Malaysia's Little England
MELANIE LEE explores the Cameron Highlands, checking out Victorian houses, strawberry fields and, of course, tea and scones. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DARREN SOH
There are three things I recall from my family trips to Cameron Highlands as a child: winding down the car window to have my face whipped by a gust of chilly wind; competing with my sister to see how many strawberries we could stuff into our mouths; and my mother, prancing around a rose garden exclaiming, “This feels just like England!”
For my parents, Cameron Highlands was where they got their English countryside fix via its lush green hills and cool mountain air. Having lived in London for several years, they would often reminisce about their road trips to the Lake District, and they attempted to recapture those quaint experiences with the cheaper alternative of driving up to these mountains to the north of Malaysia from Singapore.
They weren’t the first ones. In the 1920’s, Sir George Maxwell, a British colonial administrator of Malaya, earmarked these 712 square kilometers of highlands –– the area is 1,500 meters above sea level –– as a hill station and a retreat for troops who were only able to return home every eight years. In 1885, surveyor William Cameron discovered this place during a mapping expedition and gave an endearing report back to the authorities, describing the locale as “a vortex in the mountains, while for a wide area we have gentle slopes and plateau land.” There was also an abundance of fertile ground. So up popped vegetable and fruit farms, nurseries, apiaries and tea plantations along with bungalows, a golf course and a hospital.
One of the most striking things about Cameron Highlands is its temperature, which ranges between 12 and 25 degrees Celsius, a refreshing contrast to the sweltering tropical humidity in the rest of the country. My first morning, I take a short stroll and realizing that experiencing sunny 16-degree Celsius weather is not only a novelty in Southeast Asia, but it also makes you considerably less irritable. “Many guests come here for peace of mind. When you take in deep breathes of this cool, fresh mountain air, you instantly release all that tension,” says Krishna Badhur, the manager at The Lakehouse, a refurbished 18-room Tudor-style country house built by a retired Colonel Stanley Foster in the 1970’s.
To complement this gorgeous weather are delightfully kitsch elements of 1950’s England, which have remained in Cameron Highlands long after the British left in 1957. The Lakehouse has Victorian bric-a-brac, creaky wooden stairs, a crackling fireplace in the lounge and an afternoon tea menu of fresh scones with strawberry jam. On the roads, battered Land Rovers rattle about, laden with vegetables and fruit. Outside of military bases, Cameron Highlands has the densest Land Rover population in the world, initially thanks to a few generous British soldiers who passed their vehicles on to local farmers after Malaya declared its independence. They became the vehicle of choice for the 33,000 residents because of their ability to withstand the rough mountain terrain.
My husband Darren and I explore the more rustic parts of Cameron Highlands in a tan Land Rover with mossy forest guided tour. My childhood trips had predominantly involved strawberry picking and drinking sweetened tea at plantations, the easiest activities at the time to occupy bratty little girls. But now that I’m a little more grown up, there is a lingering fascination to explore more of this hill resort town that feels so different from any other part of Malaysia.
While heading up to Gunung Brinchang, the highest point in the country at 2,000 meters, we chat with a Norwegian couple, Johan and Anna Faaberg, expats who live in Kuala Lumpur and are experiencing Cameron Highlands for the first time. “Our friends told us to go to the Genting Highlands, where there’s a casino and an amusement park. But we’re Scandinavian. We need something a little more isolated and closer to nature. This place fits the bill, it feels just like a cool summer back home,” says Johan.
Our guide Satya Nagamuthu from Malaysiana Eco Tours, has lived here all his life and researches indigenous plant life. His father was a tea planter from central India, arriving with the British to help with the tea plantations. “I grew up running through tea plantations and exploring these forests. There were all kinds of adventures,” he says. After climbing up the Gunung Brinchang lookout tower where we are greeted with a stunning view of the Titiwangsa Range, we trek down the road through a forested shortcut to get to the mossy forest trail. “You’ve probably never been to a place like this. It’s like entering Pandora from Avatar.” Satya tells me.
Try enough, this 250-million-year-old mountain rain forest takes our breath away. “Hardly European countryside anymore,” whispers Anna, sounding slightly awed. Moss and lichen in rich hues of green, purple and brown coat the stumpy, gnarled trees, exuding a sense of otherworldliness. The ground we walk on has a thick, brown consistency –– it’s like walking on chocolate cake ––and it gets spongy from the dew. Satya points out some interesting flora like the pitcher plant that preys on insects enticed into its cupped leaves. There’s also the bilberry plant, whose fruit is said to improve night vision –– apparently it helped communist insurgents who hid here in the 1960’s with their guerilla warfare. Satya offers tips on how to decide which plant or fruit is edible, knowledge he’s gained from befriending the Orang Asli, an indigenous minority that still lives in this rain forest. “They say that you will live a long life just by breathing in the sacred air of this forest. However, if you are heading back to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow, then you’ll probably get a heart attack soon,” says Satya with a twinkle in his eye.
More sardonic quips come from our guide as he warms up. “Oh look, there’s a Strawberry Head,: Satya mutters as we drive past a teenager wearing a bulbous pair of strawberry earmuffs. He recounts with a shudder that last Christmas, there was a Strawberry Santa Claus going around with a strawberry-shaped gifted bag. Perhaps this is one aspect of “English countryside” gone too far. There are around 30 hydroponic strawberry farms here, and countless strawberry themed shops and stalls scattered across the Cameron’s five settlements selling every kind of strawberry memorabilia imaginable, from umbrellas to bathroom mats. The aggressive market must be working. When we go to Big Red Strawberry Farm, the place is packed, and the apologetic staff tell us that there are no more strawberries left to pluck from their nursery –– but if we like, we can buy some from their souvenir shop. So instead of stuffing my mouth, I comfort myself with a strawberry milkshake at their Strawberry Café.
Things are less fortunately less frenzied at the BOH Sungai Palas Tea Plantation, probably the most iconic tourist attraction at in the highlands. BOH (Best of Highlands) is Malaysia’s leading tea company. Run by a Scottish family since 1929, the stylishly sleek tea center is located at the edge of a hilltop facing a vast landscape of Camillia sinensis bushes on gentle, rolling hills, glistening in the sunlight. It doesn’t get more British colonial than having afternoon tea by the plantations. There’s naturally relaxing charm to this experience, probably one of the few travel luxuries in the world that isn’t too exorbitant.
By the end of the trip, I’ve got mixed emotions about the Cameron Highlands. Its majestic mountain views, pristine mossy forests and elegant manor lodging hark back to my mother’s romantic notion of this place as a charming country getaway. At the same time, commercialization has made its mark with all the souvenir shops, new hotels and plans for a shopping mall. Locals like Kalaiyasari Ramasamy, the guest manager at The Lakehouse, notice that Cameron Highlands has become slightly warmer from the recent development and burgeoning number of tourists. Yet in spite of this, she says that the charm of the area will remain. “I’ve always pictured Cameron Highlands as this elegant Victorian lady who is a little cross with how people are treating her at the moment. But the show must go on. She’ll make sure that everything stays beautiful.”