Hello and “apa khabar?”- or “How are you?” in Malay. Are you ready to visit Cameron Highlands? I suspect you might be a little cold once you get here, so I hope you brought a sweater along. Jogging or running shoes would be helpful if you intend to walk on some of the famous jungle trails.
Before we start, let’s get to know the area.
Cameron Highlands is in the, well, highland area, about 121 kilometres east of Ipoh and about 214 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. It is situated in Malaysia’s largest peninsula state- the state of Pahang. Standing at 5,000 feet or 1,500 metres above sea level, it the highest area on the mainland. Cameron Highlands enjoys a rather cool climate compared to Kuala Lumpur, with temperatures of 25 °C but rarely falling below 12°C. It may not be very cold to some of you, but in hot and humid Malaysia, it is pretty cold.
So what’s the story behind Cameron Highlands?
The French writer Henri Fauconnier wonderfully described the tropics in Malaya when he wrote his best selling book, “The Soul of Malaya.” By the way, Malaya is the old name for Malaysia. In the book, he observed, “In Malaya, the seasons are hardly distinct. You do not die a little every year, as in Europe at the end of autumn. You cease to think of date or time.”
But the British who were in Malaya at the time found this to be highly monotonous and decided to survey areas where they could get away from the tropical heat. Thinking of forms of escape, they ended up heading to the cool mountains up here. This place was a great vacation spot, away from the hustle and bustle of city life and away from diseases such as malaria and dysentery.
Where did Cameron Highlands get its name? Well, thanks to one government surveyor named William Cameron who stumbled upon this the mountain range in all its mossy glory back in 1885. He described the newly found area as ‘a fine plateau with gentle slopes, shut in by lofty mountains’. If you think this is a little too over poetic, you’ll soon find it to be an understatement, but I’ll leave you to discover that.
So while William Cameron was the one who found this place- there was one tiny problem. William Cameron forgot where it was. So, the British administrator at that time, Sir Hugh Low, made a few expeditions after that and finally put Cameron Highlands on the map.
Cameron Highlands became a hit to those who got tired of Fraser’s Hill, a less popular highland area in Malaya at the time. Fraser’s Hill was considered too small, too cramped and it had unsuitable conditions for growing produce. This is good news to Cameron Highlands. The government at the time soon began to focus their interest here. After they cleared the forests, the tea planters came in droves to claim the land around Cameron Highlands for their plantations. Chinese farmers also arrived to plant their vegetables and produce. Shops began to spring up to cater to the needs of the new and growing community.
Alright. That’s the short history of Cameron Highlands.
Before we move on to the sights in and around Cameron Highlands, you should know that there are a few distinct towns in the area. After all, we’re talking about a very big area here. If you have visited Singapore, it is roughly two and a quarter times the size of Singapore.
And here are the towns:
Firstly, we have Brinchang (spell it out), which is the biggest town in Cameron Highlands. Here you can find several hotels, night markets, a military camp, banks and a commercial area. Further up is Tringkap (spell it out), the business centre of Cameron Highlands, which is well-known for its stalls and shops. Here, you can get vegetable, fruits and flowers that arrive daily and fresh from the farms. In fact, some traders from Kuala Lumpur actually travel all the way up here every day to bring some back to Kuala Lumpur, as the wholesale price here is ridiculously cheap! Look out for shops selling roses for as little as 3 Ringgit for 10 stalks and a whole bag of vegetables for 2 Ringgit. It’s definitely a steal at these prices. Next is Ringlet (spell it out), the very first stop if you come headed from Tapah, and is also famous for its vegetable farms. There’s also a flower farm too. Another big town in the area is Tanah Rata (spell it out). Similarly like Brinchang, it has become one of the major towns in Cameron Highlands where it hosts several hotels, parks and a commercial centre. For those of you who love your coffee and familiar brand logos, there’s even a Starbucks here! Next up is Bertam Valley (spell it out) that has yet another popular local vegetable farm, and an international flower farm which has flowers such as roses and chrysanthemums. And finally the Blue Valley, and it should be at the top of your itinerary, where the BOH Tea Plantation and the Blue Valley Plantation are.
You’re probably getting the drift now- there are a lot of vegetable and flower farms in Cameron Highlands. And of course, tea plantations.
OK now that you’re somewhat familiar with the names of the major towns here, let’s move along to some of the important and interesting attractions in Cameron Highlands. Before that, get acquainted with a young man by the name of John Archibald ‘Archie’ Russell. Russell arrived in Malaya in 1890 at the tender age of seven with his father. He had arrived here when Kuala Lumpur was just beginning to take shape as the country’s most important administrative centre. Russell grew up among a community of English tin miners and planters. At a young age, he found his niche in business and this saw him acquiring at least a third of Ipoh town.
However, it was in 1927 when he found his true calling to grow and sell premium quality tea. When he visited Cameron Highlands, he found the rolling hills and valleys with their adequate rainfall very ideal for tea planting. Soon, the first Boh plantation was established and today continues to serve more than 60 percent of the Malaysian tea market. It is the biggest local tea producer, covering a total of 8,000 acres of land in Palas, Farlie, Bukit Cheeding and Ringlet. Boh gets its distinctive name from Bohlia, the origin of the tea that comes from the Szechuan province of China.
You can get to the plantation’s Sungai Palas estate, which can be found north of Brinchang. Signboards can be seen on the way, so it is not difficult to find it. There you can sit down and have a nice cup of tea with scones and strawberry jam, while looking out to the magnificent tea plantation. It’s really a wonderful experience. Just ask for the Sungai Palas Plantation. Most people will know where it is.
While you are here, do check out the free tour that takes visitors around the factory. Guides will show you the various stages of tea production. There you will see some of the machines that are still in pristine conditions, despite being from the 1930s. Even some of the actual tea bushes from then are still around as they can be harvested for as long as a hundred years before they are finally chopped off.
After the tour, feel free to walk around the plantation or head off to the plantation’s tea shop. Here you can buy some of Malaysia’s best teas. The Boh business is still kept in the family.
That’s all for the tea plantation and I hope you will have a great time there sipping tea like the British did.
The next place on the tour is the old Lakehouse in Ringlet, built by one Colonel Stanley Jack Forster. The Colonel joined the British Army when he was but a young lad, with a taste for adventure in the Far East. While most servicemen left the tropics for good after they had served their time in Malaya, the Colonel stayed back after the war. Perhaps it was his way of saying that he wanted adventure till the very end of his life.
The Colonel would carry a cane or whip with which he used to chase the locals away when they came into his property. This of course didn’t extend to his choice of partners, which according to local gossip, were the very locals he used to chase away! Strange man. Though a little eccentric, he is widely remembered for building the Lakehouse, which he, with great pride, built his dream bed and breakfast. His plans to build this model motel brought him to Kuala Lumpur where he would salvage roof tiles from an old, rundown hospital. The Colonel even went as far as to design some of the woodwork items in his dream motel. These include a few chairs as well as the chandelier in the foyer.
There was another odd thing about the old Colonel. He would screen his guests to see if he liked them or not. If they were found ‘suitable’ as a guest, then any request however absurd would be entertained. But if found ‘unsuitable’, not even large sums of money would convince the Colonel to let out a room!
The Colonel eventually passed away in 1984. The HPL Hotels and Resorts now owns his dream motel, so don’t worry if you will pass the Colonel’s inspection. Most of the hotel has been left as the Colonel intended it to be. It continues to sit on a hill looking very much like the cozy cottage that was in the Colonel’s mind. The Lakehouse is an important part of Cameron Highland’s history as it remains as one of the few colonial houses in Malaysia that actually cater to the public. Stepping into its foyer brings the feeling of Old England. I hope you will have a chance to stay at this hotel. However, I must warn you- it does come with a fairly big price tag.
Another historic building is Bala’s Holiday Chalet. Bala’s Holiday Chalet used to be a school for children of expats. The stories of Bala’s Chalet have one permanent and important fixture, Miss Anne Laugharne Phillips Griffith- Jones. Miss Griff as she was fondly known, came to visit her brother in Singapore. She enjoyed Singapore so much that she decided to stay on after the end of her initial three-month tour. She began helping her brother O.P’s sister in law run a school that served the expatriate community in Singapore, and later opened her own Tanglin Day School. While not trained in the profession, she made it her vocation not only to teach, but to take on the responsibility for providing the best education for young ladies living in colonial Malaya and Singapore. Eventually, at her brother’s suggestion, she opened another branch right here in Cameron Highlands. Then, Cameron Highlands was just beginning to develop and soon developed a reputation for being the place to go to for excessive drinking and female company.
The Second World War broke out and reinforcements were sent to Malaya to protect the Crown’s stakes. Young army officers would often visit the highlands for the weekend. A little too often. The initial reason was that the highlands were a welcome respite from the sweltering heat. But it soon became apparent that it was Miss Griff’s young female students that were the source of attraction. So much for the heat.
During the Japanese occupation, much of this came to an end as Miss Griff was tossed into the infamous Changi prison. Eventually she was released, and continued to teach students right after the war.
The owners of Bala’s chalets have retained much of the original structure with very little changes, and it remains one of the best places to stay in Cameron Highlands. It continues to serve tea and scones like Miss Griff used to for her girls.
But the most interesting tale about Cameron Highlands is that of Jim Thompson. You can still hear the people of Cameron Highlands talk about it even until today. This story takes place at the Moonlight villa, which is on the way from the Strawberry Park Farm and the Lutheran Mission Bungalow. Thompson was an American architect and previously a member of the CIA. He was the one who helped revitalize Thailand’s silk business and for that, he was called the ‘Thai Silk King.’
On Easter Sunday on March 26th, 1967, Thompson went for a pre-dinner walk as he always did. But on that fateful day, he was never to be seen again.
Locals and search parties and even local shamans were enlisted to find Thompson. But oddly, despite enlisting even the most experienced trekkers from nearby tribal villages, there was just no sign of the man. Not a single article or clothing, or shoe, or remains were ever found. He simply vanished into thin air. Rumours of course ran wild and some believed he was kidnapped or dragged off by a tiger. Some said that he planned his own disappearance. Others say he was kidnapped for his previous involvement in spying activities. And the most interesting one- he fell into an aborigine animal trap that is basically a pit with spikes, and the aborigines buried his body when they discovered what happened. This mysterious disappearance even inspired several books to be written about it, speculating on why and how he vanished. There has also been rumours that he has been sighted a couple of times after his death.
While Cameron Highlands is not a food haven, the one thing you must try is the steamboat. It is a soup dish with noodles, seafood and an assortment of ingredients. You have a hot pot of boiling soup and you just put in whatever ingredient you like and there you have it- a hot, soupy meal in the cool highlands. Steamboat is very popular with locals and tourists alike and I would strongly recommend trying it.
I don’t think you’ll be doing a lot of grocery shopping here but if you’re looking for herbs, honey and rare potted plants, you can get some from the orang asli or indigenous people who live in the jungles nearby. You will also find various stalls and shops selling flowers, vegetables and fruits. Do walk around and enjoy some strawberries, or buy yourself some fragrant and beautiful flowers! Also, if you’re looking for fresh honey, you will find them easily. There are also some shops selling beautiful handcrafts made by the indigenous people.
One of the best things to do here at Cameron Highlands is trail walking. Really, it’s one of the most enjoyable things to do here.
Here are a few trails you can consider. Before you start, these are items you should bring with you – a light sweater, a raincoat in case of rain, binoculars for bird watching, perhaps a small first aid kit and sensible trekking shoes that maintain their grip on wet ground. This is important because the ground tends to be wet in the highlands, due to the mist.
The locals used these trails back in those days and they are now preserved for the tourist and avid trekker. You should attempt these trails in the morning, just to be safe as it gets dark quite early here and losing your way is not a rare occurrence. At a few trails you can actually hire guides. As always, inform the hotel staff and the police and friends when you embark on a trek. If you do get lost, the local police will seek help from the aborigines since they know the roads well. However, you must take strong safety measures. You don’t want to end up like poor Jim Thompson. Although, you can take one of his favourite Trail which is Trail Number 4.
Trekking in Cameron Highlands is one of the most inspiring experiences. Because it is located on the spine of the Titiwangsa Range, it offers you some of the most exotic flora and fauna.
Let’s start at with the trails. They are numbered 1 to 9.
Trail 1 leads up to Mount Brinchang at over 2000 metres. It is rarely used because it is really difficult, so if you are new to trekking, then I don’t recommend this. Even experienced trekkers have gotten lost in this trail. However, if you have a guide, I’d strongly recommend it. The peak of Mount Brinchang boasts a spectacular view of the surrounding rolling hills on a clear day. Towards the peak itself, the middle of the trail passes through the fairy-like mossy forest, and due to its structure and appearance, is sometimes referred to as the elfin or dwarf forest.
Trail 2 starts from the back of Sam Poh Buddhist temple. It is yet another difficult trek with plenty of rolling path and three steep descends. Trail 2 joins with Trail 3.
Trail 3 begins from Arcadia Cottage. This trail is easy, but it meets with Trail 2 and from here, it can get quite challenging. It leads you up to Mount Berembun at 1,800 metres. Mount Berembun means Misty Mountain. If it gets too tough, you can branch off at Trail 5 but you will miss going up to Mount Berembun. However, if you continue at Trail 3, you’ll eventually meet Trail 7 and Trail 8. Estimate about 4 hours for the complete trek. And once you reach the top, you will be rewarded with the view of Tanah Rata.
Trail 4 is one of the more popular trails as it is easy and will lead to the Parit Waterfall. It will take around 30 minutes and has a good picnic spot. Start from either the forest department or behind the Garden Inn Hotel. This is one of Jim Thompson’s favourite trails, and I’d recommend it to you.
Trail 5 begins from MARDI, or the Malaysian Agriculture Research and Development Institute. It is an easy trail through the woodlands and joins with Trail 3.
Trail 7 also begins from MARDI, but this time it goes straight to Mount Berembun. This one is very difficult and challenging.
Trail 8 is another way to get to Mount Berembun and it meets Trail 9, which comes from Robinson Waterfall.
Trail 9 or Trail 9A is also known as the Robinson Waterfall trail. This one is very popular and starts from the Robinson power station and ends at Tanah Rata. For 9A, it’s actually a detour that takes you to the BOH estate, and this is less steep compared to if you continue on Trail 9. When you are nearing the waterfalls, you will hear the sound of gushing water. It will take about one hour.
There are other trails as well, and you can always ask the hotel staff for some recommendation. I hope you will try at least one trail. You will be well rewarded with some of the most spectacular views. You might also spot a few exotic animals and plants like the white coral rock, wild orchids, mossy forest trees, the shy banded-leaf monkeys, wild lizards, birds, snakes, insects and many other jungle creatures.
A must see at Cameron Highlands is the Rafflesia, a parasitic plant indigenous to the region. The Rafflesia is said to be the largest flower in the world. Even the smallest can weigh around 10 kilogrammes. It looks and smells like rotting flesh, and locals call them ‘corpse flower’. The Rafflesia is definitely a must see. Ask for a tour, as you will not be able to find it on your own.
If you are not interested in physical activity, Cameron Highlands is a wonderful place for you to just get away from the city for a day or two. Bring some board games, a thick novel, and just laze around, soaking in the lovely mountain air that the British loved so much!
Well, this is the end of the guide for Cameron Highlands. I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself with stories of Cameron Highlands, and that you will have a great time walking the nature trails, shopping for fresh flowers and honey, and trying the steamboat.
Until the next time, Selamat Tinggal or goodbye!