Why Nonthaburi Durians Are So Expensive
Narrator: Just one 2.5-kilogram durian from Nonthaburi, Thailand, can cost $380. Yet the fruit has a smell that some people find extremely unpleasant. In fact, durian is banned in several airports and hotels around the world. But in Asia and the Pacific Islands, durian is known as the “King of Fruit.” In 2019, one Nonthaburi durian sold at auction for $48,000. So, what draws people to this pungent, spiky fruit? And why is it so expensive?
Thailand is expected to harvest almost 1 million metric tons of durian in 2021. Durian is native to several tropical climates around the world, including Thailand. Thailand alone grows over 300 varieties, but the most expensive durians are grown in Nonthaburi Province. They’re known as Nont durian.
Nont makes up the highest grade of durian in Thailand and is often given as a token of respect. But even among Nont durians, two varieties stand out: the most expensive, Kan Yao durian, and the slightly more affordable Mon Thong durian.
Benjamat Taenthai: You need to understand that the fruit is like a handmade piece where each ripened differently. The taste differs in every single one. None of them are the same.
Narrator: Nont durian is described as having refined and sweet pulp with a mild fragrance and creamy texture, whereas other lesser-grade durians are said to have a stronger smell and a watery texture.
Nont durian has a distinct taste and smell for two main reasons: Nonthaburi’s environment and the growing practices of its farmers. Nonthaburi Province has been a center for durian farming in Thailand for over 300 years. Farmers in this region have been honing their technique for generations, using their resources and skill to grow the highest-quality durians possible. One of the resources they depend on is the Chao Phraya River, which flows through Nonthaburi and fertilizes the soil.
Benjamat Taenthai: The soil that we use is a kind of sedimentary soil since our grandparents’ generation. We grow Indian coral trees and legumes to nurture the soil constantly. That’s why the durians here taste different.
Narrator: But the river water isn’t used to water the durian trees themselves. Farmers in Nonthaburi prefer to buy fresh water, which they believe improves the final quality of the durian.
Benjamat Taenthai: The Nonthaburi durian requires exquisite care. Other farmers can use groundwater, water from rivers and streams. But here in Nonthaburi, tap water must be used. If you’re a farmer here, you must buy water. In cultivating Nonthaburi durians, we use the raised-mound technique: Raise the mound and then grow plants around the tree base to provide the humidity. Water it once every morning.
Narrator: After planting, it takes about six years for a healthy durian tree to bear fruit. Once the trees start to flower, farmers count the days until the fruits are ripe. Depending on the breed, this can span 90 to 150 days. But it’s not only the time and labor that make Nont durian so pricey. The costs to provide this kind of care add up. Just the water costs about $2,200 per year.
Benjamat Taenthai: Let me ask you something. If you were a farmer, you cultivate Kan Yao, and this year, your orchard produces 10 fruits. If you sold 10 Kan Yao durians at 160 baht per kilogram [around $14 per durian], like other farmers, would you be able to cover the water costs?
Narrator: Farmers have to constantly check the trees and look for any infections or insects, and they wrap each durian in plastic to protect it. They must harvest the durians one by one, when each fruit is perfectly ripe.
Benjamat Taenthai: We cut every single durian, hang with rope, and lower it, one by one. We don’t pick all the fruits from the tree in one go. We only pick the ripe fruits from the mature trees first. If it’s brown and the stalk is hard and bulging like this, the fruit is ready for picking.
Narrator: These time-consuming and labor-intensive techniques have a major impact on the flavor and final value of Nont durian. A 2.5-kilogram Mon Thong durian from Apiranya Farm can cost over $100. That’s about a third of the price of Kan Yao, making it a more popular and affordable option for customers.
Gung: My favorite durian is Mon Thong because of the texture. Everybody has their preference, but the reason why I like Mon Thong is that its texture is delicate and dense. And the delicious ones have to be crispy on the outside and sweet on the inside. That is what is tasty.
Narrator: Kan Yao, on the other hand, is the most expensive Nont durian you can buy. Depending on its size, Kan Yao durians from Apiranya Farm can range from about $380 to $530 per fruit. But despite Kan Yao’s steep price, demand for this variety is growing. And supply can’t keep up.
Benjamat Taenthai: This year, around 60 Kan Yao durians have been reserved – fully reserved. Even at 5,000 baht per kilogram [$380 to $532 per durian], no customer haggled over the price. But for next year, based on order that came in so far, 60 to 70 Kan Yao durians are already reserved. We don’t even know yet whether next year the Kan Yao output will be enough to meet the demand.
Narrator: One of the main challenges is the climate crisis.
Benjamat Taenthai: And it is harder to maintain due to a change in climate, because Nonthaburi is surrounded by housing estates, surrounded by urban people. So it’s hard to care for the trees due to wastewater, smog, and pollutants. But we cope with it by adjusting the environmental conditions. We plant Indian coral trees all over the orchard. They help to cool down the temperature.
Narrator: The tropical climate required to grow durian also makes the farms susceptible to floods, storms, and other extreme weather. In 1995 and 2011, floods destroyed almost all of the durian trees in Nonthaburi. In 2011, about 1,100 acres of durian trees were leveled, and only 17 acres survived. After this, Benjamat had to start the six-year process over.
Benjamat Taenthai: This is a durian tree that survived the 2011 flood. The tree is this big, this tall. This is Mon Thong. The older the tree, the tastier the fruit when it comes to durian.
Narrator: The global market for durian is expected to reach over $28 billion by 2025. And that means Apiranya and other Nonthaburi farms will likely continue selling out of Nont durian in the years to come.