My latest trip away from Kuala Lumpur took me to the lofty altitudes of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s number one spot for growing tea. It may also be the only spot, but I’ve been lazy on my research.
I’d heard many splendid reports about how beautiful it was, although these were tempered by the ubiquitous disclaimer, “But there is a lot of construction going on, and it is very touristy.” However, I was feeling pretty grouchy in KL (bloody-American-Epress-nightmare-trying-to-get-hold-of-them-f*king voice-automated-shite-no-card-need-a-card-number-get-disconnected-spend-a-fortune-calling-them-bad-line-technical-difficulties-get-hung-up-on-again-phone-back-again-no-number-here-why-the-fuck-can’t-you-read-my-account-15-minutes-on-hold-two-hours-of-calls-every-day-call-yourself-an-international-card-my-arse), and not keeping things in perspective – um, you’re on holiday, in Malaysia, stop being an ungrateful whingebucket – so I figured a few days away in a beautiful construction area might be a good idea.
Ooh it is lovely. The drive up there is through luscious, verdant, tropical forest, and very relaxing, provided you don’t get travel sick. If you’re one of those unfortunate souls who gets motion sickness, then the two hours of winding switch backs are going to be a whole new level of hell for you. Take pills and tough it out, it’s grand at the top.
There are a handful of small towns in the Highlands, the two most common destinations for visitors are Tanah Rata, and Brinchang. My first thought when we pulled up in Tanah Rata was, “What’s Big Bear doing in Malaysia?” The town has the layout and feel of a ski town in the Summer.  Multiple lodging and restaurant options; a scattering of mini—marts and tourist shops; a backdrop of emerald hills begging to be hiked; and some random attractions to explore when you get lost and say to yourself, “I wonder if this path might take me back to town.”
My second thought was, “Bloody hell, I’m starving.” My travelling buddy and I set out to eat ourselves into a food coma, just as soon as we’d put our bags down and done the typical ice-breaking conversations with the new dorm mates.
You’re from Holland? Lovely place, I went there for the first time last Summer, can’t wait to go back. How long will you be in Malaysia? Is this a short holiday, or part of a big trip? Oh you’re hang-gliding around the world? Wow, that sounds so cool. And you sat in rubber raft behind a boat coming in from Thailand? How did that go? Haha, oh god yeah those bloody mosquitoes… Gosh all three of you got Dengue fever? Yikes! Right well, see you later for beer o’clock.” Small talk with backpackers can sometimes leave you feeling a teensy bit mundane by comparison.
Finding places to eat in Asia is a contrary process. Sometimes it will take you hours to find something you like the look of, but other times the first hole-in-the-wall street joint, 50 yards from your hostel door, is calling your name like a siren that slipped roofies into all the other sirens’ drinks.  Everyone waxes lyrical about the abundance, the tastiness, and the low cost of street food, but then you’ll also have days when goddamn it you want to sit at a table where you’re not playing footsie with the cockroaches.
We set out that afternoon to find nutritious, delicious, cheap street food, but were utterly side tracked by the twee Indian restaurant that had al fresco tables with flowers twined around wrought iron railings. That’s just how it goes.
Sitting at the table , watching the world go by, I noticed the overwhelming presence of tourists compared to Malaysians. It might not be the case, but it certainly felt like the locals were outnumbered. There is much controversy over the expansion of the towns in Cameron Highlands, and the consequent devastating ecological impact. A walk down the main street of Tanah Rata shows you quite clearly that tourism is the catalyst for the new construction.
Many of the visitors come from within Malaysia itself. Cameron Highlands is packed at the weekends; the prices for a bed go up by about 20%; and you can easily add and extra hour or two onto your car journey. People come for the gorgeous scenery, the good food, the one day hikes, and because it is a fantastic ten degrees cooler than the lowlands. It’s heaven after the heat and humidity that keeps people indoors until sunset. The air is so much clearer you can see a colour change in the sky. In fact I hadn’t realised that the rest of Malaysia had a pollution problem until I went up to Cameron. What? I live in LA, fuzzy sky is completely normal.
That first night we explored the town.  Walking along the river, we found a park with a playground constructed from giant models of fruit and veg; the high school running track that a couple of cars decided to use as a short cut despite it being full of joggers, cyclists and pedestrians; and the agro-technological gardens, a slice of little England with mock tutor buildings and neatly organised plants. Bees merrily buzzed around long-stemmed purple flowers (that’s my gardening knowledge for you, “Er it’s tall, got green bits and purple bits”). It took me a while to recognise they were bees, they’re skinny and black with a yellow spot on their bums, and not quite as cute and fuzzy as the stripy ones I grew up with. These are efficient, lean, mean, pollen collecting machines. The Bumble bees are entirely black, and massive. These are menacing bumble bees. In fact there is no bumbling to them, these are BOAN Bees, Bees On A Mission. They are the bumbles bees Death keeps in his garden in the Discworld. (What do you mean you don’t know what the Discworld is? Nope. Don’t talk to me until you’ve gone away and done some reading.)
Generally we just enjoyed fresh air and the feeling of being a tad chilly… it’s alright I weathered it bravely, I worse a scarf over my T-shirt and everything was fine. I should probably throw in a quick apology for being a smug bastard right now – as I write this, Eastern USA has been rendered impotent by Storm Jonas, and a freak temperature drop is sending slightly more Northern parts of South East Asia into shock. Bangkok got down to 16 degrees Celsius yesterday: in the UK that hails the arrival of shorts and T-shirt weather, but the Thai people are suddenly finding the need to wear all their clothing at once. The temperature there normally doesn’t drop below 25 degrees.
Anyhoo. The following morning we got up early to go on a tour of the tea plantation, and take a walk through the forest. Our guide showed up with a land rover which seemed a bit of an overkill… exactly how rugged are the roads leading through the tea plantation, hmmn? Turns out the roads are really steep, really windy and really unpaved in some parts, so yay for landrovers! The guide was the best type of guide: friendly, hugely knowledgeable, and loved to talk about everything – ecosystems, politics in the region, future plans for the area.
He took us to the tea fields first. The Cameron Highlands is a comparatively small, and young, tea plantation area. It was first established in the early part of the 20th century, all the property is owned by one Scottish family. From afar the fields look like soft, undulating quilts of lime green. Up close you can see quite clearly that they are hard, scratchy bushes that would hurt if you attempted to snuggle into them. We learned all about the tea making process (surprisingly complicated for a product that is essentially, dried leaves), and our guide lamented the Malaysian habit of adding thick sweetened milk to tea, explaining that consequently the tea produced in Malaysia is of poor quality because thereally is no point in going to the trouble of making quality tea if you’require going to drown it in condensed milk. He seemed so vexed by this that I asked him what he drank for preference, expecting to hear that his favourite tea of choice was a Sri Lankan silver tip brew, crushed between the wings of virgin forest fairies…
…Coffee. He drinks coffee, never touches tea.
After a brief stop for a cuppa at the factory shop, well it would be rude not to, we went for a small trek into the mossy forest.
The mossy forest, or the cloud forest, is basically the upper levels of the rainforest.  In this cool, misty climate the animals and plants are smaller, less plentiful (don’t get me wrong it’s still pretty packed in there, just compared to the tropical rainforest there’s a noticeable difference), and the forest is blissfully quiet. Moss covers every ancient tree. The trees grow so slowly up here that you cannot count the rings in the trunk because they are so densely packed together. The ground is a spongy compost of decaying leaf matter and water soaked in from the clouds. It is this spongy compost which is providing most of the drinking water for the highlands (the majority of the rivers are too polluted to be a viable source of potable water), but since the 1990s 35% of the forest has been destroyed for construction, and there are plans for further deforestation.
Out of everything I’ve done in Malaysia so far this short walk is in my list of best things ever. It’s the kind of place you imagine in your head as a kid complete with little elves and luminous sprites. But if conservation isn’t given precedence over construction it will disappear.
To that end, at the time of writing, the mossy forest has been closed to the public. Visitors are leaving behind litter and ripping down moss and orchids from the trees, causing destruction that will take the forest years to heal. Authorities are now trying to figure out how to balance the stream of people, the destruction, and the need to embrace eco-tourism as a way of financing conservation.
Back to me though! The tour was only a few hours long, so in the afternoon I decided to do some more trekking through the jungle. The great thing about Tanah Rata’s location is that there are a dozen reasonably challenging, hiking paths that start in the town itself. There are two hikes that feature waterfalls, and after being informed by the hostel owner that robbers frequent one of those paths, I picked the other one and off I set.
You know what’s really fun when you’re out hiking? That moment when you realise your map is crap. You know that moment. It’s that moment when there are three paths in front of you, but only one is on the map. It’s that moment when you come to a clearing of an abandoned concrete camp ground that’s not marked on your crappy map, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out of it apart from walking upstream in a river. It’s the moment when you hear gun shots, and you really, really, really hope that the crappy cartographer, who made your crappy map, just forgot to put the military shooting range on there. You hope all this whilst keeping an ear out for people screaming in pain.
I found the waterfall (very nice, would have been nicer without the plastic bags and drink cans collecting in the pools), I also found the military barracks (see it was fine, they were soldiers having target practice, not bandits), and I found the incredibly steep rope path that left my knees burning for a few days. After that I found a lovely sign post that told me I was barely one third of my way along the loop. Ahhh… so not half way like I thought. Oh, and the sun will be setting soon. And there is a big red sign over there by the track saying DO NO GO INTO THE JUNGLE ALONE. And I am alone.
Right then, time to turn around and admire the reverse view of the path!


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