6 Reasons Why I Love the Cameron Highlands!
Head up into the Malaysian clouds and cool off amid glorious green tea carpets! The Cameron Highlands is one of my favourite places in Malaysia: sure, Malaysia has blissful beaches, exciting cities and wild rain forests but I’m simply a sucker for this cool, agricultural haven up in the hills.
I’ll put it down to my Britishness, this was after all another British Hill station. Those early colonists must have been so relieved to escape the heat and humidity up here, I sure am!
The forest was cleared for the hill station: houses, schools and even a golf course were built, followed soon after by agriculture once they realised how fertile the hillsides were.
We came up here, by bus from Penang, for a couple of nights, basing ourselves in Tanah Rata; I loved it so much we stayed on a bit longer!
On the first day we did a tour, through Father’s Guest House, where we were staying; this day tour took us to find the world’s largest flower and a whistle-stop tour of the highland landscape.
It was a fantastic day but it left me wanting to see so much more, so the following day we hired a motorbike and set off exploring by ourselves.
Here are six reasons why I fell in love with the Cameron Highlands:
To be honest, all six reasons could be tea: just look at it, is any other form of agriculture this beautiful? So green, so lush, so neat.
A carpet of tea that blankets the landscape, clipped green pillows stretching out from hillside to hillside like a sea of gently undulating waves.
We visited three tea plantations in all, easily accessible by motorbike: the Boh Sungei Palas Tea Estate, the Boh Tea Gardens and the Cameron Bharat Tea Plantation.
The two Boh plantations are delightful.
The Sungei Palas estate is set amid picturesque hills and has a sweet little village for the workers complete with a small Hindu temple. At the end of the winding, pretty road is a large, modern visitor centre from which you can take free tours of the adjoining the tea factory.
Unfortunately, we missed seeing the factory in action as no tea had been picked that day due to the weather but we were still able to look around and there are signs describing each process in the production.
We had a brew in the visitor centre and then explored the scenic roads through the estate on the bike.
Thoroughly enamoured by the Sungei Palas Estate, we hired the bike the next day as well and went further afield to find more.
A long, winding road through a narrow valley to the south of Tanah Rata took us to the Boh Tea Gardens: Boh’s largest tea plantation.
This was the original visitor experience, before the fancy visitor centre was built at Sungei Palas; there is a small tea shop and cafe located in Nissen huts left over from World War II, factory tours and a walking trail up to a fine viewpoint overlooking the tea-clad valley.
This factory was in production and the smell of the processing leaves was strong and pungent. We take tea for granted, yet it has such a colourful history; seeing this tea being processed through vintage machinery in the factory, and seeing it growing neatly on the hillside, really brings that history to life: war and fortune has been fought over tea!
The trail up to the view-point is steep but rewarding: the views out across the valley are impressive, we even saw an eagle soaring above us.
This estate is located right on the road leading south from Tanah Rata, it’s not quite so scenic due to its proximity to the main road but the views are still impressive. There is a visitor centre and cafe, and a short trail through the tea bushes so you can really immerse yourself in the sea of tea.
Care must be taken as the tea bushes provide perfect hideouts for pit vipers, the plantation workers (mostly from Sri Lanka) wear yellow wellies to protect their legs.
Down in the lowlands on the fringes of the Cameron Highlands is a small area of secondary rainforest where, remarkably, you can find the incredible Rafflesia: the world’s biggest flower.
The Rafflesia is actually a parasite, this fascinating plant begins life as a tight, cabbage-like bud that eventually opens into the spectacular flower. The flower only lasts about five days, dropping and turning black; they are often called the corpse flower because of the dead flesh stench they give off, although these flowers we found curiously didn’t smell much – just a mild chemical smell.
You have to see one of these flowers to believe it, they are like nothing else: very surreal, like something from a sci-fi movie. It’s rare to find them in Peninsula Malaysia, they are more common over on Borneo. This is a real treat!
You cannot see these flowers by yourself, there are a number of tour companies in Tanah Rata that can take you. Our tour group had to trek for around an hour, through hot, humid rain forest, to reach these.
Our guide was very informative, he knew the forest like the back of his hand; he told us he’d been finding Rafflesia in it for years, one day he’s even measured one to be bigger than any ever recorded but, alas, didn’t take a photo with the measuring tape so it didn’t count!
After finding the flowers, the tour met up with some local Orang Asli, the name translates as ‘first people’ and these indigenous people still live in Malaysia’s rain forests (although many have been forced into government-built homes as their forests have been destroyed for rubber and palm plantations).
The Orang Asli men showed us how to use a blowpipe and we each had a go at darting a target– I was rubbish!
After being surrounded by all those tea plantations, it only goes to show that there must be afternoon teas!
There is little left of the old colonial hill station but the tradition of afternoon tea has endured, and there is nowhere better to experience it than The Smokehouse Hotel. This mock-tudor mansion is more English than England: stepping into the building you leave Malaysia behind and enter a twee British world, a building that could have been supplanted from the Home Counties.
We arrived soaked to the skin on our motorbike after being caught in a heavy rain shower (the hotel is half way along the road from Tanah Rata to Brinchang), yet we were welcomed in with grace.
Afternoon Tea was served in the conservatory, at around US$8 per person for scones and tea it isn’t the cheapest but it was a treat. The scones were tasty, although not exactly a scone I would make, and the cream and jam sent me to afternoon tea heaven.
Afternoon Tea is served in other hotels and cafes in the Cameron Highlands, and of course you can get cake and tea at the tea plantations: the coconut tarts are delicious!
4. The Climate
Gee, it feels good to be cool! After months in humid South East Asia it is bliss to find comfortable fresh air. This cooler climate makes for excellent growing conditions for which both agriculture and nature embrace.
Ride, or take a tour, up to Gunung Brinchang and you’ll be transported into a different world of chilly dampness. The road up to this hill takes you through the Sungei Palas Tea Estate then rises steeply as it winds to the summit.
The forest clinging to the hillside here is misty, every tree is wrapped in fuzzy moss and large pitcher plants hang down in the eerie gloom: they don’t call it the Mossy Forest for nothing!
We visited Gunung Brinchang twice, first with the tour: our guide taking us into an unmarked bit of the forest. The second time, we rode up by ourselves and visited the Mossy Forest boardwalk. This was interesting but lacked the atmosphere of the unmarked trail, and it was busy with tourists.
5. There is so much to eat!
Much of the Cameron Highland’s tourism is based around the abundant agriculture, you can pick your own strawberries and shop in countless food halls. The strawbs looked a little on the small side to tempt us to go a’picking but the variety of fresh fruits, mushrooms and dried food was interesting.
The evening market in Tanah Rata had plenty of Malaysian specialities including delicious Apam Balik (peanut and corn filled pancakes) and the Arabian influenced, and meaty, Murtabak.
The banana leaf meals and dosas at the inexpensive Indian Restaurants in Tanah Rata more than satisfied our greed in a perfectly vegetarian way too!
We were even able to have warming, fortifying porridge for breakfast, a tiny restaurant just down from the guest house served it up to us every morning.
Valerie at the guest house had recommended it, the owners are the sweetest couple: both deaf, the wall mounted menu was to be pointed at. They seemed overjoyed to serve us our breakfast every day, making every morning a heartwarming experience.
The Cameron Highlands were made to stretch your legs! There are hiking trails marked out across the hills and your accommodation should be able to advise you on the most suitable routes.
I’ve added hiking to this list because it’s something most people do up here. To be absolutely honest, we were having so much fun on the motorbike we never actually got round to doing any hiking (other than the trek in the lowlands to find the Rafflesia)!
But with all this glorious scenery, it is definitely something I aim to do on my next visit.
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Have you been to the Cameron Highlands? Did you go hiking?
By Rachel A Davis