As you buzz down Highway 8, the main road connecting Raub to Bentong, you’d never guess there’s a lovely durian resort tucked into the hillside behind the miles and miles and miles and miles (and miles) of oil palm.
Raub is a commercialized agricultural zone. There are thousands of hectares of oil palm. Hundreds of hectares of rubber. And increasingly, more Musang King durian for export to China then you can really imagine possible.
You can contemplate it all from the wide white-washed patio of Bilut Hills Durian Resort. It’s sort of time-out zone, where, while the world and all its problems are laid out in view, it doesn’t seem quite so stressful. It’s a place I’ve started popping by for a cup of espresso, a mouth-tinglingly bitter D24, and a breather.
Maybe I’ll see you there.
About Lurah Bilut
Bilut Hills Durian Resort is an unlikely little gem. Seriously, driving through the Raub area can be depressing. And monotonous.
The land looks dry, the bared soil red and hard. It’s always illogically hot. Except for the proliferation of jackfruit stalls decorated with tattered yellow fruit carcasses, all there is to look at is oil palm trees in tidy, geometric roads.
That’s because you’re driving through the Lurah Bilut FELDA settlement. Unwittingly, when you relax on the patio of the Bilut Hills Durian Resort and look out over the sweeping sea of oil palm, you’re also looking at a sweeping piece of Malaysian history.
FELDA is now the largest producer of oil palm in the world. It started as a government program in 1956 (FELDA stands for Federal Land Distribution Authority) designed to give jobs to Malaysia’s landless poor by providing land to plant oil palm and rubber. Lurah Bilut’s first settlers arrived in August, 1959, to an undeveloped jungle. The 12,900 acres were planted out with a mixture of rubber and oil palm, most of which has now been converted to oil palm.
About 6,000 people live in the FELDA settlement at Lurah Bilut. It’s a small but thriving town with a coffee shop, restaurant, Chinese temple and Malay mosque, and a small history museum. It’s within walking distance across Highway 8 from Bilut Hills Durian Resort and makes for a sweet little adventure should you have any desire to leave the durian resort.
But don’t go looking for durian.
In this oil palm sea, the durian resort is really a durian oasis.
About Bilut Hills Durian Resort
The durian resort lies on a crescent of hilly land rimming the oil palm flats, about a kilometer off Highway 8 along a reddish gravel road.
It was never part of the official FELDA settlement. It was planted with rubber later, after the settlement was opened to day-workers and non-Malay citizens. When the Chinese farmer decided to rip out the rubber and plant durian in 1985, his neighbors told him he was being stupid.
A normal, smart person would plant oil palm. Durian in the 1980’s was a bad business – this was before the days of Musang King and exports to China, when durian was worth just about nothing. D24 was a new, risky commodity.
I’m glad the old man took a risk, because today the durian resort has some great old-tree D24.
Angka Lee doesn’t take any credit for it. An engineer by profession, Lee discovered the property in 2014. He’d been entrusted with the mission by his good friends, Wee Mun Tong (below, far left) and Bernard Pon (not shown), who agreed they needed their own personal durian farm to feed their addiction and make sure they and their families weren’t eating pesticides.
It’s a rather good idea. Unlimited organic durian parties with your best friends.
The only problem was that none of them were durian growers. Mr. Lee and Mr. Wee were civil engineers. Mr. Pon was a lawyer. Mr. Lee says they didn’t know a thing about durian except how to eat it.
But where there is data, engineers will find a way.
The Durian of Bilut Hills
By the time Mr. Lee came across the property, the durian trees were nearly 30 years old, but neglected and struggling.
In addition to the Bilut Hills Durian Resort property, Lee purchased 3 other durian plots all nestled in the sea of oil palm. For a combined 25-acres of old durian-trees, the amount of fruit dropping was pathetic.
Like engineers everywhere, Lee and Wee decided the solution was a spreadsheet. They assigned each tree a number (confusingly labeled D#, even though most of them are D24) and began tracking their fertilizer, water, fruit yield, and health.
I can only imagine what being the employee of engineers-turned-organic-durian-farmer would be like. My dad is an engineer, and just doing homework with him was exasperating.
But the most exasperating thing about engineers is that they’re usually right.
One of the older trees, which he guesses is about 20 years old, is Golden Phoenix. I was surprised to see it in Raub, as Golden Phoenix is actually originates near Tangkak, Johor, and isn’t very common.
It’s a durian I usually avoid unless from very old trees, as it tends toward a tastebud throttling taffy-sweetness, but Mr. Lee’s had developed a tinge of the herbal bitterness of a good Golden Phoenix. I ate it, and I mean that as a compliment.
But to be perfectly honest, I was reserving my stomach space, because I’d gotten a whiff of what was to come and wasn’t planning to spoil my appetite.
Next Mr. Lee opened Musang King, mostly because he assumed that we would want it. Everybody wants Musang King these days.
We were less than enthused to see it, which actually made Mr. Lee smile. A connoisseur of finer things, Mr. Lee said Musang King is also not among his top durian choices. He prefers something with a little more flavor, a little more depth, and a bigger punch of bitterness.
But, he said shrugging, it’s good Musang King.
We decide this was an excuse to quality check, so we each took a piece. It was rich and buttery, sticky and nutty and just a little bit chocolatey, as a Musang King should be.
Check. Now bring on the good stuff.
Among Lee’s oldest trees are the Tekkah, a bitter, buttery durian that I don’t mind saying is among my favorites in the Malaysian pantheon of durian varieties.
Oh Tekkah, why would anybody ever chop you down?
Because Tekkah is picky about the weather, that’s why. This year (2018), the harvest was really low. That day, Mr. Lee had just one golden Tekkah for us to share. We wanted to cry.
But it just kept our tummy space free for the best durian on Bilut Hills Durian Resort.
Mr. Lee didn’t take a bite of durian until we cracked the D24. I thought maybe, like many durian growers, he didn’t actually like durian and was only there for the profits.
He’d waited while I sniffed through the pile, looking for the ones that steamed with herbal, gassy, grassy, nose-tingling promise.
Then he went and carefully pressed us espressos from his own specialty roast. I thought he’d lost interest in the durian.
But then we cracked it, and Mr. Lee magically returned bearing tiny cups and spotless saucers and swooped in on the D24.
We’d have to share.
The D24 had a cheesy, cookie-dough-teeth-scraping density, combined with the earthiness of chocolate chips and the almost gritty texture of granulated sugar. When I breathed out, the numbing flavor made my tongue feel cool, and when I took a sip it balanced perfectly with the slightly sour, fattiness of the espresso.
We sat on tall stools overlooking the oil palm sea, with a fresh wind rustling over the hot valley.
That’s an awful lot of monoculture, I thought, carefully sipping my tiny cup and licking my fingers.
But with the perfect durian, a perfect espresso, perfect company, it was a little gem of a morning.
Staying Overnight at Bilut Hills Durian Resort
Over the past few years, Bilut Hills Durian Resort has changed and expanded a lot.
What was once a cozy 8-bedroom resort with a modern-rustic vibe is now a busy 35-room packaged durian adventure.
Several premium rooms have been added, including three Domes with 180 views of the valley and curtains you can close with the click of a remote control.
More affordable rooms include the Kampong Houses and , but all the room prices include a fruit farm walk, afternoon tea, dinner, karaoke, and a steamboat dinner.
Where before there wasn’t much to do than sip espresso and warble karaoke, there is now an adventure park next door with ziplining, ATV-riding, rock-climbing, hiking, and other adventure packages you can purchase as part of your stay.
Bilut Hills itself also offers various scheduled activities like a fruit farm walk, stargazing sessions, and hiking to the top of the property.
But if you miss the old-school vibe of getting away from everything, you can still walk out to the old wooden Villas that were the only rooms at Bilut Hills way back when I visited in 2017.
These rooms are located at the end of a footpath, about a 5-minute walk along the ridge from the restaurant.
The old wooden house is still there, with three wood rooms and a small private kitchen downstairs so you can cook your own food.
All of the rooms are fairly simple, but with simple touches of comfort like AC, a hot shower, and lamps over the bed that spread a soft evening light so you don’t have to stare at a glaring bare bulb until it’s time to off the light.
The old house is popular with Bilut’s old regulars, so make sure to book ahead.
How to get to Bilut Hill Durian Resort
Bilut Hill Resort sits on the boundary of Bentong district and Raub district. By hopping from one side of the parking lot to the other, you can travel from Raub to Bentong and back again. The farm is actually closest to Raub, just a 20-minute drive north along Highway 8, but Bentong is just 30-minutes south.
It’s important to book ahead as the farm is typically sold out.
There is a guard at the bottom of the hill, and if you don’t have a booking you’re unlikely to be let up. It keeps the durian resort quiet, relaxed, and safe.
Contact Mr. Lee or make a booking on their website.
Bilut Hills Durian Resort
PT59, MukimTras, Daerah Raub
Tel: 016-2079036 / 018-3616110
Email: [email protected]