The International Writers
in Cameron Highlands
To kill off severe stress
obtained by too much cramming near the final exams, I meditated
long and hard on the merits of taking a holiday. Finally, after
an onslaught of Fassbinder films over the weekend which only served
to aggravate my already overworked brain I decided that a breath
of fresh air would be best for me.
my closest responsibilities off to a trusty friend, I grabbed my faithful
old backpack (albeit slightly torn) and set off to travel by myself to
an unfamiliar place for the first time. Only one thing stood in my way,
though. Deciding on a holiday destination wasn't easy, not when I was
on a shoestring budget and had no idea on how to budget travel.
Figuring that I would get fresh, unpolluted air, I settled on Cameron
Highlands, tourist destination par excellence, site of the Communist insurgency
in Malaya, as well as home to the indigenous people of Malaysia, the Orang
There are three towns in Cameron Highlands District, Brinchang, the highest
up, followed by Tanah Rata and Ringlet. A direct translation of Tanah
Rata, where I planned to stay would be " Flat Land". The cool
mountain climate is suited to tea growing, strawberry farms, as well as
being the provider for the bulk of greens consumed nationwide.
So there I was on a weekday, carefully planned not to coincide with the
dreaded school holidays, all set with first-timer traveling garb. The
only other time I'd ever travelled uphill was to visit the indigenous
community in Chiang Mai, and I was dressed rather outstandingly in shorts.
So, assuming that I had a sort of natural affinity for cold places, I
elected that a black t-shirt and a black pair of Bermudas would be my
clothes for the entire three-day two-night stay. If the other residents
did not already kick me out because of the smell, that was.
Hitting the Town
Reaching the Tanah Rata bus station after a near 5-hour drive from
10.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. I was famished. I immediately hurtled off to the
nearest hint of food while the other passengers who were certainly not
traveling light unloaded their mobile homes from the bus. As the throng
of tour operators circled in the foreign tourists with their fliers, I
rushed to grab a bowl of steaming hot porridge at a fast food joint, the
nearest means of salvation. Then refreshed, I decided to take a stroll
around town, having earlier spotted a sign saying "Town Library".
I got lost initially, and ended up glimpsing a school on top of a hill,
the famous SK Convent. The building was a gift of the colonial times,
once run by nuns. I would've ventured closer for a better photograph,
but was afraid that teachers would wave me away with canes, thinking I
was a paedophile.
Nevertheless I did manage somehow to wander into yet another school. As
I was walking along what seemed like a park, what appeared before me but
a bridge over a river leading straight into school grounds. Two boys sat
reading manga timidly made their way as I passed by. It appeared that
people in this town did not set many boundaries, and tourists and townsfolk
were allowed to walk rather freely anywhere. Later on I would notice a
much older school prefect crossing through the park to get to school.
I did finally find the library, which was a quaint little place from the
outside. As I stepped in the foyer, I was greeted by a diorama of an English
drawing room, with displays of traditional Malay costume on one side and
portraits of Malaysian leaders above the fireplace. The ambience was dark
and cosy, like what a colonial teahouse might have been. When nobody looked
I snapped some pictures.
Dinner was somewhat nondescript as I chose not to try our popular recommended
spots. I settled for a claypot dish of fish and vegetables and of course,
Chinese tea. It was fulfilling, to say the least. But the real clincher
came when finally settling in my hotel room, I contracted a headache from
eating to many dried strawberries downed with Bharat tea.
The Obligatory Cameron Tour
Amidst the schools, library, and dinner I blindly wandered around Tanah
Rata town, stopping at a teahouse. On its window was plastered a poster
advertising a tour of the obligatory famous places to visit in Cameron
Highlands. This being my first time here I jumped at the notice and went
in to enquire. I then purchased my tour ticket from the tea shop, something
I never thought tea shops sold. I was to wait for my tour guide tomorrow
at the tea shop at noon.
We finally met each other, the tour guide and I, at 1.45 p.m. as promised.
It turned out I was the only one to join the tour, so I got a private
tour. This was advantageous to me as I got to go to places not included
in the list. Our first stop was one of these. The latest feature of Cameron
tourism, the Time Tunnel, was a museum featuring Cameron's evolution since
its pioneers to today.
The underground structure was strategically lit to emphasise its design,
which featured heavily its 60s heyday relics. A Harley was parked suggestively
in a corner while a reenactment of a bar graced the inner court. Mementos
such as P. Ramlee posters with famous actresses of the day together with
Coca-Cola memorabilia and cigarette box collections were displayed stylishly.
Some mining artefacts were laced around as well, complete with documents
detailing its uses. Jim Thompson had a whole section devoted to his disappearance.
After that we visited a rose farm situated 1600 m above sea level, a strawberry
farm where I tried fresh strawberries, a bee farm (which I didn't go in
because bees were freely buzzing around), and the unavoidable Sungai Palas
Boh Tea Estate. My tour guide Chandran, a very knowledgeable one, told
me about the lives of the tea plantation workers and how they had to climb
up the tall mountains to pick tea leaves at minimal wages. I was amazed
by the fact that the climb up those mountains were a daily obligation
for these workers, mainly from Indonesia. There was in fact, a lot of
global trade going on, with Malaysian Chinese farmers subcontracting land
to Bangladeshi workers and Indonesian ladies running shops in Tanah Rata.
The guy running the Time Tunnel was in fact, a Nepali.
A rocky start marked my attempt at jungle trekking. Albeit flat,
Trail 6 (the easiest trail) posed some challenges. There are around 14
trails altogether, mostly laid out by the British pioneers. I had my foot
up to my calves in quicksand. The helpful tour guide, Chandran, pulled
I threw off my sandals and attempted the Orang Asli style of tracking
the swampy mangroves. The view from the watchtower was magnificent. One
could glimpse the whole town as well as the farms from a bird's eye view.
Far across stood the tallest peak at 2000 meters high. Even Jim Thompson,
the Thai Silk King's famous mansion was visible. Around us the ring
of trees spread out from the secondary forest to the primary jungles.
Inside the primary jungles the water was still fresh and drinkable, clear
enough to see grains of sand. A solitary milipede lay curled on a bark,
which Chandran picked up and showed to me. It didn't hurt at all when
I dispensed with my inhibition of curly animals and tapped it lightly.
Its body was hard and unmoving.
there, done that
Olde English Smokehouse
After half a day of climbing, Chandran and I took a drive
to the nicest inn around Tanah Rata, the infamous Ye Olde Smokehouse.
This place was an exact replica of what an English cottage would
look like in the days of the pioneers, with its Tudor architecture,
antique phonebooth (which Superman would have been comfortable using
as a wardrobe) and sprawling rose gardens. Not being a patron I
only managed to peek in, catching a hint of elaborately furnished
antique drawing room. I was told that prices per night in this inn
could reach from RM 300 to RM 900. Well, certainly something worth
saving money for in the future.
All said and done, the trip by myself to Cameron Highlands was a
success. I had my breath of fresh air at the top of the mountain peaks,
avoided the town air as it was polluted by continuous stream of vehicles,
exercised my feet in the jungles, and had my obligatory shot of the Cameron
wildlife. I also had now a collection of more than 40 photographs, one
of my main goals. With that, I set to complete my one last daunting task
before I left for good. Before me, loomed the mountain of trash I had
accumulated in my three days of trashing the hotel room.
© Rachel Chan July 2007
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