna of the Niah Forest Research Center to see if he could help us understand how durian grows naturally in the jungle. While we waited to hear from Mr. Bajut, we took the opportunity to explore the caves at Niah National Park, the site of the oldest known human settlement in Southeast Asia. What a cool bonus!
Our first stop was Miri, the birthplace of the petroleum industry in Malaysia. Shell drilled the first oil well in 1910 and it’s been a boom town ever since. Now the second largest city in Sarawak, the oil money is evident in the shiny SUV’s cruising the streets and the number of affluent shopping areas, including the first natural foods store we’ve seen in Borneo, (Green Organics, located on Jalan Merbau and South Yu Seng).
As usual, we didn’t do the main tourist thing – fly to Gunung Mulu National Park – but we did climb Canadian Hill to see the Grand Old Lady, the first oil well in Malaysia. We occupied our time stalking and finding durian vendors and stalls, asking where the durian came from. One night, Arndt and I walked all the way from the Minda Guesthouse to the Pelita Commercial Center, where we’d been told most of the durian stalls set up, a distance of about 3 kilometers. We walked a bit further than that though, due to some confusion between the Pelita Commercial Center and the Wisma Pelita Shopping Compex, which is in the opposite direction. I’ve compiled our findings onto this map, for all the durian freaks out there who want to know where to get their fix while visiting Miri:
View Durian in Miri in a larger map
We were happy to find that most of the durian was coming from Bekenu, which was our goal anyway. “See you in Bekenu!” I said to one of the durian vendors, who just laughed.
The next day we took a bus 45 minutes south and were dropped off at a tiny row of shops and an open market at the Bekenu Junction. Turned out that Bekenu Town was another 18 km away down a side road. Luckily there was durian being sold at the market, so we ate our dinner at the bus stop. After an hour or so of waiting, it became evident that no bus was coming. The sun began to set, and we wondered if we would be forced to head back to Miri for the night.
Rob and I did what we always do when stranded: put out our thumbs. And like always, it worked. Within 10 minutes we had ourselves a ride. In the typically helpful Malaysian way, our ride dropped us off in front of the only hotel in town (Mah Igai Inn) and spent a few minutes running around looking for the owner of the inn, who (also typically), was nowhere to be found. The owner finally appeared, and we grimly accepted the room and it’s exorbitant price (50 RM).
After settling in, we realized that with the condition of the room, we would probably be staying only one night. And for us, that’s saying something.
On top of that, in the morning it became clear that there was nothing of particular durian interest in Bekenu. Sure, there was a lot of durian, but no new species, just more durio kutejensis. The most interesting thing was that we actually met the durian vendor from Miri, who couldn’t believe that we were really in Bekenu! He taught us a few tricks to picking out durian, and sent us home with some good ones. Good durian experience in the bag, we prepared to move on. It was actually a relief to leave, just so we didn’t have to stay in that room again.
So Bekenu was a dud, but I had hopes for Batu Niah. Some of the durian in Miri was being sourced from there, and my contact at the Niah Forest Research Center had offered to take us on a trek to see some wild durian species. How cool! We had one extra day, so Rob and I decided to actually do a normal tourist activity: see the caves at Niah National Park.
From Batu Niah Town, it’s a 3 kilometer walk to the National Park down a narrow cement path
by the river. The whole way was dotted with durian trees, and Rob
couldn’t resist making some forays into the jungle to see if we could
get lucky. We found lots of durian, but all were unripe, knocked downed by the storm the previous night. When we arrived at the park, the entry price took us by surprise: the website stated it was 10 RM, but now it was 20 RM. We hadn’t brought enough ringgit! Arndt was really nice and let us borrow some money so that we could see the caves, and since he wasn’t feeling well he went back to the hotel to rest. Thanks Arndt, we really appreciate it!
Niah Caves are an important archeological site and the site of the oldest known human settlement in Southeast Asia. The caves have been a site of continued residence through the millennium and are an archaeological treasure trove. Their claim to fame is the ancient drawings on the walls of the Painted Cave, which was unfortunately closed when we visited. We were still impressed by the Great Cave, which has a vaulted ceiling as high as 100 meters! Swiftlet and bat chirps and squeaks echoed through the empty space, and the boardwalk was encrusted with a layer of poop, meaning that using the guardrails was kind of out of the question. Until the 1970’s, men climbed poles 70 meters high to scrape congealed bird spit off the cave ceiling to sell to Chinese traders. The poles were still there, creating vertical stripes of black in the dim light, and playing on our imagination.
Mr. Bajut Guruna met us at the Central Market with his friend Joe, a local from the Iban tribe. I already had misgivings about this so-called “trek,” but on the telephone Mr. Bajut said the phrase “several durian species,”so we figured however things played out we would learn something.
It turned out that the trek was nothing more than a trip to Joe’s father’s land, an oil palm plantation sprinkled with a handful of durian trees and perhaps a million mosquitoes. There we saw more Durio kutejensis, and learned the Iban name, nyekak.
Fleeing the mosquitoes, we all agreed that the trek had been successful and headed to Niah Junction to eat some durian. The Butu Niah area is flooded with durian, but most of the vendors seem to gather at Niah Junction, where just like in Bekenu the bus had left us to hitch our way to Batu Niah Town.
We shared some durian, looked around, and finally were offered a ride back to Miri by a couple of old guys who had made the trip from Miri just to pick up some durian. All in all, a successful day on the durian quest.
Our thanks to Bajut Guruna and Joe from the Niah Forest Research Center!
Thank you for taking time out of your day to talk to us about durian.