Garden of thorny delights

A treehouse getaway...on a durian farm? Fear not, you don’t have to love the stinky, divisive fruit to fall in love with the lush, eco-conscious surroundings of Green Acres Orchard and Ecolodge. This 16-acre orchard will show you why a sustainable life is a good life.

MEET THE CHONGS

With their galoshes, wide-brimmed farmer's hats, and glowing, tanned skin, Eric and Kim Chong are unlikely to be mistaken for corporate shills.

But the cushy office life was what this couple left behind, when they returned to their hometown of Penang in search of a more environmentally-conscious future for their son.

"We wanted [our son] Aldric to grow up in a place where he could run around in the great outdoors,” says Kim.

The answer came in the form of the stinky, spiky “king of fruits” — durians. A 16-acre orchard in Penang, to be exact, painstakingly cultivated by the Chongs into Green Acres Orchard and Ecolodge, a haven for durians to thrive as nature intended.

MORE THAN JUST A DURIAN FARM

Balik Pulau, literally “back of the island” in Bahasa Melayu, is Penang’s rural side, famed for cultivating different varieties of durian.

In an area chock-a-block with durian farms offering guided tours, durian parties and homestays, Green Acres has quietly emerged as a preferred destination for durian lovers looking for an escape from the crowd.

Eric and Kim keep visiting groups small because they want to keep things personal as they share their knowledge and experience in organic fruit farming, composting, building sustainable homes, and the heritage of Balik Pulau orchards.

Exploring the farm in their company, the Chongs' passion is palpable, and it’s not hard to see why. Many of their durian trees, inherited from the previous owner when they took over in 2009, are over 50 years old, and still productive.

For each tasting session, the Chongs pick durians on the morning of each group’s arrival to ensure they get the freshest fruits.

Don't worry if you're not a durian lover; there are plenty of other tropical fruits to sample — rambutans, cempedak, pineapples, and bananas, to name a few — as well as rare herbs and spices that many urbanites may have never seen.

Moreover, a stay at the farm’s eco-lodges is, despite the durian’s pungent reputation, a relief for the senses. Breezes roll in from the forest across gleaming wood floors and all is quiet, save for the soft thump of durians hitting the ground, ready for harvesting.

Guests can also relax in a pool that draws its water from a spring, and dine on the freshly-laid eggs of 70 chickens and ducks, which roam in a 10,000 sq ft coop, and supply, ahem, fertiliser for the trees.

Here, the air is cleaned by the leaves. The water is filtered by the sand...We had a medical check-up recently and the doctor said, ‘Whatever you're doing, keep doing it!’

Eric Chong, co-founder,
Green Acres

GREEN DREAMS

Staunch advocates of the slow food movement, Eric and Kim went on a three-year search before they found their hidden gem at 250m above sea level — ideal for growing durian trees, and accessible only via a steep, gravelly road punctuated by hairpin turns.

The farm already boasted a whopping 450-plus trees from 35 cultivars. More importantly, it had been chemical-free for three generations.

In the Chongs, they found the perfect torchbearers to carry on their all-natural legacy. No gentlemen farmers, the couple threw themselves into nursing the land back to health — the previous owners, then in their 80s, had been unable to keep the farm as productive as it could have been.

"In the early days, we had to put one bag of organic fertiliser next to each tree. Imagine doing this for 500 trees,” says Eric.

On any given day, there were fruits to be wrapped, heavy equipment to be carried, trees and animals to feed. Slowly but surely, the Chongs began to notice changes. "Our caretaker, who is from the original owner's family, told us the trees haven't been this healthy for years. During one bumper year, we harvested over 500 durians a day!" Kim shares elatedly.

A CUT ABOVE THE REST

Anchored to the forest floor by an 80-year-old durian tree, the Musang Loft Treehouse is one of the Chongs’ most striking additions to the property.

For one, there are no walls between your bed and the trees around you — just wooden railings and bamboo screens that can be unrolled for privacy.

Standing in the treehouse, the wow effect is almost enough to make you forget the durian party you probably just had. Almost.

To minimise environmental impact, solar panels are used to generate electricity. The water pump relies on kinetic energy, instead of electricity, to pump fresh spring water uphill from the foot of the farm.

For raw material, abandoned old kampong (Bahasa Melayu for “village”) houses were disassembled, transported to their current location plank by plank, and repurposed into the lodges.

Opening their orchard to strangers was not part of the initial plan. "Green Acres was intended to be a holiday home for us and we built the lodge as a resting place after working the farm," says Kim.

They made the foray into hospitality when they realised it could be a viable stream of income during the months when durians aren’t in season.

"Durian season is only about three months a year. There's little income for the rest of the year. That's why a lot of farmers have quit. We thought, what if you could create a business model that brings in additional revenue? Maybe we could get young people who have traditionally shunned farming to reconsider farming as a profitable vocation," says Eric.

Anyone unconvinced need only look at the Chongs’ glowing good health for proof. "Here, the air is cleaned by the leaves. The water is filtered by the sand. So now we only need to worry about the food we eat," says Eric. "We had a medical check-up recently and the doctor said, ‘Whatever you're doing, keep doing it!’"

Entrance to Titi Sorong Ecolodge, the main lodge at Green Acres Orchard and Ecolodge. Like all the lodges at this 16-acre orchard, it was constructed from restored kampong (Bahasa Melayu for “village”) houses houses that had fallen into disrepair.
Over the years, the Chongs have painstakingly turned the farm into a productive model for sustainable, slow living — and a home for themselves and their visitors. The Musang Loft Treehouse is one of the Chongs’ most striking additions to the property.
The treehouse is anchored to the forest floor by an 80-year-old durian tree.
There are no walls between your bed and the trees around you — just wooden railings and bamboo screens that can be unrolled for privacy.
The open layout allows for clear views of the surrounding lush hills and greenery.
Rooms with walls are also available, such as this one in the main lodge. The property is powered by electricity from solar panels, and water is pumped from a fresh spring using kinetic energy instead of electricity.
The Chongs also put in an inviting swimming pool, perfect for cooling off after exploring the property.
Eric Chong (left) and his wife keep group tours small, so that they can personally bring visitors around the farm to share their love for sustainable living.
Durians are the star of the show here, but the Chongs also grow rambutans, cempedak, pineapples, bananas, all of which visitors can sample.
Sharp-eyed visitors may also catch sight of interesting wildlife whilst relaxing on the property. Photo by Mike Ow
No gentlemen farmers, the Chongs hope to show that sustainable farming fuelled by an appreciation for nature, can be a viable path forward.
Photo Credit: Alexandra Wong, Green Acres

Text: Alexandra Wong

Tap to view more photos

THE DIFFERENCE YOU MAKE

Green Acres doesn’t use chemical pesticides or fertilisers on the farm, thus minimising pollution to the surrounding environment.

It is also committed to sustainable tourism, using reclaimed materials to build the facilities, and electricity generated by solar panels.

The Chongs hope to show that agritourism is a viable path forward. Every visit by a guest allows the Chongs to continue to do their work.

GETTING THERE

The farm isn’t on Google Maps, so it is best to liaise with Kim on travel arrangements prior to your trip.

TRAVELLER'S NOTES

Wear long-sleeved, light-coloured clothing that covers your legs, as dark-coloured clothing tends to attract mosquitoes.
Choose shoes or sandals with good tread; some sneakers can be very slippery on dewy grass and mossy rocks.
Don’t forget to bring a wide-brimmed hat as your tour takes place during midday when the sun is at its strongest!
Durians eaten on the farm usually taste better because they haven’t been picked underripe or allowed to ferment on a truck in the tropical heat. The best durians are picked and eaten on the same day.
Back in the 1970s, Balik Pulau's farmers began bud grafting to come up with "designer durians" - these are the variants with number combinations like D24, D10, etc. In the last few years, kampong durians — the original durian trees of Balik Pulau grown from seeds in the 1950s and touted for their near-alcoholic headiness — have made a comeback in popularity.
Yes, durians are calorie bombs, but they're also rich in potassium, iron, dietary fibre, vitamin C and vitamin B complex — and contrary to popular belief, durians are cholesterol free.

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