Malaysia’s hill country: The Cameron Highlands

The bus from Tapah to Tanah Rata winds slowly and steeply through jungle-clad and mist-wreathed hills. I’m on my way to Malaysia’s biggest hill station, the Cameron Highlands. Every one hundred metres or so is a palm frond shelter, built with varying degrees of sophistication, where a man or a boy waits, hoping to sell fruit or oversized beans hung up in rows. Small children watch the bus go past with interest, sitting outside villages made up of wood and frond-thatch or corrugated iron shacks perched up the hillside. With a name like that you won’t be surprised to hear the British had a hand in establishing this hill retreat. British surveyor William Cameron mapped the region for the colonial government back in 1885.

Views of tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

As the bus gains the heights and approaches the Cameron Highlands administrative centre of Tanah Rata the vast tea plantations come into view. Terrace upon terrace of camellia sinensisbushes undulating up the steep hillsides; squatly low-growing from the ceaseless plucking. There are also market gardens, strawberry farms, rose gardens and roadsides thick with wildflowers. Nestled in a mountainous region at an elevation of 1,200 metres, temperatures rarely rise above 25 degrees Celsius during the day and can drop to 12 degrees at night. It is a strange and welcome change from the steaming plains below. The fun came to a grinding halt with the Second World War and the Japanese occupation but in the post war years the Cameron Highlands began its slow transformation into the tourist retreat we know today. The serenity of the Camerons has not been ruined by overdevelopment. Traditional village life goes on uninterrupted, with ancestor shrines and conservative Muslim and Hindu values alongside the guesthouses and restaurants. Malaysia’s glorious multi-cultural mix is quickly apparent in Tanah Rata, with Malay, Chinese and Indian people and food everywhere. On the main road at Sri Brinchang I enjoyed (every day I was in the Camerons) the best vegetarian Thali I’ve ever had, served on large banana leaves. Then there’s the tea… Walking up the winding road to the Boh Tea Plantation at Sg Palas, I come across a handful of workers gathering up piles of green leaves into enormous sacks.

Tea pickers at work in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

The Boh Company produces a not insignificant four million kilograms of tea every year – around 70 per cent of Malaysia’s total tea production – and Fairlie here in the Camerons is one of their prettiest plantations. Surrounded by the green terraces, a little ‘village’ of long, blue-painted buildings house the workers, tea processing machinery, storage and of course a lovely tea house. Leaves are plucked every three weeks in the morning; then rushed to the factory to undergo stages of withering, rolling, fermentation, drying, sorting and finally tasting. The guides at Sg Palas proudly describe their teas as having the character of fine wines; influenced by the altitude, cool temperatures and acidic soil of the Cameron Highlands.

A tea planters’ village in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

The region has a number of popular walking trails and I set off on one from near my guesthouse on the outskirts of Tanah Rata. There are enormous Birds Nest ferns in the trees, which are draped with epiphytes and the exotic Pitcher plant or Monkey Cup.  I can hear strange birds and monkeys screaming. Leaping across streams with the aid of large liana vines – Tarzan style – it is a world away from the genteel tea plantations and former colonial mansions. On my last day I took a taxi to the observation point on Mount Batu Brinchang. The views from the 2,301-metre (6,663-foot) peak are stunning.  Lushly green mountains shrouded in mist plunge into valleys where the curving lines of the tea plantations are just visible. If you have visited the Jim Thompson house in Bangkok you will find the final act in the life story of this wealthy American silk trader here. Thompson mysteriously disappeared from his holiday bungalow in 1967.

Despite massive public and private searches, he was never found. Whether he got lost in the trackless forests, was abducted, or staged his own disappearance may never be known. I can think of many reasons to not want to leave the Camerons.

One Comment

  1. Posted September 13, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    We’ve areivrd at the end of the line and I have what I need!

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