I admit I kind of smirked when I saw the first bus trundle past. I was sitting with friends at a table in the covered picnicking area at the Saratok Rest Stop. The curb was scattered with tidy clumps of exotic durian species, green spiny Durio graveolens and flower-shaped Durio kutejensis, as well as wild mangoes and baskets of red and yellow rambutan and pulasan. This was the ultimate lunch spot, and it was happening because I rented my first car in Malaysia.
I’d stopped on a whim. That morning, as we’d rolled out of the hotel parking lot, I had no idea the Saratok Rest Stop existed.
I was beelining for the Saratok Wet Market after two entertaining but unsuccessful forays toward Pakan. We needed lunch. We needed a break. We needed a Durian Rest Stop.
If we were on a bus, this would have been impossible.
When you take the bus, you can only go from Point A to Point B.
You have to roll past all the Point Ds, the roadside durian piles. With your nose pressed to the window, you bypass the weird ones, with yellow shells and tiny thorns, the cool green ones with curly thorns, all the mysteries just waiting to be cracked open and tasted.
Renting a car opens the possibilities to so many cool finds.
When I sped past the sign announcing the Saratok Rest Stop and Wadira Food Court, 1 km ahead, I didn’t know what it was, or if we’d find anything there except the tandas, the bathrooms. But I felt spontaneous. I just wanted to take a look, because I could.
“I need to pee,” I announced to the girls and pulled over.
We spotted the durians immediately. “Ooooh,” we all breathed with our noses pressed to the glass. Then we tumbled out of the car.
The durians were spread out in piles on the concrete floor of a small covered picnicking area just to the right of the bathrooms (when parking your car).
In addition to a lot of Durio zibethinus, there were two species of wild durians: both orange AND yellow Durio graveolens and Durio kutejensis. Of course we bought some of all of them.
As we settled at our table to begin our
lunch feast, the man selling normal, non-wild durians approached us to offer help opening the durians. After establishing that we tourists could actually open the durians ourselves, he hung around to chat. His name, he said, was Stanley.
We hadn’t initially displayed much interest in the the Durio zibethinus he was selling. Durio zibethinus is the species name for the type of durian most people around the world eat. But after we’d chatted for awhile, he brought over one of his catch for us to try.
It was pretty good, sweet and soft, much softer and lighter in texture than the other species of durians we were munching. My friend Daniela, from Sweden, said she still preferred D. zibethinus, and went over with Stanley to pick out a pile just for her to eat. Which was fine, because me and the other Daniela, from Germany, were more interested in the D. graveolens.
Yellow Durio Graveolens (Lai)
I opened the yellow Durio graveolens first, maybe because it was bigger and I was hungry, or maybe because I’d just bought it at a Kuching Market and it was familiar. They cost 20RM for a stack of three durians, so we just got one pile to share.
These were impressively fleshy. Each seed had a deep thickness of bright yellow cream wrapped around the seed. They were maybe a little overripe, and very soft with a strong, metallic bite that tasted weirdly delicious for a nail-polish-removal flavor. I liked the texture a lot, but when I dug into the orange graveolens it was just no match (to me).
Orange Durio Graveolens (also Lai)
The orange Durio graveolens were teeny tiny. Their piles were cheaper too, just 10RM for 5-6 small durians, and each one had just a thin lining of waxy, sticky flesh around each seed. That little bit of cream packs a punch though. It was so nutty and sticky it was almost like peanut butter.
I could give this durian to a dog for a laugh, I thought, just to watch it gulp and swallow a hundred times.
It was less intensely sweet than the yellow version, with a lovely nuttiness. I had bought an extra stack to take away to collect seeds, but ended up eating them all right then and there.
Stanley told us that the locals sometimes call this one tai anak, or baby poo durian, because of it’s color. I haven’t been a parent yet, so I’m trusting you guys to verify that this durian’s color has any similarity with baby poo.
Otherwise, locals refer to it by the same name as the yellow graveolens, Lai, without differentiating between the two. That to me, is kind of weird, because they are very different colors and taste pretty different from each other.
These were 25 per pile of 3, and they looked less tasty than the D. graveolens. They had clearly been cut off the trees early, before falling, and were so unripe it was a struggle to get one open to see what it looked like and take a photo. We put the others in the car and waited a couple of days. They softened, but maintained the weird, overly sweet flavor of a durian picked unripe.
I’ve seen this durian by a lot of names now, but they called it “Pakan,” named the town in the hills we were trying and failing to drive to. We kept getting turned around by roads too rough for our tiny car. But knowing the name came from that town redoubled my curiosity.
But these durians didn’t actually come from Pakan. They came from less than 1 km away.
Where the “wild” durians grow
I always ask where the durians come from. I’m a sucker for backstory and the human touch. Who brought them here? Who grew them?
With the car, we had the wheels to go see for ourselves.
After we’d finished eating, we politely and eagerly persuaded the vendors to show us the farm where they got the durians.
Two of the ladies piled into the front seat of my tiny car. Daniela from Sweden sat on Daniela from Germany’s lap. It was like a clown car, with people hanging out the windows and laughing as I put the car in 1st gear to grind up a steep cement drive.
At the top of the drive, we found a small fruit farm with a house. I’d forgotten it was still Chinese New Year. The celebration goes on for days, and the house was busy with people visiting.
The farm is owned by an old man who didn’t introduce himself, but we spoke briefly with his daughter, Mrs. Chua Mok Lan, who gave us permission to go and see their trees.
Their plot is small, just an orchard for home use, but it was packed with Durio graveolens and Durio kutejensis trees. Some trees were really old.
So the “wild durians” were actually domesticated, cozy and snug in an orchard where they were obviously well cared for. I saw a package of durian fertilizer on the ground as we walked back to the house.
Our short adventure concluded, we thanked Mrs. Chua and packed back into the clown car to roll down the hill to the Rest Stop.
Renting my first car in Malaysia feels like a major shift in my life. Maybe it’s because I’m finally old enough to rent cars without paying additional insurance, or maybe it’s because I’m finally making enough money to afford to do it.
I don’t have to worry about whether my bags will travel on top of the bus or on my lap. I don’t have to walk in the heat to the bus station, wonder about bus times, or stare hungrily at all the signs and junctions and piles of durian I’m missing.
I can go anywhere. I can stop anywhere. I can have more adventures and explore more places and durians than ever before.
The freedom is exhilarating. It’s a little overwhelming. It makes me wonder if, like those wild durians, I’m becoming a little domesticated. But then let’s be honest: thanks to TLC and the fertilizer, those durians tasted amazing. They were better than the ones we found later on in Sarikei and then Sibu. So far, renting a car has been a great experience, and yielded some of the best durian. This is awesome.
So here’s my advice: if you’re serious about durian hunting, rent a car or a motorbike or hire a local guide to show you around for the day.
Those durian rest stops are worth it.
The Saratok Rest Stop and Wadira Food Court are located on Highway AH150, the main road that connects Kuching to Sibu. It’s on the junction when you turn to drive to Saratok Town.
You can use this map to locate the rest stop, or navigate to other places and durians of interest in Malaysia. Most pins correspond with a blog post.
I rented the car through easybook.com. It cost 80RM ($18USD) per day.