“Well, are we gonna get shot at this durian market?” I replied. Parisa covered the earpiece of the phone. Her friend was inviting us to the Yala durian wholesale market, just two breaths after saying there’d been a shooting at said market the previous evening. It was a personal thing, she assured us, about the price of durian. Nothing to do with Yala’s contentious political situation.
I was not really comforted. But I knew just visiting Yala was not among my most safety-conscious decisions, and definitely something I shouldn’t tell my mother (good thing she doesn’t read this blog — and don’t you dare tell her). So we went out to the Yala durian market.
Yala is the southernmost province of Thailand, bordered on two sides by Malaysia. Unlike the rest of Thailand, where most people are Buddhist, Yala is about 70% Muslim. Historically, the region ping-ponged between belonging to Thailand, belonging to Malaysia, and being part of an independent sultanate. The result is that Yalans and the people of Southern Thailand have their own style.
Even Parisa, who is Thai, felt conspicuous. “I don’t feel like I’m in Thailand,” she said.
We arrived the afternoon before Hari Raya Haji, a Muslim holiday. It was hot, and the streets were crowded. We parked in front of the seafood restaurant that Travel Fish claims is Yala’s only attraction, and wandered past the train station to the small but bustling market one block away. People watched us, probably because tourists are very rare here. Only a few returned my smiles. It made me nervous.
The entryway to the market, nearly hidden by parked motorcycles, was flanked by women selling different kinds of rice noodles — thin ones, fat ones, round ones, flat ones. Motorbikes mingled with pedestrians in the narrow alley. All the women wore the tudung, an elastic-y Malaysian headscarf with a stiff brim, even the baby girls. One little one had rabbit ears on hers (very cute idea).
Parisa stopped to ask about the fat, wide noodles, which she said looked different from See Ew noodles in Chanthaburi. She had trouble understanding the reply. “They speak Thai like foreigners,” she said.
People in Yala actually speak their own language — Phasa Yawi — which Wikipedia says is “a highly divergent dialect of Malay.” It developed in isolation from Malaysian Bahasa and has similarities, but certainly nobody understood me when I tried to speak Bahasa Melayu to the woman selling these Velvet Tamarinds, Dialium indum, called Luk Yee in Thai.
Maybe I just speak Bahasa like a foreigner.
Velvet tamarinds are fuzzy, with thin shells that easily crush under a squeeze. Inside, they are moist and pasty, and taste almost exactly like a tamarind. I love them, so I bought a bag for eatertainment on our road trip south through Yala province the next day.
There weren’t many other fruits at the market — a few sataw, or stink beans, bananas, a single jackfruit, and a lone pile of durians, all the way at one end. They were mostly sad-looking Monthongs, aged durian baan, and one Ganyao that would have been my pick, except the woman wouldn’t look at me.
We were going to have to get our durian fix elsewhere. Yala, for all it’s troubles, is now a major durian producer in Thailand. We knew there was a lot more durian somewhere.
We got back in the car and drove 6.5 km, about 15 minutes south of the city to our hotel nearby the Yala durian wholesale market.
Where We Stayed
On Parisa’s friend’s recommendation, we stayed at The Face, a new hotel within walking distance of the durian wholesale market as well as around the corner from the shooting.
The Face is a three story building off the main road down a quiet lane. It’s not listed on Agoda — no hotels in Yala City are — but I think it’s one of the better ones. It cost us 630 baht per night, including an extra mattress on the floor.
The rooms were simple, clean and new, and the staff was friendly. Damien rated the shower an 8 out of 10. We were comfortable, which was great since after checking in in the late afternoon, like vampires we just stayed in the room to wait for night, and durian, to come.
Yala Durian Wholesale Market
The wholesale market is located in an empty lot at the Mala U Bangkok junction, where the 4063 Highway meets the 410. These highways, logically, connect Malaysia with Bangkok and are a major durian artery, moving Yala durian north and south along the roadways.
Yala grows a lot of durian, and sells it cheap. But for now, the province doesn’t have any factories of its own. So there is a lucrative trade for durian buyers, like Parisa’s friend Am, who come at night to snap up durians as they arrive from the far districts.
Even though it was already 9:30 at night, the durians were just beginning to arrive. As we walked around, Nu Run Ding pulled up from Thanto, a district 2 hours south, and began unloading his truck full of Monthong.
He chatted with us nervously as the durian buyers unloaded, examined, and painted his durians with a yellow ripening agent.
His Monthongs were all unripe, cut for a long transport, so we wandered on. At the end of the row, Parisa’s friend pointed across the street. That’s where the shooting happened.
“Did anybody die?” I asked Parisa. She looked at her friend.
“That’s the normal thing,” she translated.
We turned around, and wandered back up the row. We saw lots of Monthong, but also plenty of Ganyao and Puangmanee, and a few Chanees. Damien and I were kind of craving Chanee after all the Ganyao we’d been finding in previous days, but we couldn’t find any ripe ones.
Then we noticed a pile of durian baan, the Thai version of kampung or seedling durians. These were tree-dropped, and still pretty fresh. We bought one for 90 baht. I wanted to open it at the stall, but Am said it wasn’t good to hang out there.
Instead, we settled at a busy tea shop on the corner.
The tea shop is open all night, to service the durian market. Am got a cup of coffee, getting ready for the work night. When the market closes down around 4 am, she’ll drive a 4.2 ton truck of durian 6 hours north to a durian factory in Chumphon. After unloading the durians, she’ll turn around and arrive back in Yala just in time for the durian market to open again.
Last night, she said, the tea shop was empty. When that happens, it’s a sign you better just go home.
I was opening the durian and paused to look around. I don’t normally eat durian at night, but science tells us that setting affects the way we taste food. I couldn’t pass up tasting this one.
Yala Durian Baan
Durian baan is any durian grown from a seedling. The trees are usually left half-wild, and most people don’t bother to cut them, meaning these durians were tree-dropped.
It was incredibly plump and fleshy, like it must have been the seedling of another kind of Thai durian. It wasn’t bitter at all, but tasted fatty and nutty, with a strong alcoholic aroma. It was delicious. We went back for another.
It was just as good. I could have eaten more, but by then it was 10 pm. It was time to let Am get to work, and time for us to go home to The Face and get some sleep.
By the time we woke up, Am told us, the durian would be gone. I didn’t quite believe her, so as we were leaving we stopped by the lot on the corner of the junction.
The market was deserted, the tarps flapping ghost-like in a breeze I couldn’t feel. Peering into one of the stalls, I saw a goat sleeping in the shade — probably hiding from Hari Raya Haji.
A man came out of the empty tea shop on the corner and watched me snap a photo. It was time to go.
Disclaimer: Travel At Your Own Risk
Canada and the United Kingdom recommend tourists avoid all travel to Yala due to the potential for terrorist attacks. Yala has a problem with some Islamic separatist groups, who are expressing their unhappiness with occasional shoot-outs and bombings. Google it before you go.
But also keep it in perspective. Here’s a statistical infographic for those of you who like them. In the last 12 years, around 6,000 people have died from terrorist activities in Southern Thailand. Around 24,000 people die every year on Thailand roads from car crashes and other accidents.
Durian hunting is apparently inherently dangerous. Oh durian, the thing we do for you.
Where to Go Durian Hunting in Thailand
Use this map to find all the Yala durian places mentioned in this blog post, or navigate onward to other, less scary durian hotspots around Thailand. Click each pin to link to the blog post. Happy Hunting!
You gotta check out the durian here in Davao City, Philippines!
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I’m going there tomorrow!