Back in 2013, I was planning on continuing my backpacking trip south from Thailand overland towards Kuala Lumpur, but of course I completely ran out of time and had to fly. However, the sound of tea plantations in the hills of the Cameron Highlands stuck in my head, so when I planned my little mini tour out of Singapore, I knew I wanted to visit this former British haven. Now that I've been, the question is: should you include it on your next trip?
First up, let's look at the history of this area. Around the turn of the century, the British "discovered" this area and decided it would make a great secondary base for their soldiers to be able to relax & unwind (and possibly keep their eyes on the tin trade). Since the mountains are so high, the temperatures are MUCH nicer than they are elsewhere in the country, and for a while it was booming - filled with cute half-timber lodges and even a golf course. Tea plantations were started, and even the famous American silk magnate Jim Thompson vacationed here from his home in Bangkok. He also disappeared one day walking along the road, leading to an international mystery that still has never been solved. I think officially the story is that he was killed by a tiger, but underground theories swear he was a CIA agent & was assassinated. It's honestly fascinating, and there's an entire nook dedicated to the event in the little history museum in the main town (one of the articles from the exhibit is shown here, and here's the wiki page on it if you want to learn more). BUT anyway, it wasn't until the main highway was paved in the early '90's that the new tourism boom exploded. The tea plantations were joined by all sorts of other kinds of farms, notably strawberries, and the town of Brinchang started building huge high rise hotels & condo buildings. The neighboring town of Tanah Rata became a well-trod stop on the backpacker trail, and yet - the British charm held on. Strawberries and scones and delicious hot tea is still served pretty much everywhere in the afternoon, and even some of the large new buildings have at least nod to the original half-timber style. Plus, the natural beauty and cooler temperatures haven't changed, making this once again a haven for tourists.
Where to Stay: As I stated above, the town of Brinchang is the less charming town, and is really targeted to the local weekend tourists (mostly local Malay or Indonesians, many of chinese descent, apparently). Tanah Rata is likely much better for you, with a few historical options, as well as guesthouses and budget accommodation. However- I wanted the full-on British retreat feeling, so I went with the charming & historically authentic Lakehouse. It's located about 15 minutes south of Tanah Rata (about a $5 cab ride), and while the lake is sadly no longer as clean & nice as it once was, the hotel itself is a GEM. From the warm welcome (they sit you down in the bar with a fresh cocktail and cool towel), to the lovely rooms and comfy lounge - it's just an awesome place to relax. The restaurant on-site is elegant, and serves both western/British fare along with more local options. There's a great porch overlooking the muddy lake where you can have your tea/cocktails/lunch, or just relax with a good book. They also have a little trail up into the hills behind the house if you want a little taste of jungle trekking with your stay (just bring your bug repellent for that one, trust me). In short - I'm SO glad I chose to splurge a bit and stay out of town - I definitely got the calming, quiet stay I was looking for (even if the highway does run in front of the hotel). Here are a few pics from the hotel, and also two I grabbed from the bus as I passed through Brinchang, just to give you a comparision.
What to Do: For a "relaxation" haven, there is actually a lot to do here, but it's a little divided between what I might call tourist traps and actually interesting sites. The tourist traps are, unfortunately, quite visible. There are tons of farms along the road, and each one of them has a tasting room & shop and maybe even something else. Now- don't get me wrong - freshly picked strawberries in season are pretty great, and being able to do that at lots of different farms is pretty cool. If Lavender is your thing, you'll see some of that too. Butterflies? Check, but you'll also see there a ton of crazy insects and "exotic" animals like ... chickens, and guinea pigs. (Seriously!) The problem with all these farms is that they generally cover all the growing things with plastic or greenhouse domes, so that mars a bit the beauty of the hillsides, and takes away from the bucolic setting. OH- also, there is a "market" in Brinchang that we walked through, but instead of having fresh produce from the region, they have cellophane wrapped corn (A TON of that), cellophane wrapped tomatoes & such, and cellophane wrapped stuffed animals (of the pikachu variety). It was... odd. The aforementioned museum (the Time Tunnel Museum, also in Brinchang) was adorably kitschy, and had some pretty cool historical shots of the area, so though that was a total tourist trap, it was actually entertaining! On the other side of things - the tea plantations are seriously GORGEOUS. The first one I saw on the way down to my hotel almost took my breath away. There's just something about the pattern the bushes make on the hillsides that is really unique & interesting. I took a tour that took me through the Boh plantation, guided by a grandson of the former manager of the plantation. He was amazing - my tour was with Eco Cameron, which I pretty much loved (minus some of the "traps" I mentioned above). He explained all about the tea making process - like, did you know that black tea, white tea, English breakfast, green tea - they're all made from the same plant? Just processed in different ways! We also had a chance to enjoy a cuppa in the gorgeous tasting room, and take a peek at the factory (which was shutting down by the time we visited). BUT, the really wonderful part of my day tour and visit to Cameron Highlands was actually the "Mossy Forest". This is a tiny sliver of cloud forest that sits at the top of the ridge up above 6000 feet (the highest point you can reach by road in Malaysia). Our guide explained that they've been working hard to get this area protected and declared a national park, which will be great because it is SUPER cool. It was just so fun to scramble around over slippery roots covered in moss, peek out over the super steep drop-offs, see the different pitcher plants and a few baby orchids that were blooming. We also climbed up to the abandoned (?) radio tower to look out over the hills- just gorgeous!! I will note that I was not visiting on a weekend, and it wasn't a holiday or high season (when local kids are on vacation), so we didn't have any traffic or crowding issues - but apparently during those busy times, it can be a NIGHTMARE. Even during our "empty" visit of the cloud forest, we had to deal with a few other groups in the same little forest area as us, and tons of cars making their way up & down the teeny one-lane road. I can't imagine what it's like in crowded times - make sure you avoid school holidays if you can!! Here are some pics of the "traps", the tea plantation, and the mossy forest (I might have gone overboard with the shots over the tea fields... sorry!):
That's actually not even all of the cool things you can see & do in the Cameron Highlands. Because all of the tea workers have immigrated over from India, there are lots of little Hindu temples dotted around the region. Each worker village associated with a tea plantation has one, and you can certainly visit one (we ran out of time, sadly). They're fun little pops of color when you see them. Also you can find some Buddist temples in the area as well, due to the Chinese immigrant and/or Peranakan population prevalent in Malaysia. The other thing that would be awesome to do if you really fell in love with the area: trekking. I did not have time to do much more than my little hour jaunt out from the hotel, but this area is lined with trails - some of which are not well maintained and apparently have some safety issues - but with good planning & local advice, doing some hikes around here would be amazing. FYI- the tigers that used to be a menace in this region have all be chased/hunted off, so that's not a worry anymore. Soo - what do you think? Did I convince you that it's worth a trip? It's only a few hours from Penang and/or Kuala Lumpur, or just two hours from an airport in Ipoh (another apparently interesting town I didn't have time to explore). I think that if you're prepared for what you'll get, you can have a lovely few days out of the heat up here!