The definitive guide to being a tourist in the Cameron Highlands

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Asia » Malaysia » Pahang » Cameron Highlands » Tanah Rata
March 20th 2014
Published: March 28th 2014
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With a six hour minibus trip to Tanah Rata ahead of us, we woke early (in Melaka) and walked around the corner to Restoran Melaka Raya for a teh tarik (pulled sweet milky tea) and take away banana rotis (flat flaky Indian bread). This small street–front cafe with small plastic tables and chairs is open 24 hours, and it serves incredible food and tea. We jumped in the minibus at 7.30am and began our journey north towards the Cameron Highlands. We pulled into Tapah for a quick toilet stop at 11am, and stepping from the comfort of the air–conditioned minibus into the furnace outside was breathtaking – it was incredibly hot!

We then began our slow and eternally snaking journey upwards into the Cameron Highlands. The road was narrow with steep drop offs over the side, and despite a few close shaves with trucks, it was a great drive with amazing scenery. We stopped for lunch at Restoran Fang Xiang in the small township of Ringlet at 12.30pm. We ordered three dishes – hokkien mee (fried noodles with seafood), stir fried mixed vegetables and chicken with soy sauce. I had a very refreshing teh tarik in a cup and saucer (with half the saucer full of tea), while Ren had a coke. The noodles were fantastic (although the seafood was a bit rubbery) and the stir fried mixed vegetables were great. The chicken dish wasn’t all that good, although the occasional piece was ok.

We finished lunch and jumped back into the minibus for the last few kilometres of our trip. We arrived at Century Pines Hotel Resort in Tanah Rata at 1.30pm, and it was an oasis. The room was enormous in comparison to our last two hotels, and we even had tea and coffee making facilities. We checked in, unpacked and headed out to the Klang Teh Sungei Palas Tea Factory at 2.30pm. By the time we arrived the tours had closed, but we were able to walk through the factory before heading to the tea shop. We picked up a cylinder of Boh Garden Tea Bukit Cheeding (Number 53), a cylinder of Boh Cameronian Gold Blend and a packet of Boh Teh Tarik Halia sachets.

We were exhausted from our six hour drive from Melaka, so it was time for afternoon tea. The factory had a small cafe with a large viewing deck that stretched out over the plantation. We settled down with a teh tarik with oats and a strawberry tart and enjoyed the incredible view. Feeling reasonably refreshed, we jumped back in the minibus and headed to the Mossy Forest walk, a wooden path set in the highlands at an altitude of 2,000 metres. Unfortunately, the cloud and mist cover was thick, so we couldn’t see beyond a few metres, but we did chance upon the filming of a local movie, where a monk was meditating high in the hills while being tempted by a monster. We didn’t meet the monk, but the monster (in full makeup) was more than willing to talk to us – he explained the whole movie. He was very likeable, and two young kids walking behind us with their parents were very excited by the whole movie experience (as we were). The monster posed and played with them as they screamed excitedly. It was great to watch. The film crew was also very approachable, posing for our photos and happy to chat.

We jumped back into the minibus and continued our ascent to a rusting, decrepit viewing tower. It was about 15 metres high on three levels, which meant climbing three internal ladders to get to the top. We were now very high, and had the mist and cloud lifted, we would have enjoyed the most spectacular view. On the upside, I would have realised how high I actually was, which would have made the descent of this rusty old lookout quite a lot scarier. We jumped back in the minibus and began our slow descent back to Tanah Rata, were we dropped into a strawberry farm (Royal Berry) at 6pm. We sampled a few strawberries dipped in chocolate before heading back to our hotel at 6.30pm.

We freshened up and headed out to dinner at 7.30pm. We walked into the township of Tanah Rata and bee–lined for Restoran Ferm Nyonya, a street–front restaurant specialising in steamboat dinners, where a large pot of boiling soup is placed over a gas flame on your table, into which you dip a selection of meats and vegetables. When they are cooked, you scoop them out and eat them with chilli paste. It’s a fantastic way to eat, and the food was exceptional. We had two types of soup – chicken and tom yum, into which we dipped chicken, sliced fish, prawns, chicken rolls (chikuwa), fish balls, bean curd, eggs, noodles, vegetables and mushrooms. We sat at a large round table on the pavement, and while the rain threatened, it didn’t eventuate. We finished the meal and made our way back to the hotel, detouring on the way to browse a local outdoor market where a DJ was playing heavy metal music to an empty outdoor dance floor. He greeted us between songs, although he mistook us for European tourists. It was a very communal and welcoming market, and we enjoyed the atmosphere. However, we were beginning to fade, so it was time to collapse onto our king size bed. We settled in with a coffee and caught up on our travel notes. We had set out from Melaka at 7am, and we were still writing in Tanah Rata at midnight. It had been another fantastic travel day.

We got up early (6am) and headed down to the hotel lobby to vie for a wifi signal, as there was no signal in the rooms and limited signal in the lobby when a lot of people were accessing the internet. It was the only downside of an otherwise fantastic hotel. We managed to get a signal, checked email, transferred some files and then settled in to a lazy breakfast of juice, cornflakes, roti and curry, toast and kaya (coconut and egg jam) and coffee. After breakfast I headed out for a walk around the township of Tanah Rata, fascinated by the activity as the street–front shops slowly came to life.

I headed back to the hotel to pack and shower before heading out to an early lunch at 11am (as we had a three hour minibus trip ahead of us). I wasn’t hungry, so I grabbed a teh tarik to quench my thirst and we ordered two takeaway banana and honey naans (Indian flat bread) for the bus trip. We left at midday, and what a memorable bus trip it was to be. We were descending from the highlands on a very steep, narrow and windy road, and the driver seemed to have a desperate need to get to our destination as fast as he possibly could. He tailgated cars, overtook cars on blind corners and generally drove like a madman, so I suggested to him from the back of the minibus that it was more important to arrive alive than early. This had little impact, as he only stopped tailgating. When we eventually stopped at a service station for a toilet break, I again asked him to slow down. I’ve never once needed to do this in all our travels, but the guy was an idiot. He did eventually slow down, but we were on a highway in reasonably heavy traffic, so speed was no longer an option. I gave up trying to type in the minibus, as he did not understand the concept of smooth, careful or safe driving. We arrived at our home–stay in Kampung Kelantan at 2.50pm, and from what I can gather, this was 30 minutes earlier than we were expected. No kidding!

The irony of the trip occurred as we approached the homestay. We came upon a bridge that had no railings and just a few planks for car tyres. The driver stopped and said it was too dangerous to cross. By this stage we didn’t care, and our guide just told him to keep driving. We slid a bit in the middle and stopped. I couldn’t believe it. He could accelerate into corners at 100km/hr going downhill with steep drop–offs over the sides of mountains; he could overtake cars on blind corners; he could cut corners and drive on the wrong side of the road and then swerve to miss trucks coming straight at us – but he could not drive slowly over a rickety old bridge!

Anyway, we arrived in one piece.

We had an early start on the morning we left Melaka for the six hour trip to the Cameron Highlands. We woke up at 5:30am and were downstairs by 7am. We were meant to stop for breakfast along the way. However, once we realised the local Indian restaurant around the corner – Restoran Melaka Raya – was open 24 hours, we decided to have a teh tarik there instead. We weren’t really hungry, so Andrew and I got two banana rotis to take away, while everyone else had roti canai at the restaurant.

Hanging around Tamil eateries is bringing back long forgotten words of Tamil into my consciousness. I seem to be able to understand a few words; sometimes enough to piece together the gist of the conversation. Ordering drinks made me remember my counting up to four! 😊

We left Melaka by private minibus and could therefore spread out a bit and write notes…well, as much as the suspension in the bus would let us anyway.

We were headed into Malaysia’s hill stations where the majority of the country’s tea is produced. The journey revealed more palm plantations, some sugarcane fields, a few burnt out hills and the occasional tropical fruit tree. Monoculture is alive and well here. However, further into the journey the scenery started to change. We stopped in Tapah for a quick toilet break, and after that we began our climb uphill. The landscape changed dramatically once we left the plantations behind. Large trees appeared out of thin air, and wild banana trees, vines and bamboo seemed to happily fill the valleys below us. The native plants were a welcome sight after four hours of sterile plantations, and it was so beautiful to see a panorama of lush green hills.

The fertile and cool hills are also used to farm strawberries, green peppers, cabbages, lettuce and many other fruit and vegetables, justifying the ‘green bowl’ of Malaysia status.

We stopped at a roadside Chinese restaurant in Ringlet for lunch. Decoding the menus here would have been near impossible for us that didn’t speak or read Malay or Mandarin, but we had a secret local weapon named Aldrin. We shared hokkien mee (Hokkien style fried noodles), ginger chicken, and stir fried vegetables. As we climbed higher into the hills, the road became too windy to read or write. Unusually, I started to feel a bit uneasy in the stomach department, so the only thing to do was sleep it off as our minibus snaked its way up the hills.

We reached Tanah Rata at 1.30pm. It’s one of the bigger towns in the area collectively called the Cameron Highlands (named after William Cameron, the Englishman who discovered it). The Highlands are in Pahang State near the border of Perak State.

The Cameron Highlands are dramatically cooler in temperature than the lowlands, and we really felt the drop in temperature. However, considering we were sitting in sweltering heat and humidity a few hours ago, I can understand why I felt the need to put on two layers of long sleeve clothing! It’s all relative, isn’t it?

The cooler climate and fresh air made this a poplar hill station retreat in colonial times, and it is still a popular local holiday getaway. Traces of the nostalgic colonial recreations still remain, with English cottages, narrow village lanes, rose gardens and Tudor chalets still found around the plantations. Yet even though the hills around Tanah Rata have that almost European Chalet town feel about it, the Indian and Malay restaurants that line the main street gives the game away.

The hills full of tea plantations were beautifully manicured into symmetrical lines, but almost too much so. I found it a little sad that as far as the eye could see, every last native plant had been ripped from the landscape to make way for this high economic value tea plant. It made me wonder whether people would be visiting the controversial palm plantations in 50 years and calling them beautiful, the negative environmental impacts having long been forgotten by then.

Both my sets of grandparents lived and worked on tea estates in Sri Lanka – my paternal grandfather in accounts and my maternal grandfather as a tea taster and grader. Both my parents’ early memories are from that time, so I would assume that this unending view of tea plantations and the wet sweetish earthy smell of tea bushes would be quite nostalgic to my parents, and to my aunts and uncles. As far as I know, all the tea plantations in Sri Lanka were owned by English companies back then, so apart from gaining employment, the local communities saw little to none of the profits the companies made.

Our Hotel – the Century Pines Hotel Resort on the outskirts of Tanah Rata – was quite lovely. When we entered the hotel, the huge marbled foyer and bling–ey chandeliers screamed ‘grand’; however on closer inspection, the decor hadn’t been updated for a good 20 years. Our room was very comfortable, and so huge that the bathroom alone was probably the same size as our entire room in Melaka! The only downside of the hotel was that there was no wifi in the rooms, and the wifi in the lobby was sketchy if more than two people were using it. We will be blaming this hotel for causing a delay in our blog posting. 😊

We met at 2pm to do a tour of the area, including a visit to the Sungei Palas Tea Plantation and tea factory (who market their tea under the Best of Highlands / BOH brand). By now the rain had started, and we walked around the tea bushes on the terraced land in a mixture of slight drizzle and mist. We also got a brief insight into how the plantation worked (with regard to the lives and labours of the tea pickers). Very disappointingly the factory tours had finished for the day, so we contented ourselves with walking around the factory, and visiting the gift shop to check out the various teas they grew here, all of which were packaged for both local and overseas markets. I like milder light black teas, but Andrew likes a more robust tang in his tea – so we bought a selection to suit us both. I also spied a pack of teh tarik halia (hot pulled sweet tea with ginger) which we bought to try at home.

This is probably a good time to talk about tea snobbery. Like wine, cheese, coffee and any other item of food or drink that attracts ‘experts’, it annoys me no end when people try and tell me how to enjoy something. All our palettes are different, and there is no wrong way to enjoy anything! I wish more people would trust what they want and like, and not let foodie wankers try and dictate how we should eat and drink. The British method of drinking tea has long been followed as the norm, and it has also been adopted in non–western countries as the ‘posh’ alternative to tea brewed and served in the local manner. Never mind that drinking tea in the local Asian way had occurred for eons before the British staked it as one of their customs. I really enjoy a pot of good English tea, but I also love and appreciate drinking local teas as they are normally consumed in a particular culture.

We were at that point of the day where we were more than ready for a cup of tea, so we went to the picturesque little tea rooms where we ordered the very unusual sounding teh tarik with oats! It was surprisingly lovely and comforting, not unlike Horlicks (minus the malty flavour). I also ordered a strawberry tart, given the local strawberry farms. Sadly, it was quite disappointing.

The next stop was at the comically named ‘mossy forest’, which is part of a large National Park area. Even though it was raining, we were protected by the forest canopy, and our short 20 minute walk was board–walked all the way. The steps were very steep and uneven, which ensured that we were very careful to not slip on the wet boards. The walk was lovely, with gnarly old world trees covered in moss and other thick foliage flanking the walkway. Aldrin pointed out mimosa trees and wild ginger plants, which strangely (or not that strangely) made us crave cocktails. There was a thick mist covering the hills, so the views were not great, but it added a beautiful effect to the whole walk. We were at 2000m, and the air felt every bit as thin as it does at that elevation.

We stumbled upon a film crew filming a movie about a man who wanted to be a monk, and a monster who tries to tempt him away from the holy life. The actor playing the monster was in full make up, and was happy to pose for photos. They were a very friendly cast and crew.

Actually friendliness seems to be a common theme we’ve come across in Malaysia. All you have to do is look slightly confused or reach for a map, and any passing person will ask you where you need to go. We’ve been helped by an old man who could barely walk, yet still stood up and walked over to point us towards the right bus; trishaw drivers happy to give us correct directions without trying to wrangle business; random people on the street offering us restaurant advice; and even a tout we had avoided previously went out of her way to help us. Anyway, I digress...back to the mossy forest. The National Park we were walking in straddles the border between two states, and we crisscrossed many times between Pahang and Perak States on the walk.

We then drove a short distance to what had been marketed to us as a ‘lookout tower’. Well, I suppose it was a tower–like structure. It was a rusty old skinny tall thing with fire–escape type stairs over three levels. Aldrin, Alice, Brian, Andrew and I climbed to the top and had to laugh when we realised we couldn’t see anything through the mist. Regardless, we took a group selfie with the ‘view’, and then made our way back down the rusty ladder. Thank goodness we were all up to date with our tetanus shots.

The last stop on the tour was an absolute shocker! We visited the Royal Berry strawberry farm, where they were much more interested in selling us stuff from the gift shop than talking to us about their farm. We bought some fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate, but sadly they weren’t sweet or flavourful at all. We were supposed to visit a butterfly farm as well, but thankfully the group vetoed the decision. So we went back to our gigantic hotel room and lounged around after a very hot shower (a first for this trip).

As far as I can tell, there are no dishes unique to the Cameron Highlands. However, the food was defined by the cold weather and freshness of the produce. The favourite types of meals here are Steamboat Dinners and Afternoon Teas. Yes, all this time later, the colonial tradition of Afternoon Tea in old style teahouses is still alive and popular.

That evening we gathered at 7:30pm and walked into Tanah Rata (a ten minute walk) for a feast at a Cameron Highland communal steamboat dinner at Ferm Memory Restoran. Having steamboat for dinner on a cold(ish) highlands night was quite fantastic. It’s a hot pot or fondue style dinner, where the centre of the table had a simmering cauldron of broth – we picked two broths – one ‘plain’ (chicken stock) and the other a spicy tom yum type broth. We each picked items from plates of chicken, fish, prawns, calamari, tofu, tofu skins, different types of mushrooms, eggs, chikuwa (chicken rolls), fish balls, crab sticks, two types of noodles and three types of fresh greens, and placed them in the soup to cook. It was a bit messy and probably not for people who don’t like sharing food, but we loved it. It was a fabulous and fun way to eat with friends. The lychee and longan iced juice drink I had with my meal was probably too cold (as we were eating outside), but it was delicious.

We were all SO FULL by the end of that meal! We waddled back (yet again), to the hotel via a small night market that had a DJ with a loud sound system. He saw the group of tourists walking through the market and welcomed us to the town – it was very sweet.

We stayed up to do some writing and didn’t get to bed until 12:30am. I was surprised that we still woke up at 6am as per usual. This was the first time that the call to pray had woken us. We usually heard it in the background as we went about our day, but it had never woken us up before. I think the minaret here must have been close to our room. As we were up anyway, we decided to go to the lobby and use the wifi while no one else was on the network. While we were down there, a few other sleepy guests (who had the same idea) showed up too.

We had a rare late start that day, so we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel...I opted for the nasi goreng (fried rice), and the nasi lemak (pandan flavoured coconut rice, served with spicy sambal, fried peanuts, anchovies and a boiled egg) with rendang (thick curry with lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, chilli and coconut) sauce. I also tried all three flavours of pudding on offer – mango, coconut and honeydew melon.

The group gathered for an early lunch at 11am as we were leaving at midday. However, I wasn’t very hungry after breakfast, and I was also being careful knowing we had a winding bus ride back down the hills. We therefore got two takeaway banana and honey naans (Indian flat bread) from Restoran Kumar on the main street in Tanah Rata.

In the short time we spent here we became very aware that the highland area is purposely being marketed as being unchanged from colonial rule, and still exuding an old English charm etc. This is clearly working as a way to keep attracting tourists. However, the evolving street culture is decidedly local.

The return trip in the minibus down the hills was quite nerve wrecking. I heard someone once say that if you lined all the cars in the world end to end, on a hill, in the dark…someone would still be stupid enough to try to overtake them. Well we met that person – he was our driver. He was seriously crazy and wanted to ‘play chicken’ with traffic on every blind corner he could find. We had to ask him to slow down twice, but it only made a small difference. His speciality was overtaking over double white lines, with bonus points if there was an oncoming truck. Needless to say, none of us took our eyes off the road until we were off the winding cliff edge road. It was unnecessarily stressful, especially as we really weren’t in a hurry. As it was, we arrived at our homestay earlier than expected and they weren’t ready for us.

However, we were all more than happy to get off that minibus! And that’s using much nicer words than all six of us had used as we put our feet on solid ground.

We were now at a lakeside homestay in the small village of Kelantan, in the state of Perak!


28th March 2014

feeling a bit uneasy in the stomach department...
Lol, we remember those roads to and from the Cameron Highlands well. On the way back to KL we were literally the only two on the bus who kept our stomach contents intact! Afternoon tea is great, although it's a little bit chilly there for us, it's an excuse to keep warm with the hot tea and cakes :)
29th March 2014

Re: feeling a bit uneasy in the stomach department...
Hehe you guys have really settled into life in Asia if you think the Cameron Highlands are chilly. None of us were sick, just 'a bit off colour' as my Mum would say :)
28th March 2014

Thanks for the memories...
I got car sick every time I drove up or down the road from Tapah to Tanah Rata. I went to high school there from 1966-68. The school rented the Eastern Hotel. The Century Pines Resort is built on the land previously occupied by that hotel....some of the older buildings are still there. We always enjoyed going to the Indian restaurants after school for chapatis and curry (or sweet milk). I've hiked everywhere there is to go in the area.
29th March 2014

Re: Thanks for the memories...
Bob what a lovely spot for a high school! I wish the weather had been a bit clearer so we could have enjoyed the views from our walk, but the cool mist was also quite lovely.
28th March 2014
steamboat dinner

More yums
This steamboat dinner seems perfect--I love sampling bits of lots of things! So, you bought some "teh tarik halia (hot pulled sweet tea with ginger)." It should be fun practicing pouring it from on high--good luck!
29th March 2014
steamboat dinner

Re: More yums
Tara the problem with 'sampling' is that it can so easily slip into 'over sampling'. I wish we had more hot pot/steamboat restaurants in Australia. We are so hooked on teh tarik halia! :)
29th March 2014

Cameron Highlands
It was scary just reading about that ride down from the highlands--would have been terrifying. Where do you put all that food?
29th March 2014

Re: Cameron Highlands
Hi Aileen, so glad you've been able to finally access the blogs. Hope you can read the earlier ones too. The Cameron Highlands drive was quite scary! So glad that the roads were in great condition.
29th March 2014

Food glorious Food
Seems your appreciation and adventurous approach to food has you living in heaven.
30th March 2014

Re: Food glorious Food
We certainly are! The food in Malysia has far exceeded our expectations. Hope you and Marg enjoy your last few days in Tassie :)
29th March 2014

They say it is hot in Malaysia!
Thank goodness for air conditioned buses. Your drive reminds me of the narrow roads and cliffs in Nepal and Bhutan. Glad you ran into friendly monsters. I love the term foodie wankers! Perfect. Glad you are enjoying your tea. I'm glad you continue on your quest to try each and every food this country has to offer! You are my hero. Your food pictures are wonderful. I feel like I'm right there with you.
30th March 2014

Re: They say it is hot in Malaysia!
Merry the roads in Malaysia are in brilliant condition. It's a pity we got that idiot driver... we didn't get to enjoy the gorgeous views as much I had wanted to. We still have so many more new dishes to try when we get to the east coast :)

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