Before I write anything about the Cameron Highlands, I will tell you about a discovery I made at the airport. Walking around the duty free shops at Kuala Lumpur’s brand new US$1.3B KLIA2 terminal – just to kill time – I chanced to glance at the price of cigarettes.
I don’t smoke, but $14 a carton seems like a normal price for cigarettes, if you remove all the taxes. Maybe $20?
But this brand was almost 10 times more. Luxury Chinese cigarettes. I did not know such a thing existed.
As I usually do when I transit in Kuala Lumpur, I didn’t visit anything or do any touristy activity, just enjoyed the food, the vibe and the glitzy malls, like this one in the process of decorating for Chinese New Year (year of the red monkey, 8 Feb 2016).
During this trip to South-East Asia I also discovered something I had never noticed; the attraction and popularity of all things Japanese. I’ll tell you more in a couple of days.
This story is not about Kuala Lumpur, but I will mention one last thing, food prices outside the city center. I usually don’t find Malaysia especially cheap, but I don’t go were people of modest means go. At the suburban bus station where I caught my transport to the Cameron Highlands, several international and Malaysian food chains were present, but they had yet to open. So I went to a sort of cafeteria full of a mix of local travellers and bus station workers.
Granted, this chewy bread (roti) and sauces / curries is not the most elaborate breakfast ever, but it was delicious. And look at the price: 2.85 Ringgit. That’s US$0.67, including the coffee! I later showed that to a Malaysian tour guide. “Wow, that’s really cheap”, he said. By comparison, at a Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur, a coffee alone is 9+ Ringgits.
The Cameron Highlands have been a popular vacation spot for a long time, because as the name suggests, they are high in the mountains and the higher elevation provides a welcome break from the oppressive heat of Kuala Lumpur.
The road up the mountains is a long and winding one, which clearly affects some people.
There are a few places you can base yourself in, and I chose the small town (village?) of Tanah Rata. It reminded me a little of an alpine ski resort. After checking in, I asked the receptionist for a restaurant recommendation. She suggested one of the 2 Indian restaurants next to Starbucks. For at least a second, my brain was trying to process what she had said. What does she mean by “Starbucks”? Because surely she doesn’t mean an actual Starbucks, in this small remote village, or does she?
– “There is a Starbucks here?” I asked.
– Laughing: “EVERYBODY says that!”
This being a vacation spot, accommodation is a little pricier than in the rest of Malaysia, but in the center of town, you might find modest rooms not found on Booking.com. Unfortunately, these ones are for Muslims only.
Perhaps patrons are happy not to have to share a hotel with dirty unbelievers like myself? I don’t actually know anything about this hotel, but I will assume it is mostly about sex with goats. And the goats are exceptionally not sexy, not even a tiny little bit. Of course, maybe my assumption is incorrect, but I will never, ever be proven wrong, since I can’t stay there and find out for myself. And that is the flip side of exclusion.
Appart from the pleasant weather, the Highlands are about hiking and “agricultural” tours.
One popular spot is this strawberry farm. Like others in the region, it grows the strawberries in pots, protected from the sun and the rain, and not in the ground. You can pick your own and enjoy fresh strawberry juice.
One restaurant grew their own and made a spicy strawberry chutney or sorts. Very interesting to try, but I am not sure it will ever become an international hit.
I drove up the mountain with a little group to watch the sunrise. The driver/guide then decided to drive down a bit, and again a second time, saying the clouds were too low and we would see nothing. The area is certainly very cloudy.
I often say that my pictures don’t do justice to the beauty of this or that. In this case, my picture is much better than reality. Without the super low ISO setting and long exposure, this landscape was close to pitch black!
Now at this point is was back to reality being much more stunning than the picture. Sunrise over the tea plantation.
The “Mossy Forest”. It’s popularity has resulted in a lot of damage to the trees, and wisely, local authorities have decided to close it to tourists for a year or two, until the vegetation recovers. I took this picture from the road.
Another mountain scene, taken from the top of an observation tower.
Most tours go to the BOH tea plantation (actually, one of their plantations). They are the largest producers of black tea in the country. The small factory on this site, built in 1935, still operates with vintage machines, but you can tell it’s small scale production, probably kept up for touristic and historical reasons. The main factories are elsewhere. The company is a fourth generation Scottish family business, founded in 1929 by J.A. Russell.
The restaurant sells high priced snacks and tea, but offers a million dollar view over the fields.
Tea used to be picked by hand and workers would gather about 30 kilos a day. But for a while now, they have been using this 2 man machine, which cuts the top leaves and blows them in a bag at the rear. Two workers can now pick 300 kg per day. In flat regions, tea is now harvested by tractors that can pick up to 9,000 kilos a day. These improvements in technology have greatly improved the income of the field workers… Is what I would write… If we lived in a fairytale world. The reality is that this is tough, low-paid work.
Another typical stop, rose “gardens/farms”. The roses were not that nice, but there were a few pretty flowers. However, the butterfly garden was really worth a visit, and I was delighted to have brought my telephoto lens.
I know, not a butterfly. They also had scary critters. So a few butterflies, and next time I will write about the town of Ipoh.