Cameron Highlands- The hills are alive

In a complete paradigm shift from the island life on the Perhentians, we headed back to mainland, and caught a bus to the famous Cameron Highlands. Situated about 1000m about sea level, the Cameron Highlands have become a must see stop off in Malaysia, made famous by the hectares of tea plantations and strawberry farms covering almost every inch of land. Unlike the rest of Malaysia, which seems to have 3 main weather cycles (hot/really f***** hot/hot and wet) the highlands are well known for having an average temperature about 10c lower than the rest of Malaysia; hence why it’s growing 80% of the fruit consumed across the country (and the tea, obviously).  By pure chance, we ended up sharing the journey with our new regular travel buddy Frank. He was supposed to leave for the Highlands they day earlier, but partied too hard on the Perhentians and couldn’t face the 6 hour journey with a stinking hangover.

The bus journey took us through some truly breathtaking landscapes, consisting mainly of rolling hills, plantations, and forest land stretching as far as the eye can see. Whilst this was obviously stunning, it’s still such a shame to see so much deforestation taking place in areas, as well as previous arable land being swapped for profitable palm oil plantations, known as the primary cause for insane levels of deforestation and ecological destruction in Borneo. It seems in asia, this rampant destruction of land is somewhat unavoidable sadly.

Arriving into the Highlands gave us all mixed emotions I think it’s safe to say. Whilst the views were utterly breathtaking, they were shared with such high levels of tourism that totally took away from the picturesque views we had all anticipated. Driving through to the main areas tourists say involved driving past crappy little theme parks, themed hotels (including a Smurf hotel! Seriously; WTF) and a myriad of hawkers selling fluffy minion dolls, Hello Kitty EVERYTHING and the now synonymous in Asia penis shaped bottle openers (again, WTF). It transpired that this is an incredibly popular destination for local tourism as well as tourists from China and Japan who apparently love this stuff.

Conversely, we felt like we’d been transported to mountain ranges in Europe. The architecture here is so different from anywhere else in Asia. The buildings look more like ski chalets you’d find in the swiss alps than something you’d find in other parts of rural Malaysia. I would certainly compare the Highlands to Dalat in atmosphere and general look and feel. Food is obviously a huge thing here just like in Dalat, with hugely vibrant fruit markets and farms, selling an abundance of fresh fruits you seldom see in Asia normally (apples and strawberries, rather than pineapple and mango).

By the time we arrived in Tanah Rata we got exactly what we expected; a small highland town with the proper local delicacies we had hoped for. Our driver dropped us at 8 Mentigi Guest House after a request for a cheap place to stay. At 25 Ringit a night for a bed this was one of the cheapest places we stayed in Malaysia (less than a tenner a night for 2 beds is pretty damn good)! The owner was super helpful, filling us with knowledge about hikes, plantations, and other activities to keep us occupied, and the other staff were simply hilarious. To top it all off, the location was perfect, literally minutes from the main strip but far enough to give us a good night sleep.

We didn’t plan to spend too long in the Highlands; most people we spoke to recommended two full days, which sounded perfect. Kelly and myself and our new travel buddy Frank planned a hike the following day up to the second highest point in the highlands, avoiding the costly tours ushering hoards of tourists around the same sites over and over again. I’m so glad we did this! Not only did we save the best part of $30 doing this, but we had a unique experience on our own without dozens of other people. There are a number of hikes around the highland for all abilities, spanning the jungle areas of the land, or through the rolling tea plantations. We opted for jungles, meaning we could dedicate the following day to plantations. The hike was so worth it! We opted for a number of hikes straight from the center of the town, meaning we would get a number of the routes done in one day, peaking about 2/3 of the way through the trek. Now, we’ve done a bunch of hikes in Asia, so we sort of knew what we were letting ourselves in for, and this was no different to so many we’ve done. The trails were certainly overgrown, and pretty much non existent at points, or offered a number of ‘wrong turns’ that could have got us stuck in the highlands for days. Perhaps my favorite part of these treks though is the fact the unearthed roots effectively act as steps up mountains. This hike didn’t let us down and was made up predominantly of just this! I would certainly not say it was the easiest hike of my life, but it was fun none the less. Doing it with great people obviously helped! At the summit (about 1800m up) we had some awesome views over the highlands and a nice stop to catch our breath and rehydrate before enduring the ‘tougher route’ down. A word of warning for any novice hikers in Asia. If someone says it’s tough here, it probably means its really tough! The decline the whole way back was quite simply insane! It reminded us quite a bit of some of the hike we did in Cambodia, which involved abseiling down a dried up waterfall. Whilst no ropes were involved this time (only bamboo ropes), it was pretty tough on the ol’ knees and feet. Still, a great day out!

The next day, we hired a bike to explore the surrounding areas and obviously, the tea plantations. Spending the day driving around this area was such a joy, especially as the windy and undulating roads were up there as some of the most fun to ride in Asia! We stopped at 2 of the larger tea companies plantations, Royal Plantation Tea and Boh Tea (the largest tea manufacturer in Malaysia; it’s basically a posher PG tips). Whilst the first plantation was rather small, Boh was a total monster, and you could tell in the offering of their tourist services. Royal tea had a tiny tea shop and restaurant, whilst Boh had a museum, live working factory for drying and packaging (they do everything internally rather than outsourcing to other companies), a cafe with some of the nicest views in the whole area, and a wonderful shop offering a huge array of fruit, ice, and loose leaf teas. If you’re ever here, i highly recommend the Boh plantation to get a real idea of what’s involved, and what some of the better teas can taste like (try the mango fruit tea; it’s a total winner!) The rest of the day consisted of exploring the surrounding hills on the bike, and again, was a total joy. I can definitely see why there’s such a pull here for tourists.

I couldn’t not mention the food up here, which was a total shock to us all. I’d go as far as saying we had some of the best Indian, Nonya, and Malay food we’ve had in all of Malaysia in the Highlands! Discovering some of the local secrets is all part of the fun. Special shout out to these guys. This deaf couple run a small street food restaurant that’s only open till 5pm, serving Malay food cooked fresh to orer. Their hospitality was so good, we went back 3 times in the end. Plus to make things better right next door is a family restaurant selling the best Satay beef and Chicken we’ve had since Thailand! Seriously, go there; you won’t be disappointed.

So that was it for the Highlands. It was definitely worth the journey, and i’m so glad we made the effort to get there. We had planned to head to Borneo, but now we’re at the end of our trip, the purse strings are being pulled tighter than usual, so we simply couldn’t justify a near $400 trip there and back for a few days. We traveled back to KL to have one last day with our buddy Cadmon. In true Cadmon fashion, he took us on a couple of food odysseys, consisting of a monster night market never normally seen by western tourists, a top notch dimsum restaurant, and a traditional stop off selling congee (a kind of chicken rice porridge; believe me it’s nicer than it sounds). It’s been so great linking up with someone we met so long ago now on their home turf and getting a real feel for life here not always seen by tourists.

Our time in Malaysia is up sadly. It’s been wonderful and so much more than we expected. Malaysia really is the perfect example of multiculturalism in action, and other nations (including the UK) could learn so much from it. The sights, the food, the people, and the culture are all wonderful, and i’ll genuinely miss being here! But it can’t last forever. We’re now in our final country for the last month of our trip; the Philippines! Hopefully the weather stays on our side (it’s Typhoon season here) so we can really enjoy this last part of our trip.

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