We’re not sure whether it was the promise of a cool climate or the sprawling tea plantations amidst dramatic forest landscapes that really drew us to The Cameron Highlands, but we were very eager to get there. So after tearing ourselves away from the Melaka’s ample charms, we once again took on KL’s bus stations and wound up on a swashbuckling bus ride into the mountains. After more than a few hair-raising moments (apparently keeping the hooter blaring whilst you steer a 60seater bus into hairpin bends at break-neck speeds is perfectly sufficient warning for all oncoming motorists to clear the way) on the amazingly scenic, but serpentine pass, we arrived in Tanah Rata relieved, and maybe just a little green in the face
But all memories of the bus ride were eradicated as soon as we stepped off it, and were welcomed by a strange sensation: cold. The Highlands air was crisp, and the wind was just chilled enough to inspire a mild dusting of goose-bumps. It was a delicious novelty after the heat, humidity and relentless mugginess of the past month. Tanah Ratah, itself, is a rather unremarkable town, littered with severe looking block-ish buildings, all heavily beset with a creeping black mould. Luckily, our accommodation (Twin Pines) was a little more appealing, being only one storey and set back off the road in a lush garden.
Now, just a small bit of personal info is necessary here; Joff drinks copious amounts of tea. None of the herbal, fruit-infusion or spice variations, just a good ol’ cuppa of Joko, preferably with some cheap chocolate biscuits. Since arriving in South East Asia, he has not been able to get a ‘decent’ cup of tea anywhere, a fact that he bemoans at least once a day. Hence, the first thing on our agenda was to get to one of the Highlands’ numerous famed plantations so he could his fix. We were advised that it would be too wet and muddy to do the forest trail that led to the plantation we had in mind, taxis were extortionately expensive, and waiting for the one and only public bus could have taken over an hour, so our last option was just to walk the 11kms down the main road. About five minutes in, Joff stuck out a cheeky thumb, and within seconds a gentleman pulled over and offered us a ride as far as the turn off (from which it would only be a 2km walk).
No sooner than we jumped out of the friendly guy’s car, the rain started, so we pulled out our dorky disposable plastic raincoats and trudged on, thinking of how satisfying our rewards would be. But it wasn’t to be. With less than 1km to go, we bumped into another couple on their way back from the plantation, who reported that is was closed on Mondays. This meant we could go and look at the tea, but we could not actually drink any. A little more than disappointed, we turned around and braced ourselves for the 9 or so kilometres of uphill that we had just cruised down in a warm, dry Chrysler. As if on cue, the moment we turned back onto the main road, the drizzle turned into proper rain, and promptly washed the magic out of Joff’s cheeky thumb. For some reason, people are not that willing to pick up wet, sweaty tourists in dorky plastic ponchos.
Don’t get us wrong, the road is beautiful, and we were always surrounded by green canopies and undulating hills, but there’s just something about trekking up a tarred highway in the rain, trying to avoid the exhaust fumes of the logging truck that has just nearly nearly run you over, that puts a damper on a good view. And then we saw the sign, promising freshly brewed Highlands Tea only 5kms up the road, which kick-started the torturous process of counting down the kilometres, sign by sign, during which time the steady rain turned into a torrential downpour. For a while we sought cover in the forest, and Joff even considered crawling into a cement building cylinder, but we eventually decided that since we couldn’t possibly get any wetter, we may as well keep on until we could be totally drenched, but with the bonus of having those elusive cups of steaming tea in our hands. We actually ran the last kilometre, and then stood outside the tea-house for a good ten minutes, trying vainly to get ourselves halfway decent (dry) enough to walk in.
I don’t think a single cup of tea has ever felt that well-earned. We sat back, clutching our warm glasses, drinking in the delicious contents (as well as the view) whilst savouring our enormously decadent piece of chocolate cake (the closest thing to cheap biscuits available), and we didn’t think twice about calling a taxi for the rest of the trip back to Tanah Rata.
Since our misadventures the previous day had seen us spend a large amount of time and energy attempting to ‘do it ourselves’ with very little success, we just caved in and signed ourselves up for a whistle-stop tour on the Tuesday. This included a lucky packet mix of sights, namely; a Buddhist temple, a bee farm, a vegetable market, a strawberry farm, a butterfly/insect farm, a cactus/flower farm, and most importantly, a tea plantation. We got some good views from the flower/cactus farm, and there were some seriously beautiful (and creepy) specimens at the butterfly farm, but we always thought that the plantation would be the highlight, and it certainly did not disappoint. The BOH Tea label is one of the biggest brands in Malaysia. They harvest the equivalent of 80 000 cups of tea every day, and every leaf is hand-picked. Once again, we found ourselves enjoying two steaming cups of BOH’s finest while looking out over their vast rolling plantations and tucking into blueberry scones and chocolate brownies; happy as could be.
On our final day in the Highlands, we were determined to do one of the forest hikes, and luckily woke up to clear, sunny skies and reasonably dry ground. We set off on trail ’10’, hoping to join with ’12’ on the way back — that way we could summit the two highest peaks in the area, whilst getting a decent amount of time in the forest. Forest we got, as the first hour or two we found ourselves navigating through landscapes that must have inspired the likes of James Cameron and Tim Burton. But, as a result of what seemed to be our Cameron Highlands curse, we took a wrong turn and the peaks eluded us. We eventually popped out of the forest at a power station, where one very excitable and obviously lonely man kept us chatting for ages before pointing us in the right direction back to town. At least we avoided the rain this time, as just as we sat down for our afternoon tea, it started up outside again. That night we savoured our last chilly evening, and tried not to think about how we were going to kick the 4pm tea and cake habit we’d seemed to have picked up. But, considering that our next stop was Georgetown, a place that is legendary for one thing in particular – fantastic food – this should never have been a concern.