It’s a van trip and it will be winding and bumpy says our driver as we leave Penang. There are six of us in a minivan heading for the higher altitude relief of the slightly more cool Cameron Highlands, as this is in a van designed for 17 it’s more than comfortable. We’ve paid 43 RM each for the trip and we were collected from the Malabar Inn at 8am.
The first two hours are on the highway, which is a little bumpy, then there’s a short break where we gulp down coconut pau and buy fruit for the rest of the journey. As we start up into the hills our driver comes into his own. Crashing gears, jerking the accelerator, racing into bends only to slam on the brakes. I put the iPad away and concentrate on something other than my stomach.
Our fellow travelers are dropped off at the Cameronian Inn, one we’d looked at, but discounted for some now unremembered reason and despite our drivers best efforts to sell us on another guesthouse, we make it to the TJ Lodge – noisy, he says, near the construction (although everything is here), and over a bar. And that’s a bad thing after his driving I wonder?
We are in Tanah Rata, main township of the Cameron Highlands that we were warned recently to avoid because it’s just “a series of poly tunnels and a veggie growing area” by a random connection on the ferry from Ko Tao to Surat Thani ten days ago. It is cool enough, though to zip the legs back onto my shorts and consider taking the fleece out of my backpack.
When we travelled there was very little online booking available for buses, trains and ferries in Malaysia and South East Asia – the folks at Easybook have now remedied that – check timetables and book tickets online now – its WAY easier!
We walk the town, twice in 20 minutes, lunch on tasty Chinese food and then take scones with strawberry jam and a cup of local tea at the Lords Cafe and then do what most other travelers do here, we book a tour.
There is no public transport that we can find, it looks like rain and the prescribed options for spending time here consist of
- Hiking – there are 11 trails around and about Tanah Rata of varying degrees of difficulty.
- Strawberry Farm visiting and fruit picking
- Butterfly and Insect Farm visiting
- Visiting a Tea Factory
We opt for a half day tour that will take us to the peak of Gunung (Mount) Brinchang at 6,666 feet, it’s the highest in the highlands, we’ll also visit a tea plantation, a strawberry and vegetable farm, a butterfly and insect farm and top of my personal list, we’ll hike in the “Mossy Forest”.
In our room on the third floor we have a small balcony, a bathroom with hot water, windows that let in a gloriously cool breeze and there’s also a shared lounge and kitchen, that lets us self cater for two of the six meals we’ll end up eating here.
It’s bliss sometimes, not to have to go out and eat, but to take to the noodles, and cheese sandwiches with a cup of coffee.
On our first night (we’re here for two) we indulge in a single beer in the Travellers Bistro Bar – its 11.50 for a small bottle of beer, so we’re sticking to one each. We must be too early, as we’re the only ones here on this Thursday night. Investigating the local mini markets we’re astonished to find that its cheaper to buy a small bottle of gin (11.80 RM) than it is a bottle of beer (11.50RM). And, well isn’t the quinine in the tonic good karma against the mosquitoes that we left in the lowlands and are absent here?
Despite what our driver promised we lose no sleep from the noise of the bar and after Roti Canai and vege curry for breakfast from the nearby Suria cafe we join the 6 other folks in the Landrover Defender for our tour with the superb Ahmad of TJ Tours.
It’s a superb tour and he’s a great guide, interested and interesting he gives us history, local legend and ecological detail throughout the 5 plus hours we spend with him.
Our first stop – as we change the agenda around because of the rain – is the Butterfly and Insect Farm, which costs an additional 5RM per person is fascinating.
It’s an intriguing close up view of butterflies, insects, flora and fauna – there are even guinea pigs and rabbits here.
We’re all fascinated by the stick insects, King grasshoppers and especially the scorpions, although no one takes up the offer to touch the scorpions.
That’s not the case when we get to the whip snake, which is duly taken out of the tank it shares with a legion of other whip snakes and coiled around the necks and arms of those who dare. I don’t, but do manage to stroke the cool scaly skin for just a moment.
The rain abates enough for us to take a wander through the hills of the Sungai Palas BOH tea plantation, where we’re intrigued by the differences that we see between here and Sri Lanka. This landscape is pretty, but it doesn’t touch the glory that we found in the Hill Country there.
There is just a small export business here, though, most of the production of tea in Malaysia is for the domestic market and we’re intrigued by the differences. Here the tea bushes follow the contour of the land, rather than growing on terraced like lines. There are no legions of brightly attired women hand plucking the most tender of shoots. Here the pickers are harvesters. Mainly men, from Bangladesh and North Indian origin – they harvest either with shears in the steeper more difficult areas to reach or with motorized cutters, man handled by two harvesters and winched back to the top.
These two methods can harvest 120 Kg and 300 Kg of leaves daily, compared to the ladies of Sri Lanka who net 18 kilos a day. Down in the lowlands here in Malaysia, tea is harvested with huge tractors and cutters, and can yield 9,000 kilos of leaves each day. It certainly takes out the romantic notions of tea picking!
Next stop is a Strawberry Farm, where we’re greeted by the workers, again from Bangladesh, as the guy who attaches himself to us tells us, he has two children and he bemoans our lack of them and our mere 15 years of marriage. He soon appropriates my phone and is taking photo’s of us, telling us of the kindness of the couple from Singapore yesterday, who gave him 50 RM for taking photos yesterday and the couple from somewhere else who gave him 30.
He gets 5 from us and no doubt makes a mint from the 185g of strawberries that we pick and eat on the spot for 7.40 RM.
The rain might have stopped, but it’s still gloomy, so as we head to the peak of Gunung Brinchang you can’t even see the top of the communications towers let alone any of the surrounding sights.
Still, it makes for a more atmospheric stumble through the mossy forest
The ground underfoot is soft and spongey. It’s layer upon layer of fallen leaves on top of interconnecting roots that have been covered in moss to form a platform. Above our heads we can see future platforms being created, down below it’s a vertical drop for around 50 feet.
Everywhere is covered in moss, with fine droplets of water covering that. Flowers spring in the most unusual of places.
The gloom of the grey overhead barely penetrates the greenery and when it does it seems to filter through in droplet form. It feels otherworldly. Not even prehistoric, more that there will be fairies and elves appearing between the branches of the tangle of trees.
Our time in the forest is limited, though, and we press on, taking tea at the BOH plantation visitor center. It’s not, as I remark to Nigel, anywhere near as nice as the first pot of tea we had in Nuwara Eliya and the whole set up feels much more commercialized than the plantations we visited in Sri Lanka.
BOH is the largest black tea producer in Malaysia. Established in 1929 by JA Russell, a businessman who owned substantial tin and rubber investments in Malaya. The company is still headed by his family.
A swift walk around the processing plant – BOH has one at each of the plantations, to minimize the time between bush and processed tea. Unlike Sri Lanka it’s possible to take photos in the area of the factory that we can get (glassed off) access to. It’s reassuring to see that the machines look exactly the same – barring the colors – perhaps a century old, still working as they’re meant to.
Our final requirement in the highlands is to partake of the famed “Steamboat” – which all guidebooks and traveling blogs would have you believe is the required eating for visitors and locals alike.
It’s basically a pot of soup that boils away on your table on a portable gas stove, into which you drop all the fixings that you’ve been given – noodles, eggs, tofu, meats, fish, seafood.
Our soup is split into two – chicken in one side, Tom Yam in the other. As it boils on the portable gas stove placed on our table we drop in fish balls, tofu, crab sticks, beef, chicken, fish, jelly fish, prawns, scallops, soya strips, cuttlefish, mushrooms, two types of noodles and 9 varieties of local greens. It’s a “2 minutes [email protected] cooking – apart from the noodles, which need two seconds” extravaganza.
It’s all good, the jelly fish a little chewy, the prawns excellent, and the mushrooms wonderful. We wrap it up with dropped into the boiling Tom Yam soup – a wonderfully moorish slightly spicy soft boiled egg that wraps itself around all the remaining noodles to bind it together and finish things off.
The Cameron Highlands has been a wonderful reprieve from the July heat of the lowlands. Friday night was definitely busier – the town of Tanah Rata definitely attracts groups of motorcyclists who’s main mission appears to be to prove how loud their engines are and circle the town, and the bar below us at the TJ Lodge was noisier, but after 1030pm, nothing much disturbed us.
We’re catching the bus to Kuala Lumpur in the morning and then crossing the city to take another bus south to the old trading port of Malacca, where we plan to mirror the eating extravaganza of Penang.
Don’t forget to book your buses, ferries and trains – and confirm your travel. Easybook have the largest network in South East Asia!
- Where we stayed in the Cameron Higlands – the TJ Lodge
- What to Eat in Penang
- Where we stayed in Georgetown, Penang – the Malabar Inn