Rediscovering Cameron Highlands

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British-born William Cameron is my new hero. A surveyor may not seem like an extraordinary role in life, but as I wound bend after bend, with dense jungle climbing steeply away from the tarmac, on the stomach-churning road to the Cameron Highlands, I spared a moment to remember the man who slashed a path through this undergrowth for the sake of a map, and thus discovered an area that has been enchanting visitors for nearly 130 years.

Like many expats, I had made a visit to the area early in my relationship with Malaysia and thus felt I had ticked that box for life. But that was fifteen years ago, and when a pal suggested a return trip, I couldn’t think of a good reason for having shunned the place for so long, so off we went.


The 712-sq km area that is known as the Cameron Highlands is Malaysia’s highest road-accessible point, and the gaggle of small townships that cater to the residents and the steady stream of tourists all sit at least 1,200m above sea level. Thanks to this lofty location, temperatures rarely rise above 25 degrees Celsius, and the humidity dips in a similar way, offering lungfuls of fresh air to those who can still remember how to wind down the windows of the car.

The 25,000 residents occupying the towns are a range of ethnicities, while the hills are dotted with orang asli villages, and many a roadside bears the simple wooden structure that serves as a stall selling local wares such as honey, fruits, and vegetables. The orang asli were here long before Cameron came charging up with his map, and they remain an integral part of their area. The main orang asli villages lie deep in the countryside, and tourists who seek something more authentic than another round of overpriced tea and scones can hire and guide and trek into the forests to meet these original dwellers, while their distinctive facial features can be spotted behind the honey stalls at the market.


The orang asli may have the older claim to the land, but the most influential footprint is that of the colonialists. “Cameron’s land,” as it was known after the mapmaking adventurer unearthed it, was earmarked for a health resort as early as the late 1800s, but it was 1925 by the time Sir George Maxwell began the labourious process of creating a road to connect these “gentle slopes” and “plateau land” (as Cameron noted during his explorations) to the lower-level civilisation.

As soon as the area was habitable, people swarmed up. The cooler temperatures and the rolling, fertile landscapes were a serious draw to locals and expats, and by the mid-1930s the hill station was blossoming. Vegetable and tea planters were thrilled by the soil quality eagerly took to the land, while foreigners were flocking up to take in a round of golf or chill in one of the three guesthouses that served as a palliative for their homesickness by delivering a slice of British comfort in the form of Tudor-style structures, hearty home-cooked meals, and a refreshing breeze.


For many, the enchantment of Cameron Highlands is still to be found in the colonial detritus, and tourists from all over the world delight in the chance to experience the comfortable lifestyle of the early Brits. The cottages that housed the first British settlers remain charmingly intact, and I confess to being pleasantly befuddled when I stepped through the old wooden door of Ye Olde Smokehouse to see a roaring fire was burning in the panelled bar, while the chintzy chairs offered a perch from which to admire the flowers in the cottage garden. If it hadn’t been for the teh tarik on the menu of this restaurant-cum-hotel, I would have sworn I had slipped through a rabbit hole back to my homeland.

Accommodation and food at the collection of colonial-era buildings – Bala’s Chalet and the Lakehouse are two others that tugged on my homesickness strings – may be pricey, but the atmospheres within are rare and fascinating, as are the stories of the men and women who built them. Colonel Foster used to chase Asians away from his Lakehouse with a whip, while Miss Griff ran her boarding school from Bala’s Chalet until she was carted off to a prisoner of war camp by the Japanese during Second World War.


The other staple of a Cameron Highlands trip is the stop at a tea plantation, and while part of me cringes when dutifully following the tourist trail, I took the painful plunge. The Highlands, once again, showed me my neglect had been foolish. The Sungai Palas Boh Tea Plantation is one of three in the area owned and managed by Malaysia’s premier tea label, and I was impressed to find that “uumph” promised in the Boh blend extended to the visitors centre.


The old factory – which has occupied the site since 1935 – still produces 600,000kg of tea per year, and after peering through the glass at the tea production, visitors can scuttle back into the excellent tea centre where a brief history of Boh and the British gentlemen who takes credit (J.A. Russell) can be ingested before retiring for tea and scones in the café, fighting for a table on the terrace that juts out dizzyingly over the carpet-like valley below.

Strawberries are another cliché part of the Highlands experience, and my scepticism took root once I realised that strawberry farms sat on every bend in the road, coating the landscape with white tents, and proprietors charged inflated prices to visitors eager for “self-plucking.” In the spirit of second chances, I swallowed my cynicism, paid my dues, and entered one such farm. Within minutes, the simple pleasure of scuttling down the neat rows, hands gentle teasing fat, juicy strawberries from their stems, melted my hard heart.


As I had feared when the Cameron Highlands trip was mooted, this hill station is now firmly stamped with the tourist boot, and parts of the hillside are starting to look alarmingly like downtown KL. That said, my trip reminded me that, despite the large hotels, the belching of petrol from the creaking coaches, and the horrendous strawberry earmuffs, a trip to the Highlands still offers a rare and beautiful environment for a taste of a different world and a chance to reconnect with an important aspect of Malaysia’s history and heritage.

The cooling breeze, the rolling emerald hills, the waft of brewing tea, the freshness of strawberry jam, and the story-book houses that could have been plucked from rural England are as tantalisingly wonderful today as they must have been to foreigners all those years ago. I was glad I had given it a second chance, if only to pay my adventurous, map-making Mr Cameron the respect his discovery deserves.


Source: The Expat November 2012

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