Friday, March 02, 2012

Day 135 - 136: Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands

The Cameron Highlands remind me a lot of Wales. The weather there is cooler, which is refreshing after the blazing dry heat of Georgetown and Ipoh, but it is still hot in the day. The buildings all look like Tudor mock-ups, bed and breakfasts are everywhere, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a restaurant, cafe or guesthouse that doesn’t offer that great British staple: tea with scones, jam and cream. This is definitely the most English-style place we’ve visited since leaving home, and it was a fantastic change of scenery, both metaphorically and literally.

The highlands are surrounded by hiking trails, with Tanah Rata one of the main hubs for starting out on them, and there are also tour-operated half-day and full-day trips around the various farms, plantations and jungle areas. The previous night we had decided that we’d attempt a hike ourselves, and then do a tour the day after. The hike we chose was 9/9A, which was supposed to take us about 3 hours in total, and cover 6.2km. The only help we had in navigating was a photograph on my camera of a very rough map someone had sketched out on their trip:


The Cameronian Inn didn’t have copies of this map, so we had to work from the camera. After a pretty decent breakfast, we set off with plenty of water and a multipack of chocolate cookies for sustenance. We took the wrong turn almost immediately. I think we may have been distracted by the oversized fruit on the way:


Thankfully we turned around and with the help of some workmen on the side of the road, we got back on track:



The path didn’t stay paved, obviously, that would have been far too easy! Fairly soon we were deep into the jungle, and came across Robinson Waterfall:



It was very peaceful, and we didn’t see another hiker on the entire trek which was perfect.  “Being at one with nature” sounds like a cliché and more often than not it is, but it couldn’t have been more apt on this walk. We came across plants and animals we stopped and admired in a way that we probably wouldn’t pay attention to back in the UK. And the views were, as ever, fantastic.







The experience, coupled with our general travelling, certainly made me feel like we should explore and appreciate more of the UK when we eventually return. If only the weather was better back home.

Whilst a little challenging towards the end (we both fell into the mud at one point or another), it was a fantastic hike, and we were pretty tired by the end of it. I say “the end”, when actually I mean, “getting back to the road”. We’d read that it was another 9km walk along the road back to Tanah Rata, and at that point it was about 12:30pm and the sun had decided to pelt us with its full force. We stopped off in a random Chinese temple across the road from where the hike path ended to get cleaned up, and then set off.

We came across an apiary on the way, and stopped off to have a look at the bees, and take a break from the heat.




After another kilometre or so, we started seeing road signs which didn’t make us feel too happy:


It was pretty much all uphill along the road, and even though the ascent was gradual, there was simply no respite from the sun. We had suncream on, fortunately, but we were lucky enough to find a plant shop on the way which sold ice creams. Gilly chose an ice-pop made from fresh strawberry juice, whilst I settled on a Choco-Truffle Magnum, possibly the best Magnum I’ve ever eaten (and possibly a little biased considering it was probably pushing 85F at that point).  We had also read that buses came along the road every hour or so and would pick you up, but we hadn’t seen one since getting to the road.

Then, something wonderful happened. An old Indian guy driving a Proton pulled over and gestured for us to get in. It seemed like he was heading to Tanah Rata as well, although he didn’t really speak English. We must have looked a sorry state as we trudged up the road, sweating from every pore. He pointed to the sun high above and shook his head, indicating that we shouldn’t be exposed at this time of day. I couldn’t have agreed more as I sat in the air-conditioned magnificence of his car; as the road wound on, and on, and on, it appeared to my weary state that the distance we drove back far exceeded 9km, and looked to be quite an awful walk in the heat. As we drove, we overtook a bus – it must have gone past as we were busy buying ice creams.

When we arrived back on the main road in Tanah Rata, the guy refused to take any money off us. What an absolute gent. He is indicative of the friendliness we’d experienced from Malaysians at that point, every one of them was happy to try and help us or point us to someone who could.

Having thoroughly exerted ourselves, we decided to treat ourselves to tea and scones.



The scones were tiny, and for some reason were not sweet. The jam helped with that, but I could definitely have made better scones. I decided to keep the top secret Kershaw family scone recipe under wraps, though. Maybe I could open a tea shop in Tanah Rata and dazzle them all with my scones.

A disappointing meal at the food court in the centre ended the day, with my Nasi Goreng Ayam (fried rice with chicken) coming on a plate the size of a saucer. We had to stop off for some roti at Kumar’s on the way back.

The Cameronian Inn was a great place to stay. It was the first place we’d been to which didn’t have a fan or air-con in the room (which tells you something about the climate!), and it was clean, comfortable and had a decent area for eating and socialising. There was also a great selection of books, with a free 1:1 book swap which we took full advantage of; we now have a fully replenished stock of reading material. They also have a good selection of rooms at various prices; we moved the second day to a cheaper room opposite which was practically the same but without a window.

We had booked a tour for the next day to take us around some of the highlights of the highlands. The company that took us was called Hilltop and we were lucky to end up with them as our guide, Mr. Balan, was fantastic.

After a drive in a diesel off-road thing, we arrived at the base of a very small native village, and proceeded to walk up a pretty muddy hill. Balan had a native with us too, and he made crowns out of fern leaves which we all wore until they either fell off, or the heat got so much that sweat was dripping off them and we just got rid of them.



The trek through the jungle took about an hour and a half and it was pretty much all uphill. However, there were plenty of rest breaks, and Balan took the time during them to tell us about the Cameron Highlands. It was an eye-opening talk. There are about 2000 vegetable farms, 400 flower farms and 36 strawberry farms in the highlands, which provide produce all over SE Asia. The whole of the highlands covers roughly 74000 hectares but almost half of the forest has been destroyed to cultivate farms, and as a result the area isn't as cool as it once was. Balan told us that the Malaysians don't really care for nature, and as a result are not interested in conserving the surroundings when there is money to be made. The waterfalls are not clean enough to swim in, as the chemicals in the hydroponics used on the farms have seeped down into the water. He also said that the population of Tanah Rata was made up of about 40% Chinese, 40% Indian and 20% Malay; he claimed that 75% of the population are millionaires thanks to the tourism industry and abundance of tea, fruit and vegetables. The Cameron Highlands Tea Plantation owns 70 shop lots in the town, which is effectively half of Tanah Rata.  

Balan struck me as someone who was incredibly passionate about nature, and he talked at length about the time he had spent as a nature guide, so to watch industries carve out huge swathes of jungle for commercial purposes must be incredibly upsetting. In a year he will quit the highlands as a guide and move elsewhere, perhaps to Borneo. One of the purposes of the trip was to see the Rafflesia, a plant which has the world's largest single flower - due to the development going on in the area, it is likely that Rafflesia will be gone in a year's time. The flower was discovered in the 1800s in Sumatra and about 20 years ago in Malaysia. The one we saw was the Rafflesia Kerrii:






The plant flowers for only a few days before withering, so we were lucky to find one mid-flower. Apparently when it blooms, it releases a pungent smell for a few hours which got it the nickname of "corpse flower". It takes about 1 year and 8 months from bud to bloom - we also came across a younger plant which had not yet bloomed:


No-one has determined how the plant (which is actually parasitic) reproduces; due to its scarcity, it is one reason why conservationists are so keen to keep its habitat untouched.

We stopped at a small waterfall on the way back from seeing Rafflesia:


Shortly after, I was lucky enough to have a leech feast on my ankle, which was lovely. Then we traipsed back to the village:


Balan, our guide:


Balan explained that the Semai people in the village consisted of about 23 families, and around 150 people. Whilst they used to live in bamboo huts, the government has "kindly" stepped in to provide concrete houses for them as well as schooling and free meals for their children. The cost of this generosity? They have to abandon their animist beliefs and convert to Islam. Religion as a currency: always a good thing...

The Semai hunt with blowpipes and poison darts, made with the poison from frogs and cobras amongst other things. The poison is strong enough to kill a human in a few minutes - they use differing levels of poison for different animals for obvious reasons: pumping a massive amount of toxin into a small bird would render it impossible to eat safely, but the same amount of poison in a large mammal would kill it without having any harmful effects after cooking. Balan was a crack shot with the blowpipe:

Gilly was almost as good!



I didn't fare quite so well:



Afterwards, Balan left us to go on a training course and was taken over by Venu, who drove us to the BOH Tea Plantation - the biggest black tea plantation in Malaysia. There are over 234 hectares of tea bushes in the plantation we visited, which employed 1200 workers and has bushes which are over 83 years old.



The tea is harvested by a combination of machines and manual work:


The plantation itself was basically a huge advertisement for BOH tea, and all of the benefits they have brought to the community along with the heartwarming stories of their support for various charitable and environmental causes. All very noble, but the actual exhibition wasn't particularly exciting. I love tea though, so I bought a pack to see what all the fuss was about. Now all I need is a hotel that can provide some hot water, milk, sugar and a cup. I will let you know whether it's on a level with Twinings at a later date.The view from the cafe was magnificent; the strawberry cake we tried was pretty good but nothing spectacular.

The day was far from over after the plantation though. Next up was the insect and butterfly farm, where we got up close and personal with various critters, both cute and not so cute:















Our final trip of the day was to a strawberry farm. We decided to try out the strawberries. They were good.



So good in fact, that we felt obliged to try out some other treats on the farm. Fortunately for our palates and unfortunately for our waist-lines, they had strawberry muffins and strawberry tarts. Both were superb, so much so that they disappeared into our faces before we had a chance to take pictures of them. You'll just have to believe me.

Frequent readers will have taken note of Gilly's tendency to "dispose" of her sunglasses whenever possible. I don't think it's intentional, but maybe on a subconscious level she just doesn't like them and so does her best to part company with them. After losing some in a river in Chiang Mai, followed by losing the replacement pair whilst tubing in Vang Vieng, we were expecting some sort of mishap in Vietnam or Cambodia. As nothing happened I think she got complacent, as on the way back to town pair number three developed a case of "being smashed into several bits whilst in a bag syndrome". This is a lesser known condition than, say, "being dumped in the river-aphasia" or "drunken tubing escapade-itis", but the upshot is that we now need to track down a fourth pair for her. If this continues into the second half of our trip (where sunglasses cost more than five quid), we may need to contact the bank for a loan.

With that though, we were done for the day and were back in town at about 7pm where we decided to try a different  Indian restaurant out: Sri Brinchang. It was unfortunately not a patch on Kumar's, despite us ordering practically the same thing.

It was sad to say farewell to the Cameron Highlands, as it was one of the unexpected highlights of Malaysia for me, and I absolutely loved it. I'm not entirely sure why; maybe it was a nice reminder of some of the good things the UK has to offer, albeit a slightly cheaper facsimile with better weather. However, time was against us, so the following morning, we got on a bus to the capital of Kuala Lumpur.  

No comments: