Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cameron Highlands

Cameron Highlands

The scene below us was idyllic and reassuring in its emerald-hued, man-made order. Then I looked up and spotted the dark green tips of the jungle just beyond.

If there were just two things that captured the British’s imagination in the early days when they built Cameron Highlands, it could well have been tea and jungle trails. The two form an age-old dialectic, pitting what is a quintessential English refinement against an untamed jungle, and all it fanned by a crisp, salubrious mountain air. It’s manifest in the orderly tracts of verdant tea fields ringed by a lush, unruly wilderness, the two things that define the highlands above and beyond strawberry fields and fake tudor houses.

The Boh platntation is the oldest and probably the most well-kept of the tea plantations in the highlands. Along the main strip, right before the turning that leads to the plantation, bustling street stalls and honking traffic keep things lively, but once we made the turn, things calmed down significantly, and where previously there were chaos and clamour, there were simply neat, orderly waist-height rows of evergreen tea plants. Just ahead of us was a shiny classic Mercedes 200 in pale, creamy green toped with a mustard-coloured hood; these are rarely seen in the rest of the country, save around these parts, where they double as taxis. It soon stopped, and its trio of passengers alighted, an older couple accompanied by a lanky young man. As we drove past them to the car park, we hear d clipped British accents pronouncing that it was time for a cuppa or two. I smiled to myself. The English love of tea is indeed an enduring one.

Boh simply means ‘Best of the Highlands’. It was founded in 1929 by Englishman J.A.Russell, who also had investments in rubber and tin, two important industries in Malaysia at the time. The cool climate, high altitude and slightly acidic soil of the highlands were well-suited to the growing of tea, and accordingly, Boh prospered. Over time, trade in rubber and tin slowed, but tea proved a profitable and lasting crop. Today, Boh produces roughly 70 percent of tea in Malaysia. The plantation remains family run, headed by a Russell still, and now spread over 1,200 ha.

As we walked through the fields, the blurry sea of green sharpened into hardy tea plants with smooth, shiny, oval-shaped leaves was faint and grassy, nothing like the tea leaves in your pot at home. It would not smell of tea until it has been rolled and fermented, and there’s a factory tour on site to show you how it’s all done. We crushed the leaves in our palms, relishing the raw, slightly minty scent, and breathing in deeply.

For most visitors to the plantation, the jewel in the crown is the spanking modern tearoom, a sleek sculptural building perched on a hill, serving aromatic tea, cakes and an unrivalled view of the surrounding fields. We took our afternoon tea there, aromatic cups of Palas Supreme, a flora-scented pekoe, and tucked into scones and jam but sadly, no clotted cream. The scene below us was idyllic and reassuring in its emerald-hued, man-made order. Then  I looked up and spotted the dark green tips of the jungle just beyond.
The next day, we made our way into the jungle. Tanah Rata is where most of the jungle trails start. Some of them are relatively easy and well-marked, so all you’ll need is a map (readily available at most hotels) and good walking shoes. But for the real deal, hire a guide to take you into the heart of jungle. ‘It will be a good hike,’ promise Francis, our guide, when we met.

We walked to the edge of Tanah Rata, then turned off into a small path, pas t a quaint cottage and a pretty garden, before starting the uphill hike towards Gunung Jasar, the third highest peak in the highlands. Later, we found out that we were on trails 10 and 11, two of the more strenuous ones. Francis kept a brisk pace, stopping occasionally to point out indigenous wild plants and insects that make up the fragile, diverse ecosystem. But mostly, he was quiet, leaving us to savour the earthy, musky scent and the haunting song of the forests. Invisible insects chanted softly as a lone bird took flight overhead, disturbed by our clumsy steps. The trees, too, took up the chant whenever a breeze danced through the verdant foliage. After abut an hour, we reached a clearing; up ahead was the main electric pylon and below us was a stunning panoramic view of the town of Ringlet, surrounded by tea plantations. As if to snub their cultivated cousins, wild tea plants flourished along the trail, alongside wild orchids, their pristine beauty somewhat startling in the rumpled fields.
From the peak of Gunung Jasar, we headed downhill into a dense forest that gradually morphed from thick waxy vegetation to mossy forest floor. At parts, the trails was overgrown and barely visible; fallen trees crisscrossed the way  forward so we got on our knees, ducked under and clambered over. It became chilly as a light drizzle pattered down, slowly turning our path into sludge. But the air was clean and crisp, and it was invigorating.

We emerged from the jungle roughly four hours from the time we set off, stangely revitalized despite weakened knees. It was another 20 minutes’ trek on a dirt track till we  reached the main road, where we left Francis, promising to return soon for another hike. We walked back to our hotel nearby, the Cameron Highlands Resort, and sunk into one of its deep, plush sofas. Then did the best we could in such circumstances-we had a cup of tea. The best of the highlands Cameronian blend.

The few steps that took us from afternoon tea in the plantation to the jungle trails lying just beyond, and back again, were where we glimpsed the true nature of Cameron Highlands.

A Disappearing Act

Jim Thompson, better known as the king of Thai silk, was holidaying in the Cameron Highlands when he disappeared on Easter Sunday in 1967. After church, he left Moonlight bungalow, where he was staying with friends, to take a walk. He never returned. A massive search and rescue operation took place but his body was never found. Speculations were rife – some said Thompson, a former intelligence agent, staged his disappearance; others claimed he was captured by enemies. Then there were those who believed he was killed by tigers that roamed the forests freely in those days. Till this day, the case remains unsolved.

While other Malaysian states experience year round tropical humidity, Cameron Highlands’ temperature rarely drops below 10*C or rise above 21*C. Other  than trekking, tea tasting and visiting local agro-tourism sites, here are other worthy activities to try out.

Getting There

Tour buses up to Cameron Highlands are available from Singapore through travel agencies (Five Stars Tours; Otherwise, fly Firefly ( from Singapore Changi Airport to Ipoh Airport, and then board a bus from the airport to Tanah Rata bus station.

Getting Around

Buses run daily between 6.30am and 6.30pm from Tanah Rata to Brinchang and regular buses travel from Tanah Rata and Kampung Raja.

Further Reading

Singapore and Brunei Guide has a detailed section on Cameron Highlands
Tea doe our fancy aid, repress those vapours which the head invade, and keeps that palace of the soul serene – Edmund Waller

Sleep – Budget

Overlooking Tanah Rata Town, the colonial-style Fathers Guest House is a decent hotel with clean and affordable rooms. Spacious lounge and 24-hour free Wi-Fi service are great for backpackers and budget travelers (from US$20;

Sleep-Mid Range

Bala’s Holiday Chalet is a charming mock-Tudor style guesthouse 1.5km out of Tanah Rata on the road to Brinchang. Its quiet surrounding ensure a peaceful stay, and its services include daily tours packages (from US$40;


One of most luxurious hotels in the region, Cameron Highlands Resort boasts a beautiful setting with lush greenery, 56 beautifully furnished rooms and suites, a 18-holes golf course, and a wellness centre (from US4185;


Budget-Boh Sungai Palas Tea Estate boasts a stunning view of tea plantations, together with a gift shop selling every version of Boh tea you can imagine. Free 15-minute tours are available during opening hours (free;

Mid-rangeCameron Highlands Butterfly Farm is home to a fluttering collection of tropical butterflies, including the majestic Raja Brooke. A good assortment of beetles, plants, flowers is also on display (from US$2.50; 3 Miles, Kea Farm).

Luxury-If Cameron Highlands Resort is you choice of stay, then try their Signature Picnic Experience. Stroll through lush tea bushes with a tea speciality guide and get pampered with a picnic brunch served by a personal butler.


Restaurant Bunga Suria offers mouthwatering Biryani set and a variety of tantalizing dosa (from US$2; 66A persiaran Camellia3).

Eat-Mid Range

Rosedale Bistro is popular among tourist and locals, with a menu that encompasses Chinese, Malay, European and Indian cuisines. There is also good coffee and free WI-FI (from US$6; 42-A Jln Besar).
Eat – Luxury

For those craving Swiss-German food, visit Schwarbing Haus. This restaurant has a menu of bratwurst, schnitzel, pork knuckles and sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), all imported directly from Europe (from US$9; 59B Persiaran Camellia 3).


Budget-The cool weather makes hiking around Cameron Highlands highly pleasurable. Contact experienced guide Francis at 6 016 5051 514

Mid-range – Multicrops Central Market is one of the best places to pick up local produce ranging from teas, fruits, strawberry jams, honey to potted plants and souvenirs (1 Arkid Peladang Sungai Burung, Brinchang; 60 05 491 5188).

Luxury – A fine selection of Orang Asli (aboriginal) woodcarvings are available at Yung Seng Souvenir Shop. Also find a collection of ceramic homeware and maps (60 05 491 2031; 29&30, Main Road, Tanah Rata).

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