There was a time when impeccably dressed British civil servants escaped to Cameron Highlands to grow roses, go on long country walks among green rolling hills and snuggle up in front of their fireplaces in charming Tudor-style bungalows.
Only a three and a half-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s bustling capital, Cameron Highlands is perched 1,467 meters above sea level. This cool picturesque ex-British hill station seems oddly out of place in the steamy tropical Malaysian climate.
Built on the backs of Indian labour who hacked a path through the thick tropical jungle, Cameron Highlands was discovered by William Cameron, a British government surveyor who stumbled upon the area by chance in 1885. Years later in 1925, the Chief Secretary of the Federation of Malay States, Sir George Maxwell, recognised the hill station’s potential for agriculture and spearheaded its development.
Word spread like wildfire and British colonials, with wealthy Chinese businessmen hot on their heels, flocked to the hills to build their holiday bungalows. Today, many of these Tudor-style homes have been converted into guest houses and hotels.
British planters were also quick to spot the potential of Cameron Highlands’ fertile mountain slopes for growing tea. Tea growing was an instant success and hundreds of tea pickers from India flooded the area.
One of Malaysia’s largest tea companies, the Boh Tea Company, was established in 1929 by British colonist John Archibald Russell and AB Milne, an old tea planter from Ceylon. Today you can visit Boh Tea’s Sungai Palas Tea Centre, where tea planting is a science. Assam Manipuri and Rajghur tea plants are cultivated in shaded nurseries for up to 12 months before the young plants are transplanted to the field and carefully pruned.
One of the most popular pastimes for visitors is to amble between the rows of tea bushes to admire picturesque scenes of rolling hills and hard-working tea-pickers. Many of these tea-pickers are able to pick up to 200 kilograms of tea leaves a day.
Stop at the Bharat Tea Plantation for a cup of Cameron Valley tea and a scone or two. The al-fresco terrace has peaceful views of the valley below, while the plantation’s tea shop sells a range of tea and delicate tea pots at reasonable prices.
Meander along the winding road through the main towns of Ringlet, Tanah Rata and Brinchang, stopping at waterfalls, nurseries, butterfly gardens and strawberry farms. At Brinchang’s Cactus Valley you’ll find a large variety of old and rare cactus plants, which are grown in gardens on the hillside.
Vegetable farms also form part of the scenery, as cooler weather crops are grown in Cameron Highlands and sold in markets throughout Malaysia. The flower stall at the Kea Farm market is a kaleidoscope of colourful fuchsias, carnations, roses and chrysanthemums. Other market stalls have baskets of freshly picked corn, chillies, cauliflower, potatoes or Chinese greens, all sold at bargain prices. Pick up a punnet of strawberries, some fresh mandarins or a jar of local honey.
Markets in Cameron Highlands
Since the days of the British occupation, walking has been a favourite highland pastime. There are a number of walking trails that wind their way through Cameron Highlands’ pristine tropical rainforest. As some of these trails are muddy and poorly marked, it’s not a bad idea to hire a local guide, especially if you’re a planning on diverting off the marked trails.
Although the jungles of Cameron Highlands are a haven for nature-lovers, much of the exotic flora and fauna have yet to be documented. Trek along the paths in April or May to catch the flowering orchids.
The jungle is also bursting with wild rhododendrons, nepenthes, ferns and bromeliads. Some of the more exotic plants that grow wild in the forest are cinnamon, rattan or manau cane (which at one time was the main source of income for the area’s indigenous people, the Orang Asli), cendana (red sandalwood) and yellow aromatic kemuning.
Mystery of Jim Thompson
As the undergrowth is incredibly dense, it’s no surprise Bangkok silk king Jim Thompson vanished while trekking in this jungle.
2007 marks the 40th anniversary of Jim Thompson’s mysterious disappearance. Up until today, there has not been a single clue about where he went or what might have happened to him. What’s reasonably certain is that he was not eaten by a wild animal. Although Malayan tigers may have once roamed the area in the past, today they are extinct. Mountain goats, barking deer, civets, macaques and gibbons hide in the forest but are rarely seen.
Thompson was an American military intelligence officer who marketed Thai silk to the world. After World War II, he set up his home in Thailand and became a major force in the Thai silk industry. He was so widely known in Bangkok that a letter addressed to ‘Jim Thompson, Bangkok’ would find its way to him in a city of three and a half million people.
Thompson had a custom of inviting his guests to light the evening fire, a tradition that has been re-introduced by the newly opened up-market Cameron Highlands Resort.
This luxury 56-room boutique resort overlooks the 18-hole Cameron Highlands Golf Course and carries the Jim Thompson theme throughout. There’s a spacious two-bedroom Jim Thompson Suite and the Jim Thompson Tea Room, where the tradition of English afternoon tea comes complete with finger sandwiches, pastries, home-baked scones and fresh strawberries.
The resort’s Spa Village offers exotic treatments that focus on the healing and restorative properties of tea. Most treatments begin with a relaxing tea bath where you soak in a large white porcelain tub filled with hot water, rose petals, kaffir limes and tea leaves.
Cameron Highlands Resort is a long overdue complement to a handful of Tudor-style country houses that dot the area. Among them are Ye Olde Smoke House, an oak-beamed country inn complete with creaking leather sofas, silver tea sets and a roaring log fireplace. Plaques behind the bar provide light-hearted ridicule of the stiff British colonial tone by encouraging customers to “avoid continuous belching” and “use marksmanship in the toilet”. The inn’s restaurant serves typical English fare such as bubble and squeak, and scones with strawberry preserve.
Further down the valley, the Lakehouse is another nostalgic guest house where you can spend rainy days drinking tea, smoking cigars and reading. Built by British Colonel Stanley J. Foster, this 18-room Tudor-style guest house has four-poster beds, winged chairs and of course, Devonshire teas.
Not everything in Cameron Highlands is about scones and tea. Although Strawberry Park Resort is a larger apartment-style resort that maintains the Tudor look, their Jim Thompson terrace is popular for the steamboat, a Chinese invention of fresh vegetables and meat dipped into a pot of hot clear chicken broth soup.
For more local delights, head to one of the many Indian curry shops at Tanah Rata where you’ll find yourself eating chicken curry off a banana leaf, while the Indian chefs flip hot roti chanai bread on a flat pan. The local Chinese and Indian cuisine, along with British traditional fare provides Cameron Highlands with a potpourri of multicultural flavours that will tickle your tastebuds.
Cameron Highlands is accessible from Australia via Kuala Lumpur. For flight bookings, see Malaysia Airlines.
The easiest way to get to Cameron Highlands is to hire a car and travel along the North-South Expressway. From the expressway, there are two roads leading to Cameron Highlands; the old road from Tapah and the newer route from Simpang Pulai.
Another option is to catch a train to Tapah, then take a bus or taxi to Cameron Highlands. See Malaysian Railway KTM for train schedules.
Where to stay
Strawberry Park Resort has studio, one, two and three-bedroom apartments, tel: +605 491 1166.
Cameron Highlands Resort is the area’s newest luxury boutique accommodation. For reservations, see Small Luxury Hotels of the World, tel: 1800 251 958.
The Smokehouse Hotel and Restaurant, tel: + 605 491 1215.
The Lakehouse is further down the valley, tel: + 605 495 6152.
Temperatures range between 22° and 25°C during the day and can reach as low as 10°C at night. Light showers are common in the afternoon.
When to go
To see the wild orchids in bloom, visit during April or May.
What to do
Cameron Highlands Golf Course is located between Tanah Rata and Brinchang, Phone +605 491 1126.
Ask your hotel about jungle trekking maps and to make arrangements for a local jungle guide.
Banks and ATMs (make sure they have the CIRRUS sign) are readily available in both Kuala Lumpur and Cameron Highlands.
In Malaysia, drug trafficking is a serious offence that could lead to a death sentence.