Highlands and Islands in Malaysia

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August 20th 2010
Published: October 2nd 2010
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Workers relax on sacks of tea leaves..Workers relax on sacks of tea leaves..Workers relax on sacks of tea leaves..

..after another tiring day picking tea leaves in the Highlands

The Cameron Highlands

After having spent the last few weeks in the real heat of southern China and Malaysia, we decided we needed a bit of cool relief. To that end, we headed inland onto Peninsular Malaysia from Penang, and up into the mountains of the Cameron Highlands. Located at between 1,300 - 1,800m, in just a couple of hours drive the weather changed from 30+ Deg sunshine to <15 Deg and rain as we arrived. Helen was instantly thinking "this is more like it".

We kept hearing how the Cameron Highlands are just like Scotland - which has a grain of truth to it. On arrival, you are greeted with lush green hills and mock tudor guesthouses offering tea and scones and homemade strawberry jam. Due to being located within the tropics, the mild climate and almost daily rainfall that we experienced is the same weather as they get all year round. This creates great conditions for growing certain crops and allows multiple harvests each year, making the region very productive. In particular, there are large tea plantations, strawberry farms and honey farms dotted throughout the rolling hills.

The Malaysians who visit in particular go potty
The forest dwellers come out for the cameraThe forest dwellers come out for the cameraThe forest dwellers come out for the camera

Posing in the Cameron Highlands
over the strawberry farms as most have never seen strawberries before. They flock to taste the strawberries and try out "pick your own". Helen and I were less excited by this, pick your own having been a regular feature of both our childhoods. And they are very proud of their homemade strawberry jam (although it's pretty good, Helen maintains that her dad's strawberry jam still beats it hands down ;-).

The large number of farms in the area has also resulted in another relic of colonial times. There are huge numbers of old style land rovers that are seen regularly roaming the roads of the highlands. Apparently, these are the only vehicles that can manage to get up the steep dirt tracks that are often washed away in the area. Quality British engineering!

One thing that really did get our interest was a visit to a tea plantation. One of the biggest of these and the one we visited was started by a Scot 80 years ago, and is still run by the same family today. Being big tea drinkers, we found actually learning about and seeing the process of tea production fascinating. Travelling through the rolling hills
Tea plantation in Cameron HighalndsTea plantation in Cameron HighalndsTea plantation in Cameron Highalnds

Lots of very well trimmed bushes
full of tea plants, which are set in terraces not dissimilar to rice terrraces, was also very picturesque, watching the occasional worker cutting off the young leaf tips. It's pretty hard work and the workers receive only around 4p/kg of leaves they collect, as well as free housing and medical care. However, there are lots of leaves to collect. Due to the very fast growing conditions in the highlands, each tea bush is ready to be pruned every 3 weeks, and they generally live for 200 years. Doesn't look like we need to worry about rationing our morning brews, then ;-)

Visiting the tea factory allowed us to watch the processing of the leaves from bush through to the cup. It's a very short time frame, around 24 hours, and involves drying, withering, fermentation, more drying and finally sorting of the leaves.We also learned how the best leaves are sold whole, and only the worst quality tea leaves (essentially the dust left over from the process) are used to make tea bags.

The black tea from the Cameron Highlands is sent to various companies across the world, before being branded to the more familiar tea companies we are
Enjoy the final product overlooking the tea plantationEnjoy the final product overlooking the tea plantationEnjoy the final product overlooking the tea plantation

A fine body but with a lingering bitter after taste!
used to at home. Having a cup of locally produced tea overlooking the tea plantation was a nice ending to the tour, although not quite as satisfying as tasting wine while overlooking a vineyard i have to admit!

The rest of our time in the highlands was spent doing some day hikes in the jungle around the area. The cooler weather meant much more comfortable trekking conditions. Some of the views from the highpoints provided really dramatic panoramas across the highlands and beyond down to the coast we had travelled from at Penang.

Within the highlands are a number of (sort of) marked paths that can be followed, with routes ranging from 1 hour to 6+ hours. These pathways are not used by too many people, which means that the jungle still feels fairly pristine, and allows trekking in relative solitude. In particular, we really enjoyed one walk with a long term resident at our guesthouse, a Malaysian called Yen.

Yen left a desk job in the big city in KL 10 years ago, and came to the Cameron Highlands in search of an alternative life. He has become the authority on all the trekking to be
Helen is guided by the heavenly lightHelen is guided by the heavenly lightHelen is guided by the heavenly light

Early morning walking in the Cameron Highlands
done in the area, and walks every single day. If people want to, they can come along with him for a walk.

It turns out Yen is also fabulously entertaining company, and we learned so much on our walk not only about the flora and fauna around, but about Malaysia and Malaysians in general. Yen told us he is drawn to becoming even more of a mountain man in his later years, and intends to live in a treehouse in the highlands, enjoying the peace and solitude to the full. We think he is too good to chat to, and think that we will have to go and visit him just to chew the cud when he's up that tree!

After 5 days of drinking tea, eating scones and discovering the highlands, we moved on to hit the east coast of Malaysia.

The Perhentian Islands

A 5 hour drive from the Cameron Highlands brought us to the port town of Kuala Besut, where we boarded a speed boat for the 30 minute hop across to the Perhentian Islands. It was a pretty fast journey across quite choppy seas which resulted in slightly bruised backsides as
Coral Bay, Perhentian KecilCoral Bay, Perhentian KecilCoral Bay, Perhentian Kecil

This was the beautiful view from the balcony of our guesthouse
we arrived at the islands. However, the beautiful view as the islands rose up in front of us instantly made up for the discomfort.

The Perhentian Islands are made up of 2 islands separated by a few hundred metres of sea, the larger Perhentian Besar and the smaller Perhentian Kecil. On both islands, a few resorts and beach huts line some of the most beautiful beaches. There is no town on either island and no vehicles at all. All transport is by boat (including taxis between islands) and the beach huts and hotels are the only inhabited parts of the islands. The interior remains lush, tropical jungle.

Our transport boat dropped us at the beach right in front of our hotel for the night on the larger island. I think our beach hut looking out across the sea for sunset was probably the most idyllic location we have stayed at to date. Snorkelling was possible right off the beach, and a locally caught fish barbeque dinner was served at tables set up on the beach at nightfall. Bliss, basically.

The commendable lack of development does however mean that there are a limited number of rooms on the islands, and in high season beds can be hard to come by. We couldn't find a room after our first night on Perhentian Besar, so the following day we moved across to spend the next 2 nights at Coral Bay, on the smaller Kecil island. While Perhentian Besar is more aimed at couples and families on holidays, Kecil has much smaller, budget type accommodation, which is generally aimed at backpackers (i.e. us). Again we had a great location looking out onto the beach.

During our time on the islands we did some snorkelling during which we spotted a black tip reef shark and a green turtle swimming in the calm waters between the islands.

Due to the Perhentians being located in the northeastern, more conservative area of Malaysia, the local residents are devout Muslims. As we were there during Ramadan, each restaurant would close between 19:30-20:00 to allow for the breaking of fasting for the day. This made us realise just how difficult it must have been for the residents, serving the tourists food and drinks all day while fasting.

This also explained another quirk of the islands, a relative lack of alcohol. At most other beachy places we have been to, we have been used to alcohol being freely available (a very prominent feature, usually). However, most shops on the beach we were staying at had no alcohol on sale. Restaurants could sometimes provide cans of beer, however, these were not displayed on menus and were kept out of sight.

There were however one or two bars present on one of the beaches, Long Beach, a 10 minute walk from our beach, which freely served alcohol and partied late into the night. After wandering over to the beach, it was obvious this was where the younger crowd (and us!) congregated at night.

And they certainly made up for the teetotallers. The choice at the bar was either a beer, or a bucket. Now, having had a few beers in our time, we were intrigued by what a bucket was. It turns out a bucket is a sandcastle sized bucket, which is usually filled with ice, lemonade and a small bottle of the local spirit, called "Monkey Juice". A handful of straws are the finishing touch, and there you have a drink ready for however many people as you like to get stuck into at
A bay off the PerhentiansA bay off the PerhentiansA bay off the Perhentians

We saw 2 baby black tip reef sharks patrolling this bay while snorkelling here!
once! It actually tasted all right (well of course we joined in, when in Rome etc ;-). This end of the island was also where the less discerning brand of gap year Brit was to be found. Someone equally ignorant of the local poison - but less fussy about finding out what it was in advance - as overheard by Mike at the bar: "I'll have a bucket of whatever". Excellent.

Kota Bharu and the Thai Border

After some really lovely days chillaxing on the islands, it was time to leave the beautiful Perhentians. We moved North along the coast to the border town and state capital of Kota Bharu for a short hiatus before moving on to Thailand. Kota Bharu is a workaday Malaysian town with nothing too exceptional to mention, apart from the fantastic food at the night market. Yes, Malaysia had managed to seduce us one last time with some lip smackingly amazing food.

Of particular note in this corner of Malaysia was the blue rice (it's tinted blue with herbs), some more fantastic Indian food on offer, and murtabak, which is an Indian pancake that is stuffed with either a chicken and
Setting up for dinner on the PerhentiansSetting up for dinner on the PerhentiansSetting up for dinner on the Perhentians

The perfect place to enjoy freshly caught fish by candle light
egg mix, or a banana and egg mix, and fried to give the most wonderful texture. Kota Bharu is a very Muslim town, and we did find that we had to eat well at night as it was very difficult to get any food at all during the day, due to Ramadan continuing to be observed.

We also found very friendly people in Kota Bharu who were generally interested to chat to us and find out where we were from. It was a really nice way to end our time in Malaysia, before moving onwards north and into Thailand.

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


If hitler were a cat.....If hitler were a cat.....
If hitler were a cat.....

...this is how he would probably look
You need to watch where you step when walking around the PerhentiansYou need to watch where you step when walking around the Perhentians
You need to watch where you step when walking around the Perhentians

A monitor lizard patrols the beach on the Perhentians
Certainly put us offCertainly put us off
Certainly put us off

Surely worse than simple prosecution
Dinner at a Hawker Centre in Kota BharuDinner at a Hawker Centre in Kota Bharu
Dinner at a Hawker Centre in Kota Bharu

Rice tinted blue is the local speciality, along with delicious Murtabak on the side.

2nd October 2010

Mike, Good to hear you and Helen are doing well. Keep the updates coming so i can live vicariously through the two of you. Cheers Dean
4th October 2010

So jealous ...
Helen and Mike - I've just dipped into your lives to catch up on the last few weeks of your travels. Have to psyche myself up to doing this as invariably leads to prolonged depression for days after!! It's just lovely to read all about your travels, you both write so well. Makes an extremely pleasant change from child care anyway ... Cx
7th October 2010

In all the time in Malaysia I've never been to the Highlands - it looks fabulous and will have to try if I go back there. Love your photos from the Perhentian Islands, again another place to add to a check list of places to visit :-) I've passed through Kota Bharu (NewCastle), but only really saw the airport and the roads there, but intrigued by the blue rice. Reading you blog makes me think I need to take a long holiday...

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