This is the time of year that durian comes into season and markets all across the region will be redolent with the unmistakable odour of this thorn-encased delicacy. Most people will have heard of common varieties like Mon Thong and Kan Yao, but the durian comes in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes — some 500 different cultivars have been recorded in Thailand alone.

Suan Ban Rao, a 100 rai orchard in Rayong’s Klaeng district, claims the national record for the greatest number of varieties cultivated on land in private ownership, 111 cultivars in all, and has hit on a novel way of promoting the spiky fruit: every summer for the past three years, its owner, Kajohn Puttisuknirun, has been opening his orchard to the public, taking people on guided tours of the property and hosting all-you-can-eat durian buffets.

“We have about 1,600 durian trees that produce up to 100 tonnes per year,” he said, going on to explain that his family got the idea of fruit farming on a large scale 11 years ago when they noticed that many of their neighbours in this traditional fruit-growing area were cutting down their durian trees and replacing them with rubber plantations in hopes of cashing in on the high prices that natural latex was commanding on world markets back then.

“My mother and all my siblings love eating durian and we were afraid that the wholesale switch to growing rubber trees was going to have a serious impact on local varieties of durian. We were concerned that some would simply become extinct.”

Up to that point the Puttisuknirun clan’s cash-cow had been their rubber plantation, but they made the courageous decision to go totally against the flow, removing all the rubber trees then growing on their land and investing some 25 million baht into converting the property into a massive durian grove.

Buying their first durian saplings from the Chanthaburi Horticultural Research Centre (CHRC), family members then spent the best part of the following two years travelling around the country visiting orchards, talking to other growers and attending practically every durian contest held nationwide in order to purchase samples of prize-winning cultivars.

“We went up North, down South and all around the Central Region searching for the very best rootstock. We were on a mission to collect the greatest variety of cultivars possible,” Kajohn said, adding that the CHRC was the perfect place to start the family collection since it maintains examples of some 250 varietals, about half the total number cultivated nationwide.

“As far as durian orchards in private hands go, we believe ours now has the biggest selection of trees in the entire Kingdom,” he enthused.

When visitors stop by Suan Ban Rao, it is always Kajohn who leads them on a tour of the property. For this purpose everyone boards what the Puttisukniruns call their “tourist tram”. It has two rows of wooden seats that can accommodate between 40 and 50 passengers in one go, but has an engine and is equipped with regular wheels rather than running on rails like a conventional tram would.

“We don’t recommend walking around the orchard unaccompanied because of the danger of being hit by falling durians,” he explained.

Kajohn gives his guests a brief introduction to the different shapes and sizes of durian (the fruit is classified into six main groups, apparently, each of which is further subdivided into varietals) and their salient characteristics (flesh of various colours and textures with taste/fragrance of differing intensity).