Time for a lit­tle tea and mys­tery

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Caro­line Baum

WHEN­EVER I find my­self in a li­brary lined with leather-bound vol­umes, I feel I’ve stepped into an Agatha Christie who­dunit. For once, I’m right. At the Cameron High­lands Re­sort, there is a re­al­life mys­tery: the dis­ap­pear­ance, 40 years ago, of Thai silk en­tre­pre­neur and for­mer US spy Jim Thompson.

Thompson dis­ap­peared into the dense rain­for­est near the re­sort, hav­ing last been seen head­ing off for a Sun­day stroll.

Since then a mythol­ogy has grown around his fate: was he eaten by a tiger? No re­mains were found. Was he kid­napped? If so, there were never any cred­i­ble ran­som de­mands. Was he spir­ited away by a for­eign power? No one knows or if they do they are not say­ing.

It’s the per­fect mys­tery to mull over at the re­sort’s spa while soak­ing in a bath of very hot tea: a lo­cal crop is grown on the ter­raced hill­sides of this hill sta­tion re­treat. On the in­creas­ingly wind­ing road up into the rain­for­est, I no­tice small stalls manned by mem­bers of the in­dige­nous Se­mai tribe. Farther on, a lone man points a blow­pipe up into the trees, hunt­ing his din­ner.

At the spa, be­ing poached gen­tly in tea is just the pre­am­ble to the main event: a menu of treat­ments based on lo­cal plants and tra­di­tions that blend the mas­sage styles of China and Malaysia with those of the re­gion’s in­dige­nous tribes. The hot-rock mas­sage uses lo­cal river stones con­sid­er­ably larger than those I’ve seen else­where. Their heat seems to seep into my bones as they are gen­tly rubbed, wrapped in fine cloth, along the body’s merid­i­ans. For the next few days I feel un­usu­ally serene.

For peo­ple who like straw­ber­ries, the other lo­cal crop, the spa has fruity fa­cials made with their crushed pulp. I pre­fer visit­ing lo­cal stall­hold­ers sell­ing dried ber­ries, their flavour con­cen­trated to sur­pris­ing in­ten­sity.

Un­less you fancy a tea sam­pling at the nearby Boh plan­ta­tion (which has an ex­cel­lent gift shop), there is lit­tle to do ex­cept play golf on the re­sort’s 18-hole course. But the re­sort can or­gan­ise, on re­quest, a visit to an in­dige­nous rain­for­est set­tle­ment. This in­volves a drive along an un­sealed, very bumpy road, past neat mar­ket gar­dens cul­ti­vated by Malay Chi­nese. A short walk into the bush and across a hang­ing bridge leads to a small set­tle­ment of bam­boo houses on stilts.

Here I use a thong pinned to the wall for blow­pipe tar­get prac­tice, learn about dif­fer­ent kinds of traps set for larger an­i­mals and watch an elder play the nose flute be­fore join­ing him for some boiled tapi­oca in his home. Al­though there is no re­frig­er­a­tion in the set­tle­ment, a so­lar panel has brought light and enough power for one com­mu­nal television set, which women watch while weav­ing palm fronds to make mats. My visit, which lasts a cou­ple of hours, feels more au­then­tic than other ex­pe­ri­ences of tribal cul­tures.

Back at the re­sort, af­ter­noon tea is in full swing, with minia­ture mango or hon­ey­comb scones and fin­ger sand­wiches be­ing served in the Jim Thompson sit­ting room. The evenings here be­come chilly, but staff an­tic­i­pate the tem­per­a­ture drop with a nice touch: gor­geous pais­ley shawls are folded over the backs of arm­chairs for guests to bor­row.

The din­ing room has a touch of the colo­nial era to it, with its gen­tle­men’s club decor and a menu of nos­tal­gic favourites. It’s the per­fect set­ting in which to play ama­teur sleuth and try out con­spir­acy the­o­ries about the case that made the Cameron High­lands fa­mous. Caro­line Baum was a guest of Malaysia Air­lines.

Check­list

Cameron High­lands Re­sort, 72 Peke­lil­ing Tun Ab­dul Razak, 39 Tanah Rata, Cameron High­lands. Phone: + 603 2783 1000; www.cameron­high­land­sre­sort.com. Tar­iff: From $237 to $664 a room, a night. Spe­cial deals and pack­ages avail­able. Get­ting there: About three hours by road north from Kuala Lumpur on the North­South Ex­press­way. Check­ing in: Golfers, spa junkies, Kuala Lumpur pro­fes­sion­als. Bed­time read­ing: JimThompson:The Un­solved­Mys­tery by William War­ren. Step­ping out: The sur­round­ing rain­for­est is home to many birds. Ask the ho­tel to or­gan­ise a nat­u­ral­ist to take you for an early morn­ing walk (wear closed shoes and take binoc­u­lars). If visit­ing an in­dige­nous set­tle­ment, take salt as a gift. Brick­bats: Small bath­room with dan­ger­ously slip­pery floors, show­ers and no baths; no pri­vacy on bal­conies. Bou­quets: Cosy li­brary with fire­place; free com­puter ac­cess (speedy in­ter­net); wide-screen TVs; an ex­cel­lent Ja­panese restau­rant, Gon­bei.

Colo­nial touch: Cameron High­lands Re­sort

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