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Sunday June 27, 2010

On the durian trail

Some enterprising durian farm owners in Penang are offering guided tours of their orchards. In many cases, the tours are as educational to the providers as they are to the visitors.

WHAT’S there to learn about durians? If you are a local, maybe not much but for most foreigners, visiting a durian orchard to learn more about the king of local fruits is normally an eye-opening experience.

And the tour usually turns out to be as enlightening for the tour guide as it is to the visitors. For instance, says Chang Teik Seng, owner of the Bao Sheng Durian Farm in Balik Pulau on Penang Island, “Some foreigners think durians grow like pineapples, from the ground.”

“I thought they grow like rambutans in a bunch – obviously I was wrong,” confesses durian fan W. Fusae from Japan.

Interactive experience: Chang Teik Seng (left) says he was the first in Penang to offer a durian tour.

“In Japan, the durian is only sold at high-end fruit shops and it is very expensive – about RM100 to RM150 per fruit,” the Kuala Lumpur-based interpreter adds.

Over the years, the popularity of Penang’s durians has drawn thousands, both Malaysians and foreigners, to visit the island to savour the fruits fresh at the farm.

Most durian orchards are closed to the public, but a few enterprising owners, having noticed the steady stream of visitors, are opening their doors to offer unique durian trail tours – especially in the famous Balik Pulau enclave.

It was at the Bao Shang orchard, which she and her family visted recently, that Fusae discovered durians do not grow in a bunch. “We didn’t get a chance to tour the orchard but we managed to take a closer look at some of the trees at the entrance,” she says, adding that she is planning to visit again soon.

Dig in: American John Krippinger gets fed by his friend Leena Khor at Bao Sheng Durian Farm

Chang – or Durian Seng as he is more popularly known on Facebook – claims he was the first to start a durian trail in the state.

“I have been taking people on tours through my orchard since 1993. The idea came to me after a visit to the Singapore Zoo got me wondering how they are able to attract so many visitors despite the high ticket prices.

“I realised that people went because it was an educational, interactive and fun experience; that’s what I wanted to do with my orchard,” he says.

He offers “eat-all-you-can’’ packages starting from RM25 and for an additional RM10, visitors will be taken on a 20-minute guided tour through the 2.8ha orchard with a buffet lunch included.

During the tour, they get to learn about the orchard’s history and are also taught how to choose good durians, Chang says.

“We get a lot of visitors from Hong Kong and Singapore and they get excited when I teach them how to pry open the fruit with a bamboo stick, like what our forefathers used to do.

All in a day’s work: H.H. Tan, whose father owns the Rumah Batu orchard and house, welcomes visitors to the historical family home.

“Some try till their hands bleed but they are happy because they learn something and feel a sense of accomplishment when they succeed in opening the fruit themselves.”

The enterprising mobile phone shop owner (yes, he takes the entire durian season off to be at the farm!) even has little hybrid durian plants for sale at the orchard. “You can’t just throw a durian seed to the ground and expect a tasty fruit,” he explains.

For those who cannot get enough of the thorny fruit, Chang also has for rent two air-conditioned mini villas where they can stay and gorge on durians to their heart’s content.

Perched on the edge of a hill, the mini villas offer a breathtaking view of the surrounding jungle’s green scenery and are equipped with king-size beds and 32-inch LCD television sets. There is even a private swimming pool!

Chang says he does not supply fruits through middlemen as his 200-odd trees only produce enough for his immediate customers, but he does make special outstation deliveries.

“I’ve had orders from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I usually deliver about 200 per trip,” he says. “We don’t use lorries because the fruits need to be in an air-conditioned environment to maintain the taste, aroma and quality, so I personally take them by car.”

According to Chang, the durian season which started in May will end next month.

This year, the season started later than usual because of the wet weather but the flesh of the fruit is said to be creamier and tastier because of the rain.

“By the end of July, the quality won’t be that good anymore but the price will be cheaper. You can still get some good ones until the middle of next month.”

About half-an-hour’s drive away from Bao Sheng is S.P. Loh’s 4.45ha family orchard.

But getting there is no walk in the park. You will have to navigate a narrow winding path before arriving at the orchard. Loh recently opened up the orchard to visitors and caters only to a maximum group of 20.

The simple wood and brick family house there has a sprawling view of Teluk Bahang’s lush emerald hills and the pristine blue waters surrounding Penang island.

“I’ll show guests around and they can pick the fruits they want. For those not used to hiking, it can be quite strenuous because the orchard is on hilly terrain.

“We walk for about 30 minutes and then go back to my family home where you can enjoy the fruits,” he says.

Loh, who has a wry sense of humour and speaks Mandarin, Hokkien and English, says the tour is “very informal”.

“I only started allowing people to visit the orchard because of friends’ requests. If visitors want to take a look around on their own, I am fine with it too,” he says.

Nutmeg and banana trees also dot the orchard and Loh proudly says that the entire landscape is “100% natural and I intend to keep that way”.

There are no man-made pathways for easy walking and Loh seems to enjoy watching city slickers struggle to keep up with him.

Unlike Bao Sheng, which allows for walk-in visitors, those intending to check out Loh’s orchard must make an appointment as he is not always around.

“I keep the walk short and the group small because most of the visitors find it hard to keep up,” he laughs.

If you are lucky, you will be able to catch his 75-year-old mother, Ng Nyet Keow, stirring her famous durian cake paste over an antique brick stove.

“I have been making durian cakes for more than 50 years using firewood and no preservatives!” Ng shares. “When I was younger, I made three batches of cake mix per day but nowadays, I only make them once a day because it takes four hours of continuous stirring to make each batch.”

Some of the durian trees at these orchards are more than six decades old and you will find almost 20 different varieties ranging from the premium ones such as Hor Lor (gourd) and Ang Heh (red prawn) to the popular bittersweet Cheh Phoy (Green Skin).

At Rumah Batu, which is slightly harder to locate because it’s off the main road, the attraction is not a tour of the 3.6ha durian orchard but a century-old house which was formerly a communist base.

H.H. Tan, whose father owns the orchard and house, believes that the solid brick structure dates back to over 100 years.

“We don’t offer tours around the orchard but we welcome guests inside our historical home.

“Visitors enjoy sipping homemade nutmeg juice while eating their durians at our porch,” he says.

Police inspectors Bobby Tamat and Saiful Mohd Abd Latif agree.

“The durian is a forest fruit and eating it in a natural village surrounding is a different experience altogether.

“Somehow, squatting beside the roadside while licking your fingers just doesn’t do the fruit justice,” Bobby, who is from Sabah, says.

Saiful, who is from Kelantan, says they visit Rumah Batu every durian season.

“Allowing visitors to enjoy the fruit in the orchard and taking them on a tour of the place is a unique tourism product for Penang,” he says.

Kedahan Halim Murad, who was spotted loading his lorry at the Sungai Pinang durian collection point, says he comes to Penang every year for the state’s special fruit.

“I know other sellers who come from Kuala Lumpur, Alor Setar and Ipoh who get their supplies from Balik Pulau. The flesh of the fruits from here is nice and creamy,” he says.

Indeed, if these guys are to be believed, Balik Pulau really is home to the tastiest durians in Malaysia!

For details on the orchard trails, call 012-538 5128 (Rumah Batu), 012-401 0800 (Bao Sheng) and 017-446 4959 (Loh).

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