Travel

What is the Cameron Highlands Experience?

Tony Cope goes in search of the Cameron Highlands experience – and finds quirky hotels, strawberry teas, and the peace and quiet of cool air and nature.

For some reason, I had heard about the magic and beauty of Cameron Highlands before I moved to Penang in the middle of 2012. When my son Mitchell visited a few months later, this was the perfect excuse to pay a visit.

Discovering Cameron Highlands in a Land Rover

I must admit part of the attraction is that we are both Land Rover enthusiasts and due to a favourable licencing scheme set up in the 1950s for the planters, Land Rovers are cheaper to register providing they are only used for agricultural purposes, as long as they stay within the Cameron Highlands and “CH” is painted on the front doors.

So we booked into the Heritage Hotel and after driving south on the NSE past the magnificent karst mountains near Ipoh we started the climb up to the Highlands. After the heat and humidity of the coastal region, it was a real pleasure to switch off the airconditioning halfway up and enjoy the cool air coming in through the open windows.

As soon as we took the turn to the first village we were not disappointed seeing many decrepit Land Rovers of all vintages creaking around the place. At the Heritage Hotel we were given a room on a high floor with magnificent views over the valleys covered with tea plantations – and I noted the room had neither heating nor cooling – the temperature varies between 18 and 24°C with low humidity all year round – an absolutely perfect climate.

Strawberry Farms and Time Tunnels

On that first visit, we explored a number of strawberry farms and discovered two attractions that have become firm favourites on return visits. The first is the Time Tunnel, which is a quirky museum on the road just outside Brinchang, and the second is Bala’s Chalet guesthouse nearby on the road to Tanah Rata.

The Time Tunnel is underneath a collection of tourist shops and for RM5 it is both educational (about the formation of Malaysia and the history of the Cameron Highlands) and full of memorabilia – well worth a 45-minute perusal. Afterwards you can enjoy tea in one of the shops above.

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A Hill Lodge fit for Royalty

The other discovery was so typical of what I have found in Malaysia – let’s explore this track and see what is there. At the end of a steep rough driveway we found Bala’s Chalet. It was built in 1934 in mock Tudor style as a hill station extension of the Tanglin school in Singapore so that the girls could take in the air of the Highlands. The headmistress was a Miss Griffith – Jones who was clearly well loved, and about 30 years ago the school was bought and turned into what it is today. The joint owner is Balakrishnan who is an anglophile and is very proud of all the rooms being named after European royalty, the pictures of royal tours on the walls, the Devonshire teas in the gardens, and the British India restaurant with its crackling log fire. I have now booked many of my visitors to stay there and have stayed there numerous times since. If you like quaint rooms, creaking floorboards, an ambience of times gone by, and the slightly quirky overtones of the classic British series, “Faulty Towers”, then this is the place for you.

Another attraction for me is to take the narrow and twisty road just opposite the newly renamed Copthorne Hotel (previously Equatorial) to the highest mountain in the Cameron Highlands, Gunung Brinchang. While you cannot get to the exact peak owing to fenced-off transmission towers, the lookout nearby has magnifi cent views – but there is a risk it could be cloudy. Also on this road in the BOH Plantation Teahouse at Sungai Palas– a striking stone, steel and glass structure jutting out from a hillside – tours, teas and light lunches are on offer here.

I have not visited the very traditional English-style upmarket boutique hotels such as The Smokehouse and The Lakehouse but that pleasure can await future visits – they could well be straight out of the Lake District of England.

Getting there and lazing about

There are two routes up to the Cameron Highlands from the North South Expressway. The new road is the closest and quickest from Penang, and it’s accessible just south of Ipoh. The older road is much more scenic but seriously twisty and you pick it up at Tapah near KL. On this road is the Lata Iskandar waterfall, which is worth a quick stop.

There is so much to do in the Cameron Highlands with all the strawberry farms, tea plantations, markets selling a huge range of fresh vegetables, and the unusual souvenirs of large soft toy strawberries – and a multitude of restaurants catering to all tastes.

But part of the pleasure of the Cameron Highlands (which is one of the most extensive hill resorts in Malaysia) is that you can go there and do nothing other than lazing around, catching up on your reading while taking in the cool mountain air and a Devonshire tea or two. If you have not been – go soon!

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Cameron: The History of a Hill Station

 

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Before the advent of air conditioning, hill stations were a necessary part of colonial life – places where Europeans could get some respite from the merciless tropical heat. The Cameron Highlands got its name from Sir William Cameron, who found it while mapping out the Pahang Perak border in 1885, noting that he saw “a sort of vortex on the mountains, while [there are also] gentle slopes and plateau land.”

But the development of the Cameron Highlands didn’t really get going until the 1920s when a road was constructed. As most of it is the perfect elevation for growing tea (so necessary to the British way of life), some of the land was terraced into tea plantations. Hotels and rest houses were constructed so as to afford the colonists some time to recuperate from the heat in the cooler air.

Today the Cameron Highlands grows flowers and vegetables, as well as tea. It’s a great magnet for tourism, especially for those who want to step back in time or enjoy walking and hiking. Activities include visiting tea plantations, to see how tea is grown and processed, tastings at strawberry farms, an even a visit to Chinese temple dedicated to a eunuch.

One of the Cameron Highlands great claims to fame is that it is the site of the disappearance of Jim Thompson, the famous American expat who revitalised the Thai silk industry in the 1950s and ’60s. Staying with friends at the picturesque black and white mock Tudor Moonlight Bungalow, he went for a walk on Easter Sunday in 1967 and never returned. Was he murdered and buried in the jungle, did he fall into a ravine, or perhaps, was he even eaten by a tiger? Like the Marie Celeste, the Jim Thompson mystery will probably never be solved.

Homepage Highlight Photo credit: Nicolas Fleury / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Source: Penang International April/May 2014

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