Peninsular Malaysia’s densely populated west coast, from Kuala Lumpur north to the open border with Thailand, is rich in cultural diversions and natural attractions. Nowhere showcases Malaysia’s rural delights better than the Cameron Highlands, a former hill station offering fresh air, forest treks and British-style cream teas. Between here and the coast, Perak state (perak meaning “silver”) once boasted the world’s richest tin field, which during the nineteenth century spearheaded Malaysia’s phenomenal economic rise. Perak’s major towns – Ipoh and Taiping echo those days in extensive quarters of Chinese shophouses, with a more Malay experience available at unassuming Kuala Kangsar. Offshore, Pulau Pangkor is known for its pleasant, low-key beaches, a popular weekend break for families from KL.
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North up the coast, Penang Island – or rather its capital, Georgetown – is a major destination. Centuries of trade and interaction with India, Britain, Indonesia, Thailand and China have left a melting-pot of cultures (not to mention architecture and food). Penang’s drab beaches, however, are probably best skipped in favour of exploring the island’s smaller settlements and forested corners.
After Penang, most visitors aim straight for the Thai border, though the intervening states of Kedah and Perlis hold some interest. These are Malaysia’s historical jelapang padi, or “rice bowl”, a sprawl of rippling, emerald-green paddy fields; there’s a strong Thai influence too, though the state capitals, Alor Star and Kangar, are visually very Malay, sporting prominent mosques and royal buildings. The biggest regional attraction is Pulau Langkawi, an upper-end resort island with a couple of fine beaches, clearly targeting international, rather than domestic tourists. Harder to reach and far inland on the Kedah–Thai border, Ulu Muda Eco Park offers adventurous nature trekking, though access can be tricky.
The Cameron Highlands
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Kedah and Perlis
The northernmost third of the west coast is filled by the states of Kedah and Perlis, the latter being Malaysia’s smallest state at just 800 square km. These are the country’s agricultural heartlands, the landscape dominated by lustrous, bright green paddy fields stretching off in all directions. That wealth has seen the region (ruled by Malay sultans since the fifteenth century) invaded over the centuries by the Thais, the British, the Thais again, and the Japanese in World War II. Indeed, Kedah only reluctantly joined the Federated Malay States in 1948.
Neither state’s capitals– Kedah’s Alor Star, or Kangar in Perlis – demands a trip in its own right, but the major resort island of Pulau Langkawi, with its fine beaches and forested interior, makes an attractive (if expensive) place to pull up for a few days, perhaps en route to the Thai border – which you can cross by boat from the island, or by road and rail through Perlis. Less visited local sights include Ulu Muda Eco Reserve, and the important archeological remains outside tiny Sungai Petani.
Alor Star (Alor Setar)
The tidy state capital of Kedah, Alor Star is a thoroughly Malay city, very conservative in feel for the west coast, with a prominent mosque and former sultan’s palace right in the centre. This traditionalism is doubtless partly a reaction to the proximity of the Thai border, just 45km north; the town has been through a century of Thai rule since its foundation as a royal capital in 1735. A compact place that can be easily seen in a day, Alor Star holds enough architectural and cultural interest to make a worthwhile pause on your way to or from Thailand, Ulu Muda Eco Park or the ferry to Langkawi. Be sure to dress appropriately, given its largely Muslim population.
KANGAR, the Perlis state capital, is an unremarkable town whose compact city centre, a shabby mix of old shophouses and concrete box architecture focused around the Kangar Square D’Mara shopping complex, sits immediately north of the little Sungai Perlis. It’s really only somewhere to change buses, most likely if you’re heading between the Thai border and Langkawi. About 10km east, ARAU is the least interesting of all Malaysia’s royal towns – the Royal Palace on the main road is closed to the public and looks like little more than a comfortable mansion – but it’s the nearest train station to Kangar.
Situated 30km off the coast, just south of the Thai border, Pulau Langkawi is at 500 square kilometres the largest of an archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands. Its white-sand beaches are easily the best along the entire west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, and Langkawi’s charms consist largely of lazing around on the sand, perhaps taking time off for a mangrove cruise after sea eagles, to snorkel or scuba dive south at Pulau Payar Marine Park, or to ride the Langkawi Cable Car over the interior forests to the top of Gunung Mat Cincang.
Once a haven for pirates, Langkawi has in recent years been converted into an upmarket resort destination aimed at Saudis and Europeans, complete with its own airport and some of the country’s priciest hotels. That said, there’s relatively little high-density development, and a growing sprinkle of budget-end accommodation means that the island is fairly affordable for a couple of days, even if your funds are limited. It’s also popular with Western yachties, as a cheaper place to hang out than Phuket in Thailand – and Langkawi’s special duty-free status means a case of beer costs only RM25.
There’s no reason to stay longer in Langkawi’s main port, Kuah, than it takes to arrange transport west to the beaches and mid-range developments at Pantai Tengah and Pantai Cenang, or the exclusive, self-contained resorts scattered around the island’s northwest. Well-formed roads circuit Langkawi, though with no bus service, exploring further than walking distance from your hotel can be costly. If you are on a budget, don’t come anywhere near Langkawi during national or school holidays, when room rates can double.
SUNGAI PETANI, 35km north of Butterworth, is the jumping-off point for the archeological site of Bujang Valley, and Gunung Jerai, the state’s highest peak. Both lie northwest from town, on separate roads; without your own vehicle, you can’t visit both in a single day. The town itself has nothing to detain you beyond its transport terminals and handful of places to stay. A clock tower dominates Jalan Ibrahim, the main north–south road through town; from here, a side road directly to the east leads to the train station. One block south of the clock tower, another side road branching east, Jalan Kuala Ketil, crosses over the tracks and leads to the express bus stop – little more than an open yard and some food stalls. A further block south and west is Jalan Petri, which continues west past the local bus station, taxi stand and some budget hotels.
Ulu Muda Eco Park
Hidden away in Kedah’s northeastern corner, up against a remote section of the Thai border, Ulu Muda Eco Park is thick with salt licks, old-growth rainforest and wildlife. As well as birds and reptiles galore, it offers a reasonable chance of encountering elephants and tapir, though sightings of the resident tigers and sun bears are far less likely. The park also encloses a man-made lake, Tasik Muda, and the only way in is by boat from Gubir, not much more than a jetty and resort 75km east of Alor Star; a two-hour sampan ride from here lands you deep inside the park at the Earth Lodge Field Research Centre. Hiking tracks link the lodge to limestone caves, hot springs (which many animals visit early in the morning or at night, when the temperatures drop), and wildlife hides.
Despite the threat of logging that hangs over the area, Ulu Muda remains genuinely remote, so getting here is both time-consuming and expensive. The only practical way to see the park is on a tour, but if you want to experience less touristed jungle than that at Taman Negara, this might be the place to come. Note that August to December can see heavy rainfall, but the park is still accessible; in the dry season, you might have to push your boat over a few sandbanks to reach the lodge.
Most visitors whisk through Perak State, which occupies most of the area between KL and Penang, and is crossed by the rail line and fast expressway. Between the sixteenth century and the 1960s, tin kept Perak wealthy, causing fisticuffs at various times between Dutch, British, Thai and Malay factions, funding a royal seat outside modern Kuala Kangsar and leaving the cities of Taiping and Ipoh awash with solid colonial and Chinese architecture. These, along with the Cameron Highlands remain interesting places to step off the tourist trail for a day or two and take in ordinary life in modern Malaysia, though Perak’s most popular attraction is the laidback resort island of Pulau Pangkor, accessed from Ipoh via the port of Lumut.
Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill)
Up in the hills 13km northeast of Taiping, BUKIT LARUT – known in colonial times as Maxwell Hill – is Malaysia’s smallest and oldest hill station. The climate is wonderfully cool, and on a clear day there are spectacular views down to the west coast. This is the wettest place in Malaysia, however, so the top is often atmospherically shrouded in cloud. A scattering of elderly bungalows offer accommodation, but for many visitors the stiff walk up here through the forests, with the chance to do some birdwatching, is the main draw; you’ll need a full day for this, even if you manage to catch the limited Land Rover service up to the top and then walk back to town.
While Ipoh is the administrative capital of Perak, KUALA KANGSAR, 50km northwest, is its royal town, home to the sultans of Perak since the fifteenth century and later the seat of Perak’s first Resident, Hugh Low. Built at a grandiose sweep of Sungai Perak, it’s a small, workaday town, with a colonial monument in the Malay College on Jalan Tun Razak, its elegant columns and porticoes visible as you approach the centre from the train station. Founded in 1905 as an “Eton of the East”, it was a training ground for the sons of Malay nobility, with its discipline and traditions more English than in England, even if the schoolboys were required to wear formal Malay dress, as they still do today.
Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve
The Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is Peninsular Malaysia’s largest surviving spread of mangrove forest, most of which has been extensively cleared for development, or in more manageable quantities for charcoal production (still practised nearby). However, since the 2004 tsunami off Sumatra killed over 200,000 people across Southeast Asia, there’s been a lot of interest in preserving mangroves; the trees’ mesh of aerial support roots form a natural breakwater, absorbing some of the force of tsunamis and thus protecting coastlines from inundation. They’re also rich breeding grounds for small marine creatures from jellyfish to fiddler crabs, mudskippers and archer fish (and, sadly for visitors, sandflies and mosquitoes), meaning plenty of food for larger animals – including rare marine otters and river dolphins.
Over a century old, Matang Mangrove Reserve is reckoned to be a model of environmental protection. Extensive boardwalks lead above the black mud through a forest of tall, thin trunks and mangrove ferns; keep eyes peeled for monkeys, wild pigs and swimming snakes. You can also stay here in basic, self-catering cabins – contact the reserve for details.
With some of the best beaches on this side of the Malay Peninsula, the laidback island of PULAU PANGKOR, though barely 10km long, makes a thoroughly pleasant place to spend a weekend, and an increasingly popular retreat with Malaysian families up for an easy break from KL. Its mountainous centre remains thickly forested and largely inaccessible, so there’s little distraction from enjoying beach life. There are a couple of fishing towns on the east coast, developing tourist enclaves across the island at Pasir Bogak and hornbill-infested Teluk Nipah, and not really that much in between. Surprisingly then, Pulau Pangkor played an important part in Malaysian history when the Pangkor Treaty was signed here in 1874, which led to the creation of the Resident System.
Pangkor is an easy ferry ride from mainland LUMUT, a small port and Malaysian Navy base 80km southwest of Ipoh. The only time things get really busy on the island is during school holidays and the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, celebrated on the full moon in mid-February or early March. The unmissably gruesome spectacle lasts two days; processions start out on the beach at Pasir Bogak, and end at the Sri Pathirakaliaman Temple on the east coast.
The Resident System
In 1873, Rajah Abdullah of Perak invited the new Governor of the Straits Settlements, Andrew Clarke, to appoint a Resident (colonial officer) to Perak, in exchange for recognizing Abdullah as the Sultan of Perak instead of his rival. This held some appeal for the British, whose involvement in Malay affairs had hitherto been unofficial, so on January 20, 1874, the two men signed the Pangkor. The idea was that the Resident – each state would have its own – would play an advisory role in Malay affairs in return for taking a sympathetic attitude to Malay customs and rituals.
The interpretation of the newly created post was in the hands of Hugh Low, whose jurisdiction of Perak (1877–89) was based in Kuala Kangsar. The personable Low lived modestly by British standards and his linguistic skills won him favour with local chiefs. Having spent nearly thirty years in Borneo, Low was great friends with Charles and James Brooke, and sought to emulate their relatively benign system of government.
The approval of the Malay nobility, vital to the success of the Residency scheme, was secured by compensating them for the income lost from taxes and property. This suited the sultans; they obtained financial security through healthy stipends, and also got political protection from rivals. As time went on, lesser figures were given positions within the bureaucracy, thus weaving the Malays into the fabric of the administration, of which the cornerstone was the State Council. Although the sultan was its ceremonial head, the Resident chose the constituent members and set the political agenda, in consultation with his deputies – the district officers – and the governor.
It is doubtful that the Malays understood the treaty’s long-term consequences, as initially the decision-making process was collective, much like the Malays’ own courts. As the power of central government increased, however, fewer meetings of the council were held, and the British involvement became less advisory and more reformatory. Sultan Abdullah, bent on acquiring local power and status, thereby inadvertently allowed the British a foot in the door, which ultimately led to their full political intervention in the Peninsula.
Set against the backdrop of the mist-laden Bintang Hills, TAIPING – like so many places in Perak – owes its existence to the discovery of tin in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The name is Chinese; it could mean either “Great Plain” or “Great Peace”, though the latter is unlikely given the numerous violent clan wars here between rival Cantonese and Hakka factions during the 1860s. Despite this, mining wealth helped fund many Malaysian firsts at a time when Kuala Lumpur was barely on the map: the first English-language school in 1878; the first hospital in 1880, established by the Chinese; the first rail line in 1882, built to facilitate tin exports; and the first museum in 1883. As Perak state’s capital until 1937, and with the nearby hill station of Bukit Larut (formerly Maxwell Hill) serving as a retreat for its administrators, Taiping was at the forefront of the colonial development of the Federated Malay States.
Nowadays, bypassed by the North–South Expressway and replaced in administrative importance by Ipoh, Taiping is declining gracefully, its streets lined with tattered architectural mementoes of its glory days. Even so, it’s a pleasant place to spend a few hours at leisure, exploring the small, walkable centre and green Lake Gardens, though you’ll need a full day to ascend Bukit Larut or take in the nearby mangrove reserve.