The 200km bus ride to the Cameron Highlands was for the most part, a smooth journey. However the last hour required a stark warning from our driver as he firmly warned us that anyone who threw up in the bus would be fined and handed out extra sick bags to those liable to car sickness. As we climbed up into the hillside, the roads snaked relentlessly as the bus driver swung around hair pin turns, constantly honking his horn to warn fellow drivers who may be round the corner of each blind bend. Miraculously, no one vommed!
It felt good to arrive in Tanah Rata and take our first lungfuls of sweet highland air. The area is a hill station and consists of three districts, including Tanah Rata, where our hotel was situated, the largest township located along a main road. There are many hotels and restaurants nestled into the surrounding countryside with easy access to the jungle walks that we were looking forward to exploring.
The drop in temperature felt significant as soon as we hopped off the bus, particularly coming from the sweltering city of KL. The annual average temperature in the Cameron Highlands sits at around 18 degrees Celsius and rarely rises above 25. We were surprised at how much we felt the chill in the air, and made us wonder how cold the UK will feel to us when we return in the autumn. We were conveniently staying just 5 minutes walk from the bus stop so trudged along the main road with our bags weighing heavily on our shoulders to the Cameronian Inn. Our room was simple but clean and spacious so we were happy. There was no air-conditioning or fan in our room; not relying on either made for a pleasant change. It was refreshing slipping on a pair of trousers and a cosy jumper before grabbing dinner.
It was another spectacular Malay-Indian for dinner at Urban Singh Chapati, rated as the number one restaurant in the small town. We had a tasty charcoal grilled brinjala masala (aubergine curry to you an I) with chapatis and a garlic pratha, something we’d never tried before. All was washed down with a grape lassi, made with grapes grown locally in the hills. It was very refreshing, albeit a slightly unusual choice. Once again we were stuffed and very contented.
On our first full day, we decided to go it alone on the trek, following one of the many trails marked on the map that Lawrence had downloaded onto his phone. We opted for trail 10 as this was said to be the best sign posted and provided the most impressive views over Tanah Rata. It was a very steep climb for about 5km allowing us to warm up rapidly as our heart rates rose. The air was moist and cool under the shade of the treetops but we hiked up at quite a speed until reaching the summit, feeling rather clammy by the end. The way back down was much easier although Naomi did suffer a fly to the eyeball and a splinter. Lawrence picked out the fly, but the splinter is still nestled under the skin as tweezers split the splinter in half and 20 minutes of pinpricking was torture enough to call it a day.
The whole trek took us about 2 and a half hours so we were back in Tanah Rata by 1:30pm. We contemplated undertaking another trail for the afternoon but instead retreated to a coffee shop to sort through some photos. The hundreds of pictures taken at Angkor proved to be very time consuming as every temple started to blend into one and we were extremely snappy happy on those two days exploring in Siem Reap. Lawrence did a lot of editing that afternoon while we sipped on some local coffee (Vietnamese coffee is still unbeatable) and home made scones served with jam, butter and cream. We never thought we’d be eating scones in Malaysia, or South East Asia at all, but they’re very popular here. Perhaps this is due to the colonial influences and the volume of strawberries that are harvested in the hills out here. Every guesthouse and coffee shop sells their own home made strawberry jam so it makes perfect sense to whip up some scones to accompany them.
Once we’d overstayed our welcome at the lovely café, we made our way back to the hotel and before we knew it, it was dinner time. We ate at Sri Binchang, another Malay-Indian meal. This time we were back on the rotis (Lawrence stuffed his face with two, the fat pig) and ate a vegetarian banana leaf curry. It was probably the best meal we’ve had in Malaysia to date as well as being beautifully presented. We bloody love the food here and are devouring as many curries as we can.
We signed up for the ‘Highlands Full Day Discovery’ tour on our second day in the Cameron Highlands and were collected from our hotel at 8:45am by our tour guide and driver in an old school Land Rover. Excluding British Army bases, the Cameron Highlands has the highest density of Land Rovers in the world. We’re never sure how these organised tours are going to pan out as they can be a little hit and miss when you can’t explore at your own pace and have to endure occasionally galling tourists (we’re looking at you China/America). But this trip turned out to be a real highlight.
The Butterfly and Reptile Farm was the first stop on our itinerary. As the sun hadn’t been up long enough to warm the hills at this stage, it was the perfect time of day to visit. The butterflies were motionless and hung to the vibrant flowers in the farm limply, not quite ready for their day to start. Their wings were beautiful papery expanses and it made us sad to hear they would only live for 2 weeks. The exhibit houses many reptiles and amphibians from the Malaysia Rainforest including vipers, horned frogs, and the more aesthetically pleasing rabbits and guinea-pigs. Lawrence wasn’t willing to hold any of the snakes so Naomi had to take one for the team.
Next, we drove on to a beautiful viewpoint of one of the many tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands where the farmers were already hard at work harvesting the tea leaves.
It was then time for the Mossy Forest Walk up a winding hill where the temperature dropped and we felt like we were creeping up into the clouds at 6,666 feet above sea level. Our tour guide explained a little about the flora and fauna specific to this region, including the medicinal values of the plants growing here. There were very effective laxatives growing in the hills, others that stopped bleeding, and one even worked in the same way as insulin. Up at this misty and moist temperature, moss was in abundance, hence the name of the walk we were about to embark on. We were sent on our way for a 45-minute stroll along the wooden boardwalk under entangled tree canopies and their gnarled branches.
We were then taken to the BOH Tea Plantation and Factory, the leading tea grower in Malaysia. The company produces 4 million kilograms of tea per year (5.5 million cups a day), representing 70% of all tea produced in Malaysia. BOH Plantations was founded in 1929 by, you guessed it, another colonial Brit, J.A. Russel! The plantation was busy, packed with many Land Rovers from other tour groups, but had spectacular views over the terraces. We had a browse in the factory to see how the tea was made and visited the café to sip on a local ‘teh tarik’. This hot milk tea beverage is made by ‘pulling’ the drink during its preparation i.e. dragging a long stream of tea above the head from one container to another (like making a cocktail). It’s made from black tea, condensed and evaporated milk and is the country’s national drink so we had to give it a try. It tasted a little too sweet for Naomi, similar to a three-in-one sachet. But Lawrence seemed to enjoy it and thought this review was a little harsh. The following dialogue took place whilst discussing it:
L: It’s the national drink of Malaysia. They love it.
N: Malaysia clearly doesn’t have good taste
L: What about the curries?
N: I mean good taste in tea
L: Maybe we should put this in the blog?
N: I think it’s too waffly. People won’t be interested
L: Well let’s let them decide
Everyone else in our group had just signed up for the half-day tour, so after the tea plantation and factory they were dropped off back at the hotel. We were left at the Market Square to nosy around the local produce and have some lunch while our guide completed the drop off. There was a lot of fruit and veg for sale, including many of the voluptuous looking strawberries local to this area. We had a strawberry ice cream before rejoining our guide at Raju’s Strawberry Farm.
The Cameron Highlands is the centre of strawberry production in Malaysia, making them an iconic part of the landscape. It was a surprise to us, but the cold climate means strawberries are available all year round. Strawberry flavoured foods are everywhere in the Cameron Highlands, as well as other strawberry themed souvenirs including key rings, toys and t-shirts. We had a look around the greenhouses where the strawberries are grown by hydroponic methods, allowing for high volume and quick production. The plants are placed in soil bags and stacked on to racks with the greenhouse keeping them dry from any excess moisture. We went a little crazy at the prospect of juicy strawberries (a food we haven’t tasted since leaving the UK over 10 months ago) and bought a strawberry hot chocolate (delicious) as well as a fresh punnet of strawberries.
We were taken to Cactus Point after our strawberry feast, which is basically a garden centre featuring a variety of cacti and other exotic plants. It didn’t take long to potter around before we were whisked off in the Land Rover again.
‘Time Tunnel – Gallery of Cameron Highlands’ was our penultimate stop for the day. This little museum looks unassuming from the outside and we weren’t expecting much but it was really interesting. It was jam packed with hoards of vintage posters, paraphernalia, trinkets, photographs and advertisements from the Cameron Highland’s historical past. It felt a little like an antique shop in the best sense. We also learnt a lot more about the cultural and historical heritage of the Cameron Highlands, including it’s colonial past.
The Cameron Highlands were named after Sir William Cameron, a British surveyor who was commissioned by the colonial government at the time to map out the border area in the late 19th century. After confirming that tea could be grown in these cooler climes, the Brits became motivated to develop the Cameron Highlands and constructed a main road up to the area. By the mid 1930s the area housed a golf course, several cottages, two boarding schools, a military camp and police post. During the colonial era, the Cameron’s were a haven to homesick Brits and a stopover for those wanting to escape the heat of the lowlands, with many of the buildings constructed in mock-Tudor style.
The Cameron Highlands is also famous as the place that Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared in 1967. We first learnt about Jim back in Bangkok when we visited his house, discovering that while on a trip with friends, he wandered into the forest alone never to be seen again. After searching the area for days, Jim Thompson was never found and to this day, no one knows what happened to him. We had a quick look for him but couldn’t spot him so hopped back in to the Land Rover.
Our final stop was a Buddhist Temple, which was a little underwhelming considering every other pit stop had been so great. It was also starting to drizzle at this point and we felt the lethargy kick in. We didn’t linger long before hopping back in the jeep to town. After visiting so many inspiring temples (e.g.the Temples of Angkor, Bagan, Perfume Pagoda etc.) this one felt a little lifeless and unspectacular in comparison. Maybe we’re all templed out.
We had a great day on the tour. It really made us appreciate the natural beauty of this part of the world and we’d urge anyone visiting Malaysia to come for a cool down, impressive tea plantations, and some quintessentially British cream scones.