As pictures speak for themselves, I have no need to laud the beauty of the Highlands or tell you much about why you should go. 🙂 Pictures were exactly what drew me there myself. Those scenes of rolling, lush hills of tea bushes got my expectations up, even though I always do my best not to have any at all. But expectations are inevitable. To my surprise, the Cameron Highlands was better than anticipated and became one of my favorite places in South East Asia.
Why was it so good? Probably because I got to ride on the top of a Ranger Rover through the mountains of a tea plantation! Call me a child, but that was serious fun. And stunningly beautiful. I felt quite special up there too since our guide was the only guide who allowed his guests to ride on the roof.
While the Land Rover ride was exciting, the features that gave the Highlands such popularity do indeed live up to their reputations. The weather was significantly cooler and quite refreshing. We were thrilled to throw on pants and jackets. The tea plantations were absolutely spectacular and learning about the tea-making process was fascinating. Who knew green, white, and black tea all came from the same bush? The scenery, where the jungle was, overflowed with thick, wild, and wonderful vegetation. My memories of the area are also peppered with rain storms, pure strawberry juice and kittens (our hostel’s owner’s cat had recently had three adorable kittens).
Good to Know
There are three things that might be helpful to be aware of before visiting:
1.) Without your own transportation, you’ll most likely need to take a tour to really see the highlights. Traveling with a near rock bottom budget, we tend to shy away from costly tours. A great tour in the Cameron Highlands likely won’t set you back more than 50 ringgit though, so it is definitely an easy and worthwhile investment. (Read further down about why we really loved our TJ tour.)
2.) Before going, we heard the laments of local Malaysians over the logging and deforestation practices currently destroying much of the greenery in the Highlands. The balding of large hills did stand out and struck a sad chord in us, especially as it causes problems due to the heavy rainfall that the Highlands receives. Some of the areas are being turned into new tea plantations, but for the time being, the loss of beauty is a shame.
3.) Most backpackers stay in the town called Tanah Rata as the accommodation options outside Tanah Rata tend to be pricier resorts. That said, the town itself is pretty dumpy, even though we read that it has improved as of late. If the town was nicer, we would have liked to enjoy the cooler weather longer. As it was, we spent 3 or 4 nights there, saw everything we wanted to, and then headed off to Taman Negara, the National Park.
To get to the accommodation options after alighting the bus at the station in the middle of town (not the local bus station farther out) face the Lord’s Cafe across the street and walk left up the hill. Take the first left. There will be two rows of buildings. TJ, CH, Orchid, and Camellia can be found around there. Twin Pines is at the end of the street. Take the left at Twin Pines and you will find the Father’s Guesthouse and KRS.
Decent budget accommodation options are slim pickings, but at least they are all pretty close together, so you can run around and check out them all (like I did…) and choose the best/least dirtiest. It is true that prices are higher here.
These are the most popular budget options I am aware of:
KRS Pines: decent option; it was my backup plan. located right behind the Father’s Guesthouse.
Twin Pines: has a pretty outer garden, but within it was terribly worn down. You can stay in their attic beds for only RM 15-20. The guy who greeted us was quite rude and quoted RM100 for us which was completely ridiculous. We paid RM95 for a nice hotel in Ipoh.
Camillia: really bad.
Father’s Guesthouse: Best option for most people, probably. Staff was friendly, great atmosphere, clean. Bathrooms were shared though and most rooms are only for two. The place was almost completely booked when I arrived. Not enough space for us.
TJ Hostel: We stayed here. I was immediately impressed by the kindness and easy-going nature of the owner. He showed me the dorm (mixed), a room on the third floor for three people (RM90) and a budget two single bed room in the hostel for RM55. He suggested that all three of us could stay in the RM55 room if we wanted. So we did! I travel with my own little blow up mattress, so it wasn’t a problem. The nicer rooms are on the second and third floors. The third floor is quite a lot like an apartment, with a little kitchenette and common area. Everything was quite clean and free coffee, tea, and water were available all day long. The restaurant below the hostel rooms played John Denver songs on repeat late into the night though. Just make sure to stick in some ear plugs. 😉
Orchid Garden: Probably the most “backpacker-ish” place available. While I saw a mix of guests at TJ’s, Orchid Garden seemed to attract 20-30 year-old travelers. The dorm was already full, but we almost took their room for four with a discounted price for the three of us (RM110), until my mom saw a guest walk out of the room we were going to stay in after having used the bathroom…
CH Travellers Inn: pricier, so I didn’t look inside. Seemed pretty standard in relation to all the other places.
Singh Chapati Urban Restaurant: To the left of Birdhouse Hotel, go immediately into parking lot and around to the front. Inexpensive, good Indian food. Highly recommended.
Barracks Cafe: Pricier but good food.
Coffee and pancakes at Capitale Coffee.
Our Adventure with TJ Tours
We took the 8am-2pm half-day tour with our hostel’s tour company, TJ Tours. The half-day program included the BOH tea plantation, the mossy forest, the butterfly garden, and a strawberry farm. Sounds like a solid, packed itinerary, right? Our tour guide was named Michael and the three of us were his only clients for the day. The half-day tour cost RM50 each person, but they very generously didn’t charge for Grace, my handicapped sister.
We started out the morning by driving to the Scottish owned BOH tea plantation. BOH stands for Best of Highlands. Michael dropped us at the most scenic spot to take pictures and then taught us about the process of growing and harvesting tea. We learned from our Malaysian guide that the people who work on the plantations come from Bangladesh and India, Malaysia’s poorer neighboring countries. They are paid relatively nothing in Malay standards. But when people from Bangladesh and India hear about the plantation jobs in Malaysia, they consider the pay decent enough for what they think will be an easy job. When they start working however, they learn just how hard the work is. I forget the figures for how much they are paid per kilo of tea leaves that they harvest, but it isn’t at all close to being high enough to reflect the intensity of the labor.
BOH was an ideal plantation to visit as it is the largest tea plantation and the largest black tea manufacturer in Malaysia. You can drive down to tea center to learn about and view the tea production process. The center of course gives you the chance to purchase some tea as well. Tea, cake, and a bit of other food can be bought and enjoyed in a large cafeteria surrounded by windows with spectacular views of the tea plantation. Most of the cake was around RM10-12, so being able to enjoy the opportunity was pleasantly affordable.
We drove 40 minutes up the mountain, with hills of tea all around, to the very highest peak. From there, we climbed an old tower to catch a bird’s eye view of the forested mountains.
We were then given the option of taking a hike through the mossy forest, which we were warned would be muddy, or walking through the forest on a boardwalk. Seeing as we had already visited a butterfly garden on our first visit to Kuala Lumpur, we decided to cut out the butterflies (as dearly as I love them) and went on both hikes instead. If you have to choose, I would chose the mossy forest without hesitation, although both were great experiences. Michael stopped a few times on our walk to point out different plants and their uses. He described the forest as “nature’s pharmacy.” The wild ginger, spearmint, and other plants were useful for stopping bleeding, healing stomach problems and colds, being insect repellent and much more. It was fascinating to learn. He also taught respect for the moss in the forest, as it is rare and often destroyed and misused. Michael did an excellent job as both a nature enthusiast and guide.
A Tea Plantation In Walking Distance
If you want more views of tea, there’s another, smaller tea plantation in walking distance from Tanah Rata, about 3km away. Walking along the main road out of the little town will bring you straight there. Cameron Valley Tea Plantation signs will tell you how much farther you have to walk after every kilometer. It’s a nice walk and something to do on a relaxed day. We were not charged to see the plantation and there were cakes, scones, and tea available to enjoy with the view. You are also able to walk along the rows of tea if you wish.
I hope you enjoy your visit as much as I did mine!