If you’re like me, as a kid you liked looking at the empty spaces on maps and wondering what was there. I was attracted to visiting Yala, Thailand, partly because it’s a significant producer of durian, and partly because it’s still a big empty space on Google Maps. Parisa and I noticed it as we huddled over my computer, plotting durian pinpoints for our Southern Thailand Durian Trip of Awesomeness. In between Yala City on the northern border, and Betong City on the southern border with Malaysia, was a 3 hour drive through the apparent unknown. What durians could we find there?
I was excited to think there was still a place not yet documented and filed away by Google, a place where we couldn’t 100% know what to expect (although you can still go to Street View along the main highway).
There’s just not a lot about Yala online.
You can’t book a hotel on Agoda in Yala (except in Betong).
Travel Fish, my go-to travel resource, had nothing to say about Yala except the sea food is good, which is weird because it’s a landlocked province.
It was up to us to find out the durian scene in Yala, and report back to you. So here’s what we found in Yala’s big, empty space on Google Maps:
Yala is super beautiful and super rural
Leaving Yala City, we took the largest, most developed highway in Yala. It was a two-lane road with no passing lanes. The road wound around mountains and limestone cliffs, zig-zagged around a large dam, and passed kilometer after kilometer of durian orchards.
It was gorgeous. It looked “unspoiled,” a place untroubled by the outside world — which I know is ironic given Yala’s reputation for terrorism.
Maybe it was the sun-shiny day glinting green off all those durian leaves, or the empty road where we did battle with zero other vehicles, or the pleasing mellow curves of the hillsides, but I felt like Yala was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever visited in Thailand.
Yala’s durian grows on small farms
We didn’t see durians being sold on the side of the road until we reached Than To District, where the road begins to wind and switch-back along the banks of the Bang Lang Dam.
And then suddenly, there were a number of small stalls, each selling a few baskets of durians. Many people here have one or two trees in their yard, or a small farm with a dozen trees. The most serious durian farmers we spoke with, back at the Yala Durian Wholesale Market, had only 2 or 3 acres.
But durian is one of Yala’s most important crops. According to the 2010 production statistics, Yala is the 7th largest durian producing province in Thailand. It grows more durian than all it’s neighboring provinces — just not on the big commercial scale of Chanthaburi. It’s not Chinese multinational enterprises growing Yala’s durian, it’s a bunch of small farmers.
Yala has a lot of spray-free durian
Maybe because of the small-scale of these farms, but durian growers in Yala are definitely not investing time or money into pesticides.
Almost all of the durians we came across, both along the road and at the Durian Wholesale Market, were damaged by pests like fruit boring moths and squirrels. Even the big-name varieties, like Monthong or Ganyao or Chanee, grown to be shipped off to durian factories, were partially damaged. This keeps the prices lower, so durian buyers come to Yala to snap up the moth-riddled durians with undamaged halves that can still be processed into durian pastes and confections.
It was kind of cool to find mostly spray-free Thai durians at cheap prices.
Yala has a lot of baby durian nurseries
The durian nurseries we saw just south of Bannang Sata made me wonder how long this small-time, spray-free durian farming will continue. I had never seen so many baby durian trees in my life.
The nurseries lined both side of the road for kilometers. We drove for minutes through a sea of infants before I told Parisa to stop so I could take a photo.
The guys loading a truck with durian seedlings said they were all Monthong. All of them. I expressed surprise there were so many. Then he turned and led me down the driveway.
The rows of baby trees extended into infinity, around the corner and past where I could see. The guy said they were packing the truck to send seedlings to Chanthaburi. He said sometimes they send to Nonthaburi, or even Rayong too.
It appears that Yala is supplying the whole country of Thailand with baby durian trees. I didn’t expect that.
Yala has all the normal durian varieties
I don’t know, somehow I thought Yala would be different. Have different kinds of durian.
But other than an unusual amount of durian baan, Yala had all the kinds of durian you find in Chanthaburi or Rayong or Bangkok. There was Monthong and Ganyao, Chanee and as we got further south closer to Betong, we saw more and more Puangmanee.
Just for cheaper prices.
Until we got to Betong anyway. Then the prices got crazy expensive.
Yala is not as predominantly Muslim as I expected
The baby was adorable as it sucked durian flesh off his mom’s fingers, squinting his eyes and thinking hard. His family was selling durian in front of his Grandma’s house, and since it was Hari Raya Haji, a Muslim celebration day, all the family was just hanging out.
I noticed the women weren’t wearing headscarves.
Somehow, I just expected all of Yala to be more on the conservative side of Muslim. In Yala City, we saw lots of conservative dress. Women in all black floated down the street on their motorcycles, their faces covered by a veil. At the market, almost all of the women wore long headscarves, covering not just their heads and necks but their shoulders, elbows and wrists.
But as we got further and further from Yala City, I saw more women with their heads uncovered. I don’t know if they were Muslims or not, but I thought it was interesting.
Yala’s Military Check Points Are Not That Intense
I was a little worried about driving through Yala as a foreigner in a borrowed car with Malaysian license plates. How often would we get stopped by the military check points?
Although we did frequently slow down to weave through roadblocks, they were rarely manned by anyone. The road was quiet, and empty, just like it said on Google Maps.
And it was beautiful that way.
I would love to tell you to go to Yala. Rent a car, cross the border through Betong, and wind your way through the hillsides eating durian all the way. I wish I could take you on a tour here. Yala City was intimidating, and I didn’t like Betong (post coming soon), but those empty spaces in between were picture-perfect.
I can’t responsibly tell you to take your durian hunting self to Yala. I would like to go back.
Durian Hunting Map of Thailand
Filling in those blank spaces, here is a map of some other durian hotspots in Thailand. Happy hunting!