Cameron Highlands – The Tea Mountains

For our next adventure through Malaysia we headed north to the Cameron Highlands, I was really excited about this place although I can’t take credit for our visit here as it was our friend Claire that suggested we give it a try. We caught the bus from Penang, this being the most convenient travel method and the most cost effective too at just 40RM (€8) per person one way. We booked it from a transport office in Penang a day before our planned departure, you will be issued with a receipt so just remember to keep it safe….they won’t let you on the bus without it!!

The 3 hour bus ride to Cameron Highlands was comfortable enough but being over 1000m above sea level, the majority of the journey as you can imagine was on a road climbing the mountain and it is a very windy road at that……and if travel sickness is something that troubles you, a pill or two would not go amiss….. With just one stop along the way at approximately the half way point try to remember to take snacks and coffee…..something that we didn’t do and something we would come to regret…… Having stopped at a rather remote service station we piled out for a welcome bathroom break and decided we wanted to get hold of a nice cup of coffee……..of which was served to us by a very sweet lady who had absolutely no idea what we were trying to order…….. and it was served to us in a bag! yes, coffee…. served in a bag……with handles……guys this is no Starbucks take-away paper cup add your own sugar, cinnamon and cream situation happening here…..no sir…..you will drink your coffee that you ordered without sugar in a small clear plastic bag with handles, a straw and…..with sugar!! lots of sugar because you look like you could do with some ……you look anaemic…..this is not a conversation with myself but must be the only thought process the very sweet lady at the kiosk had while serving us the total opposite of what we all wanted!! Suffice to say very little – if no coffee – was consumed before or after we rejoined the rest of the passengers for the second leg of our journey north. Once we reached the little town of Tanah Rata in the highlands we disembarked the bus and using the brilliant Maps.me GPS app that Claire had discovered during her previous escapades around the globe – of which you can read more on her own wonderful blog, brilliantly titled Where is Claire? – we made our way to the lovely little guesthouse we had booked called Arundina. We took to the high street and snaked our way up the hill perfectly guided by the map on our smartphone. It sat atop a long up hill road edged with lovely bushes and trees and what looked like a small hotel that had been picked up from a quaint town such as Stratford-upon-Avon and placed on a mountain top town in Malaysia…..it was stunning!! Our place, just a few more meters further up the path, was just a lovely, if not as medieval looking but had beautiful gardens, full of trees, plants and some of the most exotic flowers I had seen anywhere…..we were initially pleased with our choice. Having checked in though, we were a little disappointed with our room as it was showing many signs of prolonged wear and tear and in need of a renovation, Wendy & Claire got a much nicer room than ours which made up for it…..and allowed us the opportunity the bitch and moan about it. But hey, a room needs to be clean and comfortable and that it was so not too many complaints really……..don’t expect cheap though, Cameron Highlands has a constant flow of tourists throughout the year and this keeps the prices up, we paid €124 for 3 nights but this did include breakfast……and the service was wonderful and this is always important.

Time to plonk down our bags and head out to see what Tanah Rata has to offer…..and we all need coffee!! In a cup please!! Tanah Rata is not very large, in fact it is one of the smallest towns in the Cameron Highlands but if you want views this is the place!! They are amazing and if you want to chill for a few days just wanting to get away from the crazy hype and big city noise of Kuala Lumpur or the like then this place is great. For us though, we were here for 3 days and wanted to fill our days as much as possible……So after our wonder around we made our way back, and from the reception of our guest house we booked a tour to see the Tea plantations and the Mossy Forest. We were picked up from our guest house the following morning and our first port of call was to be the amazing Tea plantations, as you can probably imagine there was field upon field upon field of lush green tea plants and I was mesmerized by it all as I can drink tea all day given the opportunity and thought I was in heaven but apart from that……well it was great for taking photos. Our tour guide was a young chap who’s knowledge of the area and it’s history was extensive although his very crazy driving style had you holding on for dear life for every moment of every kilometer we traveled in his now archaic Land Rover (something else I was in awe of) to our next area of exploration, the positive was that he knew the roads inside out so even though he should have had his licence revoked many years prior this did instill a touch of confidence that we would arrive in one piece. We continued our ‘drive’ and did finally arrive whole at the Mossy forest. Having parked his vintage 4X4 we made our way up the road a short distance on foot, stopping intermittently to be shown various flowers, poisonous plants and the like before we reached the starting point of the trail through the forest. We were given a trail to follow and it was as if we were entering a kind of mysterious wonderland of moss covered trees and their branches, since the mountains of the Cameron Highlands are always damp and it always seems that there is a mist in the air, you feel that you are in a fairy tale. The trail is quite slippery so care is needed along with suitable footwear but the scenery is just mesmerizing.

Having spent a good 45 minutes following what was in the end a shorter than expected hike through the forest, we were then taken to the BOH Tea Plantation. BOH being the largest producer of tea and tea based products in Malaysia. Unfortunately the place is too commercialised and it felt that it was purely set up as a money making business, whereas the opportunity is there for this to be an educational area for locals and tourists alike…..but as always, money rules. We were informed that the Tea plantations’ workers are almost always underpaid and it really saddened me as they travel to these areas in need of work to support their families and are eventually stuck here once they arrive due to lack of any other opportunities. We were shown around the factory which no longer runs as a tea factory as its far too small to cope with the huge volumes being produced but by this time we wanted to leave as we felt the beauty of the area and our enthusiasm had been dampened by the fact that our tourist currency was never going to reach those who actually need it most. There was a cafe and gift shop as you would expect but the queues of people waiting to be served is unbelievable and just heightened our ‘let’s get out of here’ mindset. In hindsight I wish we had visited one of the smaller Tea plantations as we may have experienced something more uplifting than we did at BOH.

We were lucky to have acquired the services of Mr Kumar a very nice local taxi driver who was recommended to us by our guest house receptionist, and bless him, for 2 days he took us everywhere we asked for just 100 RM (€20). The Cameron Lavender Garden was on our list as Andria wanted to try their lavender ice cream that she had read so much about……which, as it transpired, was yummy!! Wendy was kind enough to buy one for Mr Kumar who thanked her many times for this lovely gesture….then upon taking a lick or three proceeded towards the rubbish bin and hurled it in….oh….maybe not that yummy after all!! The farm is not huge by any means but very well kempt, we saw lots of lavender (obviously) and many other plants and flowers in full bloom. We all bought a few trinkets for ourselves, prices were generally very reasonable. The entry fee was super cheap at 10 RM per person (€2), note that it is approximately 8 km from Tanah Rata so not easily visited on foot so add taxi / bus fares to this.

A must visit while in Cameron Highlands is the Time Tunnel Museum, wow this place was just great. The vast volumes of memorabilia that it has on show is mind-blowing, made more interesting by the fact that so many of the exhibits are recognisable to visitors from outside Asia. It provides a lot of the history of the Cameron Highlands and the surrounding areas and also has an area dedicated to the mysterious disappearance of Jim Thompson, the man who is credited for single handedly reviving and growing the Thai silk industry and who disappeared in the mountains of the Cameron Highlands and who’s body has never been found.

A visit to the Strawberry farm next and it was something that we were really looking forward to……What a huge disappointment!! I don’t know if it was the farm we decided to visit that was the issue but there was absolutely nothing that screamed strawberries, we were expecting rows and rows of berries which we could pick and fill a basket but there was no such thing. Sorry but I didn’t take note of the farm due to the fact that I was too annoyed and couldn’t wait to get going……the only advice I will leave you with is don’t be fooled by the advertising and the leaflets……they all look amazing from the outside……inside is a different story.

The following day was we decided to venture out into the wilderness and Cameron Highlands has many many mountain trails for the avid trekker…..which is in no way an attempt to describe our level, avid we most definitely are not…. We decided to hike No.10 which had a difficulty level of ‘moderate’ as stated in the guide and after a very brief discussion we decided that ‘moderate’ was about right for us. Each trail is numbered and local maps and guides will inform of their whereabouts and more importantly their difficulty as some can take many hours to navigate and maybe not suitable for all in terms of terrain and gradient levels. In the end No.10 was the appropriate trail for us to follow and it was a great way to get the blood pumping and blow away all those muscular cobwebs!! The inclines were challenging but once we reached the top it was lovely to take a well earned breather and enjoy the view of CH from above, as we had reached a height at one point where we were walking through the clouds……..ok, ok not the clouds as such it wasn’t mount Everest after all but the very low mists often experienced in these highland areas of Malaysia. When deciding upon tackling one of these trails, I would suggest having a friend along with you unless you are a seasoned hiker as it is quite easy to become disorientated and you wouldn’t want to be alone in such a situation. GPS can also be an issue on these routes when using maps on your smartphone so be aware that the info given isn’t always correct when you lose your signal and this can lead you down the wrong path………that bit of advise comes from experience……also make sure you set off on the trail early so you have plenty of hours of  daylight as things could get tricky if it gets to dark.

Now for some bit and bobs on eating and drinking…….

We visited 3 places in CH for 3 very different food and ambiance experiences…. The Cameron Highlands has a wonderful restaurant called Taman Abang Steamboat & Grill and we were lucky enough to have stumbled Steamboat across this very popular restaurant in Tanah Rata, full of locals so you know the food is great and wasn’t it just?!! The idea is simple, you pay in advance for the number of people on your table, you sit around what is fundamentally a soup fondue on a gas flame which is surrounded by small individual grill plates, you select all the food you want from what is essentially a raw buffet, make your way back to your table and start cooking your meal……throwing your selection of veg or fish into the now bubbling fondue broth and grilling whatever else took your fancy on the grill……it is great fun and all this for what amounted to less than €10 for 4 people!!

For coffee, tea and lunch our choice was Capitale Coffee. This place was one of the only places that offered everything needed for an uncomplicated meal. Nice & clean, excellent prices and good quality coffee and a decent menu that catered for all tastes and preferences without being over the top in terms of choice …….which invariably means a lot of frozen foods. The pizzas were freshly prepared as were the pancakes, the brownies were delicious and the pasta dishes were too. The young, if not always so energetic staff always offered a smile and spoke excellent English too.

Last but definitely not least is the must visit Smokehouse Hotel. If you ever wanted to experience the old country style, log fire, arm-chair chic then this place is a must!! Personally I didn’t want to leave and I think I speak for all four of us when I say that. The setting is what I can only describe as an old English village house with immaculate gardens and quaint pathways and staircases leading from one doorway to another, it is exquisite. Upon entering and with a wonderfully friendly and rather British welcome from the Maitre d’ we were escorted to the bar area where we were seated on wonderful armchairs and offered the cocktail menu……..we were also told in detail the evenings dinner menu and asked what we would prefer in order for the chef to have ample time in which to prepare our favoured meal as we pondered what our taste bud’s desired in terms of beverage…….having chosen our meals our very friendly cocktail waiter, Joe, proceeded to light the fire before preparing our drinks. We were made to feel very special and I can honestly say that I am so glad we decided to visit this wonderful place. I think due to how magnificent it was I must have snapped over 50 photo’s. Suffice to say the cocktails were great and the food was on a level you would expect for a place like the Smokehouse Hotel. Expect to pay a little bit more than your average eaterie in Malaysia but it is well worth it and I truly believe you will want to visit again……I know that I do!!

 

This is a great place to end this piece on the Cameron Highlands, a place that has lot’s to offer and is a starting point for so many adventures. If I had one wish for this place it would be that the town itself had more to offer but then in saying that maybe it’s beauty would suffer and in turn become less appealing. Having spent 3 or 4 days here I think this is definitely enough and I’m not overly convinced it would be somewhere I would re-visit…….unless of course it was to enjoy time with our wonderful friends enjoying a steamboat dinner or an amazing cocktail by the fire at the Smokehouse Hotel

Mick.

Happy Travels