Does relaxing in a natural hot spring in the jungles of Borneo, munching durian under a black and star speckled sky, sound like a dream come true? Yeah, that’s what I was thinking too when I decided to travel 2 1/2 hours into the Iran mountain range to visit the Merarap Hot Spring Lodge Durian Farm, possibly the most remote durian farm I’ve ever been to.
About the Merarap Hot Spring Durian Farm
Calling it the “Merarap Hot Spring Durian Farm” is a bit misleading. Sorry.
The 10-acre farm is located about 10km from the hot springs. You’ll pass it on the right-hand side of the road as you barrel up the rocky, muddy logging road that connects Lawas with Ba’kelalan and the border of Indonesia.
Once we left Tang Pau Village, where we were staying at Menangang Place Resort (population 10 houses) we didn’t pass anymore obvious settlements. Maybe a house scattered here or there, but we really feel that we had reached both the middle of nowhere and the middle of everywhere.
Remote doesn’t begin to describe the durian farm’s location. Yet the farm features some well known durian varieties from Western Malaysia in addition to local-style Kampung. How’d they get out there?
The history of the Merarap Hot Spring Durian Farm begins in 1995 when Alfred Padan, the regional manager of the Samling Timber Company, bought the grafted durian trees from a nursery in Miri called Kai Nguong and planted them around his grandparent’s old house on Lun Bawang tribal land.
Alfred doesn’t remember which varieties he bought — just whatever the nursery said was good — and he himself doesn’t go to up to eat durian very often. Maybe it’s the remoteness, or the lack of traffic on the road, or the absolute silence except for some birds fighting in the nearby rice field, but the farm has an air of neglect.
So we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the farm to find hours-old D93, D101 (Johor Mas), D24, and <gasp> Tekkah waiting for us at the farm.
It makes sense — Kai Nguong is responsible for distributing many of the grafted durian trees in Sarawak, especially their own specialty bitter durian, D93, which we attacked with gusto when we realized that almost all four in our reserved pile were numbing.
Then we loaded up the back of the truck and trundled off for an opulent hot spring durian feast.
About the Merarap Hot Spring Lodge
The hot spring has always been there, and has always been called Merarap as far as Alfred knows. The hot water bubbles naturally out of the ground into a series of small pools on land that traditionally belonged to his family and the Lun Bawang Tribe.
In January 2004, 10 years after the durian farm was planted, Alfred decided to build the Merarap Hotspring Lodge. It’s even more remote than the durian farm and is one of the only places to overnight if you decide to drive to Ba’kelalan or the Indonesian highlands.
Visiting the hot spring is also the only way you can get access to the durians, since Alfred and family don’t sell the old-tree, organic, bitter durians to anyone but friends, family, and guests of the Merarap Hot Spring. You can choose to stay overnight in the lodge (pictures below ↓↓), but our group chose the day trip package, which may or may not have been the best choice.
It was already really hot by mid-morning when our group of durian-munchers arrived, too hot really for a hot spring. Or maybe it was the durian we’d eaten at the farm on the way.
Except for the cats and a few staff slowly sweeping the lodge’s hallway, the hot spring was deserted. I was glad we missed one of the Chinese tour buses that occasionally wander up into the highlands.
With just our group there, it meant I could wear my bikini without feeling self-conscious. I decided for the sake of honest journalism, I’d best take a dip in every. single. pool. I counted 12 of them.
The water was clear in most pools, but a bit muddy and scummy in others. They ranged in temperature from refreshingly chilly to hot enough to make Richard shriek and also murder the unfortunate frog that fell inside.
The hot springs are a natural phenomenon, so don’t come expecting chlorine and lifeguards.
After we tried out every pool, we headed into the river. It was cold and strong enough to make swimming against the current a challenge.
In many places there are boulders submerged just under the brown surface, so I bumped my knee hard enough to bruise while swimming upstream. Maybe be a little more careful than me.
After swimming and dipping and petting the cats, we had re-gained our appetite enough to test out all of Alfred’s durian varieties.
Merarap Hot Spring Durian Feasting
Just because the durians are available for Merarap Hot Spring guests doesn’t mean they’re free or a reasonable price.
The manager of the hot spring originally charged us Rm40 per kg for their durians. To put that in perspective, as of today (December 22, 2018), Musang King is selling for Rm42 per kilo. That makes the Merarap Hot Spring durian hella expensive.
I was almost a little angry, as we got the bill only after arriving to the hot spring. Luckily there is WiFi, so I was able to WhatsApp with the manager and get the price down to Rm30/kg, more than I would normally pay for Red Prawn in Penang (last year the wholesale price was Rm25/kg)
My thought was that for durians grown 2.5 hours from anywhere, selling to me for a more reasonable price would probably be less effort and more cost effective .
But alas, we are hooked and addicted. So we paid up and ate up and were actually still pretty happy about it.
D93 – Sarawk King
The D93 had begun to lose it’s numbing power by the time we scattered the durian across the lodge tables and began to eat. But it was still the most bitter, the most pungent, the most WOW.
D93 is a petite little durian that looks a bit similar to a mini-D24. It has a very thin skin and opens pretty easily, with big pillowy pods, D24’s cookie-dough texture, and a deep earthy bitterness that was almost worth the price tag.
D168 (D101) – Johor Mas
Hailing all the way from Johor, D101 is fairly common in Sarawak . These were particularly nice, with a mellow strawberry-chocolate cheese cake finish.
One of our group, who prefers sweeter durians, said it was one of his favorites of the whole trip.
Tekkah was the most worm- and squirrel-bitten of the durians available, but had an irresistibly bitter aroma.
Since our group was all big Tekkah fans (me too! ) we bought all that were available. Which was good, because over half was uneatable and we threw 2 away completely.
But what was left was the heavy butterscotch cream that makes Tekkah one of the fattiest, richest, most satisfying durians. Ending with good quality Tekkah is one of the best ways to make sure you are stuffed for days.
Staying Overnight at the Merarap Hot Spring
The Merarap Hot Spring can accommodate 20-30 people. It’s a big space for having no one in it.
The rooms are simple but clean and I liked the wood feel. I thought the bathroom could have used shower heads and airing out the mothball smell, but was totally not as dilapidated or run down as other people had warned me about.
In fact, it seems like they are doing some renovations right now.
Currently, it’s Rm120 including breakfast but not including roundrip transport from Lawas (Rm600) so ask for their full hot spring package when you get in touch (contact info ↓ ↓ )
Getting to the Merarap Hot Spring and Durian Farm
To get to the Merarap Hotspring, you’ll definitely want a car with 4-wheel drive and some confidence in your driving skills.
One the way back, it had rained and the road turned into a slip and slide. It was even difficult to walk on in my sandals as I nearly kept falling, and the trucks swerved and skidded in the mud. Personally, I would not feel comfortable driving here, and I drive everywhere.
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