When Malaysians want a break from big city bustle or lowland heat, they head to the Cameron Highlands, a gloriously scenic region of tea plantations, butterfly farms and beautiful hill walks
If you asked the average person where the Cameron Highlands are, they would probably reply ‘in Scotland somewhere’. They could be forgiven for thinking that - but actually the highlands are the underrated gem of Malaysia.
They are a mish-mash of Asian culture, Tudor architecture and Swiss alpine village atmosphere, all rolled into one beautiful destination. The area is probably most famous for its collection of tea plantations, not to mention butterfly and strawberry farms. Any would-be hiker or outdoors enthusiast will be in heaven here, as there is a plethora of walking trails circumnavigating the entire area. And the beauty of it all is that even the most frugal traveller will be able to make their money go further here - this is Asia, after all.
The architecture isn’t the only thing that the Cameron Highlands have in common with their European counterparts – the other thing is the weather, which is somewhat unpredictable. When the rain was pouring down, and we donned the warmest clothes in our suitcases, it was hard to think that a mere three-hour bus ride away, other parts of the country were tropically warm and humid.
What to do
There are tour operators every second step offering special deals, and if you want the guesswork taken out of your trip then it’s a good way to go. Personally, I would recommend putting on your adventurer’s hat and exploring the area yourself. You can get a local bus up to the BOH Tea Plantation and take a scenic walk from the entrance to the tea house and gift shop (about 45 minutes). Just keep in mind that the bus services are sporadic at best and there are no formal schedules or bus stops along the way. The tea room at the plantation is a little pricey but they sell delicious pastries and sandwiches along with the different teas. It’s really relaxing to sit with a cup of tea and enjoy the views of the plantation.
There are a host of other tea plantations such as Sungai Palas and Cameron Valley Tea. There are also several strawberry and butterfly farms along the main road through the Cameron Highlands.
Another must see is The Smokehouse Hotel, a mock Tudor hotel well-known for its cream teas, where you can settle down in a comfy chair and read a book in front of the fireplace while feeling awfully regal.
As mentioned above, the Highlands are perfect for any outdoors enthusiasts, as there are lots of different walking trails, all passing through picture-perfect scenery. The trails range from quite simple to rather challenging, and are not exactly well marked – so know your limits.
Tanah Rata and Brinchang are packed full of different places to eat. The main road in Tanah Rata has a wide selection of a restaurants and one of our favourites was the Rosedale Bistro, where you absolutely have to try the Chinese Steamboat. You are provided with a gas cooker and a big bowl of water and vegetables; they then bring you various plates of raw, fresh ingredients, which you cook as you go along. At the end they bring your choice of soup, which they add to the bowl and you drink it. The food can be eaten with a delicious accompanying chilli sauce, and is a real bargain at about RM16 (c£2.70) per person. Believe me – there won’t be space for dessert after this meal.
There are various other restaurants along the main road, including Indian, Chinese and Western. There are also several small supermarkets if you are on a tight budget.
Where to stay
We stayed at Fathers Guest House, which was superb. It is situated at the top of a hill in a picturesque location with great views of the area. There is a variety of accommodation available here, from private double rooms to dorms. It was originally geared towards backpackers, but we found many different people staying here. The guest house has everything you need, from internet access to a lounge with TV and games, and there is a restaurant serving hearty and well-priced meals. The manager clearly has some paternal instincts and some strict rules, but it ensures that the place is well run. Double rooms with attached bathrooms go for RM80 (c£13.60) per night; a double room with shared shower is RM50 (c£8.50). There is other accommodation available in some rather odd structures that look like air-raid shelters.
There is a lot of choice when it comes to accommodation in the Cameron Highlands, from basic to five-star luxury. So really, your budget is the only determining factor.
The Highlands aren’t exactly the Mecca of shopping, especially compared with Kuala Lumpur. But there are several markets where you can find some bargain deals, such as the Brinchang night markets on Fridays and Saturdays. We came somewhat unprepared for the temperamental weather and each picked up a designer jersey for less than US$8.
There is a laundromat as well as several internet cafes in Tanah Rata.
We caught the bus from Ipoh; it's a three-hour journey and costs RM10 (c£1.70) per person. There are also daily buses from Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore. There are no trains that go into the Cameron Highlands.