One of the things I like about durian hunting is that it has a tendency to lead me off the beaten track, even in heavily tourist-ed areas. There are no beaten tracks in Koh Kong. Koh Kong is the southwestern-most province in Cambodia, and is still largely unpopulated. Most of the interior is accessible only by boat and the mountains are home to Asian elephants, wild ox, leopards, and tigers. With such untapped wilderness tourism agencies have been making a stab at the eco-tourism industry, but there are still few organized tour packages available. You’re on your own, and what you do is up to you. I chose durian.
|Best part of Koh Kong: Ginormous coconuts|
Koh Kong isn’t really known for durian, although there’s quite a bit around. The province is huge, and consists of the Cardamom Mountains, a small riverside town called Koh Kong, and a large island confusingly referred to by the name “Koh Kong” as well. The island is said to be one of the most pristine white sand beaches in Asia. There aren’t any durian there, unless you bring it yourself, so I didn’t go there.
I wouldn’t go to any of the Koh Kong’s specifically for durian, but the city is only 10 km from the Hat Lek/Cham Yeap border crossing with Thailand and makes for an easy pit stop. That and the allure of eco-tourism activities (River kayaking! Waterfalls! Tigers!) convinced me it was worth taking an entire day to explore Koh Kong’s natural highlights and to see what exists of the jungle king, the durian.
|Darrick with kids on a side street in Koh Kong|
Darrick and I spent our first afternoon wandering the city in search of durian. My first impression was dour. The city itself is a letdown to the least environmentally minded. The riverside promenade is a dusty jumble of haphazardly stacked bricks and mortar. A layer of discarded plastic cups and foil wrappers coats the sides of the equally dusty road. The city’s rapidly increasing population of immigrants stack into a small riverside slum visible from main roadway. At least from superficial observation, there doesn’t seem to be any conscienciousness of “eco” anything. I decided to leave the next day.
But fortunately that night I ran into a local who told me about several stands of 100 year old durian trees somewhere up a river. Last year, when Rob and I visited Cambodia, we only found trees planted after the collapse of Khmer Rouge. What would a 100 year old Cambodian durian taste like? The temptation was too great, so the next morning I hopped on a motorbike behind my guide, Lolong, and headed off to find Koh Kong’s ancient durian.
|Thai Mon Thong at Koh Kong Market|
The night before, Darrick and I had combed Koh Kong’s market for local durians and hadn’t found a single one. All the durians were coming either from Kampot or across the border in Thailand. I asked Lolong if there was ever local durian at the market. He said yes, but not much, and everybody wants it. It tastes a lot better than Thai or Kampot durian. To get a hold of a local durian, you have to know someone or know where it grows.
After a breathtakingly beautiful motorbike ride through the mountains, we stopped at a riverbank teaming with people. River trips are apparently popular with Cambodian tourists, and we had to wait our turn to charter a private boat for our durian mission. When we climbed aboard the heavy wooden boat, I was surprised to see that our driver was a woman. Girl power! I totally dug her outfit. She rocked those hot pink jeans, Gangnam Style t-shirt and pink Angry Birds over shirt.
It took her a few attempts with a short rope to get the motor going, but then it roared to life with the heavy noise of a jackhammer. The young kid on board, who I assume was her son, howled with discomfort and clasped his hands to his ears. The noise drummed through the hull of the boat, making the seat board vibrate. If I did this every day I think I would be partially deaf within a week.
The ancient durians grow on an island in the middle of the river. It took us about 20 minutes of jack hammering to get there, where we were greeted by a family picnicking in front of a small wooden house on stilts. It’s a pleasant get away location for families who come to eat lunch, swim, and enjoy some of the fruits on the island, which can be purchased by the kilo.
An older man named Nung gave us a tour of the island. He pointed at durian trees as we passed, huge Goliaths dangling their fruit a hundred feet overhead. The trees are too tall to climb, so locals wait for the fruits to fall. I was of course hoping to taste the fruit, and I asked if any had fallen. Nung said no, not yet. It’s not quite durian season in this part of the world, which explains the complete absence of local durians in the Koh Kong market.
However, I did spy what looked like an abandoned durian feast. Did someone know I was coming and hide the durian?
On the way back to Koh Kong we stopped at a couple of waterfalls, one of which had a small durian orchard along its banks. Lolong told me that during the season, it’s a popular spot to swim and cool off while indulging in a little durian snack. Now this is my kind of eco-friendly activity.
For those who are wondering just where exactly the durian island is, I’m sorry to say that I am reserving that tidbit of info for the e-book guide, The Durian Tourist in Cambodia, which will be published on this site in early August. I know I’m a terrible person for withholding. Addictions make people do all sorts of things, and I’ve got to pay for my durian somehow. In the meantime, you can just do what I do: go there and ask around. Or you can email me and plead the desperation of your case. Maybe I’ll talk. Maybe.