In the early 1980’s, Birdee stepped off the Bangkok-Singapore line and started walking. The train was stopped for hours waiting for who knows what, and as he stared out the window he was captivated by the limestone formations towering over the jungle. Finally he took his bags and stepped down off the train.
A dirt path led away from the train tracks in the direction of the Andaman Sea. He followed it for awhile until he came to a small village, where he stopped.
He’s still there.
A Durian Forest-Orchard
Today Marc Léger, nicknamed “Birdee” by the villagers, is guardian of the grove of 100-year-old durian trees inherited by his wife Meow.
Starting in 2012, he and Meow began welcoming small groups – mostly school groups – to visit the orchard to learn about the plant biology, ecosystems, and sustainable food forestry as part of a non-profit ecotourism organization called the Krabi Nature Club.
Birdee started the Nature Club because he had noticed fewer and fewer people growing food crops, and more and more people converting semi-managed orchards to monocrops of palm oil and rubber.
From the sky, you can see the messy clump of Birdee’s durian forest-orchard amid the tidy rows of palm oil and rubber trees.
Even his brother-in-law planted a rubber trees rimming the perimeter of the family land.
But the family knew they wanted to keep their ancient durian trees, trees that carried their own individual names and were known throughout the village for excellent quality durians.
And Birdie, as care-taker, decided to keep the orchard a traditional mixed durian forest food farm. With a few newly introduced species like himself 🙂
What a Mature Durian Food Forest Looks Like
We were lucky enough to visit Birdee in end of July, during the peak of the durian season.
There’s nothing more magical than entering the densely shaded grove of trees to the intense wafting of durian, so fresh it makes your nose tingle.
Small pathways wove through completely uncultivated patches of native flora, opening into clearings around the fruit trees that Birdee keeps tamed with machete.
In the early morning, the ground was littered with fallen durians, some sitting on top of the low carpet of plants and some hiding under the ferns.
The trees are tall, so Birdee allows the durian to drop by themselves when the durians are fully ripe.
A few had obviously gotten away. Or had been eaten on the spot and the seeds chucked around.
New baby durian trees littered the ground around the Mother Trees.
Ka-Ok (กะออก) Artocarpus elasticus
Intermixed with the durian trees were other native forest trees, including Artocarpus elasticus – an enormous tree that drops its hairy, sticky fruits all over the ground and has enormous leaves. Some local people don’t like it because it has the tendency of attracting monkeys and squirrels, but Birdee said monkeys hadn’t been a problem in his area.
This one comes into season toward the end of durian season, so we didn’t find any ripe fruits on the ground yet.
Sandoricum Species (สะท้อนนก)
Several huge old trees were dropping what looked like Santol fruits (Khaton) but Birdie told us that it was a different species, one of the wild Sandoricums native to the Thai peninsula.
Inside, it basically looks and tastes like a small Santol, but more sour and so bitten up by fruit-stinging insects that there wasn’t much to eat.
In the back of the farm is a large limestone cave, carved out of the towering craggy rock formation that towers above the treeline.
The cave provides a home for many different animals, including bats, an owl, and a hog badger.
It has an eery, magical feeling. Birdee said it was once used as a burial site by people thousands of years ago, and that ancient human remains had been found inside.
He and his wife like to camp in the cave with a tent, waiting for their favorite durian tree to drop.
Pak Tam ปากถ้ำ
This huge old durian tree sits at the mouth of the cave. It’s name literally means “Cave Mouth” and it’s one of the trees on the property that has been famous throughout the community for generations. Old people remember Pak Tam from their childhoods, and people still come to Birdee’s house asking for this particular durian.
Birdee says it’s his personal favorite too, and we could understand why.
Although the fruit is small, it’s incredibly fleshy, with a thick soft whipped-white meat that your fingers sink into that is unbelievably sticky for being so soft.
Every single durian that we tasted of Pak Tam was mouth-numbingly, intensely caramel-bitter.
Next to the Pak Tam tree stands Champa, another 100+ year old tree famous throughout the village.
Champha is a little bit larger in size than Pak Tam, with a softer, delightfully drippy meat that you can suck off the seed like it was a rich yogurt. It’s creamy, milky, rich, and just a little sweet with just a hint of that rounder burnt sugar that we love.
All of the trees on Birdee’s property are planted by seed, called Durian Baan, which means sometimes there are big surprises.
This one startled Birdee for how much it tasted like Monthong. It has an extremely thick, ivory-colored meat that is sweet and has that particular onion sugar-cookie flavor of a fully ripe Monthong.
It doesn’t look like Monthong at all on the outside, but because of its similarity in taste, Birdee calls it “Pseudo-Monthong.”
Besides the famous old trees, there are many old unnamed trees on the property as well, ranging from 5 to 100 years old.
Birdee has been planting trees here for over 25 years now, taking the seeds from his favorite trees and redistributing them around the garden.
This is the way that durian was traditionally selected and bred for thousands of years; by trying to reproduce the most-loved durian and taking a gamble on the genetic lottery. It results in a variety of durian flavors. Some are definitely related to each other, but others are oddballs.
That’s the fun of Durian Baan, and of a more natural Durian Forest.
Safou (Dacryodes edulis)
Besides durian, Birdee has introduced a number of fruit trees not native to Thailand that he felt that his family and neighbors might learn to enjoy as well.
When he settled down in Thailand, he made sure to bring some of his own favorite fruits, including Mamay Sapote, avocados, cut-nuts (Barringtonia edulis), chocolat sapotes, canistels, and more.
The hope was to get his community interested in growing food, as many types of food trees as possible.
The most popular in the village is definitely the Safou trees.
Recently, locals who stop by the garden have started buying trees and taking away fruits to plant.
Birdee’s brother-in-law has started planting avocados and safous in between his rubber trees, planting them in the shade and preparing to sacrifice a few rubber trees to make space for the food trees.
Maybe the type of sustainable forest-orchard of the past still has hope for the future.
The Future Farmstay
Before the pandemic, Birdee was working on a larger structure to protect school groups from the rain and to provide a protected area for activities.
He also envisioned opening one or two rooms for farmstay guests who enjoy sleeping in a dark, quiet, remote area surrounded by stars and falling durians.
Currently he has a tent set up on a platform for visiting friends and a functional toilet, but all plans on the farmstay have been put on hold until after the pandemic.
How to visit Birdie’s Natural Durian Orchard
Birdie and Meow’s Durian food Forest will not be included on the map below for privacy purposes, but you can find it in the Durian App (with location hidden) to see if he has durians flowering or fruiting.
Watch Birdee on Youtube (French language).
You can make appointments to visit the orchard here: https://krabiclubnature.wixsite.com/krabiclubnature