“Cameron Highlands” is the most recommended destination on the lips of the busy people of Kuala Lumpur as well as the favorite weekend getaway for the more chilled citizens of artsy Penang. Here, the local tourists come to experience spring, at an average temperature of 20 degrees, but also to balance their dusty buzzing city life with the country side of the ever green rolling hills, the birth land of strawberries, flower farms, and famous tea estates.
The place was discovered during British occupation in 1885 and inspired the Brits to develop the area into orchards, tea plantations, nurseries, as well as resorts, golf courses and other touristic attractions. Here the visitor gets the chance to see Rafflesia, the biggest flower in the world, while in season, and also to meet the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of the area.
Tanah Rata: the modern Malay approach on British legacy
We arrived in Tanah Rata, the administrative center of Cameron Highlands at a pleasant altitude of over 1400m. In order to match the cool weather and highlight its British heritage, this hill resort is packed with new hotels attempting to mix traditional British architecture features with modern practicalities, as well as 60 years old colonial buildings as a result of the 2 centuries long British occupation. Many stands can be found along the road with local products like honey, strawberries or the almighty spiky Durian fruit. This scenic resort creates an interesting cosy atmosphere when the sun shines high, and mixed feelings at times when the gray clouds take over.
It was few days before Hari Raya Haji national holiday, a celebration that marks the completion of the Hajj pilgrimage at Mecca and commemorates the test of faith Ibrahim had to take on God's command in the old times.
With this important Muslim celebration just days ahead of us, the area was flocked with local tourists, almost everything was fully booked and the rhythm was slowed down by the traffic jam. Lucky us, we had a nice quiet place to rest, away from the crowd.
A homelike spot surrounded by woods: D'Native Guest House
We stayed in a simple mansard nicely organized for guests, in an old colonial building from the '50s named D'Native Guesthouse. The best part about this place was the location. It was surrounded by forest on a hill, far enough from the noise of Tanah Rata but close enough to walk to the city. We were very lucky to escape the crowd in a very busy weekend which happened to be the Hari Raya Haji, National Holiday, and have a "homey" atmosphere to relax in the evenings after hiking and sightseeing. On the property there were also bamboo huts for guests, paying respect to the Malaysian original tribes through their names, which was nice.
It was a friendly atmosphere both inside the mansion and outside in the big yard animated by guests cooking at the bar's kitchen and barbecue pit, others sharing fire juggling skills and songs plus some sweet naughty puppies playing between themselves until exhaustion. The owner, Krish, made every night a bonfire and once he even cooked for all of his guests vegetarian food and invited everyone to gather for dinner around the fire, just like a big family. I was surprised to meet so many laid-back long term nomads, from far away places, sharing crazy stories from their travels and their open plans for the future. This cozy place with its warmhearted people had a peaceful vibe about it.
Submerged in the jungle. Our fist visit to the Tea Factory
(Be aware of trek path no. 9A!)
After a cozy night in D'Native Guest House, recovering our energy lost from the previous long hitchhiking rainy day, we headed south of Tanah Rata, to do a 1 hour long jungle trek. The hiking path we chose was referred to as track number 9 and after a few hundred meters was splitting in track 9 and track 9A.
Until this point we passed along some rural houses, we prepared long sticks to boost our confidence while surpassing some stray dogs and stop for a few moments to take a picture (just documentation, nothing worth going on purpose for) of Robinson Waterfall on the opposite side. The track was slippery, not steep, mostly flat but the sticks still proved to be useful. We had our Lonely Planet guide with us, and the suggestion we found there was to take the path 9A, since the path 9 had a closed door in front, and seemed to go along a water pipe, not scenic at all.
Waking along the path 9A submerged in the jungle with no open view, but just an explosion of green was fine for us. We did many jungle treks before, we were actually expecting a view on this occasion, but hey, being in nature, sweating green out of your pores, breathing the humid air, watching the bees and the huge millipedes making sketches on the soil and jumping fallen trees along the way is great too!
Soon the path narrowed down, after a while became clear we were the only curious tourists adventuring an abandoned trail after a very long time, and all magic started to be a little bit too much for us: the jumping became crawling under the huge fallen trees on a 20 cm wide path, no root or branch support while sliding the very slippery soil, no place for our feet except one in front of the other, fighting vegetation trying to make space for our bodies to cross, we just hurried up in hope for a sign. Finally a pink note came across, advising a “farm escape” 100m away. Following the trail we did end up in a farm, still confused where were the other 300m to complete the trail. To conclude, the track path no. 9A is not enjoyable!
Happy to escape the narrow trail 9A, we headed towards the paved road and luckily after just few minutes hitchhiking, a car took us to the BOH tea estates just 5 km away. Once arrived, the factory was still open for visitors offering brief free tours of the tea manufacturing process. The technology used, dated back to 1928 (!) and the bright tea leafs were passing 5 stages of production.
The first process was Withering, where the leafs are exposed to hot air to reduce their moisture up to 65 %. Rolling comes next, where machines break the leaves to expose their juices for the following stage: Fermentation, where the flavor is formed. Here the crushed leafs are exposed to oxygen, changing from green to coppery color. Next comes Drying through hot air between 140 – 160°C, and the last stage is Sorting according to particle size which makes the different sorts of tea, and their particular qualities on the market. The tea lesson was short but great, the view point of the tea plantations was spectacular, so we returned happy and satisfied to Tanah Rata in the late afternoon.
Check out our Cameron Highlands part 2 and be part of our adventures hiking in the jungle of Brinchang Mountain, visiting the mossy forest and getting lost in the endless tea labyrinth of the famous BOH tea estates!
Disclaimer: While our stay in Tanah Rata was sponsored by D'Native Guesthouse that offered us free accommodation, everything we wrote in this report was our first hand experience and our sincere opinion about it.