Tea and Trekking

Trip Start Mar 13, 2010
Trip End Feb 13, 2011

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Flag of Malaysia  , Pahang,
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Salam damai again from Malaysia. Although from the ever-so colonial Cameron Highlands, a "Good Afternoon chaps" is probably more appropriate!

Since Mark's last entry we've travelled further north (and a lot higher up), leaving the oppressive humidity of KL for the rainy highlands!

Our journey was a harrowing four hour rollercoaster ride in a very old 'coach' on narrow roads snaking around mountain-sides. I tried to distract myself from the speed at which we were sliding around the corners, as well as the sheer drop to my right, by taking in the amazing scenery of the mountain-side on my left. Lush green rainforest and countless waterfalls zoomed past, wild monkeys and big colourful birds were given my full attention for the seconds they were visible before turning into blurs and disappearing around another perilous bend!

Perhaps I'm being unfair to our driver, he may have been going a little fast along the single-lane roads with almost zero visibility of the road ahead at any time, whilst talking on his mobile... but he did honk his horn as he approached most of the bends to alert on-coming traffic! (He didn't slow down of course).

To add insult to injury - after chatting to a couple of the other passengers (united by the mutual fear for our lives) we discovered that everyone had paid a different price for the journey! The prices varied from 20RM to 70RM (Mark and I only paid 23RM [about GBP4.60] each thankfully), however each passenger had the same tickets with the price blanked out with a black marker pen. After some investigative research, (all holding tickets up to the light) we discovered the printed price was actually 17RM. That's the price for being a tourist I suppose!

Anyway, we miraculously arrived in Tanah Rata in one piece and were surprised to find that our hostel (where we were paying GBP7 a night for a double room) had provided us with a free mini-van to take us there from the station!

The suprises kept coming as we arrived in a really nice lodge with super friendly staff. This particular hostel had received some really bad reviews from various travel websites and some travel guides which they've clearly made a big effort to overcome. They even had a library of over 1000 DVDS (all pirate, naturally) to watch. Needless to say Mark was over the moon!

As soon as we'd thrown our stuff into our room we headed out to explore the town of Tanah Rata... which took all of five minutes. There really wasn't a town to speak of as such, just a row of shops running along side the main road. However, we soon discovered an amazing Indian place where we had lunch with one of our fellow victims of the horrific bus journey. (Who looked and sounded scarily like Paddy's dad - for those of you who know him - it was quite unsettling!)

After some awesome Indian we headed back to our hostel to book some excursions and watch DVDs!  The temperature dropped so much that evening that I actually had to dig out a jumper for the first time since we left Africa! We also discovered a drawback to having the jungle on your doorstep (literally), noisy frogs! Imagine a class of primary school children being let loose on a box of wooden percussion instruments, this was roughly the sound which 'lulled' us to sleep. There were also some incredibly loud bangs sporadically throughout the early evening which I'm still not sure were gun shots or fireworks. I'd like to think the latter.

The next day we woke up early to head out on our first excursion, a 4x4 with Buffalo horns on the front came to pick us up - a fantastic omen for the levels of awesome-ness to come!

There were only four of us the trip, a guy from Newcastle, a French guy, Mark and myself. The other two guys were really nice and we chatted away during the 45 minute journey, so it seemed like no time until we pulled up to the edge of the jungle where we would be trekking. (Despite being surrounded by jungle, we headed to this point to pick up a guide from the nearby Orang Asli local village to take us to where he had seen some Rafflesia flowers in bloom).

We picked up our guide and then drove a further 20 minutes INTO the jungle. Another insanely scary journey as the mud was deep, wet and VERY slippery. More than once we slid horizontally instead of forwards however my 'looking at the pretty scenery out the window' trick didn't work this time as there was nothing but a few feet of mud and then a sheer drop to my left!

Eventually our driver admitted defeat so we disembarked and began trekking a little before the end of the track. Within about 2 minutes of leaving the car my legs were COVERED in thick orange mud. However, before I could despair too much over the terrain, we approached a bridge made of (literally) just bamboo branches over a river.

Despite initial reservations on my part, the trek was actually really good! As we wove our way deeper into the jungle (trying to keep up with our super-fast guide who was only in flip-flops!) the thick canopy began to block out a lot of light and it grew darker the further we went. At various stages we had to climb up/down steep banks of rock and mud and crossed some particularly scary rapids by walking along a tree that had fallen across the river! After just under an hour however we reached the Rafflesia. For those who don't know, the Rafflesia is the world largest flower and each one only blooms for a matter of days every few years. It's also supposed to smell like rotting flesh hence it's local name of "corpse flower", however it may be a reflection of how we smelt after an hour's trekking that initially it seemed odourless to all of us!

We stopped for some time near the two flowers, one was at the end of it's life (it did smell quite bad when you lent over it and it was surrounded by flies) and the other was only a few days old, and had just finished unfurling it's fresh petals. They were amazingly big, and so strange to look at (so unnatural) that I had to keep reminding myself that they weren't some cartoon-like artificial props. They're so elusive we were very fortunate to be able to see them - I'd read about them in my Malaysian research but never actually expected I'd be able to see one in the wild, let alone two!

After trekking another hour back i was ready to collapse into our 4x4 but it was just a short drive back down the muddy track (eyes to the left this time) before we reached the Orang Asli village where we stopped to try our hand at shooting a blow pipe!

The long weapon was surprisingly light, made of bamboo it could shoot up to 30meters. We were aiming at a make-shift score board about 10 meters away, needless to say the boys all got a little competitive and it was Mark who left as the victor with a shot just shy of the bulls-eye.

We were dropped back into 'town' that afternoon absolutely ravenous and headed to a little cafe at the end of the street. It was a perfectly English tearoom serving sandwiches, chips and even scones! Looking out at the grey clouds which had begun to cover the sky and the subsequent rain that followed whilst drinking a cup of tea was enough to make us feel truly homesick.

Our other excursions were not quite as physical as our first (thankfully as I could barely move the next day!) The land in the Cameron Highlands is very fertile, and the English weather provides a great climate for growing a wide variety of produce, cue visits to a rose farm, strawberry farm, bee farm and a Tea Plantation.

The tea plantation was awesome. You can't drive anywhere in the Cameron Highlands without passing rolling green hills covered in a patchwork of tea bushes. We got to learn about the complicated stages involved in the harvesting and processing of tea leaves on a tour around the factory (which smelt amazing!). We then had more tea and scones in the cafe overlooking the plantation.

Another highlight was the world largest indoor maze in Malaysia. This was at the bee farm and consisted of a room full of MDF painted white... in a maze format. To add to the weirdness, they were playing Lionel Richie's "I just called to say I love you" on loop. I'm pretty sure it would be an effective form of torture for most sane people but Mark and I found it hilarious and even got a free strawberry keyring at the end as a prize for completing it! (To be stored safely in pride of place with the Malaysian Customs Museum keyring).

All in all our five days in the highlands flew by, a haze of tea, scones and British weather with a jungle backdrop. Like the Rafflesia, it was surreal but amazing. Definitely a place to go for anyone who's looking for a home-away-from-home in Malaysia or just a quiet break for a few days with some amazing scenery. Quiet until the frogs start-up anyway..
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