Hansel and Gretel did it. So did Little Red Riding Hood, and Harry Potter. They all went into forests which were strictly off limits – dark, creepy and dangerous even without tropical insects (although I guess Harry’s spiders were comparable) – looking for something magical.
Singapore has lots of forbidden forests, and lots of durian trees growing within them, dropping free, wild durians grown in Singaporean soil. When given the chance, what rational durian lover wouldn’t venture inside?
I was never a troublemaking kid, per se, but when I was a tween wandering my rural-suburban neighborhood on roller skates, a “Do Not Enter” sign was practically a welcome mat. I investigated all the broken down barns, abandoned construction sites and poisoned creek beds inside my rolling radius.
There weren’t any durians in my life at that point, so all I can guess is that there is something innately exciting about places that are off limits. Why else is it such a recurring theme in children’s literature?
Of course, the “Do Not Enter” signs I encountered as a kid were a little more vague about the repercussions than the one that greeted us at the edge of the durian forest in Singapore.
If I hadn’t been with a group of local Singaporeans, I wouldn’t have had the guts to pass that sign. “You just have to know which parts are safe,” shrugged our guide for the evening, whom I will call Fred for convenience.
He opened a map on his cell phone, lighting our faces blue as we huddled around peering at the screen. With one finger he drew circles around certain green areas, and X’ed through others.
People go durian hunting in Singapore all the time. Usually old guys, who have been doing it since before it was forbidden and know the trees, but also young guys like Fred who like the thrill of the adventure.
Local media carried a story about it recently- this link – but because entering these forests is not only forbidden, it’s actually illegal to the tune of around 1,000 SGD and possibly several years in prison, I won’t be using anybody’s real name or showing their faces in this post. Except of course, my name.
We parked along the road and followed Fred up a hill. A full moon cast eerie shadows in the clouds and immediately we were surrounded by the sounds of the jungle – cicadas and small frogs chirped and screeched. There was no wind and humidity descended on us in a moist blanket.
I marveled to think that the entirety of Singapore used to be like this, before skyscrapers crammed an average of 18,500 people into every square mile and space became so tight government officials are seriously considering building underground.
And yet, there are still the forests. Singapore has nearly 37 square miles of green space on an island
half the size of Los Angeles. Despite rampant development, deforestation in Singapore is a whopping 0%.
After barely a minute of walking, Fred pulled out a flashlight and swung the beam upward through the darkness.
Overhead the canopy glittered gold with the undersides of durian leaves. Dotting the branches were the green globes we’d come for – the durians. Although it was late in the season, there were still plenty of them on the tree. It meant there was a good chance one or two would be ripe.
We scattered, searching the ground for fallen fruits.
“Normally,” said Fred, “you can smell it before you see it.” I breathed in the damp green odor of the jungle. Nearby I could hear my friend breathing in short bursts of inhales, like a hound dog on the trail.
Within a few minutes, we’d found one. Fred pulled off dried leaves tangled in the thorns and brushed off the dirt before digging a knife into its apex and giving it a twist.
Then there it was, my first durian grown in Singapore.
A “durian worm” (it’s actually a caterpillar) had destroyed the other half, leaving just two edible pieces which we shared in little bites like it was an expensive French dessert.
It was slightly overripe, maybe because of the insect damage, but with that special bitter tang from wild, really old trees.
That tempting little taste made us excited so we kept looking, walking circles around trees and staring upwards into the branches for signs of hope, sniffing and sniffing and sniffing. After about a half hour, we had collected about four durians. I was jubilant, but Fred said this was sort of a pathetic harvest.
During the peak season he collects as many as 40 durians per night, even with competition sniffing around. If there were more durians, there would be other people searching here too. Some people stake out trees they particularly like, and fights are not uncommon. In the old days, Fred said, there were violent gangs out here, like a durian mafia. It’s one reason why the government discourages people entering these areas at night.
But that night we were alone, crouching in the dark over a pile of durians that was ours, all ours!
Nearby I could hear the whoosh and rumble of the highway. It was like straddling two worlds – the modern and the ancient – and as we huddled giggling over our finds I felt a connection going back through time to all the thousands if not millions of human beings who had squatted in the dark feasting on durians before us.
Then Fred led us across a long field of water pipes to another part of the forest.
“Here we need to be a little more careful,” Fred warned. “If you see lights or see trucks or hear voices, we need to turn off our torches and be quiet.”
We were closer to the military training camp, the real reason why this forest is out-of-bounds and entry is illegal.
Singapore packs a lot of surprises, and one of those is its military strength. Between 2008 and 2012, Singapore was the world’s fifth largest arms importer. Every young male is obliged to be trained in the military for 2 years, and there are around 30 or 40 military training camps dotting the forested areas. The danger isn’t just that you might get caught – some areas are used for live artillery practice.
Yet here we found more signs of other human durian hunters.
Around midnight we reached a small canopy with a rough wooden table. A scent like cheap instant coffee mingled with the odor rising off of several half-eaten durians left on the ground. Fred said this was an abandoned camp of some of the more serious durian hunters.
The most serious stay here all summer, selling the durians they find as “organic” at durian stalls around Singapore. They find other fruits too – rambutans and jackfruits and cempedaks – left over from forty years ago when this forest was an agricultural zone, before the resettlement phase of Singapore’s history (This thesis paper explains resettlement).
Tired from the walk and the fact that it was midnight, we settled around the rough table and Fred and began opening the durians we’d picked up along the way. Their thorns sank into the soft wood as we pried and pushed them open.
In all we’d found about 10 durians, varying from small to large and in color from tan or yellow to deep green or grey. Cracking them open revealed various shades of cream and yellow, but in the harsh white-and-black light of our flashlights it was hard to see the differences.
They say what you see is what you taste, but that night I liked the surprise of not being able to gauge what taste would meet my tongue. There were sweet durians, and garlicky ones, and ones that hinted at butterscotch or milk chocolate. Not knowing fit with the adventure perfectly, the midnight meal in a dark jungle controlled by the military.
If eaten side by side with a Musang King from the Wonderful Fruits or the Durian Tree, most wouldn’t have impressed me. But some would have. Tonight they were a delicious reward, a treasure sought and found by luck on an adventure in a forbidden forest. They were magical.
How to Go Durian Hunting in Singapore’s Jungle
Only go with an experienced local who knows what she or he is doing and which parts of the jungle are safe. Remember that this is illegal, and for good reasons.
People have been accidentally shot while picking fruit in military zones (not exaggerating).
I won’t tell you who I went with, or where I went, even if you email me a bunch of times. If you are serious about wanting to go on a durian hunt in Singapore, try posting on Singaporean forums where people are talking about it or on durian lover Facebook groups.
Or better yet, go where it is legal to pick fruits, like Pulau Ubin or the Punggol area.
EDIT: After going durian hunting, I emailed the Singaporean Ministry of Defense to inquire what exactly the punishment is for trespassing to pick up durians. Four months later I got this response: