I didn’t expect to find durian on Koh Kret, a small island carved into the river in Nonthaburi, the province famous for the most expensive durians in the world.
A deluge at the end of 2011 completely submerged the island and all low-lying areas around, drowning the majority of the famous durian orchards in the most dramatic flood Bangkok had seen in over 50 years. By the photos, it looked like Noah’s Ark would have been handy.
But after a friend told me it was the last place in Bangkok without any roads and was a really lovely place, I went. Not for durian, just for fun.
And you know what I found? Yup.
About Koh Kret
Koh Kret is an artificial island in the Chao Phraya River created in 1722 when King Somdet Phra Chao Yu Hua Thai Sa (great name) ordered a canal built to save time when sailing from Bangkok to the capitol in Ayutthaya.
It was settled by an ethnic group called the Mons, many of whom were fleeing unrest in nearby Burma. While the rest of Bangkok and Nonthaburi developed into large, modern cities, this tiny island remained largely the same – rustic houses perched on stilts over the river, rice paddies and fruit orchards.
Nowadays people visit Koh Kret to experience the Mon culture, by their pottery and eat their food, and enjoy the quiet small town ambiance. Bicycles are available for rent at the pier, but as the island is only 1 km by 2 km, the circumference is easily walked in a leisurely few hours. Which is what my friend and I did.
Ban Mon (Mon Village)
For an island with a reputation of being a haven to escape the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, I was surprised by the scale of development we found when we disembarked from the small leaky ferry that shuttles passengers the short distance to and from the mainland.
We started our walk by plunging into a narrow alleyway fringed by pubs, restaurants and trinket shops where solitary women sat weaving.
Since we’d gone on a weekday to escape the crowds, most of the shop houses were closed and there was no one around. But still the village went on and on, a kilometer or more of deserted cement. It was a little bit eerie.
Still, the silent lanes were a welcome change from the noise and traffic of Bangkok. There are no cars allowed on Koh Kret, which I guess is what my friend meant by “the last place in Bangkok without roads.”
That’s not quite true, but the only traffic you need to worry about as you amble along is the occasional tourist on a fixie.
Every now and again we would walk by a woman sitting alone weaving. The island is well known as a place you can pick up handmade crafts, but I hadn’t realized there was so much weaving going on. Most tour packages and sources just talk about the famous Mon pottery without ever disclosing what exactly makes it famous.
Maybe the Pottery Museum would have explained what makes Mon clay work different than pottery elsewhere, but we didn’t visit.
Okay, so who are the Mons?
As we wandered around the island I started wondering just who the Mons are, because to be honest it looked exactly like a lot of Thailand.
What was so different about the Mons that people would make a special trip to Koh Kret to experience their culture?
When we got back to our hotel I looked it up, and there are a few things that differentiate the Mons from average Thai culture. For one they still speak their own distinctive language and have a different written script. They build short stupas painted white like the zillions we saw in Myanmar. They even a carry a gene mutation not found in Thai or Khmer people that may make them intolerant to fava beans, which may be the coolest thing about the Mons.
It’s also handy to note that Mon cuisine doesn’t use fish sauce, prevalent in Thai cooking and the bane of traveling vegans.
What I didn’t find is what’s so special about their pottery, or why both the “green oasis” in Bangkok proper – Koh Kret and Phra Padaeng – are inhabited by Mons.
Finding the Durian Orchard
At last we stepped out of the cramped quarters of the Mon village and into the countryside. Tidy wooden houses on stilts lined the path, the manicured yards full of plants potted in what might be the famous Mon clay.
In between the houses banana trees sprouted prolifically in the undergrowth. But we didn’t see hide nor hair of any durian trees.
There wasn’t much fruit at all, other than the banana trees. No one was even sitting by the roadside pedaling slices of papaya or crunchy guava. Then we spotted it – a pile of durian shells sitting by what turns out to be very classic Mon pottery. Someone had been feasting on what looked like Chanee.
My friend and I looked at each other. If there was durian in the vicinity to be eaten, we wanted some. We hadn’t gone far when we spotted this sign. Thanks to the pile of shells, I had durian on the brain. My eyes saw the words immediately. “Durian orchard!” I crowed to Daniela in disbelief. I couldn’t quite believe it, especially since the entire island was submerged during the 2011 flood, but there it was. A durian orchard on Koh Kret.
We had to see this for ourselves, so we turned off the road and followed the very narrrow strip of elevated concrete running into the undergrowth. There were no houses, or anyone nearby. After 150 meters or so, there was a sign.
We followed the arrow, tottering along the narrow cement when it
without knowing if we were actually going in the right direction.
It felt a bit like Alice and Wonderland.
The bridge led to a house perched over strips of canal and banana trees. There was also a row of rabbits in cages along the perimeter of the road.
As we approached the house we called out, and an old woman came out. She didn’t speak English, but invited us inside to look at some empty rooms. Through sign language and pictionary, we learned that this either was or used to be a homestay, and that she used to have a good sized durian orchard.
What about now? I asked, pointing at my clumsily drawn tree. She pointed out the window.
I hadn’t noticed at first, but in between every banana tree was a baby durian tree, not more than two years old.
She was trying again, against improbable odds. Now that I call durian infatuation.
Is It Worth Going to Koh Kret?
Not if you’re looking to eat durian. Or at least not for the next 4 years, assuming the trees survive.
But if all you’re looking for is a quiet place to take a stroll and see a bite sized portion of rural Thailand, Koh Kret is an easy day trip from Bangkok. And maybe you’re interested in Mon culture, I don’t know.
In my opinion a better option is Phra Padaeng, just across the river from Bangkok, which at least has more active fruit orchards and a good weekend market where you can buy durian after a relaxing bicycle tour of the area.
Still, I do look forward to going back to Koh Kret one day to see if those little durians survived.Have you been to Koh Kret and would you recommend it to a friend?
Getting to Koh Kret
To get to Koh Kret from Bangkok, go to Victory Monument and take Bus 166. Tell the driver you are going to Koh Kret, and he will drop you off at Wat Sanam Nau after a 40 minute drive. The ferry pier is just behind the wat. The ferry costs only 2 baht.