Thinking & Feeling

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Horace Walpole

Friday, 30 April 2004

Amazing Thailand : Part 6 - Durian ' the king of fruits', and the night in Ayutthaya

As promised, my Durian tasting.

So after our night market meal and drinks with the British travellers, and Ray's tales of his experience with Durian, I was determined to at least TRY it. I'd seen it featured on Ripley's believe it or not for being the most foul smelling thing on earth, so I was duly cautious. The Brits went off in the direction of Tony's Place leaving us to hunt down this notorious fruit.

I was acutely aware however that we'd actually seen Durian's on sale virtually everyday and I had not noticed any particularly vile smell at any time. So off I went to a nearby Durian vendor and started indicating that, No I certainly didn't want to buy a whole one. I asked to smell it. The lady cut a v shaped nick in the flesh and folded it down, revealing the pale yellow nutty looking flesh inside. I smelled it, and to be honest didn't smell much. What I then realised is that the smell I HAD been smelling all the time thinking it was just general fruit market smell with some over-ripe and possibly rotten fruit added in IS the smell of Durian. So basically it smells like a combination of any fruit you can imagine all combined and left out too long. It's not putrid at all, just very complex and aromatic. To me it has a strong element of Papaya to it too.

So although I had been warned that I might heave and even vomit on eating it I wanted to try some anyway. I gestured to the lady that I wanted just a *small* piece. Meaning a pea sized piece, she nodded and grinned gleefully and cut out a piece about the size of a large dried pear. She declined any payment, she just seemed oddly thrilled that I was going to try it.

I braced myself and bite off a small nibble. Expecting time to stop, or hallucinations to start or some such. But I found it fairly easy to palate. I took another bite and slowly chewed tasted and swallowed. I smiled, the Durian vendor beamed delightedly, and we walked on.

The best way to describe this fruit to me is very complex. It's very fruity, but does not have one specific taste, it does taste like a blend of all sorts of things, butter, nuts, melon, paw-paw, mango etc etc. It taste like everything and nothing all at the same time. It's actually quite mild, and is not pungent, but the flavour is incredibly detailed.
It was certainly edible and fairly easily edible. Did I actually like it? Well. No not really- but I didn't hate it. I was actually half disappointed at how easy it was to eat though. Richard who is often less amenable to trying new weird and wonderful things than I am even had a nibble and agreed that he also didn't *like* it, but it's not that bad. I kept at it bravely until at least 3/4 of the piece were eaten, and then decided I had had enough, and feeling very guilty I threw the rest behind a tree.

Having actually tasted Durian however, and now knowing what that smell was, we did feel more repelled by it after that. Did you know that Durian is banned in a lot of indoor venues, hotels and on transportation? Because the smell is so strong and permeating and once in an air-conditioning system it is hard to remove.
"In Singapore the fruit is widely consumed, yet banned on public transportation. This past January, durian made the news when a Virgin Blue flight from Brisbane, Australia was delayed because of the overwhelming smell of the fruit coming from the cargo hold. Virgin Blue boss, Brett Godfrey was reported saying, "This wasn't a safety issue, this was a gross issue -no one wants to fly in a plane that smells like that.""
I have been wondering about the fact that the experience was easy for me and yet other people claim it as an almost near death experience, I found a similar description to mine by a girl on the internet: "People are fascinated by paradoxes, and I am no exception. How can a fruit smell like compost, yet taste heavenly? How can a fruit that is pollinated by bats and has a thorny exterior, have such an enthusiastic even worshipping fan base? There are many accounts of durian experiences from the nauseating to the sublime. However, what draws me to a discussion of the durian is precisely the fact that I have never delighted in its taste nor been repelled by its smell. I have never been overwhelmed by it positively nor negatively. "
I guess it's just perceived differently by different people, and I was one who could tolerate it easily, but not necessarily like it. So there you have it...

After our Durian dessert we set of back on the walk to Tony's Place and then decide to take a stroll around the town instead. Unlike Phuket and Bangkok, this place was largely deserted and shut down apart from the night market area, which seems to be the hub of night time activity. There were some people sitting and having a drink in a door way to a pub or shop, but there was no real night life to speak of.

We frequently came across dogs, many of which seemed to be partaking in strange sexual antics. It was like dog orgies. Funny, but more than a little disturbing! Being somewhat afraid of dogs myself I was not very comfortable when a dog would notice as and aggressively bark and come out menacingly from where it had been hidden with teeth bared. I was very aware that we must have smelled very different to the locals, plus that if one dog went for us, I'm sure another few dozen would follow! My other thought was that there was a distinct possibility that some of these mangy skinny dogs could be rabid. Richard urged me to stay calm and to just keep walking straight and confidently, AND to stop looking them in the eye! Apparently that's an aggressive gesture to a dog, and if you want to be non-threatening you should avert your eyes, and not try to stare them down.

After a much longer walk than anticipated and getting quite lost, and needing to ask some people how to get back, we finally made it back to Tony's Place where the Arsenal/ Tottenham game had just started. The Brits were ardent Arsenal fans and were well settled in for the footy game, they though Arsenal winning the Premiership was a done-deal (it didn't happen though). It was still stiflingly hot and I decided a cold shower and bed were what I needed and I headed off. Even with the shower running on cold water only it was quite warm, and I simply couldn't cool down. This was when I started regretting getting the non-air-conditioned room. I was walk more than asleep that night and was hotter than I remember being during the whole rest of the trip. I was sweating and actually felt like I had a fever. I remember wondering if it was possible that I would die during the night from being over-heated. It was really unpleasant. Even though we went to bed well after 12, as we had become accustomed to, by 6am when the heat of the new day started intensifying I couldn't take it anymore and decided to get up. After another tepid shower, we dressed as light as possible and went out in search of the ruins.

We walked and walked and did find some. Inside a closed gate. We were told by a 'security guard' that the gate only opens at 8am! Damn. He suddenly said he'd open it for us but there's an 'entrance fee of Bt30 each'. It seemed like a con, and the price was higher than the Bangkok temple entrance price, but we gave him Bt30 for both of us, saying it was all the money we had, and he agreed to let us in. The ruins were interesting, but are very much 'ruined', they don't have any of the intricate and ornate detailing of the newer temples we'd seen, and they are made solely out of bricks and cement work. Some sections had sunk right into the ground. The park we were in did not seem that well maintained, and I think there are actually much better sites to visit in Ayutthaya, but we never found them. I think it's advisable to take a guided tour if you really want to see and appreciate the place. Anyway there was some charm and 'spirituality' at being there so early in the day and the light of the rising sun was beautiful.

After leaving this historical park we decided to walk on and see if we could find some more of the postcard depicted sites and places. After a while we found ourselves walking down a quite road. It seems to be heading in the direction of the night market we'd been at the night before, so we continued thinking it would be nice to go there and get something for breakfast. We walked and walked and walked and walked. We found a weird run down temple and cemetery, with bizarre 'pet cemetery' dogs lying about. They were very strange creatures and I was more than a little weary of getting close to them, although they looked half dead and not really capable of much action. By now we really didn't know where we were or where we were going, or how to get there. The road was getting quieter and quieter and more and more rural. We were also tired and hungry and were not enjoying ourselves anymore. We were deliberating whether to walk all the way back the way we had come, or continue, risking just getting further away from town if we were on the wrong route, or take a further detour, but then who knows where we'd end up?!

With patience wearing thin, and still undecided I saw a green pinafored motorbike taxi, and darted in front of him to flag him down. He stopped and we begged him to take us back to civilisation, asking if it was possible for both of us to get onto his little bike. He nodded so we squeezed on and the bike spluttered on. It was quite a long ride, and I am so glad we didn't need to walk it! He took us all the way back to Tony's Place, which I was very happy to see. He then proceeded to try to rip us off and charge a ridiculous price for the ride, I think it was Bt140! We tried haggling but he wasn't happy. I went in to speak to the receptionist and find out what a reasonable price would be, we paid him that, it was about Bt75! Odd that a single bike ride can cost way more than a 1.5hr bus journey, but there you go.

The rest of the day was spent walking around the shops and street markets near Tony's place, especially the air-conditioned 7Eleven. We had some lunch in a food stall alley, where we again bumped into the Brits. After that we went back to Tony's and I had a short sweaty nap on a day bed. Our flight back to Phuket was only at 8pm that night, but by 4pm we were on a bus back to Bangkok's Don Muang airport, where we arrived at 5.30pm. Our main goal was to cool down, and we decided spending a few hours in the airport would be a better way to spend the time before the flight than sweltering miserably back in Ayutthaya.

I'd like to back to Ayutthya one day, because I really don't think we did it justice, but we learned quite a lot there...

The time passed quickly in the airport, where we had a meal. In the surprisingly reasonably priced Thai food-hall we found, as opposed to the other fast-food chain vendors with extra-inflated airport prices. Then we were jetting of back to Phuket. It was great to be back there and it felt like home. We were also ready to be back in the relative luxury of our hotel room. We slept very well that night.

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