Tea with Altitude
Standing in front of a hotel fireplace watching a lighting ceremony while the outside temperature is 20 degrees may seem a little odd but when you have just travelled from the coast where the temperature is 35 degrees and the humidity closing in on 90% it all seems rather logical!
Welcome to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands – the cooler climate playground of the colonial British and today’s Malaysians. The highlands, only accessible by road, is the smallest district in Malaysia’s Pahang state, situated in its north-western corner, approximately two hours south of the city of Ipoh and around three hours north of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Developed in the 1930’s, the tableland is one of the oldest tourist spots in Malaysia and one of the most popular hill resorts, the Cameron Highlands, still retains much of the charm of an English village. Although massive development in the last decade has changed the landscape, it remains a popular destination for those who want to escape the hot weather of the lowlands. It is also known as the strawberry capital of Malaysia and when one drives up the 1,500 metre highlands the myriad of market gardens and strawberry farms perched on the steep hillsides bear testament to it being the fruit and vegetable basket of the country.
What is strange is seeing strawberry patches on hillsides in terraces much like those used for growing rice. Compare this with the flat strawberry fields of home and for some reason it just doesn’t look right – yet the output is phenomenal. In fact many of the farms run strawberry tours and mini theme parks for the local tourists who flock to the farms and devour the ice-cream, waffles, cakes, drinks and sours made with the humble strawberry!
Our stay in the Cameron Highlands was at the beautifully restored Cameron Highlands Resort located in the major hub of Tanah Rata. This is the administrative capital of the Cameron Highlands, where all the government offices and hospital are located. Most of the chalets and guest houses are located here in and around Tanah Rata and most all the jungle trekking and waterfall trails starts from here. During the weekends the traffic jams can be mammoth and locals told us of three hour crawls up the highlands two lane road that only takes an hour during the weekdays – so the moral of the story is visit Monday to Friday (which we did).
Set on a hillock overlooking the only golf course in the highlands the Cameron Highlands Resort began as a local village house in 1923 during the colonial era when the Brits, seeing the similarity to the hill stations in India and Sri
Lanka, started to grow tea in the region. As the tea industry grew the hotel was converted into a “watering hole” for the Brits and eventually rebuilt and restored in 1974 as a 65 room resort still maintaining the look and feel of the earlier era. Each evening the hotel staff ask guests to gather around the open fire place and help light the fire - a rather quaint colonial ceremony that reinforces the history of the place. And trust me a tumbler of good whiskey while sitting in a wonderful old armchair in front of the fire certainly makes one envy the lifestyle they had in those days.
Tea features strongly in the region and many of Malaysia’s major tea producers are situated close to the resort. One of the largest is BOH Plantations where a tour is a must. While many Kiwis have “converted” from the humble cuppa to a flat white or expresso for their morning fix a tour through a tea plantation can certainly
challenge ones coffee addiction. The BOH Plantation tour takes you through the history of tea, how it is grown and processed. The most interesting part was walking through the plantation and getting up close and personal with the tea bush – basically a variety of camellia that they trim back rather aggressively to promote new growth, which is then plucked – women have always been preferred as tea pickers because of their smaller fingers and perceived delicate touch. Just try to pick one or two and you soon realise it’s not as easy as it looks and, more concerning, are the huge numbers required to fill one basket let alone enough to process. This is not work for a fat fingered male, especially one used to the Ponsonby coffee circuit!
Tea tasting follows, and again, the huge variety and different styles are amazing – we all drink it black to ensure we fully appreciate the nuances of the different blends. And drinking tea on a veranda overlooking the magnificent valley of the tea planation certainly makes it a special experience. Of course our bags are filled with samples to take home to savour with friends.
While tea is important the adventure tourism sector is taking over with white water rafting, waterfall treks and jungle trails crisscrossing the region, including one that follows the supposed track taken by American entrepreneur Jim Thompson, known as the Thai “Silk King”, who mysteriously disappeared in 1967. This sparked a rumour mill that includes foul play, CIA assassination as well as abduction and murder by local tribesmen. In fact they still run Jim Thompson Murder Mystery treks and weekends to “celebrate” their own Hitchcockian mystery.
The trails and treks are all graded, with some needing a high level of fitness, while others can be easily undertaken by those with very average fitness – all take in the beautiful jungle and surroundings and are a fantastic way to get up and close with the environment and some of the regions many waterfalls. Our treks took in two beautiful waterfalls and a wander through vine strangled trees that towered above us and a myriad of flowers and colourful shrubs along the side of the tracks.
The drive south from the highlands through the thick jungled hills towards Kuala Lumpur is also spectacular with the road switch backing down the hills and around rushing streams and waterfalls broken by views over hills disappearing into the distance. The Cameron Highlands is certainly a different part of Malaysia from the cities and beaches in most tourist brochures yet one that is fascinating and very worthwhile the visit.