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.

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