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The International Writers Magazine
:
Malaya

Disappearing in Cameron Highlands
Rachel Chan


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.

So, shirking 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 Asli.
 
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.
 
Jungle Trekking
 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 me out.
 
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.
Ye 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.
  Been there, done that
 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
reishizuno@yahoo.com

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