Rough Guide: Pull up a cushion and taste the world's smelliest fruit

Paul Gray, author of 'The Rough Guide to Thailand', stuffs an axe cushion and tastes a golden pillow

Best souvenir

My favourite - and certainly most used - Thai purchase is a mawn khwaan or "axe cushion". Shaped like a large triangular prism and stuffed with fairly stiff kapok, it is covered in colourful, traditionally patterned cotton and comes with flat, fold-out cushions attached (optional). Though it is meant for elegant perching, with your elbow resting on the triangle and your legs neatly folded and tucked beneath you, it serves just as well for sprawling in front of the telly (or, at a pinch, as a spare bed). If your budget won't stretch as far as the postage home, an enterprising guest-house owner in That Phanom, in the north-east of Thailand, does a neat sideline in stuff-your-own mawn khwaan: apparently, any old socks, knickers or unwanted fabrics will do instead of pricy kapok. Failing that, miniature mawn khwaan are sold as souvenirs all over the country - perfect for throwing at the telly next time a "Thailand: Land of Sex and Drugs" documentary comes on.

Most underrated town

Nakhon Si Thammarat, southern Thailand's second-largest town, occupies a blind spot in the eyes of most tourists, whose focus is fixed on the resort island of Ko Samui, 100km north. Its neglect is unfortunate, however: the town's fascinating Wat Mahathat, enshrining relics of the Buddha brought over from Sri Lanka 2,000 years ago, is the south's major pilgrimage temple and plays host to some extravagant annual festivals; the workshop of Suchart Subsin is the only place in the country where you are likely to see how nang thalung (Thai shadow puppets) work, with demonstrations of how they are made and performances of a few choice scenes (full-length performances, lasting from evening till dawn, are now generally limited to temple festivals); and Nakhon is an important centre for handicrafts, specialising in nielloware, household items elegantly patterned in gold or silver on black, and yan lipao, basketware made from intricately woven fern stems. And if that isn't enough, the town is famous for its cuisine, notably khanom jiin, soft noodles topped with a choice of hot, sweet or fishy sauces and served with platters of crispy raw vegetables, and kaeng som, a mild yellow curry. To cap it all, head for the Indie Pub, a raucous affair with pool tables, whose owner is a Sex Pistols fan.

Best guest-house

My favourite place to stay in the north of Thailand is Gap's House, on a quiet lane in Chiang Mai's old town. It is run by a welcoming, seemingly ageless man called Preecha - a native southerner who always has an interesting slant on goings-on in the north - and a loyal, slightly eccentric staff which has changed little in all the years I have been going there. Rooms are set around an artfully overgrown garden, and are decorated with traditional carvings, furniture and paintings. Rates are higher than in most guest- houses in Thailand, but are excellent value, with hot-water bathrooms, air-conditioning and breakfast thrown in; lone travellers are made especially welcome, with proper single rates (even more unusual in Thailand than in Britain). On cool evenings, Preecha has a fire going in the garden and gets the cocktail shaker out.

Weirdest fruit

Of all Thailand's unusual fruits, the durian has to be the most eccentric. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace compared its taste to "rich butter- like custard highly flavoured with almonds, but intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities".

He neglected to discuss the smell of the fruit's skin, which is so bad - somewhere between detergent and dog turd - that durians are barred from Thai hotels and aeroplanes. And the different varieties bear strange monikers which do nothing to make them more appetising: "frog", "golden pillow", "gibbon" and so on.

However, the durian has fervent admirers, perhaps because it is considered a strong aphrodisiac. Aficionados discuss the varieties as if they were vintage champagnes, and they treat the durian as a social fruit, to be shared around despite a price tag of up to pounds 50 each.

If you don't smell them first, you can recognise durians by their sci- fi appearance: the shape and size of a rugby ball, but slightly deflated, they are covered in a thick, pale-green shell which is heavily armoured with short spikes.

FACT FILE

Thailand

Getting there

Non-stop flights from Heathrow to Bangkok (about 12hrs) are available from British Airways, EVA Airways, Qantas or Thai International. If you are visiting southern Thailand, consider Lauda Air's flights from London to Phuket via Vienna. In winter, fares cost around pounds 360 (apart from Christmas) on non-direct flights. To book flights, contact Trailfinders (tel: 0171- 938 3366).

What to experience

Stuff-your-own axe cushions from Niyana Guesthouse, Rimkhong Rd, That Phanom (tel: 042 540588).

Nakhon Si Thammarat and Chiang Mai are best reached by overnight train or direct flight (Thai Airways) from Bangkok. Gap's House is at 3 Soi 4, Ratchadamnoen Rd, Chiang Mai (tel: 053 278140). Nakhon has a poor range of accommodation - best value is the Bue Loung, 1487/19 Soi Luang Muang, Chamroenwithi Rd (tel: 075 341518), an inexpensive hotel that is popular with businessmen.

Durian season is roughly April to June, and the most famous durian orchards are around Nonthaburi, on the northern outskirts of Bangkok, where the fruit is said to have a rich and nutty flavour. Air-freighted durians are now available from Thai supermarkets in the UK.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star