Published: November 15th 2009November 1st 2009
There are three things that define the Cameron Highlands more than anything else: tea plantations, strawberry farms, and a cooler climate than in the lowlands of Malaysia. The main activities here include sampling the highland teas, picking your own strawberries at one of the many farms, and hiking through the dense jungle.
After checking into a hostel in Tanah Rata, the main town for travellers in the Highlands, I go to a food court for lunch. The Chinese stall I choose is operated by an elderly Chinese couple, both of which seem to be deaf-and-dumb. As I inspect the menu, the lady comes up to me, making eating gestures, thus asking what I want to eat. I point at hokkien mee goreng, and she gives me a thumbs-up and makes a drinking gesture, and I point at Chinese tea. After another thumbs-up she’s gone, and comes back in no time with my fried noodles. After I finish I ask for the bill, and she actually asks me “Where you from?”, although she’s not able to clearly pronounce the words. I answer her question, to which she nods meaningfully and scribbles something on the bill. It says ‘Guten Morgen/RM3.50/Danke’, which I think
is lovely. When she gives me the change, she kisses the coin, puts it into my hand, and pats my back. I try to say ‘thank you’ in Cantonese, but I’m not sure if I pronounce it right, or if she catches it.
In general, Malaysians are amazingly friendly and I find that you get a lot less hassles than in other, ‘non-Western’ countries, like, say, Morocco or Peru. Prices are usually clearly marked and there’s no overcharging, you actually pay the same price as the locals, and people very rarely try quoting you more (the exception to this being, of course, the omni-offripping taxi drivers, but those guys are scumbags in any country). The locals are so laid-back, it just seems like they can’t be fucked harassing tourists, and you certainly don’t have to be overly paranoid with your belongings. Many Malaysians actually greet you and wave, although some travellers, the more unusual, interesting ones, get more attention than others, but rarely in an obnoxious way.
The next morning I have breakfast at one of the countless Indian restaurants, which all serve basically the same food for the same price. I eat banana honey naan, a thick
type of bread, and capati, a wholemeal flour pancake, with daal. As always, the food is cheap, filling, and delicious.
I decide to head to a tea plantation, which is about 9km away from Tanah Rata. To get there, I hitchhike, getting my first ride to the nearby town of Brinchang with two workmen in a pick-up truck. From there, a Chinese man takes me another couple of kilometres. He says he works as a teacher, but also repairs computers on the side. Guess you gotta be able to multitask if you want to make a good living here. For the last bit of the way, a Malay couple gives me a lift. They are on their way to the plantation as well, and they are happy to practice their English with somebody. Their camera is actually more expensive than mine, and I deduct from this that they are two of the wealthy Malaysians from Kuala Lumpur, who come to visit the Cameron Highlands to escape the pollution and heat. They usually stay in the best hotels and eat at the more upmarket restaurants. They drive posh four wheel drives and wear expensive-looking clothes. Their car is actually a beat-up
Proton, Malaysia’s own car brand and pride, so they don’t completely fit the stereotype.
The tea plantation itself looks exactly as in the pictures. There are fields of green leaves set on softly rolling hills, it is very picturesque, and all you can see is green. There are quite a few visitors at the plantation, and I start by doing a quick self-guided tour through the tea factory, before I have a cup of tea at the adjacent restaurant. There is a small group of dull-looking Americans from the United States, which is revealed to me by the obnoxious, nasal sounds they emit, a poor excuse for English. One of them wears a WYD-SYD 2008 t-shirt, which she got at the World Youth Day in Sydney. I laugh at them and move on.
After a nice hike through the fields, I hitchhike back. In no time I secure a ride with a Tamil, which means I managed to hitchhike with members of Malaysia’s three ethnic groups in one day. I ask if he works there, but he says no, his wife does. “Is it hard work?” -“Very hard work.” which is the obvious answer, and which concludes our conversation.
He leaves me at the junction, and I walk towards Brinchang. There are a few market stalls on the roadside, and I buy some battered veggies and sweet potato. To round it up, I buy a Cameron epal, which is an oval, yellow fruit with purple stripes. The skin peels of easily, and the inside tastes almost exactly like honey melon.
I visit the Big Red Strawberry farm, which seems to be immensely popular with Chinese tour groups. I decide against picking my own strawberries, since a kilo costs RM20. Out of spite, I eat a big strawberry sundae with cream, and feel better afterwards.
Getting a ride back to Tanah Rata doesn’t prove to be too difficult, another Chinese man picks me up. Although it is fairly obvious, I ask him if he’s Chinese Malaysian. He nods.
“So what do you think of 1 Malaysia?”
He smirks. -“It is cheat.”
“From the politicians?”
- “Yes. There cannot be 1 Malaysia.”
The following day I hike towards a waterfall in the jungle. Shortly before I reach it, an Indian man walks towards me. I cringe, thinking he wants to ask for an ‘entrance fee’, but he just asks
“Where you from? Germany?” I just say “Maybe”, not sure where he’s going at.
“Have you been to India?” he wants to know, but I shake my head. “Have your friends been to India?”
- “No. Why?”
“Is it cheap country to travel?”
- “I don’t know. I guess about the same as Malaysia.”
“So you get normal room for about RM15?”
- “Hm. Probably. Is this the way to the waterfall?”
“Yes, it’s there.”
- “OK, thanks!” I say, and wander off.
The waterfall is a disappointing little trickle, and it is so woefully polluted with plastic bags, cans, take-away containers and other rubbish that I move on quickly. I want to go to a close-by watchtower, and after about 15 minutes of steep climbing I reach the tower, which has completely collapsed. A bit disillusioned, I decide to take a different path.
That one proves to be a lot better, with everything you would expect from a walk in the jungle: lush scenery, a dense vegetation, picture-perfect trees and a serenade of bizarre sounds that I have no idea what animals could produce them. Apparently one of the loudest noises comes from a bush squirrel, but it
rather sounds like a bunch of frogs working in a sawmill. There are tons of insects as well, but Bless Science! no leeches or mosquitoes. After about an hour of steep climbing, I reach the top of a hill, which doesn’t have a particularly great view, but just the fact that I made it there with relative ease and without nearly dying fills my soul with delight.
Later in the evening I hitchhike to the night market in Brinchang. My luck hasn’t run out yet, a car stops almost immediately. It’s a posh-looking car with three well-dressed Chinese guys in it. Their English is rather atrocious, the bad pronunciation and strange intonation makes me ask them to please repeat too often. They ask me all kinds of stuff like “Where you from?”, “What you do?”, “Where you stay?”, “How long you been here?”. When I get dropped off, they ask me for my Malaysian phone number, but I say I don’t have one, so they ask for my email-address, which I scribble down on a piece of paper. “When I come to Germany”, says the driver. “When I’m rich.” They all laugh and drive off.
I don’t stay
long at the night market, since it starts raining, like every night, but this night it gets worse and worse. Before I leave, I eat more deep-fried veggies, this time sweet potato, watercress, broccoli, oyster mushrooms, day lily and button mushrooms. For dessert I have putu bambu, which is rice with coconut flakes and caramelized brown sugar. It’s damn sweet but tastes divine.
The next morning I’m off to Pulau Pangkor, a tiny island off the west coast. To get there, I take a bus to Ipoh, then another bus to Lumut, then the ferry to the island, and a pink taxi to Teluk Nipah, the town with the best beaches on the island. Teluk Nipah consists of one street and a few small side streets, and there’s not much going on. There are a couple of food stalls and eateries, but only Malay ones, which is the biggest disappointment. That means no roti canai in the morning, no yummy Chinese food during the day. I have to sleep in a dorm, and the price is about 50% higher than in the Cameron Highlands. I share the dorm with two guys from Denmark, who have killer tans and spend
their days riding around the island on hired motorbikes and watching films on their laptop.
I go to the beach to take a dip before the sun sets, but decide against it when I see that it is completely littered with soft-drink cans, take-away containers, tyres, plastic bags and other shit. My guidebook says there are better beaches behind the rocks, so I try to climb over them, which proves to be not an easy task. They are quite slippery and sharp-edged, and after a while I inevitably slip and cut my foot in two places. Blood spurts out, and it fucking hurts. I put on my thongs and struggle on, determined to get to that beach. Once I’m there, I look at my foot and see that one of the wounds is a bit of a gasher, but nonetheless I go and swim. Back at the hotel I douse the wounds with iodine and put on some band-aids.
After only a couple of hours I already get bored on the island. There’s nothing to do, which is all too obvious when you hang around in the hotel. There are a bunch of Frenchies, who rarely go out,
they just spend their days playing checkers and listening to French music. One of the girls sings along to every song, until a song from the Fugees plays, when she’s only able to sing the ‘oooh la la la’, since the rest is in English.
In the morning I go snorkelling, happy to have my own gear and finally put it to use. I swim to a nearby island, which takes me about half an hour. Locals in speedboats and kayaks swoosh past me, staring at me in awe because I use muscle power to get to the island. The underwater world around that island is quite amazing to me, who has never gone diving before. There are hordes of small fishes swimming around me, some of them intensely colourful, and I even see one of those seagrass bushes that look like they’re electric, and a zebrafish swims out of it to have a look at me. I snorkel around the island, and at one spot I come across other snorkellers, all wearing life-saving vests, and all not too far away from the boat that brought them there.
After I come back to the main beach, I can’t
find the stuff I left on a bench. The only thing that’s on it are some take-away containers and food rests, which are also scattered all around in the sand, and which indicates that the people who were sitting there were not necessarily the most thoughtful ones. I ask around whether anybody knows who sat there, but they all just say there were too many people in the morning, and they can’t tell, or don’t want to. I don’t really care about the dirty towel that hasn’t been washed in two weeks or the thongs so much, but I’m really sad about the t-shirt, and I’m mad at myself for being so careless and trusting. To add insult to injury, I got a really bad sunburn on my back from snorkelling, and I walk back to the hotel barefoot, wet, without a shirt, defeated and humiliated.
I spend the rest of my time on Pangkor reading, eating, and looking out for one of the young local rowdies on motorbikes wearing my shirt. I can’t find one, though, and as I leave the island on the ferry, I kiss my shirt goodbye. An epitaph to my pg99-shirt:
When I bought you I was young and full of hope
You served your purpose during many years
Some people even liked you
You certainly were comfortable and dear to me
The day they stole you you were dirty and smelly
I hadn’t washed you in a while
They could have bought a new one for just RM5
But they wanted you
And they stole a part of me, too.
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