The Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Originally published in the Jakarta Post, 08/11/09
The tropical haze of the Malaysian lowlands clears as the bus rolls along a rising road flanked by walls of dense green jungle. Here and there, where the mass of creepers and branches opens at the corner of a hairpin bend there is a brief glimpse of purple hillsides marked with skeins of white mist. Eventually the road levels out and the forest falls back. Neat little bungalows with red roofs and rose-filled gardens appear and the slopes of the surrounding ridges are marked with the dappled tiger stripes of tea plantations. Welcome to the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s best-known hill resort.
The Highlands – floating some 1500 meters up in the green hills of Pahang State at the heart of the Malaysian Peninsula – were first developed as a temperate, high-altitude retreat by the British colonialists in the early decades of the 20th Century. I am following in their footsteps, though with modern Malaysia’s excellent roads, getting to the Cameron Highlands now involves only a painless four-hour bus ride north of Kuala Lumpur, rather than the minor expedition of the colonial era.
The bus eventually rolls into Tanah Rata, a sleepy little town of quiet cafes and mock-Tudor cottages surrounded by forested hills. I check in to the charming Father’s Guesthouse, a converted British house on a flowery hilltop. The air here is deliciously fresh, and as I settle down to a welcome cup of local tea in the neat garden the memory of big city sweat fades away.
Wherever the British colonized they sought out places in the hills that offered a climate reminiscent of their temperate homeland. These “hill stations” remain marooned all over the uplands of Asia, a flotsam and jetsam of empire, enjoyed for their climate as much today by domestic tourists and international travelers as they once were by the colonialists.
The Cameron Highlands were named after William Cameron, a surveyor who first marked the stretch of elevated land while taking bearings of the surrounding Titiwangsa Ranges in 1885. Cameron noted the excellent potential of this remote, forested plateau for both agriculture and tourism, but it was only in the 1920s that the area was first developed as a hill station after the demand for a cool retreat from Kuala Lumpur outstripped the cramped resort facilities of the nearby Bukit Fraser.
Tea and Strawberries
In the misty cool of the next morning after a cozy night’s sleep under a pile of blankets I set out to explore on a rented motorbike. The main road north of Tanah Rata winds smoothly through forest studded here and there with hotels and golf courses. Beyond the little town of Brinchang I take a side road that winds along steep hillsides clothed with a strange mix of tropical and temperate vegetation – banana plants and pine trees. From a high corner a swelling view opens across distant ridges, dark under a damp gray sky. The nearer slopes are quilted with swathes of tea bushes, and down below I spot the red roofs of the Sungei Palas tea estate.
It was not only for holidays that the British headed for the hills. In 1929 a planter named J.A. Russell bought a sweep of land in the Cameron Highlands and set about clearing the forest. Tea, he discovered, grew excellently in the cool climate, and the company he founded, Boh, was a great success. Other planters followed, but Boh remains one of Malaysia’s biggest tea producers. Its three estates, scattered beneath the ridges, are open to the public.
All over the bright green hillsides are dots of color – workers, waist-deep in the tea bushes, picking the young tips from the upper branches. Though lowland tea picking is largely mechanized, on these steep slopes it can only be done the traditional way, with handheld clippers and a wicker basket. Each bush is picked once every three weeks, and this constant trimming gives the slopes a strange, sculpted look.
The Boh company not only grow tea; they also prepare and pack it, and inside the estate factory I watch the process. First the freshly picked leaves are left to whither for a day; then they are shoveled onto great mechanical rolling machines that break down the cells to release the flavor; next the already bruised leaves are left to ferment and darken, bringing a richness and color, and finally they are dried with hot air to halt the process. Each of these stages has to be carefully calibrated and the finished product is tasted and blended by experts with years of experience – and all for a cup of tea!
Inside the factory stocky Indian men in red uniforms hurriedly shovel the leaves from rolling machines to drying racks, and from conveyors to sacks. There is a rich, dark aroma to the place. Between this and its other factories Boh produces some 4 million kilograms of tea a year – which amounts to 5.5 million cups of tea every day!
Riding back from the tea gardens I pass a richly decorated Hindu temple, rising in the South Indian style to a candy-colored, god-encrusted pyramid above the threshold. The Cameron Highlands are home to the familiar Malaysian triumvirate of ethnicities and cultures – Malay, Indian and Chinese. Many of the first Indians here arrived to work on the burgeoning tea estates; Chinese market gardeners came to practice their own agriculture on a smaller scale. Further down the road I visit the cool, incense-scented Sam Poh Chinese temple, built in the early 20th Century by these farmers, and then I make a stop at the nearby Big Red Strawberry Farm. In the temperate climate the early agriculturalists found success growing crops more familiar in Europe than the tropics – strawberries, roses and camellias. These are all still grown here today, and there are farms, many with their own gift shops, all along the road between Brinchang and Tanah Rata. In the Big Red Strawberry Farm’s cafe I indulge myself with a gut-busting strawberry waffle...
Into the Forest
But there is more to the Cameron Highlands than tea and strawberries. In the cool quiet of the following morning I set out on foot, branching off the road beneath the guesthouse and picking my way over a tangle of exposed roots along a narrow path. Soon I am alone in the heavy green light of the forest.
All around Tanah Rata a network of numbered trails wind through the trees. This is excellent walking country, though it’s worth letting someone know where you’re going. In 1967 the great merchant of Thai silk, Jim Thompson, set out for an afternoon stroll along one of these trails – and never returned. Rumors of murder, suicide and tigers abound, but no one really knows what happened.
Hoping not to share a similar fate I press on. The dense canopy is full of noise: whistling birds, creaking insects, and the distant chattering of monkeys. I can smell the scent of moist earth and leaf mould. Light slants through the branches and the lower levels are full of bright-winged butterflies and dark shadow. From a gap in the trees at the top of a steep rise there is a vista of endless hills, fading into pale cloud. This is part of the great swathe of forest that still fills much of the heart of Malaysia.
The trail winds along hillsides and through dense thickets. I feel like I am moving deeper and deeper into the forest, and Jim Thompson’s disappearance begins to play on my mind. And then I hear voices coming though the trees. The trail emerges into watery sunlight in a broad clearing. Some 20 neat little wooden houses are stepped up a slope of clean, cropped grass. Children in multicolored tee-shirts scamper between the buildings and roosters crow from beneath the verandas. Strings of laundry flutter in the breeze. This is an Orang Asli village, a community of Malaysia’s “original people”, those whose ancestors lived in the forests here even before the mainstream Malay population arrived.
I sit down on to catch my breath and look out on the village and the wall of trees behind it, and suddenly I realize that the history of the Cameron Highlands stretches back far beyond colonialists, strawberry farmers, tea planters and holiday makers, deep into the forest...
© Tim Hannigan 2009