The Nation



High in the hills

The Smokehouse, an English Tudor style hotel with colonial ambience, is a beautiful place for high tea and scones.

The Smokehouse, an English Tudor style hotel with colonial ambience, is a beautiful place for high tea and scones.

Prickly plants on display at Cactus Valley Park.

Prickly plants on display at Cactus Valley Park.

Bee Farm.

Bee Farm.

An exhibit devoted to the mysterious disappearance of Thai silk king Jim Thompson.

An exhibit devoted to the mysterious disappearance of Thai silk king Jim Thompson.

With cooler climes and beautiful scenery, the Cameron Highlands are the perfect place for a break

A vast expanse of rolling hills, gentle slops and vast green plateaux, Malaysia's Cameron Highlands are perhaps less well known than the Genting Highlands, the country's most popular playground and home to vast concrete structures and a multitude of theme park rides.

Located in Pahang, the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia and covering a land area larger than Singapore, Cameron Highlands is one of Malaysia's most extensive hill stations and home to tea estates that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Thai visitors can choose to get there both by road and by plane and indeed many visitors make by trek by van or bus from Hat Yai in Songkhla in about five hours. Our group, however, travels in greater luxury, flying first on Bangkok Airways from Bangkok to Koh Samui then onwards to Kuala Lumpur then boarding a coach for the four-hour trip to Cameron.

The trip is long, often boring and with multiple curves as the bus starts climbing, something of a nightmare for those who suffer from travel sickness, which explains why our guide is quick to hand out anti-motion sickness medications to those who feel they might need it.

We take the old road that runs from Tapah on the North-South Expressway to Federal Route 59, which leads to the area's three main townships. Ringlet is one of the main agricultural hubs for the highlands, while Tanah Rata is the administrative centre and home to most e government offices, a general hospital, the police station and bus terminal. Brinchang is infinitely more touristy boasting hotels and restaurants as well as the night market.

The driver gives us a welcome break by stopping off at Hutan Lipur Lata Iskandar Waterfalls, where we all take in large gulps of the mountain air before wandering off to explore the ramshackle stalls offering ethnic souvenirs, tribal handicrafts, strange herbs, as well as banana and sator. In Malaysia, the familiar Southern vegetable known in English as stinky bean is called "petai" and is commonly served with sambal, a condiment that has a chilli-based sauce.

Our next stop is the Smokehouse, an English Tudor style hotel with a colonial ambience that was built in 1939. We enjoy a high tea of freshly baked scones with home-made strawberry jam and take time out to wander round the garden and admire the various flowering plants.

There's one more place to visit before we can check in at Strawberry Park Resort and that's the Cactus Valley Park. A botanical show garden on a hill overlooking Brinchang town centre, it's home to a large collection of cacti and flowers including roses, calla lily impatiens, fuchsia, camellia, hibiscus, rhododendron and bird of paradise. A sign instructs visitors not to touch and I wonder how many visitors have come to grief by getting too close to the thorny plants.

Well rested after a good night, I'm up early the next morning in the hope of finding a bike and cycling one of the short routes. Sadly, the schedule doesn't allow for time out and we're soon back in the coach and off to Eu Feng Gu honey bee farm to buy some honey before driving on to Boh, Malaysia's largest tea plantation.

Here the sign reads "Share the Ummph!" which has me puzzled until I'm told that here in the highlands, as well as in the rest of the country, tea is much more than a drink. Tea both creates and complements the social situation whether it is a meeting of friends, a family get-together or a corporate appointment, and is a beverage that transcends creed or culture. Every Malaysian is sure to find common ground when it comes to having a cup of tea, hence the "Ummph" factor.

We start to develop our appreciation of tea by strolling around the exhibition, which explains the basic processing stages known as Withering, Rolling, Fermenting, Drying and Sorting as well as its history. We get our own dose of "Ummph!" while enjoying a cup of tea and admiring the panoramic spectacular scenery of the tea plantation.

The coach then continues to the Time Tunnel, which isn't producer Irwin Allen's science fiction TV series but Malaysia's first museum to the historical memory and cultural heritage of the Cameron Highlands. The photographs and memorabilia cover life during the colonial era and subsequent years after Independence and there's even a classic pub house, Chinese coffee shop and traditional hair salon as well as sections devoted to agricultural activities, tourism development and aborigine lifestyles.

Here there are no signs warning visitors not to touch so it's possible to examine at first hand objects that date back to the 1950s as well as old toys. Thai visitors can refresh their memories by checking out the corner dedicated to the mysterious disappearance of legendary Thai silk trader Jim Thompson.

Our time in the Cameron Highlands at an end, the motion sickness tablets are once again handed out and it's back to Kuala Lumpur where we take in the Petronas Towers, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia and Plaza Dataran Merdeka before boarding the flight for the journey home.

The writer travelled to the Cameron Highlands at the invitation of Bangkok Airways.

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