Southern Thailand durian is not famous, which is why I wanted to go there. There’s always something magical about taking the leap into the unknown, and I’ve always loved how the promise of really tasty durian has lured me off the beaten track into somewhere random I’d never considered going to before. I love when life is a surprise, and everything about Pattani was definitely a surprise.
Just look at this gold mine:
It’s a tree-dropped Ganyao from a 50-year-old tree.
In just our short visit, we found ancient hundred-year-old trees, truly organic unnamed durian baan, old forgotten heirloom varieties, and even a farm owned by the royal princess.
Pattani has everything desired by the durian hunter hoping to get off the beaten track into somewhere homey, quiet, and friendly. It has a mixture of fallen durian and cut durian, plenty of high quality Monthong and also the wild stuff with a bitter kick.
But all gems have a price, and I guess it’s up to you to make this judgment call.
About Sai Khao, Pattani
Sai Khao is a small district along the foothills of the Sangkalakhiri mountains in Pattani, a coastal province in Thailand’s deep south. The hills undulate into steeps mountainsides coated with rubber trees and rainforest.
On the hillside above our home stay, the giant golden Buddha of Prapudmahamunin talok kanard twinkled in the strong sunlight. I walked up the steep grade to visit the Buddha one morning and look out at Pattani stretched out at my feet below.
There’s not any cities in Sai Khao district. There’s not even really a village center. There’s both a Buddhist temple and a Muslim mosque, where they collect and distribute durians, and a bunch of houses with convenience shops set out up front, but from the Buddha statue it all just kind of melds into the general greenery.
The other things you can’t see in this photo is the set of pristine waterfalls at the Namtok Sai Khao National Park, about a 30-minute walk from the home stay, or the guarded road blocks.
The road blocks were kind of hard to ignore.
Even on the little road of our homestay, where our host mother moseyed around the garden setting out baskets of fruit to dry while men jogged by with their buffaloes or putt-putted their motorbikes with durian-picking monkeys (keep reading) perched on the back, there were guarded road blocks.
What you really can’t see when you look out over Sai Khao district are the problems, which I feel like I need to tell you something about before I write a gusher of a post about how beautiful it is here and how good the durian is.
Visiting Pattani: The Responsible Need -To-Know Stuff For Travelers
I never once felt unsafe in Sai Khao. People were really friendly. But even so I felt uneasy.
It was in the small things, like how our cell service abruptly ended the moment we crossed the border into Pattani from the north. Since 2005, the Thai government has required all travelers and citizens to register their cell phones on entry.
Or the way when we stopped at the Big C shopping center at the border, where we needed to register said cell phones, guards at the entrance to the parking lot opened our car trunk and checked our tires for signs of bombs.
Or knowing that a Pattani Big C had been bombed just a few months earlier.
Pattani is so far south in Thailand that it’s people speak a different dialect, Jawi, and around 80% of them practice Islam. There’s still a supposed-separatist movement in the area, although our hosts were swift to dismiss this as cover for drug traffickers plying the Malaysia-Thai border.
The unrest is actually one reason why the local Pattani government is supporting durian farming and helping farmers to plant more durians.
Sai Khao Durian Collective
Our first destination in Pattani, after Big C to register our phones, was to the distribution house of the Sai Khao Durian Collective.
Kareeya, who works for the local agricultural department and is a fan of this blog, met us at the road block and directed us to this old Muslim religious school next to the mosque, now doubling as a durian warehouse.
Sai Khao has grown durian for centuries, but for most of history they’ve only grown local varieties or the unnamed thurian baan, the Thai equivalent of kampung or village durian, which today sells for really cheap prices.
The collective was organized by Pi Kasean, a local leader, who banded 170 farms together to ship Monthong durians to Bangkok. Today, you can buy Sai Khao durians at Tops Super Market and the Central Department Store for premium prices.
Pi Kasean believed, as did King Bhumipol, that the violence and drug trade can be halted by helping people grow crops worth more money, which helps people escape the cycles of poverty.
Kareeya explained that today in Pattani, the government pays farmers who make less than 100,000 baht ($3,200 US) per year extra money to grow baby Monthong durian trees.
Sai Khao Monthong
Monthong durian was first brought to Sai Khao about 80 years ago from Nonthaburi and popularized in the last 30.
“The princess said our durian is better than in Nonthaburi,” Kareeya told us proudly. The reason, he said, is that Sai Khao used to be a volcanic area, so there’s still lots of sulfur in the soil. Also, Pattani is coastal. Once upon a time, the ocean covered these foothills and deposited plenty of nutrients, making the soil rich and fertile.
The result is that the shell of Monthong is thinner in Sai Khao than in other parts of Thailand and the texture is more consistently smooth. Whereas Monthongs in other areas struggle with ripening evenly — staying crunchy or rubbery in some spots and overly soft in others — Sai Khao Monthongs were like vanilla butter.
“This really is the best Monthong ever,” said Parisa’s boyfriend Damien. He would know, the Monthong-muncher.
Kareeya looked so expectant that it was hard to break it to him that I just don’t really like Monthong. No matter how good, I just can’t appreciate it more than a few bites.
“That’s okay,” he said “We have others maybe you will like more.”
Sai Khao Durian Day
In the morning, Kareeya showed up at our homestay with Pi Soaw (Pi means like Mr. or Uncle), who owns a 1940’s army jeep left over from World War II.
Pi Soaw sometimes ferries tourists around the district. Surprisingly, he said he’d escorted a group of Korean tourists staying at the homestay, but he’d never met tourists who just wanted to go around to eat durian.
Luckily, he had his own durian farm with what he thinks is the oldest durian tree in all of Pattani. We went for a lumpy bumpy drive up the mountains to go see it.
That’s Kareeya in the green shirt and Pi Saow looking up the tree trunk.
100-Year-Old Durian Baan
After stopping the car, we hiked for about 10 minutes into what felt like verdant rain forest, but was actually somebody’s orchard, until we reached the tree.
The tree doesn’t have a name. Yet. It was planted by seed a forgotten amount of time ago, and is one of the durians referred to in Thailand as thurian baan.
Pi Soaw pulled out a measuring tape. The tree was 4.29 meters around, or more than 14 feet in circumference.
Unfortunately this tree wasn’t dropping fruit, having already finished for the season, so we kept wandering the orchard until Pi Soaw pulled a freshly fallen durian from out of a clump of ferns.
It was super fresh, sticky, and bitter, exactly how we like them.
We spread out like a search party looking for more, tromping through the bushes and sniffing every few feet until we’d found a few more. Parisa, Damien and I were of course hoping to eat them right then and there, but Pi Soaw put them on the dashboard of the jeep and said we’d better keep going.
There were more Sai Khao Durians to taste.
More Tree-dropped Durian Baan on the Roadside
As we pulled off the bumpy rubber tree trek and back on to the main road heading into the village, it was clear Sai Khao has a lot of durians. We passed by numerous small stalls where locals had piled the fruits of their backyard trees onto wooden tables. I’ve pinned them all in the map below ↓ ↓ .
This lady was standing in what looked like her living room/hair salon, snippng someone’s hairdo when we pulled up. She craned her head out of the door, put down her scissors, and walked over to weigh a durian for us.
The durian had fallen that morning, and was still fresh. It was sweet and sticky though, lacking the oomph of bitterness that we liked in Pi Soaw’s orchard. There wasn’t much to it, but we also didn’t have much time. Pi Soaw wanted to keep going.
We pulled into the yard of what he said was his house. In front was a monkey tied by a long cord to a tree. He unwrapped the cord and the monkey hopped onto a grill I hadn’t noticed before on the front of his jeep.
Now, he said, he wanted to show us how they harvest durians in Sai Khao.
I couldn’t see the monkey as we barreled along the country road toward what I guessed was the orchard. I hoped she wasn’t going to jump. I assumed she was used to riding around mere inches from the speeding concrete, but the whole monkey-on-the-front-of-the-car thing made me nervous.
Finally we stopped and Pi Soaw grabbed the monkey’s long rope. She scurried up the nearest durian tree, dragging the cord behind her. Running back and forth across a limb, she at last stopped, grabbed a durian, and hurled it down.
Here’s the video:
Using a series of commands in Thai, Pi Soaw coaxed her down from the tree. She hopped back on to the grill of the jeep, and we were off again on our very action-packed durian day.
Suddenly, I realized there were monkeys all around, tied to trees. I wasn’t sure how I hadn’t noticed them before. There was one at our next destination, a male who began to pace aggressively when he saw the monkey on our car.
He’d wrapped himself around the tree to where he could barely take more than 2 or 3 steps. I wanted to help him out, but to be honest he was scary.
With mixed feelings I turned to the durian stall where we’d stopped, which belonged to a farm famous in the area.
Princess Sirindhorn’s Farm and Farmstand
Princess Sirindhorn is kind of like the patron saint of farmers in Thailand. She’s very much active in assisting with agricultural education and promoting sustainability, healthy food-growing habits, and also durian diversity. Princess Sirindhorn likes durian.
In 2011, the Princess called for durian farmers all over Thailand to preserve their old heirloom varieties, rather than just planting Monthong. Pi Payom answered the call. Not only did she keep her old durian trees, she actually ceded the orchard’s land title to the princess. So this is, in effect, the princess’s orchard.
Her family had planted several varieties of durian from Nonthaburi about 60 years ago. In addition to Monthong and Ganyao, she has Kop Lep Yao, Chai Ma Fai, Kop Med Tao, Kampang Daeng, and Chat Si Nak.
Pi Payom was sitting in a lawn chair behind a wooden table lined with durians when we pulled over. She’s a petite, tiny lady with hair she still dyes black even though it would probably be white these days.
When she said she had Chat Si-Nak, I was elated. One more Thai durian variety to cross off my list.
It was one of my favorite durians of our trip to Pattani too. Light and fluffy, it had a delicate texture, was creamy without being too sweet and was just all around good. Plus excitement for finding something new.
Fallen and Cut Monthong
Pi Payom was selling a mixture of cut and fallen Monthong durians. I wasn’t going to get any, but Monthong-Muncher Damien wanted another of Sai Khao’s super good quality Monthong before we had to leave.
The quandary was whether to go with one that had been harvested by monkey, or one that had been allowed to fall off the tree when fully ripe. We went with both. And it was neat to see and taste them side by side.
And I actually really liked the fallen one. It was kind of soupy-soft, fall-apart-in-your-fingers messy, but it’s fruitier sweetness was cut by a slight toffee or caramel undertone that made it really good. It was also really heavy and hearty, and after just a few pods I had to give up.
After all, we were on our fourth or fifth durian of the day by now.
Damien cleaned up the Monthong, and we said our good-byes to Pattani and our hosts at the Sai Khao homestay.
Where we stayed: Sai Khao Homestay Center
There aren’t any hotels in Sai Khao. There’s not even a city. It feels more like a neighborhood, with a Buddhist temple and a mosque, a school,. The businesses like convenience shops, drink carts and durian stalls looked like they were run out of the front yard of people’s houses.
So Kareeya set us up with the local home stay owned by Lung Chanin and his wife Ba Chaem.
Neither speak a word of English, so I was glad Parisa was with us to help communicate. But you don’t need language to know when someone is immensely kind.
Ba Chaem met us at the door with a pitcher of a sour-sweet drink that I immediately became obsessed with. Asking what was inside, she produced two bright orange fruits.
The drink was made from a mangosteen-relative, called Garcinia cambodgia, that is sort of a super food in Thailand and Malaysia. People believe it can help you lose weight.
There was a tree growing in the yard. Ba Chaem showed me how she slices the fruit into pieces and then lays them out in a large flat basket to dry in the sun. I could see that yesterday’s slices were just half-dry, and the day before’s were mostly dry. The pieces that had dried for 3 days she scooped up and took to the kitchen to boil and make more of the drink, which I found out later was copiously sweetened with palm sugar.
No wonder it tasted good.
Guests sleep upstairs, where there is one room with a door and a kind of open space. We slept in the open space because it had a bit better air flow and during the day the upstairs area got pretty stuffy and hot. We’d zip up to grab something and then hurry on downstairs to drink cambodgia tea on the outdoor patio, or to lie on the cold floor and watch TV with our hosts.
We paid 100 baht per night each plus extra for our dinner, which was an amazing collection of wild fig curry, Thai bitter greens and steamed vegetables.
Sai Khao Center Homestay
Send an email to [email protected] or call +66 093-6896447
GPS: 6°40’09.6″N 101°06’03.8″E
Our visit to Pattani was one of the highlights of the durian summer for me. It was definitely different from anywhere I’ve ever been in Thailand. It felt wild, with the jungle encroaching on the little houses and new wild fruits like figs, crazy-smelling mangoes, and of course Garcinia cambodgia. I’d never seen people use monkeys to harvest durians, and I’d never tasted Chat Sri Nak or gotten to compare freshly fallen Monthong with good-quality cut Monthong.
If it wasn’t for the possibility of bombings, I’d tell all my durian-loving friends to go there. But as it is I can’t. So it’s up to you to do your research on Pattani and decide if you feel that some first-rate fallen Ganyao is worth the risk.
How to get to Sai Khao, Pattani
There is no airport in Pattani, so the easiest way to get here is to fly or take the train to Hat Yai. From the airport you can rent a car and drive for about 2 hours to reach Sai Khao.