Malaysia’s lesser known highlights: Cameron Highlands

Our second trip to Malaysia included returns to Kuala Lumpur and Penang, while adding on the perhaps lesser known Cameron Highlands and Tioman Island to our collection of experiences. They are places at the opposite ends of multiple scales: one featuring tea plantations and a cool climate, the other a chillaxed tropical island far removed from the mainland pulse.

What was definitely true of our time in Malaysia is that the pace slowed considerably as we started to gear ourselves up, both mentally but also in starting to make real plans, for our return to New Zealand. Thus, four stops in three weeks felt like a good pace to set. So much has been written about the enjoyable albeit slightly chaotic capital KL, and the wondrous historic, culinary jewel of Penang. I thought it would be more interesting to focus on our treks to lesser known locales.

After a wonderfully social six nights in Penang, reacquainting ourselves with its history-rich streets and making new friends, we headed up to the centre of tea production in Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands. In an ‘only on the road’ kinda story, we walked into our hostel and right into the Germans we had meet in Georgetown. So we extended the social vibes for a couple more nights…

It’s pretty much mandatory to do some kind of tour while in town, and there are many options for different combinations of the area’s many different attractions: tea plantations, strawberry farms, look out points, an ancient mossy forest, and so on. We lucked out and scored a knowledgeable, friendly, and very funny Punjabi guide (self-described, interestingly, but actually second generation Malaysian-born).

Coming from a country with both strawberries and plenty of forests, and having done tea in India, and seen it again in Sri Lanka, the tour was really just a ‘something to do’ choice, but I’m really glad we did. Nick brought the area alive, explaining the history of tea in the region, as well as offering a lot of additional hot-takes and commentary about Malaysia for free!

John Russell, son of a British administrative officer, brought tea to the area in the 1920s, when he bought a large tract of land and established the still functioning Boh plantation, now run by his granddaughter. From this time, it became a popular summer retreat for British elite types, and is now even more popular among local tourists – for the same reasons – as well as Japanese retirees (remembering that Japan occupied Malaya during the final four years of WWII).

You never see the Japanese retirees, they keep to themselves; by contrast locals were everywhere, especially as it was an end-of-Ramadan new year holiday weekend when we were in town!

The original South Indian labourers have largely left tea now, moving into other business and agricultural interests, and some have done very well. Sadly, they have been replaced by cheaper new migrants from Bangladesh. Our jolly guesthouse owner, the (grand)daughter of one of those original migrants, laughed when she told us that the Chinese tourists have not discovered Cameron yet, as there are no shopping malls here!

Aside from tours, the Highlands are known as a walker’s delight, offering a large number of tracks and treks, of varying length and difficulty, for visitors to undertake (or not) at will.

On our first day, we hiked up to the top of track number ten, offering us views back down and across the Highlands. Interestingly, we were met outside of our hostel by a local dog, who started following us, and seemingly knowing exactly where we were going, proceeded to lead us all the way to the top of the track.

We decided that that’s what local dogs do, and there were a number about: play tour guide for tourists, get in their daily exercise, and nine times out of ten, get fed as a reward. Unfortunately, we literally didn’t have anything edible with us, although had decided we’d find something to feed him once we got back down. Clearly he wasn’t prepared to wait that long, and ditched us at the top for another couple that’d come along. Charming!

On our last day we took the opposite approach, walking down track nine to find a waterfall – fairly lame – and continuing down towards a reservoir and power station. We didn’t quite realise how much down was involved, and were at the point of deciding whether to continue (whether our knees could handle it) when the heavens literally opened and, within minutes, we were soaked through. So it ended up being a jungle trek scramble back to the top. The waterfall was at least a little more interesting on the return!

We also ate a lot of curry. A lot. It was cold.

If the Highlands were cold and jam-packed with local tourists (see what I did there), then Tioman Island was the polar opposite: summer daze, stunning, and largely empty.

To be continued…

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