Time for a little tea and mystery
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.
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