Durian crazed Singaporeans are lucky — unlike the rest of us durian lovers, they have only to hop the 1 km across the Straits of Johor and they’re in the state that grows the most durian in all of Malaysia.
Another 2.5 hours and they’re in Tangkak, a small township that is fairly notorious for durian tourism. I see durian day trips all the time on sites like deal.com.sg that are advertising Tangkak. So I decided to go there — but on my own.
I’ve long thought about going along on one of the big bus tours from Singapore to Tangkak, just to see what it’s like to be on an Asian-style packaged tour.
Would we all wear matching neon shirts, like the large groups of Chinese who swarm across American national parks every summer? I felt oddly enthusiastic about the prospect.
But the tours always include time doing things other than eating durian — like shopping or going to restaurants — which I just really don’t want to do.
So I planned to be on my own in Tangkak — and I was feeling a little lonely about it. I don’t often need to travel by myself, especially not in parts of Malaysia I’ve never been to. There aren’t that many places left.
Then John, a reader of this blog, saved the day. He took me to see his family’s orchard and eat some durian (okay, watch me eat durian) before giving me a ride to Malacca for their famed durian cendol. He requested not to have any photos taken of him, so it’s just me and the durian for this one. And a kitten.
Tangkak is the largest town in Ledang District, named for the mountain that looms over the downtown. The mountain, Gunung Ledang (Mount Ophir) is the tallest on the Malay Peninsula at 1,276 meters (4,196 feet) and many people come through Tangkak on their way to climb it.
For that reason I expected Tangkak to be somewhat hilly, but as the bus trundled into the downtown I couldn’t see any hillsides, or bumps or any kind of feasible slope for a durian orchard. Tangkak is flat.
Still, I saw durian trees all along the road into the downtown, the leaves looking wilted and coated in a light film of red dust.
The downtown itself is pretty small and quiet. I took a walk in the morning, and within 20 minutes I’d looped around the whole city.
I passed the small morning wet market (nothing of fruit interest) and walked along several blocks of fabric stores lined with row after row of brightly colored bolts of fabric.
For a small town, there were a surprising number of Western Food restaurants, including a very good vegetarian restaurant right next to the bus station. I guessed the restaurants, and the surprising number of hotels, is evidence of tourists.
Where To Stay In Tangkak
I had planned to stay at the Ophir Hotel, but at John’s recommendation I checked into a room on the top floor of the Highland Hotel for 60 RM per night. The Highland Hotel is on the main strip (Hwy 23) that runs through downtown, about three blocks from the bus station.
The hotel is old, and while the thin blue carpet had seen better days it seemed clean. John said friends had told him the Ophir Hotel was newer, but overpriced and the rooms were smaller. He was right about the size of the rooms. I couldn’t imagine a larger hotel room.
And the bed — the bed was pretty incredible. Maybe I was just super exhausted, but I rank that bed the best of 2015.
Eating Durian in Tangkak
In late morning John picked me up and we headed out to eat some durian. They have different kinds of durians in Johor than in the northern states where I generally hang out, and I was excited to see some diversity.
Unfortunately though, I’d mis-timed my visit to Johor. I’d been so busy with the Durian Tours and my adventures in Singapore that I was passing through on August 3rd, and the durians were pretty much finished.
Still, John thought we’d find something at one of the stalls on Hwy 23 heading south out of town. And we did.
D168 or IOI
We started with IOI (Eye-O-Eye), a durian that should not be confused with D101 but often is. In fact, I’d done it.
I couldn’t remember if the durian Rob and I tasted out of someone’s trunk on Jalan Alor back in 2012 was D101 or IOI. I’m not sure I knew about IOI back then. But I’d been avoiding it ever since.
In my memory, the durian was sweet, with a (to me) unpleasant artificial strawberry flavor. The texture was similar to a fully ripe Chanee — a bit fibrous with a thicker skin.
I tried to check my old notebooks, but they were no help. My handwriting is practically code anyway, and years later it was impossible to tell whether I had written letters or numbers.
It was clear I needed to give IOI another shot.
IOI has a gorgeous, nearly orange color. It’s not as yellow as Musang King, but I could see how the two could be confused. It’s so dry I could peel off the flesh like wax from the mostly flat, aborted seeds.
It was better than I remembered, but it still had a strong, fruity flavor almost like candy. After a few pieces, I decided we best move on to durian #2.
D198 – Kim Hong or Golden Phoenix
Durian #2 for the day was Golden Phoenix; a very pale, white fleshed durian that is pretty popular in Singapore. I find it’s pale coloration refreshing after the cultural obsessed with gold-colored things, but frustrated that it’s name still contains the word “Golden.”
I would have named it “Snowy Phoenix” or “Frost Queen” or “Daisy.” But then, I guess snow and frost and daisies are all temperate phenomena.
John said the durian was named for a person whose name was Kim Hong, which translates as Golden Phoenix. You can’t argue with that logic.
The fruits are small, usually not more than 1 kg. and have unusually long, thing thorns. Like the Golden Phoenix I ate in JB, this one had tiny round seeds. But unlike that durian, this one came from a very new tree and was pretty solidly sweet, lacking that fresh earthy chamomile aroma that I tasted in JB.
It was good, but not good enough to prevent me from becoming completely and totally distracted by the kitten that climbed on my backpack.
Seconds after this the kitten jumped into my lap. I offered him/her some durian, but she/he was not interested.
Not even when it was time for Musang King.
When the durian server brings you a Musang King, you know that he thinks you’re done eating durian. By that point, you should be full, or at least mostly satiated.
I was not satiated, but it was clear there weren’t many better options at this durian stand. There simply wasn’t enough supply, and what was there had obviously come from somewhere else.
So I was glad when the Musang King was good. It really is an impressive durian that way — pretty reliable. Maybe it’s because there’s so much more available, or maybe it’s some characteristic of the cultivar, but Musang King is very rarely a bad durian.
This one was not bad.
As we were leaving, I stepped away from the stall to get a photo. I had my eye to the camera when I spotted something funny.My mouth opened a little and I grinned. It’s such a small world!
There, lo and behold, was a photo that I had taken slapped on the side of the building. Do you recognize it?
There they were — the lovely group of people who were the first to take my survey in Kuala Lumpur last January when I was at King of the King Durian Stall in SS2. You’ll see their picture if you follow the link.Suddenly I felt connected to Tangkak. It wasn’t strange or lonely, but just another leg of the durian adventure.
Package Tours to Tangkak
If you don’t feel like going to Tangkak by yourself, try a day tours from Singapore. Remember that I have not tried these out, but many other people have so check out their blogs (here’s an example).
- 1 Day Durian Buffet Tour – $55 SGD (on sale from $88 SGD)
Tangkak is a quiet, peaceful city with comfortable amenities that is easily walkable. There are places you can buy durian in town, some of which were closed up when I was there because it wasn’t peak durian season anymore.
Next time, I’d go in late June or July and plan to climb Mount Ophir, finishing with a good durian feast in town.