I arrived in the Cameron Highlands by bus from Kuala Lumpur (known to locals simply as “KL”). As much as I love KL, it was a trip I was longing for since KL, its smog, traffic, heat and humidity and crowds can take its toll on you and a trip to a less complicated and relaxing environment will do wonders reinvigorating the mind, body and spirit.
The trip took about 3-4 hours and was an adventure in itself. During the last 30 minutes of the bus trip, I got to see beautiful forests, waterfalls, pristine lakes and frond-roofed roadside villages. Local crafts are sold beside the tortuous, narrow mountain road. If you are prone to car sickness, I suggest taking Dramamine (I wish the person sitting next to me on the bus had done so as the stop-and-go, winding drive up dizzying heights caused her stomach contents to end up in a bag).
Most of the people here, unlike the rest of Malaysia, are Christians. You quickly notice that there are far more dogs here than in the rest of Malaysia. Dogs, like pigs, are not Halal under Islamic law and thus considered filthy, frightening beasts by many Muslim Malays. They can be seen just about everywhere here, though, begging for scraps and hanging around playing with each other or small children.
When I got off the bus, I noticed the crisp, cool air and several men at the bus stop working for the hotels and guesthouses aggressively pitching the merits of their establishments. I chose to walk around a bit before settling on a place to stay the night. I eventually choose a place a few steps away from the bus stop called ‘Twin Pines.’(http://twinpines.cameronhighlands.com/)
It has a sister guest house, KRS Pines located about 100 yards away. If you are looking for a little more swank and creature comfort, there are also much pricier hotels nearby. A little further up the road in the town of Brinchang, there’s even a 5 star luxury hotel. Twin Pines can be very easy on your wallet. If you don’t mind sharing a bathroom and sleeping in a closet-sized room, attic rooms will set you back 12 ringgits (3-4 USD) per night. With private bathrooms/hot showers, 50-75 ringgits will get you a good sized room. I suggest living next to the backpackers and students in the attic rooms. There will be more opportunity for interesting conversations and excitement but it can also be a little noisier.
The manager and his wife are a Tamil couple who are quite helpful and friendly. Almost all of their guests are European travelers. Most of these travelers in the area are from Great Britain, Holland, Australia and Germany.
After settling in to my room, I went out to get some food. The variety of eatables here is like the rest of Malaysia. You can get Malay, Chinese, and South Indian fare but the strawberry farms here make the very fresh, local homemade strawberry deserts a must try. Just about every restaurant have their own specialty strawberry desert or drink. Vegetarians should find it a little easier here to find non-meat dishes. I got some fried rice and vegetarian Tom Yum and headed back. It started to rain and got really cold. I couldn’t wait to get back and snuggle into my bed. In case you think it was hyperbole when I recommended you bring a jacket, I actually overheard a woman from England in the room beside mine complain about it being “freezing”. Yeah, it can get cold. It was July and I think that night dipped to the 40s without factoring in wind-chill.
The next day was absolutely beautiful, however, about 65 degrees, clear, no wind and sunny. Highs for most days are between 60-75 degrees with cool breezes; nights are around the 50s.
There are many small shops dotting the main street selling souvenirs, clothing and assorted knickknacks.
I took a day-long guided tour set up through my guesthouse. A tour guided picked me up early in the morning with several other tourists. We headed out into the forest to see one of the world’s biggest flower, rafflesia. The trailhead is about 40 minutes drive from Tanah Rata or about 15 minutes outside of Brinchang. The hike takes about 2-3 hours but it can take up to 5-6 hours depending on which trail you hike. Expect it to be muddy (hence the waterproof boots) and sometimes, somewhat physically taxing so bring water and a snack. A very welcome fact is that there are no leeches at this altitude so you can forgo the anti-leech measures most other South East Asian hiking adventures call for.
Rafflesia flowers for a short period (sometimes for just a couple of days). It is mainly a solitary plant so to see one in bloom, our guide must first consult a native villager of the forest (a member of the Orang Asli people) for the location of the latest one that is flowering. Usually there will be a trail leading to one but if there is no word out of a sighting, you might have to wait for when one is spotted. This flower tends to attract lots of insects, especially mosquitoes, so bring repellent. The trails are wide and heavily traveled but signs of wildlife are still common. Keep an eye out for interesting creatures besides the road such a lizards, snakes, and exotic looking birds. Make sure you tip the Orang Asli flower-spotter a few ringgits as he will be there at the end of the hike to say goodbye and collect his tip.
After we saw our flower, we headed back to the van and visited an Orang Asli village. The brochure’s pictures made it look much more exciting than it was. The Orang Asli are dressed in western garb and are all fluent in English. They still live in small shanty huts but they are not the loin-clothed, tree-dwelling hunter-gathering people the brochure portrays them as. Most of their daily requirements are provided by tourism money, government assistance and subsistence farming today. This might or might not disappoint some of you.
I befriended a nice Irish couple, Andy and Sharon, who were med-school students and a Frenchman traveling with his wife and sister (who was earlier left dazed and bloody after a thorny bush attacked her). All of us tried our hands at some Orang Asli crafts and customs such as blowgun marksmanship. We were told by our guide that the darts used in hunts were poisoned with a very powerful tree-frog neurotoxin that could kill a grown man in minutes. Darts used in practice are, of course, not poisoned.
Both my Irish friends hit the mark. When it was the Frenchman’s sister’s turn, she blew the dart only a few feet. The Frenchman missed the target by several feet. Then I went and managed to hit it dead on. The Orang Asli make functional blowguns to sell to tourists and after seeing the Frenchman and his family in action, they nervously sold a few to them. I remember Andy couldn’t help snicker and jokingly say to me that now he knew why the French had lost so many wars.
After this, we went to the largest tea plantation in the area to have lunch and of course, sample the region’s famous tea. We took a tour of the tea factory and listened to the tea making process (which is far more interesting and entertaining than one might expect!). We got to explore the tea-tree fields. A tip for anyone wanting to visit this tea plantation: don’t buy any of the tea in their souvenir shop. The exact same brand and types of tea are available for a 3rd of the price in the major cities across Malaysia.
It was a fun little day trip costing about 75 ringgits (about 20 USD). My guesthouse also offered other day trips such as whitewater rafting, jungle hikes, mountain climbing and camping trips lasting several days.
My experiences in the Cameron Highlands were very memorable, exciting and pleasant. The place far surpassed my expectations and I will be coming back here for more beauty, friend-making, and adventure the next time I am in Malaysia.
© Jan 2010, Mr. Nan Chen, International Man of Leisure