An easy way to escape the city hustle and bustle for the day is to go to Phra Padaeng, a government protected expanse of small family fruit orchards and wetlands that somehow escaped urban development. Quiet and shady, this loop in the river has come to be known as Bangkok’s Green Lung and is a popular retreat for cyclists and nature lovers. And I hoped, fruit lovers.
Could there be durians growing this close to downtown Bangkok? I had to check this out.
Phra Padaeng is one of the few places in Bangkok where you can catch a glimpse of what life was like before sky scrapers sprouted like invasive weeds, when people lived by fishing, catching freshwater crabs and growing fruits amidst the mangroves that once lined the Chao Phraya River.
It might seem odd for an area that is essentially lowland swamp, but the entire valley around Bangkok was once famous for growing all kinds of fruits, particularly tangerines, lychees, mangoes, and the famous Nonthaburi durians.
As Bangkok grew into a city of 6 million, Phra Padaeng stayed more or less the same. Life continues at the same relaxed pace that it has for over two hundred years.
Today mostly day-trippers from Bangkok go there to take a leisurely bicycle tour along narrow, raised paths snaking past orchards, quaint neighborhoods and beautiful temples, look for native birds, and buy traditional snacks and home grown produce at the markets and small shops.
When I first heard about this agrarian oasis just on the other side of the river, my brain jumped to durian.
I wondered if, in all that greenery and gardens, a few people might have planted a backyard durian orchard.
I mean, that’s what I would do.
But since the area is rather large, and Rob was still in America, I didn’t want to cycle willy-nilly all over by myself on a wild goose chase. So I contacted Paul for help.
Paul leads private bike tours and has lived in the area for 8 years. He’s very knowledgeable about local culture and even the fruits and flora. When I described what I wanted to do (go durian hunting) he was totally on board.
But he doubted we would find durian. Jackfruit, yes. Mangoes, yes. Coconuts, definitely. Despite the plethora of gardens and greenery, he’d never seen a durian tree.
We met at the Bangkok Treehouse, a very cool eco-resort where you can stay in upscale treehouses overlooking the river or even on a raft floating on the river itself.
Within a few minutes of leaving the Treehouse Paul was pointing out new fruits to me. It was going to be an awesome tour!
The first fruit Paul pointed out to me was Jak จาก, a palm fruit eaten in desserts as translucent, gelatinous balls with sweet coconut milk. It grows wild in the mangrove swamps and the coolest thing about it is that the entire trunk of the tree grows horizontally, sending out tufts of leaves and edible fruits that are the only parts of the tree visible.
Just imagine how weird this is: there’s a hidden tree lying on its side underground that is totally bald of leaves on all sides except up.
Suicide Fruit (Cerbera Odallam)
Just a few feet beyond I stopped and reached up. I’d found a fruit that looked like a large passionfruit on a mango tree.
“That’s a highly toxic fruit,” Paul explained. “People call it the suicide fruit.”
I quickly withdrew my hand, even though the fruit is only poisonous if you eat it. Suicide Fruit contains a toxin that disrupts the calcium-ion chain in the heart, slowing the beat or stopping it completely.
It’s such a popular way to off yourself in Southeast Asia that the Indian government has been spending a fortune to buying up fruits to keep them out of emotionally unstable hands (or just those growing GMO cotton).
Inside the slightly waxy and pithy green skin, which actually reminded me of unripe passionfruit, the fruit is just a fibrous husk that turns brown as it dries. Thais use it to make deodorant and organic insecticides. There’s nothing about it that says “Eat me!”
Unless of course you want to die.
So all of you fruit-curious persons wandering around Southeast Asia who like to take little nibbles of foreign plants, DON’T BITE INTO THIS ONE.
The area was beautiful and quiet, a tangle of wilderness interspersed with small orchards. There was no traffic.
After awhile we passed by Nam Phueng Floating Market, but since it was a weekday the stalls and tables were empty and covered in tarps, the boats tied to the shore.
Paul pointed out an old house next to the market with a mango orchard in the courtyard. The mango trees were all old varieties that you can’t find anymore at normal fruit markets.
Too bad it wasn’t mango season.
Old mango orchard next to Nam Phueng Floating Market
I still hadn’t seen a single durian tree when we arrived at our first destination, a government subsidized nursery.
I didn’t feel hopeful as I looked around. The nursery was a disorganized collection of hundreds and hundreds of shriveled and wilted plants in pots.
The only healthy looking plants were in these very cool “pots.”
I wish we had land snails this big in America. At least they would be cool, in addition to slimy and destructive.
Why are all the plants dying?” I asked Paul, who launched into a complicated sounding conversation with the old man in charge of the orchard.
While they talked, I snapped some photos of these gac fruits. The first time I heard of gac was when someone sent me a photo of them, asking if they were durians.
They are decidedly NOT durians, but I have a weakness for anything spiky.
Gac Fruit (Momordica cochinchinensis )
The deal was that the plants were dying of salt water.
The Chao Phaya River is tidal. That means that salty ocean water rushes upstream, a natural event that’s said to be part of why Nonthaburi durians taste so darn delicious.
It’s why anybody brave enough to taste the tap water in Bangkok (it’s safe?) might have noticed the water tasted salty this year.
With that amount of salt, there was no way a durian tree could survive here.
I felt disappointed, like our durian hunt was over.
Then the nursery man suggested we check out the northern part of Phra Padaeng. The groundwater isn’t quite as salty there, and he’d heard rumors someone had replanted durian after the big flood in 2011 durian. He gave me a gac for the road, and off we went.
Development in Bangkok’s Green Lung
As we pedaled toward the neighborhood with the durian trees, I noticed a skyscraper looming in the distance, the first I’d seen since
boarding the ferry and a reminder of just how tiny our pocket of rural
oasis was in the midst of one of the largest cities in the world.
It was just one sign that Phra Padaeng isn’t immune to pressures from the outside world.
The other sign was this.
This is the future home of a commercial tangerine orchard.
As real estate prices sky rocket, more and more small, family farms in the swamps are selling out to agricultural developers, which while not quite as reprehensible as housing developers come with their own environmental woes and eye sores.
Now the area is threatened by another change: on June 5th of this year, city planners made amendments to the zoning allowing for more urban development. They claim the change is to allow more sustainable building geared at eco-tourism, but it’s unclear how these changes will actually play out.
It’s amazing that Phra Padaeng has stayed green for this long given it’s proximity to Bangkok, but like everywhere, visit before it’s too late.
Durian Trees on Phra Padaeng
It was getting late by the time we rolled down a narrow lane lined with
bananas where the nursery man had told Paul we might find durian.
Paul was still skeptical. He’d asked around for me for weeks before our trip and no one had ever seen a durian tree.
So just imagine how thrilled I was when we found these little babies.
They’re Monthong saplings, slender durian infants built up in raised cement beds to keep their sensitive little roots out of the salty groundwater (and provide good drainage).
Even though they won’t bear fruit for a minimum of three years, it was very satisfying to find them. I’d had a feeling there was durian around somewhere. Durian hunt, success!
Ferry from Wat Bangna Nok
Getting To Phra Padaeng
To meet Paul at the Bangkok Treehouse, I got off the BTS sky train to Bangna and then a motorcycle taxi for 30 baht to the ferry pier just behind Wat Bangna Nok. The ferry cost 4 baht and dropped me off just on the other side of the river at Nam Phueng.
Another way is to get a ferry from Khlong Toei Pier
You can rent bicycles at the pier or at the Nam Phueng Market for 50 baht, but I recommend finding a guide like Paul to give you a unique and inside perspective. You can get in touch with Paul through the Bangkok Treehouse.
Part of Phra Padaeng’s beauty is in the contrast between this small oasis of greenery and the urban jungle encroaching on all sides.
It’s the contrast between the old and the new, a place where people in wooden canoes paddle along the mangrove river edge in the shadow of looming shipping barges.
It’s an amazing agrarian refuge in an urban setting, and by the number of people who go there on weekends a reminder of just how many of us treasure natural settings where we can get a fresh of breath air, an eyeful of greenery, and see fruits being grown along the roadsides.
Due to the salinity of the soil, it’s unlikely Phra Padaeng will ever become much of a durian haven, but my fingers are crossed for those little Monthongs.
Will you visit Phra Padaeng next time you’re in Bangkok?