British geologist and explorer, Sir William Cameron, first spied these ‘highlands’ in Malaysia in 1885 and gleefully reported back about their mild climate and location on a gently sloping plateau.
Sadly, Cameron’s maps were lost, and little came of his discovery until a second expedition was sent out 40 years later.
Led by Sir George Maxwell, another colonial explorer, the mission to rediscover the highlands succeeded and their future was soon sealed with plans to develop a Colonial Hill Station with plantations, holiday homes for perspiring Brits and even a golf course. The confirmation that tea could also be grown gave the British a real incentive to develop the area, and it was named the ‘Cameron Highlands’.
Our own trip to the high country began at Penang on Malaysia’s west coast. The 250km road journey could best be described as ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It was a ‘bad’ start as, being a holiday weekend, the traffic was awful as thousands of Malaysians were escaping the torrid coastal heat for the cooler air in the mountains.
On route, we passed through thousands of hectares of ‘ugly’ palm oil plantations. The cultivation of trees for palm oil may be a profitable industry, but it is one of the world’s leading environmental disasters – causing deforestation, animal slaughter, inhumane working conditions and loss of habitat.
Eventually, we reached the ‘good’, a lush green canopy of unspoiled tropical jungle.
We stopped at a roadside stall for a light lunch of delicious banana fritters and then strolled to the nearby Lata Iskander Waterfall. This scenic cataract with its inviting wading pool is popular with city kids, cooling down after a long journey cooped up in the back of a car!
We were then lucky enough to be introduced to the native lifestyle of the Orang Asli, the so-called ‘original people’ of Malaysia. In this part of the country, these indigenous people are known as the Senoi and are thought to have their origins in Thailand around 4,500 years ago. They were cheerful folk with delightful smiling children. Most chose to live in simple huts constructed from wood, bamboo and palm leaves in small forest villages. However, the government (controversially) continues to press them to move from the jungle and live, free of charge, in concrete dwellings in more permanent surroundings.
Climbing steeply through the forest on a winding road, we soon arrived at Ringlet, the southernmost town of the Cameron Highlands. This unassuming little town is one of the hubs of Malaysia’s fruit, vegetable and international flower industry. There were dozens of colourful roadside stalls selling locally grown produce. Opposite a charming lake, stood our comfortable accommodation, built in the 1960s in mock Tudor style and appropriately called The Lakehouse. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in a leafy Surrey lane and had four-poster beds, wood-beamed ceilings and log fires for the cool evenings – even a full English cream tea in the afternoons. We really had discovered a small piece of Victorian ‘British Colonial Malaysia’!
The following morning, our guide collected us very early to take us further into the Cameron Highlands and up to the BOH Tea Plantation. The early start was to avoid the worst of the dense holiday traffic in the busy tourist towns of Tanah Rata and Brinchang. It was a gorgeous morning and, on the way, we drove past Brinchang’s well-manicured golf course, which is a firm favourite with many British expats who live in S.E. Asia.
The scenery improved as we climbed into the hills and there were tea plantations as far as the eye could see, looking like a gargantuan children’s hedge maze! BOH Tea is a large company, founded by the English Russell family, and makes black tea mainly for the Oriental market. We were the first visitors to arrive that day, so enjoyed a personal tour of the tea manufacturing facilities, the technical terms being – withering, rolling, fermentation (oxidation), drying and sorting!
Before leaving, we sampled a brew of their excellent tea, along with a slice of tasty tropical fruitcake. Crowds of boisterous tourists were beginning to arrive, so we escaped back down the hill to the Butterfly Farm. This popular attraction is located close to Brinchang and has hundreds of colourful butterflies and moths, along with various other fascinating tropical creepy-crawlies, lizards and small mammals. We particularly admired the ‘star of the show’, Malaysia’s National Butterfly, called the ‘Rajah Brooke’, the giant Atlas Moth, the leaf insects and some very noisy crickets. Although called a ‘farm’, the insects are not actually bred here, but collected in the jungle by the Orang Asli – a harvesting activity that raises considerable anxiety amongst environmentalists.
Brinchang is a town with many English-style cottages and an excellent open-air market bursting with flowers and local produce. We could not resist trying the honey, dripping directly from the honeycomb, the dried ginger and the mouth-watering chocolate-covered strawberries – a Cameron Highlands speciality.
Strawberries are grown in vast quantities here, many using hydroponic techniques. We lunched in Tanah Rata at the Dutch-owned Jasmine Café House. Although this restaurant mainly serves western dishes for the tourists, we opted for their tasty Chinese fayre.
Hiking is a popular pursuit for visitors and we strolled along some of the scenic paths close to our hotel. To venture safely into the jungle requires the services of a guide, as it is easy to get hopelessly lost and then perish in the dense forest. The most celebrated disappearance in the Cameron Highlands was that of Jim Thompson, the American entrepreneur who kick-started the Thai Silk Industry after WWII. He disappeared in 1967 when he went for a short walk from his bungalow in Brinchang. He’s never been seen since and his body was never found despite a monumental search effort. Was he kidnapped? Was he murdered? Did he die in the jungle? Did he disappear to become a spy in the Vietnam War? We’ll never know, but conspiracy theories abound!
We re-visited Tanah Rata a final time to do some souvenir shopping, although most of the retail outlets only offered the usual tourist tat. However, the town had a pleasant ambience and we enjoyed a superb evening dinner at the ‘Tuck’ Chinese Restaurant, noted for its traditional ‘Charcoal Steamboat Cuisine’.
This is a simmering bowl of soup stock in the centre of the table, to which we added various vegetables, noodles and meat for cooking in situ. Delicious!
During our journey back from the highlands to Kuala Lumpur, we once again experienced ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ of Malaysia. It was ‘good’ to discover that classical music is often played to boost the flavour and yields of their wonderful strawberries! It was ‘bad’ to see, as soon as we left the plateau, hectares of plastic tents used for growing fruit and vegetables, lit up at night like Las Vegas to increase their growth rate. And yes, once again, we suffered the ‘ugly’ sight of miles of dreadful palm oil plantations at the lower elevations. The Cameron Highlands may not be the most exciting holiday destination, but it is worth a visit, as the mountain scenery is lovely and it really is ‘Malaysia’s Little England’.
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 15 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.