Exploring the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia

Time to continue narrating my travel adventures in Malaysia and beyond…

Fog in the HighlandsAfter the jungle, we headed to another nature destination — the Cameron Highlands. This is what’s known as a hill station (a term more common in India) — a higher area of land with cooler temperatures, usually developed by British colonizers as a resort. The Cameron Highlands are also a big tea-growing area, and more recently they’ve had a bonanza of strawberries. And they’re a lovely place to hike. But as we discovered, they also have a rich ecosystem that’s being threatened by development.

To get there from the jungle, we took a two-hour boat ride down the river, then a three-hour minibus ride. The terrain changed from jungle to a series of little pastel-colored towns with what looked like terracotta roof tiles, Spanish or Italian-style. Towns gave way to forested hills, then to miles of greenhouses — open-air structures with semi-opaque roofs, sheltering flowers and vegetables and, of course, strawberries.

A note on driving. Malaysians don’t honk much, so when they do, it’s for a specific purpose. Usually, it means “I’m coming around a blind corner, so watch out!” We experienced a lot more of this in and around the Cameron Highlands than we bargained for. Highlands = hills, and hills = blind corners! Driving in Malaysia in general is a tad insane by Canadian standards, but only a tad – passing a bit too close, going a bit too fast, swerving around pedestrians. But it’s pretty tame by Thai and Indian standards, as we were to find out!

Tanah Rata, the town where we stayed in the Highlands, reminds me strongly of Banff, Alberta, Canada. It’s small, laid-back, tourist-oriented but not in an obnoxious way. There are blocks and blocks of new condo developments in a faux-Tudor style. Around the little town rise the lush green hills. The weather tends towards sun in the mornings, rain in the evenings, with highs around 20 C — a lovely break from the Malaysian heat, and perfect hiking conditions.

Hills of the Highlands

View from the guesthouse balcony

I have to put in a word for our guesthouse. We stayed at Gerard’s Place, basically a shared three-bedroom condo. The guesthouse proprietor, Jay, was amazingly friendly and helpful — she gave us advice, arranged tours and tickets, and even drove us around town. We had the use of the living room and kitchen, and an absolutely wonderful view of one of the lush hills beyond. One of the other couples at the guesthouse was a pair of 60-somethings from Seattle, both longtime world travellers. He’d been travelling for three years (!) while she’d been on the road for months. They were both full of fantastic advice about the places we were going to. Their next destination was the Philippines, where they’d never been. I want to be them when I grow up!

Bird's nest fern in Cameron Highlands

Bird’s nest fern

Jay hooked us up with a local who’s passionate about the botany of the area. He led us on a nice gentle hike while talking our ears off (in the best way, and in a posh British accent) about the flora, the rare orchids he’s catalogued, the plants used as medicine by the tribal peoples here (some have immense potential for curing diseases, but can’t be grown outside their ecosystem and are too expensive to harvest locally), and so on.

One tidbit: we walked through an area of tree experiments carried out by the department of forestry. They were trying to determine which trees would best soak up floodwaters and protect housing. They planted Canadian pines — which grew like gangbusters, they’re much taller and thicker than the ones I’m familiar with, but are now reaching the end of their lifespan — and Australian eucalyptus — which have a tendency to explode when hit by lightning, so are not good to plant near homes. Oops.

Our guide also told us about the agricultural and residential development that’s threatening the hills he loves. The highlands are at risk from the very activities that gives their residents their livelihood — the summer retreats and tourism, the tea plantations, and the other agriculture. It’s always a tricky balance, and one that’s hard to find, let alone maintain. From my brief experience, the forests are too beautiful to lose, the biodiversity too rich. I wish the locals well in their efforts.

Fern unfurling

We tried a second hike that day but were turned back by the sodden trail, so instead walked up to the next town, Brinchang, and had a Chinese lunch. Brinchang is strongly Chinese-Malay and boasts a Buddhist temple as well as a Hindu one, and we visited both. There’s also a strong community of Indian temporary workers.

Before we left the Cameron Highlands, we took a day tour to see some of the most popular sights in the region. The tour brought us to the highest point in the region, into a wood known as the Mossy Forest, to a tea plantation, and to a small zoo to see some giant insects, exotic butterflies, and other cool critters.

The Mossy Forest trek was short but difficult – lots of roots, mud, and constant ups and downs (over roots and mud). The Rockies are pretty tame compared to this! I don’t have any pictures because I was too busy watching my feet. But our guide did point out tiger balm, citronella, and pitcher plants (which are now rare because tourists like to take them home…).

Tea plantation

Overlooking the tea plantation

Our next stop was a tea plantation, where we got to watch the production process. There are a lot more steps than you might think – crushing, drying, separating leaves from stems, separating various sizes of leaves (only young leaves are picked, and the biggest of them make the best and most expensive tea). We had the obligatory drink of tea at the end of the tour.

As for the butterflies, insects, and other creepy-crawlies, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. We’re glad we didn’t meet any of these in the wild!

This is called a king grasshopper. Wonder why!

This is called a king grasshopper. Wonder why!

I'm no lepidopterist...anyone know what this is?

I’m no lepidopterist…anyone know what this is?

There's a bug in the middle of the picture, I swear!

There’s a bug in the middle of the picture, I swear!

We had our final dinner at a place called Ferm Nyonya. Its specialty is nyonya cuisine – food developed by a culture that’s a mixture of Chinese and ethnic Malay (initially co-mingling due to trade – see the Wikipedia article for more). Spicy rice and noodles, claypot mutton stew, stir-fried greens…yum!

We took a public long-distance bus back to Kuala Lumpur the next day – a modern, comfy bus with curtained windows and frigid a/c, though no on-board toilet. The only problem was the road. The route back to KL involves a lot of twisting and turning. I don’t normally get motion sickness, but that road was something else, even for me.

And that was the end of our stint in Malaysia. Stay tuned for Thailand….

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9 responses to “Exploring the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia

  1. Siri, your pictures are churning the memory mire this morning. What a lush country, so alive. Wished I’d been in Malaysia longer so I could have seen more. Wow, what a spectacular view.

  2. Sherry, I’m glad my photos are bringing back memories. I felt the same way. Would have loved to see Melaka or any of the island/beach areas or Malaysian Borneo or…you get the idea. Malaysia is an underrated travel destination for sure!

  3. Gorgeous photos, Siri! What an amazing trip you’re having.

  4. Thanks, Tami! I’m certainly getting a lot of photography practice.

  5. Malaysia sounds like an amazing place to explore. And that king grasshopper ~ Wow! It’s sad that tourists have endangered those species of plants. I think the answers to most, if not all, illesses grow in those types of jungles and forests.

  6. illnesses, of course.

  7. Kim, I’m always amazed by how much we don’t know yet about our own planet. The Cameron Highlands aren’t even particularly remote, but they have incredible biodiversity. Who knows what cures could be hiding right behind those strawberry farms?

  8. …Australian eucalyptus trees explode when hit by lightning?

    (Why yes, that IS what I took from your post.)

  9. Well, that’s what we were told… *shrugs*

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