Malaysia – Cameron Highlands

Lush valleys. Strawberry fields. Rolling green hills. British-colonial-style hill stations. Tea plantations, tea, tea and more tea. Cameron Highlands, like Puncak in Indonesia, or Ella in Sri Lanka, is a wonderful, cool retreat from the chaos of the cities. Tranquil townships, cool air, and a wonderful array of attractions make Cameron Highlands a must-visit if you are in this part of the world. After a couple of weeks working in Panang and around, I needed a break. Vero and I got a taxi to the bus station on the Butterworth side of Penang, and, loaded up with snacks and drinks, we headed off for the 5-hour journey. Only it wasn’t 5 hours. We had unwittingly booked passage to Cameron Highlands on the same day as the Tour de Langkawi bicycle race, and vast areas of the narrow roads leading up into the hills were closed until the race had passed through.  Bloody cyclists! We learnt this as we approached Tanah Rata bus station, and we were told it would be at least 2 hours before we could carry on into the hills. Vero and I enquired about taxis from the bus station that might be able to somehow skirt around the race, but in the end we succumbed to our fate. Back on the bus. Waiting. Waiting. The bus finally set off again, and, as it climbed into the hills, the route became much more scenic. There was a huge convoy of vehicles crawling up the hills too, so we had plenty of time to enjoy the vistas. The traffic eventually ground to a halt. Vero and I, no longer able to cope with being cooped up on the coach, grabbed our bags and jumped off at a small market in the hills. We had some delicious corn on the cob, and sampled some mangosteens. From here we walked all the way into ‘town’, a lovely, scenic walk. It was cool and drizzly –perfect weather for a stroll. We passed the bus, still stuck in the maddening traffic, and we arrived in the town, Brinchang. I hadn’t booked a hotel, so we had a look at a few on the way, but they were largely soulless concrete blocks for tour groups, much like my hotel in Penang where I’d been living for the past 2 weeks. and Brinchang didn’t seem to have the charm I’d come here for. We wandered further, into the more relaxed and scenic Tanah Rata, skirting a golf course, and came across a quite splendid thing. Ye Olde Smokehouse is a colonial-era bungalow converted to a boutique hotel dating from the 1930s. It was as though an English country home, replete with English country garden full of flowers, wood fires, chimneys, dining room serving afternoon tea, and impeccably trained and formal butlers, had been transported from olde England to Malaysia, and not one thing had changed. Fantastic. Fortunately, they had rooms available, but not in the old wing, out in the more modern wing, which, judging by the smell of cat piss, was also popular with the hotel’s feline guests. We checked in anyway. The room had all the mod-cons, but we weren’t interested in that. We headed straight into the quaint glass teahouse for a spot of Earl Grey and a scone.   Heaven is a taste of home, and heaven is a place in the Cameron Highlands called Ye Olde Smokehouse. There was even an old red telephone box outside in case you wanted to call someone from back in time. Feeling satisfied with our stroke of luck, we headed out on a stroll that took us into a mossy wood, then we crossed a river and ended up at the back of the Century Pines resort in Tanah Rata. We had a drink, and then strolled into the small town, full of interesting boutique shops and places selling all kinds of food, but especially Indian food. Vero and I had a delicious murtabak, which, in the chilly night air, tasted much better than any murtabak I’d ever tasted in the oppressive heat and humidity of Singapore. We had a couple of Tiger beers, then enquired about tours around the area. We also booked a bus back to Penang for 2 days time. In the end, we opted against an organized tour, preferring to go it alone in the morning. We called at a small shop selling all kinds of fascinating things, and I came across a Burmese walking cane, with a little gold inscription saying: ‘Jefferey Smythe 1941.’ A good find. Everyone needs a good walking cane. We taxied back to the hotel and went to bed. We needed a proper start to the day. Day 2  We woke bright and early and had a light breakfast. Booked dinner for 2 that night at the Smokehouse restaurant. Got a taxi to take us up into the hills for a day of walking, exploring, strawberry picking and tea tasting. Cameron Highlands didn’t disappoint. Even the weather was charmingly authentic. Drizzle turned to rain which turned to drizzle again, the mist rolled on and off the hills. The taxi dropped us off and we were all alone. We walked for a while, taking in the sights, breathing in the mountain air, which I wanted to bottle and take back to Singapore with me. We came across a strawberry farm, and were given a guided picking tour by the gentleman working there. Vero and I each had a little red basket, and we walked up and down the strawberry aisles picking the ripe fruit, posing for cheesy pictures now and then for the benefit of the scrapbook, and for the guide to have reason to ask us for a tip.   Baskets full, the strawberries were weighed and we paid up. We decided to eat some of them there and then, and we asked the others be blended into strawberry juice. It was hammering down now, so we had no choice but to wait. When the rain subsided, we emerged from the strawberry farm, bursting to the brim with our strawberry feast. It was a long walk to the Sungei Palas Boh Tea Plantation, the ‘main event’ of our walk. Fortunately, a friendly group of young Malaysians stopped to give us a lift in their car as the rain began battering down once more. Their kindness will not be forgotten! Malaysians, generally, are a kind and helpful lot. We made it to the Boh Tea Plantation down and up a long, winding, narrow road that, from all sides, offered enchanting vistas. Boh was perched up much higher than the surrounding plantations, it’s status as Malaysia’s largest producer of premium black tea unquestioned. Boh has been around for ages, since before the time of Ye Olde Smokehouse even. It was founded in 1929 by British businessman J.A Russel.   Around the tea packing factory, the mini-museum and the tea-tasting rooms lies 8000 acres of land planted with tea. Vero and I had a scone and a cup of tea chosen from the wide range on offer, and enjoyed the panoramic views from the balcony of the teahouse. We then joined a short tour of the factory and learned about the 5 steps in tea-processing, Withering, Rolling, Fermentation, Drying, Sorting…..and when that is done one last essential part – Tasting. Tea is examined for colour, brightness and aroma. Not a bad job. Vero and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience – and it comes highly recommended. When the tour had finished we had no means of getting back to the town, so we asked a German tourist and his girlfriend if we could grab a ride with them as they had a hire taxi waiting for them. They let us jump in, and dropped us off at in Tanah Rata.  From here we got a taxi to the Heritage Hotel, another charming tudor-style relic, where we enjoyed a drink on the balcony which offered stunning views of the valley below. The taxi driver was waiting for us when we got back down, so we had easy passage back to the hotel. A great day.

Tonight we dressed smartly, for dinner was at Ye Olde Smokehouse. We were shown to the cosy lounge and had a glass of wine while our table was prepared. The ambience was lovely – very hushed, people speaking in whispers…no music. The sound of cutlery being used resounded like the crash of a cutlery drawer. The lighting was dulled. There were candles on the table. This was perfect. The roast chicken with fresh garden vegetables wasn’t bad either. After the meal, we retired to the bar, a proper old bar, wooden beams, bronze plates and old photo frames hung on the walls, old studded leather chairs that invited one to linger for hours, and sat by the log fire drinking wine while the bar man, impeccably mannered, regaled us with tales of British royalty and celebrity who have been to the Smokehouse. It was a great evening, and the perfect escape.  Cameron Highlands is wonderful, old-fashioned fun.

Author: Neil

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