MALAYSIA is often reported to have more native exotic fruit than any other country in the world. I think this would be hard to disprove, judging by the fantastic range of fruits on sale in Malay markets. Not only is the range considerable but the varieties within species is also considerable. For instance, over 200 rambutan varieties, over 100 pulasan varieties and over 100 durian varieties.

The Malay section of our tour started from Singapore travelling by air-conditioned bus - a must in that climate. After formalities at the border we crossed over into Johore State at the southern end of the peninsula.

At first, most of the farms were either rubber or oil palm plantations, but as we travelled further north more and more small fruit farms coloured the scenery. The Rambutans especially were loaded down with crops of red or yellow fruit. Large durian trees were very common. Tall, dark-green mangosteens could be seen in backyards and along creek banks. Perhaps I should mention the well-known fruits such as bananas, pawpaws, pineapples and coconuts were also growing in abundance.

The small tidy Malay houses with their peaked red roofs and brown verandahs were an enchanting sight in the green bush settings. All were set amongst gardens and fruit trees. At times we passed through wet, lowland areas where paddy-fields were surrounded by stands of sago palms.

Our first stop was a small sleepy village 50 miles north of the border. The local produce market looked interesting, so most of the group made a bee-line to the fruit section. At one stall we found two large baskets full of pulasans. This was a rare find, as pulasans are usually not to be found in Malay markets. This is because of their popularity and the small number of producing trees. I think they are my favourite fruit - along with mangosteens, mangos, lychees and even durians.

The Malaysian countryside is a land of 'milk and honey' to the enthusiastic fruit grower. So many different fruit trees can be seen cropping heavily beside the roads, and nearly all are native to this area.

As we approached the city of Malacca, a greater range of fruit could be seen in back yards and small orchards. These included rambai, duku, sapodilla, jak fruit, tampoi, pomelo, carambola, mangos, mata kucing and of course, rambutan, mangosteen and durian.

Malacca is a very old and historic town. Its strategic position overlooking the Straits of Malacca has brought conflict and war for many centuries. Originally it was settled by the Indonesians as a trading port. They were eventually evicted by the Chinese, who in turn were pushed out by the Portuguese who wanted the spice trade.

The Portuguese, in turn, were pushed out by the Dutch and the Dutch were eventually sent packing by the British gunboats. The British were forced out by the Japanese and they in turn were evicted by the allied forces. In 1948 the British handed Malacca back to the Malays with the granting of independence.

Malacca is now a peaceful country town, and the only reminders of past battles are the old cannons, the Chinese cemetery, the red Dutch buildings and the British colonial buildings.

Not far from Malacca we visited a fruit farm on the peat soils of the southern plains. The soil is so full of peat it feels spongy underfoot. The fruit growing in this acid soil were disgustingly healthy - pineapples, mangos, rambutans, oil palms, bananas, and the pH was about 4.5. This reminded me of areas in Papua New Guinea where the pH is as high as 9 and yet the fruit trees are vigorous and cropping well - so much for pH levels! (That should start a few arguments).

On the outskirts of Malacca we visited a prison farm for wayward boys. Over 160 acres of fruit trees are maintained by the boys and I must say it's a credit to them. The walk around this huge orchard on a steamy tropical day was almost too much for some of our party. There were a lot of tongues hanging out by the time we got back to the main gate. Surprisingly, their main cash crop is cempedak. The trees were loaded with fruit wrapped in newspaper for insect-protection. Other substantial plantings were durian, rambutan, mango, mangosteen, duku-langsat and sapodilla. Small plantings of guava, yellow sapote and carambola were also being trialled. We saw monkeys which had been specially trained to pick fruit. We saw 'wait-a-while' vines which should be re-named 'wait ten minutes'.

For the next leg of our journey on to Kuala Lumpur, we took the coastal road through Port Dixon. This sleepy coastal town is well known for the quality and variety of the local rambutans. We lunched at a very old colonial hotel overlooking the Straits of Malacca. The well-mannered servants in their white uniforms waiting patiently under old fashioned ceiling fans gave an air of nineteenth century colonialism. The ocean was so inviting some of our group dived in fully clothed.

The journey on to Kuala Lumpur took us through endless miles of fruit trees and small farms. Most noticeable were the rambutans loaded down with yellow, orange or red fruit and the tall mangosteens with their black-green foliage.

The neat little Malay houses are not unlike our own 'Queenslanders' except they are set on three-foot posts instead of nine-footers. The local atmosphere is best described as "unhurried". There seems to be an abundance of food everywhere. 'Poverty' and the 'city rush' could never survive in this colourful but quiet country setting.

On the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, we were surprised to see Australian wattles growing wild.

Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, is a fast-growing metropolis. Skyscrapers now dominate the city centre and although the streets are crowded with people and cars, the pace is still unhurried. It's a fascinating place to visit where the cultures of East and West mingle.

A tour of the fruit tree section of M.A.R.D.I. (Malaysian Research And Development Institute) had been organised, so next morning we set out with great expectations. We weren't disappointed. We learnt quite a lot from the propagation demonstrations and the orchard tour. Our sincere thanks to Dr. Chan Ying Kwok. We presented the good Doctor with an Australian fruit picker - a boomerang.

Photo of John Marshall with 30kg Jackfruit.

Fruit markets in Kuala Lumpur offered a fantastic range of exotic fruit - some of the more unusual varieties seen were: rambai, salak, pulasan, ma prang, tampoi, mata kucing and palmyra palm fruit. These were purplish black and green, about the size of a grapefruit and tasted like soft coconut - quite interesting. (Photo, right: John Marshall holding a 30 kg Jakfruit)

The apple mango is reportedly now one of the most popular new backyard trees being planted in peninsular Malaysia. It is eaten green. If left to ripen, the flesh deteriorates considerably. Other favourite mangos are MULGOA and HARUMANIS.

The old story that Malay durians are much stronger than Thai varieties is quite erroneous. We tasted dozens of them including 016 and 024 and the flavour was quite mild. In fact, many of the Malay durians appeared identical to the Thai Gaan Yaow and Montong varieties.

Statistically, by areas under cultivation, the most important fruit in Malaysia in order of importance are: pineapple, banana, durian, rambutan, citrus, mangosteen, duku/langsat, watermelon, cempedak and mango. I think mango would be higher on the list if Malaysia's climate was not so humid (anthracnose damage to flowers and fruit).

Rubber is the mainstay of Malaysian agriculture, but current returns are only approximately 900 Malay dollars per hectare. Oil palm is making inroads into the rubber because of the higher returns - approximately 2400 Malay dollars. Cocoa is now very much in fashion, with returns of roughly 5,500 Malay dollars per hectare. While we were there, the Malay Government announced the formation of the Malaysian Cocoa Commission to assist production and export. They appear to attach considerable importance to this new crop.

Peninsular Malaysia is well known for its two fruit crops a year - the main, heavy crop in June/July and a smaller crop in December/January. Growers around Kuala Lumpur were of the opinion that the smaller December/January crop occurred only on trees or branches which did not crop heavily in the main June/July season.

The Malay Peninsula is a great place to visit, especially for fruit farmers. It's a seed collector's Paradise and a fruit eater's Utopia. The people are friendly, the atmosphere relaxed - and the fruit are superb.

John Marshall

DATE: March 1986

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