We met Mr. Prayuth Punsri at a coffee shop in downtown Chanthaburi and followed him through a rainy morning to the family farm near Phliu Waterfall.
Mr. Punsri is the grandson of a local celebrity named Poon Poonsri, known more commonly by his honorary title, Luang Rajamaitri.
Luang Rajamaitri’s gorgeous 150-year-old, dark-wood mansion on the banks of the sleepy Chanthaburi River has been converted into a hotel, Baan Luang Rajamaitri Inn.
Parisa and I always bring our groups here for the durian tours because the kind and tolerant staff let us eat durian on the riverside deck. With the lights bobbing along the river and the warm breeze, it’s quite the setting for an end-of-tour durian feast.
Luang Rajamaitri is most famous for starting the rubber industry in Chanthaburi. That’s how he was knighted by the king and given the title “Luang.”
But they were famous for other things too.
He was the first in Chanthaburi to own a car (license plate Chan 001), which he used to travel from the riverside mansion out to the rubber tree farm.
But they grew durian too.
During the season, Luang Rajamaitri and his sons or grandsons would load up the jeep with durians and other fruits and drive them along the bumpy dirt road to Bangkok to give away as gifts to high ranking officials.
Including the petite but powerful little Chok Loi durian.
The Mother Tree of Chok Loi Durian
Mr. Punsri stopped the car at the rambling old farmhouse, airy with porches and balconies and half-obscured by towering lipstick palms.
He was born in the farmhouse, built not by his father, or his grandfather, but by his great-grandfather, the father of Luang Rajamaitri, who was a merchant from China.
His great-grandfather spent the 1860s and 1870s plying the trade routes from China to Sumatera, around to India, and back through Thailand.
At some point, he married in Chanthaburi and started a family. Luang Rajamaitri was born in 1876, and attended the temple school and later boarding school in Penang while his father was away on the seas.
But at some point, great-grandpa decided to sell his boat and stay in Chanthaburi. He swapped the boat for 3,000 rai (just over 1,000 acres) of land, extending from the farm house all the way to the back of Phliu Waterfall.
The old Chok Loi mother tree is just a few steps behind the house.
Mr. Punsri thinks his great-grandfather must have acquired the Chok Loi seed somewhere along the trade route between Indonesia and Malaysia.
The tree has been there since before Mr. Punsri was born.
It was fully mature and dropping fruits before Luang Rajamaitri died in 1956.
And miraculously, it dropped three little fruits for us too.
Tasting Chok Loi Durian
Mr. Punsri circled the tree through the wet undergrowth and came back, his hands full of 3 very small fruits.
Chok Loi is a very petite durian, not even 0.5 kilos per fruit. He laughed and said people love it because it’s “personal-sized” — “good for one person”– meaning you don’t have to share.
It rained heavily, and the durian thorns were wet. But we could see how fresh the stems were. These durians had literally just dropped.
I pulled David’s knife out of the sunglasses pocket of my purse and we popped the little things open in his hands.
Inside were two perfect yellow mounds, quite fleshy for being such a wee durian.
It was still kind of hard to the touch, the pieces shiny, even after falling from the top of an un-pruned durian tree.
With determination though, we dug out the pieces and tasted it Chok Loi from the mother tree. A holy moment. A slightly disappointing moment.
The flesh wasn’t nearly as soft and thick as I remembered from when we tasted Chok Loi at Suan Ban Rao (NOT from the mother tree). It was a little watery, and thin, with a sweet, caramel-floral taste not unlike Kradumthong.
I wanted to make excuses for it. After all, this was the mother tree. The oldest Chok Loi tree in the world. The original. I wanted it to be the best example of Chok Loi I’d ever had.
It it had just rained, after all. Hard.
Was this really Luang Rajamaitri’s favorite durian?
“No,” Mr. Punsri said. “He liked Ganyao.”
How Chok Loi got her name
Chok Loi was Mrs. Luang Rajamaitri’s favorite — Mr. Punsri’s grandmother (shown above with all her sons).
She liked its perfect personal size and its light sweetness.
She was the one who named it for a type of water plant growing in the ponds in their garden.
Mr. Punsri walked us to the front of the house, where the ponds are still full of floating bright green Pistia stratiotes, called Chok.
He said that when the Chok first comes out of the water, it’s formed into a tight little ball.
Loi means floating. So the name of the durian is literally “floating cabbage.”
Remembering Chanthaburi History
After saying good bye and thank you to Mr. Punsri, we drove over to Phliu waterfall to look for the statue of Luang Rajamaitri.
We took the little Chok Lois with us, hoping they would soften up in the car and be tastier by the evening.
I like how following durian can create a sense of place and story.
Even as there are now Chok Loi trees in Rayong and Nakhon Nayok and other parts of Thailand, the mother tree will always be from a migratory great-grandfather and an itinerant durian seed, who settled and created a new sense of belonging.
Thank you to the Punsri family for answering all of my many questions about the durian and their family history!
How to stay at Baan Luang Rajamaitri
Baan Luang Rajamaitri is on the north end of the historic Walking Street in Chanthaburi Town. It’s close on a very narrow street crowded with cute little galleries and hip cafes, mixed with traditional desserts and snacks being sold along the roadside.
Use this map to find durian hunting spots near Baan Luang Rajamaitri, or navigate to other durian farms of interest in Thailand.