Malaysia: Cameron Highlands

From the ramshackle cultural mish-mash of Penang, we moved onto the Cameron Highlands; an old British hill station area bang slap in the middle of Peninsular Malaysia. We trudged sweatily the couple of kilometres to the bus station, waited a very long time, got our transfer to a bigger bus station on Penang, waited a little longer, and finally our coach turned up and we were on our way. Most long distance buses go from Sungei Nibong outside of George Town, not Komtar, so make sure you get the right bus station! Easybook is a good website for booking buses in Malaysia; they provide e-tickets with clear instructions, you can select specific seats, and we found tickets 20RM cheaper than our hostel was offering.

It was about a 5-hour journey, and the coach was actually very comfortable with lots of legroom (CS Travel & Tours was the company), so it passed fairly quickly. We arrived to a great little hostel (Map Travelodge) with a nice café and chilled sociable vibe, plus little sleeping pods with curtains that gave you your own little room with the dorm. It was around 8pm by the time we arrived, so we had a quick FaceTime with Mum, them Will went out to get some food and I headed to bed as I wasn’t feeling fabulous. After the snoring dorm-mate in Penang I hadn’t slept amazingly there, so I think I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow!

The next day, we went on a tour to discover a bit more of the Cameron Highlands. We unfortunately only had one day there so were keen to cram in as much as we could, so it was fairly action-packed! We signed up to a full day tour through the hostel with Discover Camerons – it’s worth mentioning here we thought it was more of a trek than a tour (we were driven between stops rather than walking) so we were a bit disappointed with the lack of hiking, but as a tour, we had a really good guide so I would definitely recommend the company.

We were up bright and early to grab some breakfast before being picked up in a bashed up old Land Rover Defender – which are everywhere in the area thanks to the roads. Fun fact: the Cameron Highlands has the highest concentration of Land Rovers anywhere in the world off a British military base. One for a pub quiz.

We did the rounds to pick up the other 6 people on our tour and headed to our first stop: the Sungei Palas tea plantation. It was a chilly, drizzly morning and the clouds were very low, but we could still appreciate the lush green beauty of the tea estate – in neat rows spreading across an area of 800 acres. We squeezed between the tea bushes and took some photos, before our guide told us about the change from hand picking to machinery to harvest the tea (which is more efficient but actually lowers the quality as you get the darker leaves as well as the prime light green which you’re after for good tea). There are 65 people who work the estate now, as opposed to the 200 there were previously when the leaves were picked by hand. The workers are majority Chinese and Indian (reflecting the demographic make up of the area), as it’s hard work the Malays don’t want to do.

Between the tea and the clouds at the Sungei Palas plantation

Next, we bumped along up to the Mossy Forrest – imaginatively named for all the moss that grows on the trees and rocks there. Our guide pointed out some of the cool flora and fauna, including a cobra lily, citronella leaves and the carnivorous tropical pitcher plant (also known as a ‘monkey cup’) – which traps and eats insects. Then we walked up Gunung Brinchang, a small peak, the route up which was paved with wooden decking. It was still raining and as we climbed up the tower to the ‘summit’, there wasn’t much of a view as we were very much inside a cloud, but it was quite a pretty jungle walk all the same. For the more avid hikers among you, this is the starting point for the challenging Gunung Irau trek – you need a guide and a permit to do it, and it’s currently closed due to a landslide, but it looks like a really rewarding route if/when it reopens.

An aptly-named cobra lily in the Mossy Forrest
The ‘view’ from the top of Gunung Brinchang…

From the Mossy Forrest, we headed to the BOH tea factory, which was established by a Brit in 1929 and is now the largest black tea manufacturer in Malaysia. We wandered through the factory to get a glimpse of the machinery and the process from rolling and maturing to drying and sorting, before we thought it’d be rude not to sample some. We strolled over to the café and ordered up some tangerine Earl Grey – and a scone for good measure. The tea was very tasty, as was the scone and the strawberry jam (which they make without sugar), so I let them off the disappointing cream.

Happy as Larry with my tea and scone

From our tea break, we headed next to a slightly odd stop, a butterfly and insect farm. The butterfly house was quite cool, with some really huge and colourful specimens. The insect house was less cool – some of the tarantulas and beetles really made my skin crawl – and they also had some random pens with animals such as raccoons, guinea pigs, rabbits, snakes and lizards. Not exactly all animals native to the part of the world we were in, but there we are.

A huge butterfly at the insect farm

When we’d had our fill of miscellaneous animals, we moved onto the other main product of the Cameron Highlands alongside tea: Raaju’s Hill strawberry farm! We wandered through the greenhouses and sampled some of the berries and jam – and I couldn’t help but buy a punnet to scoff in the van back, they were so good! It felt a very British affair, rambling in the rain for the sake of tea and strawberries…

Tucking into a strawberry or 10 at Raaju’s Hill farm

After the strawberry farm, we swung by a local market on the way to Time Tunnel, a museum on the history of the Cameron Highlands. This turned out to be something of a random collection of old stuff, some seemingly completely unrelated to the area, but it did have some interesting titbits. Some old photos of the few first hotels in the area that are still standing, some newspaper cuttings on the mystery of the disappearance of Jim Thompson (an American guy who pioneered the Thai silk trade, who went missing in the Cameron Highlands in 1967), and some boards on the ‘emergency’ period in Malaysia were probably the highlights.

The last visit of the day was a quick nose around the oldest Buddhist temple in the Cameron Highlands before we headed back to the hostel to dry out a bit. Luckily it had stopped raining an hour or so earlier, but as usual, my hands had gone completely dead so I needed some time to thaw out…

In the evening, we went to a little local restaurant under the hostel for dinner. We had a traditional Malaysian ‘steamboat’; a soup which comes served in a pot over a cooker, and you add meat, seafood, vegetables, noodles and various other bits and pieces to it – which cook in the heat of the boiling liquid. It was delicious, but huge for two of us – so it was quite good when a Dutch guy staying at our hostel came and asked if he could join us! We waddled back upstairs afterwards and packed ready to leave first thing the next morning.

Our first Malaysian steamboat – enough food for two?!

Ideally, we’d have spent one more day in the Cameron Highlands so we could have done some proper hiking. The tour highlights were the Mossy Forrest, tea plantation/factory and strawberry farm; I wasn’t too fussed about the butterfly farm, market, temple or museum and probably wouldn’t recommend these if you have limited time in the area. Hiking trails in the area are numbered and well-mapped out, and whilst it’s always the more the merrier, the hostel told us it’s safe to go solo. We got a good feel for the culture and history of the place, but could perhaps have done with a bit more exercise to justify the huge steamboat! Ah well.

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: a Dutch guy with a surprising number of facts about rabid animals… having been bitten by a monkey in Indonesia.
Interaction was: enough to make me slightly nervous about Bali and Lombok. I already give monkeys a wide berth, so maybe I’ll need to start carrying around a stick for self-defence…

One Woman and her Backpack x

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