Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands: Sipping Tea and Eating Steamboats
By Anita Isalska
To escape the notorious humidity in peninsular Malaysia, you have to head to the hills. Around 150km (93 miles) north of capital city Kuala Lumpur are the Cameron Highlands, a patchwork of jungly valleys, misty peaks, and manicured tea plantations. Named after the surveyor Sir William Cameron, a British colonial officer, the highlands retain all the hallmarks of the mid-19th century, when the British Empire was the dominant power in Malaysia. Tea farms cloak the hills, Tudor-style architecture is all around, and here, deep in Southeast Asia, there’s an enduring tradition of afternoon cream teas.
The Cameron Highlands encompass half a dozen small towns, from Ringlet in the south up to lofty Tringkap, all threaded together by the serpentine Highway 59. It took decades for Westerners to fully explore and develop the region, which now forms part of Pahang state. William Cameron rediscovered this inaccessible area in the 1830s, but his notes were lost soon after his death. It took further expeditions in the 1920s to fully map everything. Over subsequent decades, word spread about the Highlands’ cool breezes and mild temperatures, which made the Brits keen to flee the lowland heat to a climate perfect for cultivating their favourite plant, tea.
The Cameron Highlands are still famous for their tea production, and plantations established in the early days endure. In the southerly part of the valley, 7km (4.3 miles) north of Ringlet, is one of the most famous. Bharat Tea was founded in 1933 by an Indian-born entrepreneur and it remains a family-owned business four generations later.
Boh Sungai Palas
Much as the British did in the 19th century, modern Malaysians come to Cameron to seek respite from the sweltering cities. For visitors, one of the quintessential experiences is sipping a brew outdoors while gazing across the fresh, velvety-green hills. Boh Sungai Palas, 15km (9.3 miles) north of Bharat, has an especially lovely vantage point (pictured). The glass-fronted cafe adjoining this tea plantation (founded in 1929) is perched on the crest of a hill surrounded by fuzzy emerald valleys. Order a pot of loose-leaf tea, ideally spiked with cardamom or lemongrass—it’s the ideal prelude to exploring the rest of the Highlands, which are a playground of walking trails, fruit farms, and other outdoorsy delights.
From the outskirts of the tea plantations, walking paths spider across the hills and into the forests, some of them following 1960s military trails. Many involve a steep, muddy scramble through tangled undergrowth, but the rewards include spotting rainforest flora such as orchids and pitcher plants (pictured). The second-highest peak, Gunung Brinchang (2000 m/6,562 ft.), is one of the most popular hiking destinations because of its panoramic views, often draped in mist.
The Cameron Highlands are increasingly at risk from overtourism, with wide areas deforested to build holiday resorts. Some of the pathways have suffered from over-use, too, so when trekking in the region, consider going on a group hike with an operator like Eco Cameron, which takes care to minimize the impact of tourism on nature. Out on the trails, resist the urge to pluck flowers and, where the trail becomes muddy, walk straight through—going around the mud only creates a larger area of trampled damage. For the environment’s sake, then, you should pack good waterproof boots.
The world's biggest bloom
One of the most prized sightings along highland walking trails is the parasitic rafflesia, the world’s largest flower (pictured). This heavyweight bloom has thick, almost meaty-looking red petals. A large circular opening captures insects, which are lured by the rafflesia’s unmistakable stench. Rafflesia can grow to more than 7 kg (15 pounds) and well over a meter (3.2 feet) in diameter, taking nine months to reach its full size. They are fickle flowers: Rafflesia bloom only for a few days, usually after rainfall. July is an especially lucky month for sightings. After blooming, the mottled maroon petals rapidly blacken and die. Sightings are unpredictable, so hikers who are serious about seeing one should spend at least a week here and engage a good guide. Guides who guarantee rafflesia sightings should be treated with suspicion.
The Smokehouse Hotel
The roads darting off the main highway lead to countless vacation resorts, many of them strongly influenced by British architectural styles. The most striking is Tudor, which is easily recognisable by its black-and-white striped facades, tiled roofs, and rose gardens. A romantic example is the Smokehouse (pictured), a hotel and restaurant which has retained its time-worn glamour since 1939. That means classic, whitewashed guest rooms with four-poster beds and wood-beamed ceilings and, in the dining and lounge areas, tons of antiques. Dozing in a leather armchair while awaiting an afternoon tea with scones and cream, it’s all too easy to imagine you’re in a manor house in the English countryside.
Nothing could be a better accompaniment to afternoon tea than a locally grown strawberry jam. For decades, the Cameron Highlands have been the heart of Malaysia’s strawberry industry, and pick-your-own berry farms are wildly popular. On a drive through the region, you'll see gigantic strawberry sculptures on the roadside beckoning visitors to come pick juicy berries—or at least to grab a strawberry-shaped key ring. Several farms are dotted around Brinchang, a town in the heart of the Highlands. One of the best spots is Raju’s Hill Strawberry Farm. Either pick your own or sip a strawberry ice cream smoothie while browsing chocolate-covered strawberries and other takeaway snacks.
Going to market
The Highlands have built a reputation for farm-fresh fruit, vegetables, and honey. Kea Farm Market (pictured), just 300m (1,000 ft.) south of Raju’s, is a fascinating showcase of Malaysian produce like purple dragonfruit, sweetcorn, mangosteen, and the notoriously pungent durian. This is also a good place to look for jams, ice cream, and other locally made confections. After sundown on Fridays and Saturdays, a night market sets up in Tanah Rata (8 km/5 miles south), selling fruit and veggies alongside hawker food stalls cooking everything from barbecued corn on the cob to strawberry skewers and nasi lemak (coconut rice served with spicy sambal dressing and dried anchovies).
Sam Poh Tong Temple
Tucked away east of Brinchang is an unexpected haven of serenity: Sam Poh Tong, a Chinese-style temple built in the 20th century. Framed by majestic crimson and yellow gateways, this is the biggest religious building in the Cameron Highlands (and Malaysia’s fourth-largest Buddhist sanctuary). Pause outside to admire the burnished guardian lion statues by the main stairwell and to watch koi fish patrolling the pond. Then slip off your shoes and step inside to marvel at huge bronze statues representing the defenders of the tenets of Buddhism (pictured). Deeper in the sanctuary, walls are laden with thousands of individually hand-painted Buddha tiles. You’ll see devotees arriving to plant smoking sticks of incense in huge metal burners or lay offerings of lotus flowers and pomelo fruit before representations of Buddha. Coming here provides an uplifting moment of respite, away from the Highlands’ merry din of hill-walkers and chattering tea-drinkers.
Five kilometers (3 miles) south of Brinchang you’ll find the main accommodation and transport hub for travellers here, Tanah Rata. Compared to the other settlements, this hectic, hustling little town has by far the biggest spread of cuisines, from Malay Muslim to Indian, Chinese, and Dutch. The gastronomic highlight is steamboat (pictured), where fish balls, slices of meat, and vegetables are simmered at the table. The Mayflower, a casual restaurant just off Tanah Rata’s main drag, is one of the most reliable spots to enjoy it. Huddling around steamboat with friends or family, with fragrant steam curling up from the bubbling metal tureen, is an especially inviting prospect when the chilly highland mists descend.