One of the wonders of Malaysia, it is the largest and most famous hill resort in the country. This highland paradise still retains much of the charm of an English village. Being a primarily agricultural domain, you will find an abundance of vegetables and fruits farms here. Cameron Highlands is also the leading producer of flowers and tea in Malaysia.
A few of my friends have mentioned that Cameron Highlands is the must see place in Malaysia, mostly famous for its tea plantations. Combined with the fact that it is located pretty remotely (about five hour drive from Kuala Lumpur) in a mountainous region, I was really looking forward to escaping the big city hustle and bustle after spending a week in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur to Cameron Highlands
There are a handful of companies operating 'VIP' bus service between Kuala Lumpur and Cameron Highlands and I have seen Unitity Express mentioned a lot while running some searches. Combined with the fact that they also had a bus from Cameron Highlands to Penang, my next stop, and I decided to go with them.
As I have already booked my ticket for 9am departure, I left Gabrielle's condo just after 7:30am. I was thinking about taking a bus to get to one of the subway stations and then take the subway to the bus station, but a couple of people told me that it would be easier and faster to take a taxi to try and dodge some of the suburb traffic in the morning. I underestimated how easy it would be to grab a cab in the morning - one after another kept passing already full with people. Finally, one dropped off a lady at the school across the road, so I was able to jump right in. The ride took what seemed like forever because of all the traffic. We got close to the bus station with about ten minutes to go and got stuck in a serious jam so I paid the driver (surprisingly, it was still only about 15 ringgits/$4.80) and walked the rest of the way. Inside, the 'Super VIP' bus was pretty comfortable, with three large seats per row that had quite a bit of recline. The color scheme was a bit funky and heavy on green, but I got used to it. The ride itself was not bad, stopping for 15 minutes for food/bathroom break about half way in. One thing I would do differently next time is selecting a seat away from the air conditioning duct. It looked like the first and the last couple of rows would of been fine, while the rest of the bus was getting frozen by the arctic air coming down from above. It was not too bad at first as it was still hot outside, but once we got to the mountains and the temperature dropped, I was glad to have the sweatshirt with me. Talking about mountains, we covered most of the distance by the time we stopped for a break, but it took us just as long for the rest of the trip as the road was very narrow, winding up the mountain, and the bus was probably going at 10-20 miles an hour.
Once we got to Tanah Rata, a van from the hostel I was staying was already waiting for me. It was a quick ride up the hill to Father's Guesthouse (my review) and a few minutes later I was checked into my dorm. There, I met two girls from Norway that have also just arrived. Stine and Solveig have been traveling around the world as well for the last three months, albeit in the opposite direction. As luck would have it, they have just arrived from KL as well, and were planning on going to Penang on Friday and then onto Phuket on the same days I was planning on traveling there myself.
We walked down to town to grab some food at Restaurant Bunga Suria - a cheap, but delicious Indian place, ranked as the Top Pick by LonelyPlanet. When we got back to the guest house, we decided to sign up for a day tour that combined all of the popular things to do in the area - hiking through the jungles, visiting a tea plantation and a strawberry farm, as well as the butterfly garden.
As the evening came, the weather got pretty chilly - it was a nice break from the scorching heat of the last few weeks and I had to dig out my jeans and sweat pants for the first time since I got to south east Asia. It was also the first time I have had a warm shower in the evening - an uncommon event around here as there is normally only cold water available with just a few places having water heaters installed.
The next morning we got picked up by an old shanty Land Cruiser that was dirty (inside and out) lacking any modern safety features and blasting Eminem on our way to the jungle. Our first activity was a hike into the forest to see Rafflesia flower, one of the largest in the world. After an hour drive and some hardcore off-roading to get half way up the hill, it was time for us to get out and get muddy. Everyone was a bit apprehensive at first about getting dirty, but after a while, there was no way around it and we all got very muddy (note to self - bringing white sneakers was a bad idea). The hike was pretty intense as we were getting dirty and sweaty, tracking through the jungle. At a few points, I saw what looked like tiger footprints in the mud, but was not sure if those were real of if someone was just messing around with us. Once we finally reached the flower, one of the local villagers told us that he did see a tiger nearby, so we quickly took some pictures and backtracked to our car.
At the bottom of the hill, we stopped by at one of the indigenous villages to try our hand (or, rather, mouth) at shooting a blow pipe and then walk around the 'village', which was really just a few huts next to a bunch of modern, but basic, houses that the government has been building for these people over the last few years. The place really did not have the indigenous vibe to it. Perhaps the most unusual thing we saw there was a monkey in a cage. It turns out they catch those monkeys and then feed them up before slaughtering them. Supposedly, they taste better than chicken.
Boh Tea Plantation
After driving back to town and getting some lunch, we headed up to Boh tea plantation. The drive would have been a scenic one - narrow roads wiggling their way through the hills covered with tea bushes, if it was not for the rain that started on our way back from Rafflesia hike and would not stop until the evening. At the plantation, we went on a quick tour to see how they make the tea and it looked very unimpressive - small, crammed facility with the original 1930s equipment and a very strong tea smell. After the tour, we walked through an exhibition providing more information about tea harvesting and the Boh plantation before getting a cup of tea and a scone at the cafeteria to enjoy on the back patio while overlooking the plantation.
A couple things that I found interesting/curious:
- Tea bushes are actually tea trees and, if not trimmed, can grow up to 20 feet high (we saw a few)/
- Workers get 20 cents/$0.06 per kilogram of picked tea leafs.
- For the reason above, most workers come from Laos and Cambodia to work at the plantations. They live there as well.
- They have some serious issues with math - one of the stands proclaimed that the 'old' way of tea picking 'by hand' would result in about 120 kilograms being collected. The new way of using a machine held by two workers results in 300 kilograms of tea per day and is 10 times more efficient. First, if two workers collect 300, it is not that much better than each one of them collecting 120. And it is definitely not 10 times more...
- I was disappointed that the tea served at the cafeteria was the lowest quality dust in tea packets (and not cheap either at over 2 ringgits a cup).
Personally, I could not care less for a visit to a strawberry farm. I have picked my strawberries before and did not think it was anything that special, but it is included with every tour so off we went. It still surprises me that it is such a big thing in the region as I always thought that strawberries need water (which they have plenty) as well as plenty of sunshine (of which there was none) and warm temperatures (which were not, especially at night). I did find it interesting how the farms were set up - instead of just planting strawberries in the ground, they had rows upon rows of strawberry plants stacked upon each other, elevated about the ground - it sure makes it a lot easier to pick and clean those berries. It was also amusing to see the CCTV warning signs as there was strictly no picking while visiting the few rows of strawberries open to the public.
Once we got back to the shop, it became apparent why they are so paranoid about people grabbing a few berries - they were selling the for something like 3 ringgits/$1 per half a dozen berries. What a ripoff! Instead, I grabbed some ice cream with fresh berries and it was delicious.
The Butterfly Garden was also one of the places I really did not care much for, especially since a few people that have been there told us it was pretty boring. I was pleasantly surprised though as we got to the insects portion there and our guide unlocked the display cases. We got to play with a huge Rhinoceros beetle and a bunch of other bugs. Finally, he grabbed a scorpion and played around with it before sticking it on my leg. Apparently, they are not aggressive and only sting if touched on the back or the head. Randomly, they also had some super-furry rabbits there, a large snake, and some frogs and toads. And, of course, the butterfly enclosure which had some pretty large butterflies but pretty much all of them were up in the corners on the ceiling.
The next day me and the girls decided to do some exploring on our own and started out by heading over to the Robinson Falls. It was a short hike as the falls are pretty close to town and for the entire way the trail was composed of concrete plates, alternating between red and white colors. While not being muddy, the smooth concrete presented different challenges while wet - it was very slick and I almost felt down in a couple places that were laid out at an angle. We reached the falls after about half an hour, and they were ok, but nothing too exciting. There was also a large tree that felt down and was stuck in the middle of the falls so even the pictures were not that great.
Cameron Bharat Tea Plantation
Instead of continuing on the trail beyond the falls, we walked back to town and headed over to another tea plantation in hopes of exploring it a bit more on our own. According to the map, it was about 10km south of Tanah Rata and there were no hiking trails to get there so we just had to walk on the side of the road. It was not too bad actually, as there was a decent shoulder area for the most of the way and it turned out that the plantation was only two kilometers away.
Once there, we were able walk down a couple of levels but then the hill got pretty steep and muddy so we could not get down farther without sliding in the mud. Instead, we walked around the hill for a bit looking for another way down but came up empty handed. It was still a really cool feeling being amongst all the tea bushes and looking over the whole plantation. After a bit, we walked up the hill back to the shop and got some (even more overpriced) tea before heading back to town.
The walk to the tea plantation was nice as it was all downhill. We paid for that on the way back, but since we were not in a hurry, it was still a nice hike. The weather managed to hold up almost until we reached the town and only then it started to downpour. Once back at the guest house, I spent quite a bit of time getting my shoes washed in and out as well as the clothes I used over the last couple of days. After that, it was time to relax and reflect on the last two days of adventures.
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