The school holidays will soon be here. Don't fancy the loud, flashy bright lights of Genting? Maybe everyone is shuddering at the thought of spending money and more money at Uncle Lim's casino. If it is cool air you need, how about Cameron Highlands?
Cameron Highlands was named after the surveyor, William Cameron, who in 1885 discovered a plateau at 4,500 feet. It was then recommended as a resort but it was not until 1925 that the present location was proposed as a hill resort, and developed.
Now the thing about Cameron Highlands is this (and this is true due to all the development happening up in the peaks), the highlands is fast losing its cool. The weather is cool, but even the locals will tell you that it's nothing like 10 years ago. The afternoons can turn disappointingly hot too, so leave the thick woolies for the nights.
Never make the mistake of going on a weekend either as the hotel prices can shoot up outrageously plus certain hoteliers get highly snooty and possess a 'take-it-or-leave-it' attitude. And as I learnt the hard way, don't bother with emailing the hotels. Picking up the phone and booking your accommodation is faster!
On the Winding Road Up
If you can get to Ipoh, you can surely find your way to Tapah, the town at the foot of the highlands. From Tapah, take Route 59.
Enjoy the 47 km scenic drive up from Tapah town. Dotting the road are many makeshift stalls manned by the orang asli of Cameron, selling wild honey, bunches of "petai", langsat and young "pakis" ferns.
Native children, brown like cikus, gaze wide-eyed at the weekend tourists overloading the buses that creak piteously up the slopes. Many times buses have had to grind to a groaning halt and give way to the traffic from the opposite direction; the oncoming vehicles have about an inch's space to scrape past! Pick a non-rainy season to go up, as the rainy season will cause clumps of earth, rocks and vegetation to slide onto the slippery roads, resulting in a more dangerous drive.
Halfway up Cameron, you could take a breather by Lata Iskandar, a waterfall located just beside a significant bend. Refresh yourself with a piping hot "kopi" at the cafe, precariously built above the gushing waters. And like all Malaysian tourist areas, opposite the cafe are six or seven stalls proffering the usual tourist parapharnelia - plastic inflated strawberry-shaped balls in garish red, t-shirts proclaiming to all and sundry that you've been to Camerons and other tacky stuff.
Pick any two of the three towns in Cameron Highlands to put up for the night. Unless you've got your personal transport, you should find a room in Brinchang, the highest of the three towns in Cameron. Ringlet, the first town you'd come to on your way up, is basically a town for the locals - with the customary schools, terrace houses and local shops. There's even a gaming outlet here so you can bet on your four digits even up in the highlands!
You can choose to stay at Tanah Rata too as it is only 4km to Brinchang town, the more happening area in Cameron.
What Cameron Offers
Unless you often make Cameron your weekend getaway, or go up every two months that a tour is scorned upon, hunt for a cheap way to see the sights.
The moment you step into a taxi, the local guy would strike up a conversation, and at the same time, 'market' Cameron to you, albeit with a price. Pay RM60 and the taxi man is yours for some four whole hours, ferrying you to the must-visit places in Cameron. That comes to roughly RM15 per hour, with the usual four persons to a taxi. Prices are steeper during peak days such as weekends but put on your haggling best first.
Next, name your destination - be it the Boh Plantation, Rose Garden, Butterfly Farm, Strawberry Farm - and the taxi will get you there. The loquacious drivers are treasure troves of history as they tell you almost everything you need to know about Cameron.
Forget the rest of the recommended spots - Cameron Highlands' number one must see is the Sungai Palas Tea Plantation, or fondly known as the Boh Plantation. Founded by J.A.Archie Russell in 1929 (who had a hunch that Cameron Highlands would make a perfect spot for planting tea), the Boh Plantation is a Cameronian institution. Malaysians definitely revere Boh as some 5.5 million cups of Boh tea are downed daily! By the way, old man Russell himself called his tea Boh after the original tea hills of China, and Boh means 'precious' in Chinese!
The undulating emerald hills are covered, as far as the eye can see, with pruned tea bushes!
The narrow roads do not deter the busloads of tourists, nor the humid, steamy interiors of the tea processing factory deter one from marvelling at the way tea leaves are dried and processed. Tours are conducted daily and once you've inhaled enough tea dust to get a sneezing fit, head on down to the Boh's tea shop for hot mugs of tea, Highlands-style, al-fresco on the patio while the cooling breezes caress your face.
Return to Brinchang town for a short rest before you amble along to the famed Cactus Valley. (You won't miss it as it's perched on a small hill, and a red and green man-made cactus beckon to you from afar.) Here you'd be able to witness Nature at its finest, with blooms of every shape, size and colour. It's RM4 per entry but you take quite sometime before you complete the tour of the well-tended gardens, making it quite a good way to discern athuriums from petunias, gerberas from fuchsias - and a fantastic learning experience for non-greenies. The rest of the supposed tourist spots can be given a miss as they're rather tacky and run of the mill.*
Once night falls, Brinchang is the place to head for to calm the growling tummies, made more so by the long walks and cold weather. Steamboat is one of the best meals to be had here, as the vegetables are fresh and piled high on your plate, though much is lacking in the meat department. Nonetheless, for RM13 - RM15 per person, you can have quite a satisfying meal. Ask for the yin-yang set - you get two soups for your steamboat. Pick from the usual clear chicken soup, spicy tomyam or Chinese herbal soup. Oh, and flies still land on your food every now and then but their numbers have decreased over the years.
Or head to the main square (there is only one square in Brichang town and it hosts the Saturday night market) where you can find Malay stalls, which offer steamboat, rice, Western delights, tomyam right up to murtabak and satay. Prices are pretty reasonable, considering that most goods have to endure the long, winding road up to this town.
A note about eating seafood here: do ask for the price before you sit down to a meal of crabs, prawns and fish as many have keeled over when the atrocious bill arrived!
Time your visit to coincide with the Saturday night market which is your usual Malaysian pasar malam, but this one's high on the hills. There's something about Cameron Highlands that its masses of tourists go on a buying frenzy. It's exceptionally easy to spot a tourist - arms laden with cheap, fluorescent-dyed dried flowers, plastic bags of vegetables (prices are not dirt cheap, as one would assume) and plastic boxes of minute strawberries (RM10 for three plastic boxes...you're better off buying huge, fresh USA strawberries from your local supermarket). Still hungry? Stave off the hunger pangs with some steaming hot sweet potato and buttery corn from the pasar malam.
Another recommendation is the minimarket opposite the main square. Housed in two shoplots, you'd find everything you need here, and at very good prices too! If I am not mistaken, it is called Kedai Jimat. It was here that I found a very delicious bottled fish pickle, which I still cannot find any where else! You can get pots and pans, household goods like shampoo, soap, fresh vegetables, jams, milk, even ikan kembong even if the kembong looked more than three-days old.
How about an afternoon of English tea and scones? You can get this at a few good lodges and resthouses. The Lakehouse is one, while Bala's Chalet is another (yes, Bala is there, personally welcoming guests and day-troopers who sneak a peak at his garden). Bala's reputedly serves the best scones around Cameron so we were full of anticipation when we ordered our scones. Two scones, one cup of tea (Boh no less), some cream, butter and homemade strawberry jam set us each back by RM12.50! My verdict? I've tasted better ones on the lowlands!
For chowing down in Tanah Rata, make a beeline for Excellent Food Centre, located opposite the post office along its main road. The Chinese stall does a brisk business so there's your evidence of fast and good food.
Whatever your palate desires, Tanah Rata and Brinchang offer you German, Dutch, Nyonya, Indian, Chinese and Malay food.
Jungle walks are also recommended for the fit; the many trails include those around Gunung Brinchang, Gunung Beremban, Gunung Jasar, Gunung Perdah and Bukit Mentigi. Ask the hoteliers or the locals for more information. Those not inclined to walk can hire a taxi to drive them right up to the Gunung Brinchang peak, but do check out the fare first.
Cameron Highlands is a place for you to have nice, long walks, read while snuggling under the covers, and imagine you're on English terrain.
Non-nature lovers would find it a bore as there's not much to busy oneself with except eating, hiking and indulging in leisurely afternoons. I still think it's very much what you're looking for in a holiday - I met two aunties from Ipoh who grumbled that there was absolutely nothing to see and do in Cameron, they should've gone to Genting Highlands!
* * * * *
* Well, if you really insist....the Ee Feng Gu Apiary tries to pass off as a proper apiary until you go looking for the bees amidst stripped gardens. The revenue-earner of the apiary is its honey. It's located on the main road right after you turn down from the Boh Plantation. About 20 feet away is the bustling "tourist" market, where one gets to shop for more roses, carnations and fruits. The area is now quite dusty as the roads are being built to connect Cameron with Simpang Pulai, according to Sarjit, our affable taxi man.
The Rose Centre, Kea Farm, is another must-miss. Anticipating well-trimmed bushes, clean walkways and flowering plants, all we received in return for the RM4 per entry were peeling plaster statues of Donald Duck, Chinese fairies and Korean dolls, with a small decrepit zoo - containing sad-looking fowls like turkeys, ducks and geese. Strawberry Farm was another place swarming with busloads of tourists. Cramped, hot and dirty, people were buying strawberries for novelty's sake, I believe. You could have strawberries with cream, or keep cool with frozen strawberry popsicles. The locals, said Sarjit with a wry grin, never eat strawberries. Only the non-Cameronians do it. Touche!
* * * * *
Published on 3/24/04