Saturday, July 21, 2012


Set in the fertile hills of the Cameron Highlands, Boh is the largest tea plantation in Malaysia
Words Joyceline tully, executive summary by darmansjah

Exploring the lush nature of the Cameron Highlands

The skinny road wrapped around the mountain, snaking its way up and up to the top. Until some years back, this road from Tapah was the only route by car up to the Cameron Highlands, the extensive hill station built by the British in the 1920’s. fringed by lush flora on either side, and occasionally, a plunge into a vortex of green that veered too close for comfort, it demanded reasonable driving skills and concentration to stay on the tarmac. Reckless truck drivers and impatient holidaymakers did not help matters, but the bird’s eye view when we finally got high up in the clouds was well worth the racy ride up.

Welcome to Cameron Highlands,” my husband proclaimed with evident pride from getting us safely to the top. It was grey overhead, and rain was in the air. Faint wisps of fog and cloud clung to the forest canopy, so that the highlands resembled a mythical land in the clouds. Perhaps they are, I remember thinking. This was where once the tigers roamed, kings of the jungle; where the dream people still live; where the British nurtured their love of tea; and where Thai Silk king Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared into thin air one Easter Morning.

 the orang asli are the original inhabitants of cameron highlands

It was the British who built Cameron Highlands, and brought tea, farms and all the attendant trappings of civilization to where there was once only jungle, although long before they came, scattered Orang Asli communities have called the highland home. Orang Asli means “original people” in Malay, and indeed, they were the indigenous inhabitant of these highlands that soar some 1,800 metres above sea level. Sometimes called the forest people, many still live in the jungle, perching their frail dwellings of palm leaves, corrugated tin, wood and bamboo on stilts.

scattered orang asli villages can still be found in the highlands

In 1885, a surveyor name William Cameron “discovered” the highlands and accordingly lent his name to the place, although for the next-40-odd years, it lay half-forgotten while a narrow, winding road was hacked through the jungle. The highlands then became an official hill station and mountain resort for the British, complete with schools, churches, farms, shops et al.

Today, Cameron Highlands still bears the relics of its colonial past – from the Tudor-inspired cottages and mansions that were a home away from home, to the ancient Landys that line the snaking mountains roads. The latter remains a trusty workhorse of  the mountains, now as in the days of the British, although many have long since been consigned to nature, their rusty chassis a makeshift trellis for rambling weeds.

By the time we made our way to Tanah Rata, one of the three main towns alongside Ringlet in the south and Brinchang some four kilometers away, the clouds had lifted and the sun shone brightly. It was to be a good day for business; hawkers set up their makeshifts stalls along the main strip while tourist of all nationalities were disgorged from fat, ungainly coaches parked alongside. Tourism is now big business in the highlands, and as in small towns around the world, it was easy to spot the foreigners, ourselves included.

Mostly, visitors come for the cool highland air that offers respite from the soaring heat and humidity of the rest of the Peninsula. Temperatures in the mountains hover around a very pleasant 15’C to 20’C; at night, it can dip to a chilly 10’C. along the way, however, there is also a host of other manmade attractions. We cruised past semi-makeshift stalls that line the roads between the major towns. Many sold strawberries, one of Cameron Highland’s key produce, alongside myriad strawberry-inspired knickknacks, from slippers to balloons to stuffed toys. Other offered fresh cut flowers and vegetables for a song. Further on, there were bee farms with suspiciously few garden beds to produce that much honey, apartment blocks tottering on hillsides, vast orchads wrapped up in plastic to shelter the crops from the heavy rains, and unwieldy, kitschy hotels that blight the rugged landscape.

The official Cameron Highlands tourist trail was not a pretty sight, we decided. Then again, it was not the reason we came.

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