This is a chapter from my 2016 updated book, The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Thailand.
Here’s a durian mystery: How did the Monthong variety become the most common durian in the world?
It’s distinctly different tasting than the durians of Malaysia or Indonesia. Monthong is far fleshier, sweeter, milder, and has a high incidence of small seeds.
It’s not just Monthong; most Thai durians are gi-hemoths in size compared to the rest of the world’s durians. Their size and general heft of flesh is the reason that other countries have generally adopted Thai varieties. Even in Malaysia, where durian lovers take pride in dissing Thai durian, 19 of their registered durian varieties are listed as having come from Thailand.
Most of our favorite durians today, both Thai and Malaysian, have their roots in the old river canals around Bangkok.
So these are the questions I’m asking: Why does it appear that durian was first domesticated and bred in Central Thailand, where it isn’t even native? And how many years or decades before Malaysian and Indonesian farmers did the Thai begin grafting and creating new durian varieties?
The history of durian is the story of the people who grew it and ate it. So with durian in mind, let’s try to re-construct the old Kingdom of Siam.
The History of Durian in Thailand
In June of 1662, Jacques de Bourges was startled to find that Ayutthaya was a multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan city. He wrote, “There are few cities in the whole of the East where one can see so many different nationalities as in Siam, and more than twenty different languages are spoken there.”
Ayutthaya was a port city about 80 kilometers north of modern-day Bangkok and served as a meeting point for merchants and priests from Iran, China, Java, Malaysia and Japan. By 1630, the King of Thailand was of Chinese descent, had Japanese bodyguards and Dutch mercenary soldiers, and kept Iranian imams and French priests like de Bourges as advisors. Many visitors passed through and left accounts of tasting durian.
De Bourges wrote a long passage describing durian:
“This fruit is of the size and shape of an ordinary melon, the skin is thick and tough; it grows at the top of the tree trunk beneath its branches, and because it would be difficult to open it on account of its hard husk, when it is ripe, Nature causes it to open by itself at the bottom in three or four places, and one can finish off its opening with brute strength.
Inside this fruit are segments of a soft, delicate flesh enclosed within small compartments. The flesh is as white as snow, exceeds in delicacy of taste all our best European fruits, and none of ours can approach it. Each durian has five, six, seven or eight of these segments of white flesh, the shape of which is like a green almond, but four or five times bigger. What is extraordinary about this marvellous fruit is that its smell is most disagreeable and even, at first, unbearable when one distinguishes it, being similar to a rotten apple. This fruit is extremely hot, and Europeans who eat too much of it are obliged to moderate the ardour it causes by going incontinently to wash.”
As a durian history detective, there are two important details in this passage:
1) People were waiting until the durian was nearly cracking open on its own to eat it, rather than cutting the fruits early and consuming them at the firm éclair stage, as Thais do now, and
2) The durians had white flesh and up to 8 seeds, all signs of thurian baan, the uncultivated village durian. Today, most thurian baan still have white flesh, but most cultivated durians have yellow or dark golden flesh.
This means that, unless the King was eating a different durian than the commoners, the Thai durians we know today were developed after 1662.
A Brief History of Grafting
It is possible, however, that the royal gardeners were already tinkering with breeding and grafting durians, and just hadn’t let the technology slip to the general populace. Ayutthaya was a vassal of the Mongol Yuan (just imagine visiting Mongol diplomats eating durian) and later the Ming dynasty of China, where by the 4th century A.D. there were whole treatises on grafting techniques. By the 10th century, there were books listing varieties of fruit trees, including over 40 varieties of lychee.
Ayutthaya had a relatively close trading partnership with the Chinese dynasties. Their relationship was such that, when in 1395 the Thai king died, the Chinese emperor sent delegates to the funeral. There’s no reason that Thai horticulturalists weren’t familiar with plant breeding techniques, and could have been disseminating them through Ayutthaya’s Ministry of Agriculture, which was established by the mid-14th century.
It also doesn’t mean that the general public was particularly interested in experimenting with breeding new fruit trees. In that time period, all land belonged to the King, and all fruit trees were taxed regardless of whether they produced fruit or not.
Twenty years after de Bourges, in 1687, the French diplomat Simon de la Loubère noted that most of the government’s revenues came from taxing fruit gardens.10 The government counted the tax by individual trees, and there was a tax jump once the tree reached a large enough circumference.Durian, sensibly, had a higher tax compared to other fruit trees.
A nursery would have been an expensive endeavor, and few people had time anyway. All lower-class Thai citizens were required to spend 6 months of the year working on projects for the King, (the Corvée system) and outright slavery was very common. People could sell themselves into slaverywhenever they had reached a financial low, or, according to the authors of the 1759 “An Universal History, whenever they couldn’t afford to sate their durian cravings. “They sometimes sell themselves and children for victuals and even for the sake of eating a delicious fruit called durion,” the authors claimed.
Durian was an object of desire, and during the blooming literary phase at the beginning of the 18th century, it made symbolic appearances in poetry. Even the Crown Prince Isaransundhorn, who became King Rama II, wrote his sweetheart (and cousin) Princess Bunrod a romantic verse comparing his desire for her to a durian. The poem was called Kap Hechom Khrueang Khao Wan.
“And Durian wrapped in Banana leaves,
has such a glowing yellow texture,
Like your beautiful skin
My love, my companion.”
The year Prince Isaransundhorn was born, Ayutthaya was destroyed by war with Burma, and so the prince grew up in Thailand’s new capital, just across the river from modern-day Bangkok. The area was criss-crossed by canals and “scattered Edens of fruit trees” including durian, according to Anna Leonowens, the famed governess from The King and I. This is the area where modern durian varieties are believed to originate.
At that time the Bangkok area had a larger population of Chinese immigrants than Thai citizens. In 1835, W. Dean estimated that out of a population of about 400,000 people, 270,000 of them were Chinese, in particular a group of people called Hokkiens, who had been well known in China for growing fruit, in particular lychees. They settled along the canals and settled into the same occupation they had back home. Since the Chinese were not considered citizens, they did not have to report for the six-month Corvée duty.
These Chinese farmers found that, while the climate couldn’t support familiar fruits like lychees, they could make a good living selling durian. In 1855, John Crawfurd reported that durian “is the only fruit which has ever had a considerable money-value in the Siamese market.” He also noted that the Thai, who liked to gamble, would make bets on how many durian seeds they found inside each pod.
Durian growers paddled to the wealthy areas, like Yaowarot or Bang Rak, to sell their durians to the wealthy Chinese traders and merchants willing to pay top dollar for good quality durian. It’s likely by this period they were trading in durian varieties like Ganyao and Kob and Kampan.
Supposedly, a book written in 1884 by a Thai royal poet contains a list of 68 durian varieties. If it is true, it means that Thailand developed durian varieties a good 50 years before Malaysia registered their first variety, and 80 years before Malaysia began planting grafted durian varieties in earnest. Too bad the book is in Thai, and since my nerdy little peepers can’t read it or afford to pay for translation, I can’t tell you if this is true or not.
A detail I have found, which points toward durian breeding, is that a 1908 Thai cookbook mentions that durians from one of the Chinese communities were known for being extra-large.
Flooding the Orchards
In any case, the canals around Bangkok were where people finally began to specialize in growing durian. The orchards thrived – for a while. The canals which had made the area so fertile had downsides, too. They were prone to flooding and still are today. A flood in 2011 destroyed 90% of the remaining durian orchards and is the reason Nonthaburi’s durians are the most expensive in the world.
“That of 1831 nearly destroyed the sugar plantations and three or four feet of water continuing to cover the face of the country, almost all the cattle perished. The rice-harvest was seriously affected, and the finest fruit-trees swept away, so that it was said only one durian tree was left in Siam,” wrote John Crawfurd during his 1855 trip, remarking on how well the orchards seemed to have recovered.
In 1942, another massive flood in Thonburi wiped out the durian trees, and inspired durian growers like Chatri and his father to start orchards elsewhere (see Suan La Ong Fah). But ultimately, it was the attempt to control the flooding that ended the durian boom years around Bangkok.
In 1955, the Chao Phraya Dam was finished, and within a few years, “the water supply was considerably reduced, and the clay sediment from the river which had been accumulating for years and which had provided fertile soil was exhausted. Formerly fresh water in the river became brackish because the salt water from the Gulf of Thailand easily entered the river.” (Punee, 2014).
Many fruit growers, both durian and otherwise, sold their plots to urban developers, who added it to the expanding space of Bangkok. Some got jobs in the city, and others moved west along the newly built highways to Chanthaburi, where the government was actively promoting durian farming and even giving away land.
In 1954, Phongsa wrote to encourage durian growing in Chanthaburi for export. The varieties he suggested were Kop Med Tao, Kop Tha Kam, and Lep Giao, none of which are easy to find today. He also mentions that Ganyao was favored by the wealthy, and explains that the poor laborers preferred a strong-tasting durian variety called Kampan. A durian variety he doesn’t mention is Monthong.
So when did Monthong show up? Where did it come from? If there are answers, they haven’t been translated to English yet. The earliest mention of Monthong I can find is from 1987 (although supposedly in 1981 Bhusiri recommended 60 varieties). Studies from that time period list Chanee as the main commercial durian, so whatever miracle of production happened with Monthong has been very recent.
The ending of this history is abrupt and unsatisfying on purpose. It reflects my dissatisfaction with the answers I have about Why Monthong?
But, if you made it through this very long, arcane exploration of durian development and are now reading these words, I’ll take it as proof that I’m not entirely crazy for caring.
So if you find any clues, please share them in the comments below or get in touch with me at durianyearATgmail.com.
And if you enjoyed this article please consider supporting this site and my independent research by buying The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Thailand.
- Jacques de Bourges and Siam.
- 1691. Simon de la Loubere, Du Royaume de Siam.
- 1759. 1759: An Universal History: Inhabitants of Siam, their Manners and Customs.
- 1857: John Crawfurd. The Kingdom and People of Siam.
- 1870. Anna Leonowens. The English Governess at the Siamese Court.
- 1884. Sri Soonthorn Voharn (Noi Arjanrayangkoon). Pan Pruek Sa Kub Sut Ta Va Pi Tharn. Can anybody translate this for me?
- 1908. Lady Plian Phasakorawong. Mae Khrua Hua Pa (Skillful Women Chefs).
- 1954: Durian. P. Phrayaphathya. Kasikorn 27: 131-137
- 2010. Panu Woncha-um. What is Thai Cuisine? Find him on Twitter: @panuw
- 2014. Punnee Bualek. The Chinese Hokkien People and the Orchard Development in Bang Kho Laem in the Past.