“Fifty years ago, this tree was very much in demand,” Mr. Lai says, craning to look up at branches silhouetted like spiderweb a hundred feet above us. Even then the tree was already huge. This was before there was Red Prawn, or Hor Lor, or Musang King, when this sleepy southwestern corner of Penang Island was an even more out-of-the-way secret for durian hunters.
About Gertak Sanggul
Gertak Sanggul is the peninsula in the southwest of Penang Island. The road ends just past the fishing village, a sandy stretch of bay dotted with small fishing boats.
A small island rises over the horizon of calm turquoise sea. It’s called Pulau Kendi, and is one of the only places with a live reef and good snorkeling around Penang. I’ve been wanting to go since I first read about it on Tim Tye’s inexhaustible website, Penang Travel Tips.
You can hire a boat from Gertak Sanggul to take you, but I’m not sure at what price. Pulau Kendi is still on my to-do list.
I know with our one-track durian hunting minds, it’s hard to associate Penang with anything other than the best ever Red Prawn (Udang Merah), with it’s smooth and supple pinkish-grey cream.
But according to this article and also this article, Penang is one of the most important sources of aquacultural products in Malaysia. Grouper fish are primarily exported to Hong Kong and China, but the rest — Barumundi, Red Snapper, and others — are sent to Australia, the US, and Europe, as well as consumed domestically.
Fishing is why Penang is known to the non-durian-obsessed clades as an excellent place for seafood and the other kind of prawns.
Visiting Gertak Sanggul is a reminder that Penang is an island and will always be tied to the sea.
There are a number of small temples in Gertak Sanggul dedicated to Sam Poh, the saint of fishermen. He’s a local canonization of a historical figure, Zheng He, and if you’re any kind of durian history nerd, you need to know about Zheng He.
Zheng He was a Chinese captain and explorer who was the first to record visiting Penang around 1403. The oldest written description of durian comes from his journeys through Malaysia, as well as some pretty fantastical creation myths about durian. If you believe the local tall tales, than durian is actually Zheng He’s feces.
Gertak Sanggul may be out of the way, but it’s also where you can find a glimpse of what Penang was like once upon a time. So it’s appropriate that one of the oldest trees on the island, if not the oldest tree, can be found here.
Friendly Home Durian Farm
Lai Tet Jun’s durian farm, and the oldest durian tree I’ve ever seen on Penang, is up a very steep cement road which leads to Mr. Lai’s house.
It’s wide enough for a car, but narrow. Back in 2014 when I visited Mr. Lai for the first time, I felt quite proud of myself for braving his hill on my motorbike.
Near the top, you’ll come to a small yellow house. During the season, he puts out a sign to guide durian hunters to his house, because this is where you’ll sit to enjoy your durian if you come to visit.
Mr. Lai grew up in this house. He’s the third generation to live here. His grandfather was the one who bought the land, and planted the old tree, over 100 years ago.
Now the farm has 16 acres of durian, rambutan, cempedak, pineapple, and rubber, with over 100 durian trees.
You can see him talk about his farm here:
Video of the Oldest Durian Tree in Penang
Botak: The Oldest Durian Tree in Penang
Mr Lai’s grandfather planted the tree in the early 1900’s, around the time when he arrived in Penang as an immigrant from China.
At that time, the British colony was so desperate to get Penang “civilized” that the government gave away a lot of land, encouraging hard-working Chinese immigrants to settle down and plant cash crops. Durian was not a cash crop — it was just something people liked to eat and kept around for personal consumption.
Today, the tree is huge. It towers at least 100 feet in the air. Five people holding hands can’t quite encircle it’s trunk. It still makes fruit every year, in the mid-season starting around June.
Mr. Lai calls the fruits “Xiao He Shang,” which is Mandarin for the “small monk.” In Malay, he calls it “Botak,” which means bald. He says the fruit is round, and with it’s short blunt thorns it gives the durian the appearance of a shaved monk’s head.
Because of the name, I expected the durian to have small, nubby thorns like a D2. But it doesn’t.
It’s thorns look more like the big, curly-haired bumps on a Buddha statue (which, according to more legends isn’t even human hair, but actually very generous snails).
In any case, it is a small round durian with normal size thorns.
What makes it unusual is it’s extremely thick shell. Getting into this durian almost required a jack hammer, and Mr. Lai struggled with it for a full minute and 5 seconds to get it open.
Inside all that shell is just a few shiny, ivory-colored pods of deliciousness.
When we tasted this durian, it was really fresh. It had probably dropped just a few hours before and the flesh was still on the firm side, before developing the thick wrinkles that denote a very very old tree.
But as many of you know, this is the best time to capture that peculiar spicy, tingly, cold-to-the-tongue sensation that happens sometimes with very old durian.
This durian was one of the numbiest I have ever experienced. It was as sticky as peanut butter, and my whole mouth felt smooth and cool, like a breath mint. If you were watching my Instagram stories, you saw that I was very impressed.
We ate another one of these durians later on in the day, after the stickiness and numbness had worn off. It was still good, with a strong herby, savory flavor, but not nearly as impressive as that early morning Wows.
So make sure, if hunting this durian, to drive out to Friendly Home Farm in the morning.
Read More Stories in Our New Book (Chinese and English editions)
To get more tips for durian hunting in Penang, as well as background stories, histories, tips for choosing and eating durian, and a field guide to all the most popular varieties, make sure to check out my new book, available in both English and Chinese this August 4th!
How To Get To Friendly Home Farm
Call or WhatsApp Mr. Lai Tet Jun: +60 12-421-7346
GPS: 5.28139, 100.19967
Friendly Home Farm is located in Gertak Sanggul in the southwestern corner of Penang. The closest hotel is the Lexis Suites.
Nearby the farm is a nice little beach Pantai Tanjung Asam, where a lot of families come on the weekend for picnicking and playing in the shallow water.
Use the map below to find Family Home Farm, or navigate to other Durian Hotspots in Penang and Malaysia.