I’m the first to admit that a taste of good durian – the luscious, rich butter-smooth-chocolate kind – is excuse enough to cross continents. Sometimes though, the travel itself is just as much what we’re craving as the durian. There’s a certain draw to the hidden corners of the world not yet bombarded by tourism, quiet places where life goes on in ways we can’t quite imagine.
We want to feel like we’ve really been somewhere different or had a unique experience that can’t be packaged and sold by a tourism agency. Luckily, most tourists aren’t on the hunt for durian. Here are some pretty out of the way spots worth putting on your travel itinerary in 2014. If you like durian, that is.
At first, there’s not a lot to love about this busy, teeming metropolis of rusting roofs and cracked sidewalks. Then there’s the durian. Fresh durian is available 365 days of the year in Medan, trucked in from microclimates all over Sumatra. There are various corner stalls where you can get your fix, but my favorite is Ucok’s Durian Stand, a parking lot smorgasbord centered around a literal pile of durian.
Take a seat in the plastic chairs and enjoy the roar of motorbikes whizzing past on Jalan Iskandar Muda. While it’s by far the most famous place for durian in Medan, and possibly all of Sumatra, you won’t see other Westerners dining there. It’s usually packed out with families out for the evening or businessmen and women from Java using the trip as an excuse to indulge. It’s a great chance to bump elbows with local durian lovers, who usually have some great tips on durian orchards to visit around Medan. Ignore the cholesterol medication booth — durian doesn’t cause high cholesterol.
2. Pulau Tinggi, Malaysia
This sparsely inhabited island off the east coast of Johor, Malaysia, is a little hard to get to but totally worth it for those nature lovers with a real thing for durian. The entire island is basically an old abandoned durian orchard that has quietly melted back into the jungle.
Charter a ferry to one of the small resorts along the beach and then spend your days roaming the narrow cow trails sniffing for the fine odor of fallen fruits.
The one small town on the island, Kampung Tanjung Balang, has a post office, a school, a mosque, a clinic, and a scuba diving shop where you can rent snorkeling equipment or a take a trip out to a reef. The beaches are unremarkable, but the best part is that you’ll have them all to yourself, so there will be no one to
complain about the durian smell.
3. Kep, Cambodia
What do crabs and durian have in common? I really can’t think of much, except that both can be bought and devoured at Kep’s Crab Market, a row of rickety seafood restaurants on stilts sunk into the Gulf of Thailand.
You don’t have to brave the wooden platforms for durian, as the fruits are usually spread out on the nearby cement plaza where women squatting among their piles make irresistible sales pitches. Most of the durian comes from nearby Kampot, but the selection is better here for obscure Cambodian durians like Ang Siam and Dongkat. When you’ve finished your feast, take a walk along the coast or head up the inland walking trails to get a view, take in a sunset, or just enjoy the clean sea air.
4. Tagum City, Philippines
Just an hour north of Davao City, Tagum is officially part of the Davao Municipality but feels worlds away from the big-city buzz (and sooty atmosphere) of downtown Davao. You still won’t find many tourists in Tagum, but it’s not for lack of trying, or for lack of durian.
Tagum is a pleasant place to visit in part because the city has tried so hard to make it a pleasant place to visit. Multiple parks, greening programs, and a sprawling nightly market gives the city a relaxed, festive, surprisingly happy vibe that just might have something to do with the more than 15 major festivals put on by the city every year. That includes the most exciting, happening durian festival we’ve ever attended. The Mayor himself is a major durian tycoon, and has actively encouraged locals to cultivate durian with incentive programs. His efforts have made for a friendly, easy to navigate city with a plethora of good durian.
5. Koh Chang, Thailand
This island in the far southeastern corner of Thailand should be on the bucket list of everyone who loves the island beach life but who also craves some peace, quiet, and really awesome durian. The island is split between a long white sand beach riddled with backpacker bars and high end resorts, ala Koh Samui or Phuket, and a long, rocky coast speckled with durian farms, waterfalls, and views over a tranquil turquoise sea. And did I mention there are elephants?
Most of the waterfalls on Koh Chang are surrounded by durian orchards, making for great places to cool off, relax, and wait to get lucky. It’s here I found the best durian I’ve ever tasted in Thailand.
I picked it up from the path to Khlong Nonsi Waterfall, where it had fallen and was obviously waiting just for me. When I’d had enough, I shared my leftovers with an elephant at the nearby elephant camp. It’s still one of my favorite durian memories.
6. Ben Tre, Vietnam
The wide, flat Mekong Delta dotted with brightly colored barges is an iconic part of Vietnam. Surprisingly, this famed rice bowl of Asia is also the major durian growing area. Most tourists stop at My Tho, the entry to the Mekong, but even more durian can be found slightly further south in the sleepy backwater province of Ben Tre, particularly in the district of Cho Lach.
Not much happens in Ben Tre other than rice and fruit farming. Life depends on the river and the many small canals and waterways that crisscross the delta.
Rent a motorbike and cruise through the countryside looking for durian stands and orchards, or take a day off durian hunting and take a tour of the river. It’s a great place to kick back, relax, and immerse yourself in the local culture while exploring Vietnam’s unique if overlooked durian varieties.
Literally the City of Peace, Sri Aman is a small overlooked town in Sarawak with a great location. From Sri Aman, visitors can go orangutan spotting, jungle trekking, or visiting Iban longhouses in nearby Batang Ai National Park. Most importantly for the durian lover, Sri Aman is blessed with lots and lots of orange and yellow durio graveolens and durio kutejensis. Any durian lover on this planet would stop in their tracks for these two.
It’s also one of the only places in the world where you can surf on the river. Every day, in a phenomenon called a tidal bore, the river reverses and water actually flows upstream in wave that can reach up to 2 meters (6 feet) in height!
Surf boards can be borrowed from a local club, as long as you don’t mind that the club’s usual surfing spot is right next to a crocodile nest. Luckily we didn’t find out about the crocodiles until we were already in the middle of the river.
8. Uttaradit, Thailand
In this small, very rural province the breathtaking vistas and cooler weather of Thailand’s mountainous north can be enjoyed without giving up on fresh durian. But be ready for a cultural adventure. Uttaradit is so far off the tourist map that Lonely Planet doesn’t even give it a mention. I don’t think durian gets much of a mention either.
While scientists have tried for years to create a durian without that classic funky, rotten-eggs-meet-sugar durian smell, in Uttaradit two durian varieties naturally grow with so little odor that the dominant flavor is a mild, milky sweetness like whipped cream. They grow on mountainsides so steep farmers sometimes transport baskets of durians on cables strung hundreds of feet over the deep chasms. The area is very rural, very quiet, with little to do other than enjoy the views, explore the old crumbling temples, and eat some durian.
This quiet foothills town hasn’t seen much activity since the gold rush that founded it, but it stayed rich thanks to its durian. There’s not much else in the area to attract visitors, although a few waterfalls in the area are worth a dip (especially after a big durian meal!).
Raub is getting more well known among the durian crowd, mostly thanks to the efforts of Eddie of Raub Durian Orchard. While most other orchards in the area are wholesale only, Eddie welcomes visitors to a full on durian tasting buffet, similar to the set up at Bao Sheng’s Orchard in Penang. Since he added a small villa onsite, it’s now a viable and quieter alternative to the durian hype of Penang.