Around 200km north of KL, surrounded by the dark blue, forested peaks of Banjaran Titiwangsa, the Peninsula’s main mountain range, the CAMERON HIGHLANDS form Malaysia’s most extensive hill station. The place took its name from William Cameron, a government surveyor who stumbled across the area in 1885, though not until forty years later did civil servant Sir George Maxwell propose developing a hill station here. Indian tea planters, Chinese vegetable farmers and wealthy landowners in search of a weekend retreat flocked in, establishing tea plantations and leaving a swathe of mock-Tudor buildings in their wake. Though it gets packed out at times – especially during the March to May hot-season school holidays – it offers excellent nature walks, a pleasantly cool climate, plenty of fresh air, and the chance to sample locally grown strawberries or relax with tea and scones.
The Highlands cover around 700 square kilometres, cut by the twisting Route 59, which links the three main townships. Southerly Ringlet is a busy little marketplace surrounded by modern housing estates, close to a couple of attractions but otherwise forgettable. Some 15km northeast, Tanah Rata is the Highlands’ main town and favoured base, at the core of walking trails and flush with places to stay and eat; 5km further north, scruffier Brinchang offers more of the same, plus several nearby fruit and vegetable farms.
With hills in every direction, the weather in the Cameron Highlands is unpredictable, and you can expect rainstorms even in the dry season. It makes sense to avoid the area during the monsoon itself (Nov–Jan), and at major holiday times if you want to avoid the crowds. Given the 1000m-plus altitude, temperatures drop dramatically at night – whatever the season – so you’ll need warm clothes, as well as waterproofs.Read More
The tidy town of TANAH RATA, the Highlands’ most developed settlement, is a bustling place festooned with hotels, white-balustraded buildings, flowers and parks. It comprises little more than one 500m-long street (officially called Jalan Besar, but usually just known as “Main Road”), full of stores, services and restaurants; most of the accommodation lies off down the handful of side lanes. Since the street also serves as the main thoroughfare into the rest of the Highlands, it suffers from daytime traffic noise, but at night becomes the centre of the Cameron Highlands’ social life, with restaurant tables spilling out onto the pavement.
Tanah Rata is an ideal base to explore the Cameron Highlands, with many walks starting nearby, a couple of waterfalls, and three reasonably high mountain peaks all within hiking distance.
Some 5km north of Tanah Rata, BRINCHANG is a more compact, built-up, busier and less attractive township; with additional places to stay and eat, it makes a decent alternative to Tanah Rata if the latter is full, and a lively night market takes place uphill from the centre on Fridays and Saturdays. Brinchang also sits at one end of the walking trail up to the summit of Gunung Brinchang.
Sights on Brinchang’s outskirts include the modern Sam Poh Temple, 1km southeast, a Buddhist affair whose gaudy red concrete halls and terraces offer views over the area. Just north past the night market, the quirky Time Tunnel Memorabilia Museum (daily 9am–6pm; RM5) is a private collection of photos, toys, shop signs and bric-a-brac dating back to the 1950s. Five minutes’ walk west lands you at the Big Red Strawberry Farm (daily 8.30am–6pm; wbigredstrawberryfarm.com), where you can pick your own strawberries and tomatoes, or drop in for tea and scones at the café.
North of Brinchang
North of Brinchang
All over the Cameron Highlands – but especially north of Brinchang – you’ll pass small sheds or greenhouses by the roadside, selling cabbages, leeks, cauliflowers, mushrooms and strawberries. These are the produce of the area’s various fruit and vegetable farms, where narrow plots are cut out of the sheer hillsides to increase the surface area for planting, forming giant steps all the way up the slopes; over forty percent of the produce is for export to Singapore, Brunei and Hong Kong. Sungai Palas tea plantation is out this way too, along with the vehicle road up Gunung Brinchang.
Tea and tours
Tea and tours
Tea is such a feature of the Cameron Highlands that it would be perverse not to visit a plantation during your stay, where you can investigate the growing process and enjoy a local cuppa. Despite the romantic imagery used on packaging, handpicking is now far too labour-intensive to be economical; instead, the small, green leaves are picked with shears. Once in the factory, the leaves are withered by alternate blasts of hot and cold air for sixteen to eighteen hours; this removes around fifty percent of their moisture. They are then rolled by ancient, bulky machines that break up the leaves and release more moisture for the all-important process of fermentation. Following ninety minutes’ grinding, the soggy mass is fired at 90°C to halt the fermentation, and the leaves turn black. After being sorted into grades, the tea matures for three to six months before being packaged and transported to market.
The following plantations are open to the public, and offer varying attractions:
Boh 8km northeast of Ringlet via Habu (wboh.com.my). See the whole production process – from picking to packing of the tea – at Malaysia’s largest tea producer. Some areas of the tour are extremely dusty, so take a handkerchief to cover your mouth and nose. There’s also a pleasant café on the premises.
Bharat between Ringlet and Tanah Rata (wbharattea.com.my). No tours, but the café serves a range of local teas along with scones and other snacks, and enjoys views out over the tea terraces.
Sungai Palas 6km north of Brinchang (wboh.com.my). The northern Highlands’ branch of the Boh estates, though tea drinking, not tours, is offered here.
Walking in the Cameron Highlands
Walking in the Cameron Highlands
A network of walking trails makes the Cameron Highlands’ forests uniquely accessible, with prolific flora against a tremendous canopy of trees – ferns, pitcher plants, bird’s nest ferns, orchids and thick moss – through which you can sometimes glimpse spectacular views of misty mountain peaks. Some of the walks are no more than casual strolls through secondary growth woodland, while others are romps through what seems like the wild unknown, giving a sense of real isolation. Despite the presence of large mammals in the deep forest, such as honey bears and monkeys, you’re unlikely to see more than insects and the odd wild pig or squirrel.
Unfortunately, the trails are often badly signposted and poorly maintained, though despite their apparent vagueness, the various sketch maps sold in Tanah Rata (RM3–4) and at many of the hotels do make some sort of sense on the ground. The Cameronian Inn and Father’s Guest House in Tanah Rata are good contacts for current trail information and hiring guides.
The official trails are varied enough for most tastes and energies. You should always inform someone, preferably at your hotel, where you are going and what time you expect to be back. On longer hikes, take warm clothing, water, a torch and a cigarette lighter or matches for basic survival should you get lost. If someone doesn’t return from a hike and you suspect they may be in trouble, inform the District Office immediately. It’s not a fanciful notion that hiking can have its dangers – mudslides after rain, for example, are not uncommon.