I go back to the Sabah Agriculture Park in Tenom every year. It’s one of my favorite places on Planet Earth. Where else can you find 400 species of rare tropical fruit trees, all in one place, without tromping through the mosquito swamps for weeks to find them?
Only here, in this beautifully manicured lawn of a fruit-collector’s dream.
If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.– Willy Wonka
About the Tenom Agricultural Research Park
In 2000, the park opened the gates to allow the general public into what was and still is a sprawling Agricultural Research Station dedicated to collecting and preserving some of Borneo’s rarest plants.
It’s a living edible museum that sprawls 1500 hectares, nearly 6 square miles, of trees.
As a general tourist, you have access to about half of that, but it’s still such an immense space packed with fruit trees that you’re unlikely to see all of it in one trip, much less one season.
Although I’ve been going back nearly every fruit season since 2012, and I still find something new every visit.
That’s in part because the trees fruit according to the weather, and at different times of year you’ll find different kinds of fruit!
So if you’re a plant nerd, start planning a few trips at different times of the year to the Tenom Agricultural Park.
Just make sure to bring mosquito repellant, because although there are no swamps to tromp through, the mosquitoes don’t care.
Where to Stay: Park Chalets
The best way to see everything in the Tenom Agriculture Park is to stay overnight on the grounds.
The park is located about a 20-minute drive from Tenom Town, so if you stay in the park you have way more time to explore.
The Park rents 3 chalets in the park grounds, and the overnight price includes the entry fee for 1 day!
Each chalet has two bedrooms and comes with enough extra mattresses you can make the floors into a sea of sleeping quarters.
The chalets wouldn’t win any awards for 3-star hotels (there’s no Wi-Fi) but the rooms are spacious and comfortable.
There’s even a kitchen with a full size refrigerator and stove!
The park does have a restaurant, open at limited hours, but I always prefer to cook my own food anyway.
I felt like I could just move in for awhile, spending my days roaming the park and my nights flipping through photos of my finds.
So let’s start with some of the fruits I’ve found over the years at the Tenom Agricultural Park.
D. testudinarum (Kura Kura)
My first year on the durian trail, I spent 3-weeks in Kalimantan looking for this durian that grows on the trunk and roots of the tree, rather than the trunk/branches. We found it, after many dead-ends in the jungle, and left Kalimantan elated.
Then we arrived to the Sabah Agriculture Park, hopped off the comfy park tram, and had full view of dozens of the fruit after about 3-minutes of searching.
It was amazingly, frustratingly easy to see one of the world’s most rare and interesting durians.
When the durians are ripe, they actually start splitting on the tree, revealing an inside that has more in common with jackfruit than durian.
See my other writings on Durian kura kura.
There are three Durio dulcis planted in the park of an odd variety. They have yellow-tipped thorns and no visible segments, making them really damn difficult to open for a pretty picture.
Some Durio dulcis varieties are completely red all the way to their thorn tips, and have segments, so you can open them — if not easily — at least without a machete.
But they have the same intense menthol, minty, aromatic, back-of-your-eyes sweetness that makes some of us fall in love with this gorgeous unicorn of a durian.
The Tenom area grows a lot of this super-thick spined mountain durian. You can often find it at the Tenom Morning Market, so of course the park has a tree for the germplasm. However, the tree at the park fruit irregularly.
The tree is in the Agricultural Research Station part of the park, so to get access to it you’ll need to request a special tour.
If you didn’t know, Garcinia refers to the whole family of mangosteen-things. And there are a lot of mangosteen-things.
In addition to the fruits below that I’ve gotten to taste, I’ve seen Garcinia dulcis and Garcini atroviridus, but the fruits weren’t ready yet. Next time!
Garcinia gummi-gutta (Camogia)
This ridged, lobed, weird-looking mangosteen went by two names for most of it’s 300-year history in scientific literature: both G. gummi-gutta and G. camogia, which made things really confusing. So in the 1960’s scientists chose G. gummi-gutta as the official name because they could abbreviate it G.G.G. and that was pretty cool.
But then health marketers discovered that there were some anti-cancer properties in the fruit’s peel, and began widely marketing it as a health-aid under the name G. cambogia. So 🤷
The most commonly cultivated Cambogia mangosteen has bright yellow peels, so I was really impressed by the lustrous red hues of this variety. Unfortunately, it was still mouth-shatteringly sour. Locals dry it and use it to sour curries, salads and drinks (with plenty of sugar).
This very sticky little mangosteen easily stains your fingers with it’s red coat and thick sap, but it’s pretty tasty so worth it. Its petite segments imitate the shape of a regular mangosteen, but stick together and don’t like to peel apart. It’s easier just to pop the whole fruit in your mouth and delight on it’s firm-crunchy texture and sweet-sour flavor. I find it very delicious.
Again, locals typically dry it and steam it with fish or add to curry paste to give an acidic zing to the food. I think we fruit-freaks might be the only ones popping them raw like a fruit.
To me these little guys are a smaller, less tasty version of G. forbesii. They have a thin peel that is hard to separate from the flesh, which is firm and latexy/sticky.
G. intermedia (Lemon Drop Mangosteen)
Strangely, this mangosteen relative is native to Central and South America, not Asia. How’d it get there?
It’s most commonly known as the “Lemon Drop Mangosteen” because of it’s cutie-pie round yellow fruits that are slightly sweet and acid, like a lemon drop. They’re very tasty, but also very small.
A. limpato (Kesusu)
I’ve never seen this in the wild, so I’m super thankful they have 2 trees at the Sabah Agriculture Park!
A. limpato or Kesusu is native to Borneo, and it is actually a relative of the jackfruit! It has the same foamy corn-cob core and large orange fleshy pieces with a seed inside, as if it were a jackfruit missing it’s bumpy outer layer of skin. Like a naked jackfruit.
The orange pieces are what you eat, and they are filled with a lusciously creamy, sweet-tangy white liquid. Only Willy Wonka himself could have dreamed this fruit.
They seem to fruit irregularly. In different years, I’ve found them in December, January, March and August.
There are few fruits I love more than wild teraps. These taste just like marmalade, sweet and sour and a little bit bitter at the same time. But it’s rare to get to taste one, because the trees are so tall by the fruits just splatter on the ground or get harvested by monkeys long before I’d ever have the change to taste.
M. Laurina (Water Mango)
One of the best mangoes I’ve ever had, this yellow-green mango looks completely normal and boring from the outside; just one more of the nameless wild kuini-looking mangoes in Borneo. Inside, it’s like a perfume-juice bomb.
I usually miss the mango season when visiting the Sabah Agriculture Park, because mango season comes about 2 months before durian season, but sometimes there is some overlap.
Blighia sapida (Ackee)
I was surprised to see this cheesy fruit from Jamaica in the Sabah Agriculture Park! But it’s part of the collection, located nearby the A. limpato trees.
Be warned as this fruit is poisonous and can cause heart palpitations or cardiac failure until the fruit is so ripe it’s fully splitting open, and even then it can sometimes split open due to UV rays and not because it’s ripe.
After a bad experience previously, I was too afraid to taste the one at the Sabah Agriculture Park. They do have the taste and texture of mozzarella cheese, so if you are curious proceed with caution!
Eugenia Uniflora (Surinam Cherry)
Surinam cherries taste different. They’re not sweet. They’re not sour. They’re…umami? Bitter? Something?
They make a nice juice, but I wouldn’t stand around popping them into my mouth with glee.
They’re native to Brazil and northern South America, but because they grow on small invasive trees, they tend to get out of control and are fairly commonly found around Southeast Asia too.
Inga feuillei (Ice Cream Bean)
I love Ice Cream Beans! Although I think the name should be “Vanilla Cotton Bean” or “Vanilla Fluff” bean because the texture is anything but cold, dense and creamy.
The long rigid fruit looks like a giant green bean and cracks open easily under pressure, revealing intensely sweet and fluffy fruits that somehow manage to be juicy as well.
These are native to South America, and again, just a fun addition to the fruit collection.
Annona sengalensis (African Custard Apple)
This was a wild surprise! After years of traversing the park, one day I picked up something I’d never seen before. It was obviously in the Annona family, with it’s smooth orange skin, flakey seed-filled flesh, and central core.
The flavor was like unsweetened marmalade, citrusy and just a little bit bitter. I loved it, and would have liked to try more but there was just the one fruit on the ground.
How to get to the Tenom Agricultural Park
The park is located about a 20-minute drive from Tenom City. Besides the Park Chalets, there is no accommodation near the park. Y
There is also no public transportation to the park, so it’s best you either have your own car or make arrangements with a local guide.
You can stay in town at either the Yit Foh Coffee Cabins, Hotel Perdana or Chatt Foi Coffee Cabins.