Cool Getaway on Cameron Highlands

Trip Start Aug 15, 2006
Trip End Aug 27, 2006

Flag of Malaysia  , Pahang,
Friday, August 18, 2006

18 August 2006 (Friday)
I checked out of the hotel in Penang and hailed a cab to Sungai Niborg Bus Terminal – a no-choice situation. On the way there, the Indian driver told me that it was rare to pick up passengers to the bus terminal at Georgetown as most travel agencies provided transfers to the bus terminal using mini-van for only MYR$2/pax. I was not informed about this by the staff at the travel agency. Anyway, I reached the terminal 15 minutes later, and the taxi fare was MYR$20 (the bus from Penang to Cameron Highlands costs only MYR$23.50). 

On the journey to Cameron Highlands, I got to know a family of three from Sabah, who were in  Penang to attend their daughter's graduation ceremony. We chatted about many things. At 2pm, the bus pulled in at Tanah Rata bus terminal. It was a sunny afternoon but the temperature was considerably cooler.

Cameron highlands was a popular tourist spot, especially during the hot season. After spending an hour trying fruitlessly to get a room or bed in town, I managed to get a dormitory bed (MYR$6) at Daniel's Travellers Lodge, about 100m away from the main road. All rooms were fully booked but I asked the staff to reserve the first available room for me. Once the accommodation was settled, I was famished, I hurried to the main town area to have lunch in a cafe. Prices of most things on the highlands were almost double of those in Penang, but food in restaurants were considerably cheaper.

After lunch, I explored the various shops in town and also went to the tourist bureau at one end of town, where I bought a tourist map (MYR$4). There were two main towns in Cameron Highlands, Tanah Rata and Brinchang. Tanah Rata was smaller, well organised and cleaner than most places in West Malaysia. At 5pm, the atmosphere turned cooler with dark clouds in the sky and mist started to engulf the whole town. Knowing that it would be colder at night, I went back to the lodge to take a quick hot shower and rest. I also signed up for a country-side tour (MYR$20) for the next day through the lodge's reception counter.
I headed back to town after nightfall. The weather was quite cold but I was dressed in my usual T-shirt and knee-length pants as I enjoyed the coolness. The town was rather disappointing at night with basically nothing to do except dining. I spent most part of the evening in a restaurant, called The Orient, having my dinner and a nice pot of hot Chinese tea to combat the cold. Then, it was bedtime.

Around midnight, I was awaken several times from noises made by guests walking and talking in the dormitory (which was in the attic with wooden floor) and also the itches on my body. The lodge organised bonfire behind the building, almost every night, for its guests and would end around midnight. The burst of activities was a result of the attendees returning from the bonfire and going to the showers.
19 August 2006 (Saturday)
I woke up early and had breakfast (MYR$5.50/set) at the "Jungle Bar" behind the lodge. I was the only one there at 7.30am. Behind the Jungle Bar was where the bonfire was held last night. After breakfast, I packed my backpack and deposited it at the reception after being told that a room was available but was not tidied up yet. The room (MYR$20) had neither fan nor air-con – there was no need for one anyway – except a small window facing an inner corridor.

At 8.45am, a bus came to pick me up for the half-day country-side tour. First stop was the butterfly farm (MYR$5, not included in the tour ticket). There were beetles and snakes being showcased, in a small corner, and many butterflies flying around the flowers in a fenced-up garden. I could identify only 3 different species of the butterflies though. Next stop was Hill Strawberry Farm situated on a hill as the name implied. The section of the strawberry farm that was opened to tourists was bared of red full-grown strawberries. I had to take photos of the red strawberries in the fenced-up area instead. Outside the farm was a small sales outlet, painted with Disney characters, selling fresh strawberries (MYR$5/box) and all sort of strawberry-made jams, milkshakes and ice-creams.
Next destination was the BOH (Best of Highlands) Tea Plantation. The tour bus had to meander up a narrow road and through vast lands of tea plants before reaching the tea factory. The scenery along the way was beautiful. At the tea factory, we were shown the various stages of making tea leaves. Beside the factory was the tea centre, which housed a shop selling all types of BOH tea and a cafe overlooking the vast tea plantation. I met the family from Sabah again and chatted for a few minutes before bidding them farewell for the last time. A pity I did not take a photo with their beautiful daughter...

The Rose Valley Garden (MYR$4, included in the tour ticket) was next. Apart from the various types of roses and other flowers, there was nothing much to see as I could not appreciate  flowers. Last stop of the tour was the Honey Bee Farm. Gardens of flowers were needed for the bees to harvest and there were a number of boxes standing in the gardens with some bees visible. It was said that each box contained a queen bee, so the honey bees would return to where they belonged after harvesting the nectar. This was why the farm was not netted, unlike the butterfly farm. It was 1.45pm when we left the honey bee farm and it was drizzling slightly. We spent another 20 minutes at the market place, just outside the farm, where I bought a packet of steamed-hot sweet tapioca to quell some hunger.

I was dropped off at Tanah Rata bus station and crossed the road to D'Chennai Curry House  where I ordered mutton murtabak for lunch (incidentally, this was the cheapest place to eat among the restaurants). After lunch, I went back to the lodge to find the room, with my backpack already inside, without any electric socket. I had to charge my camera at the reception. It needed 2 hours, so I washed my clothes, hanged them in my non-ventilated room and took a rest.

At 5pm, my camera was fully charged. I hiked to the end of town, where the park was, and embarked on path 4 to Parit Waterfall. It's a short 20 minutes walk to the small waterfall, which looked nice except for the litters floating around. Parit watch tower was just nearby. The uphill climb to the watch tower was quite strenuous and I was panting after 10 mins. The tower was pretty much obscured from the ground. On the tower, I could see the dense canopy of the jungle and another watch tower in the far distance. I also saw dark rain clouds hanging low in the sky and mist moving down the mountains. Time to head back to town before the rain did.

After a hot shower at the lodge, I was back in town in a light misty drizzle. The rain drops were icy-cold at night. I walked into a restaurant, named Rosette, which had a Japanese theme but the menu was similar to The Orient. After dinner and with nothing to do, I spent an hour in a Internet cafe (MYR$2.80/hour) before going back to bed.
20 August 2006 (Sunday)
It was not a good sound sleep all night as the thin-walled room was not spared from the rackets around midnight. The occupants next door could be heard talking and packing their belongings as early as 5am in the morning. As a result, I woke up late and tired. And the Jungle Bar was closed at 9.45am. Most guests had finished their breakfasts and embarked on their journey by 8.45am. Even better, I went to town to have roti pisang (an Indian pancake, called roti prata with banana) at D'Chennai Curry House. Today's agenda was to explore the area around Tanah Rata and hike to Brinchang, about 4km away.
Starting with the Convent School and church, situated on a hill near the tourist bureau, I took a few photos from the foot of the hill as the school was closed on Sunday. The Heritage Hotel was behind the school but I took a wrong road and ended up at a clock tower further down. After backtracking and managed to find the Heritage Hotel, I took a few photos and returned to town. Then I made my way to the Nine-God Emperor Temple as indicated on the tourist map but it was a disappointing small temple with not a single soul in sight.

It was noon when I was back in Tanah Rata again, I walked to the park at the other end of town and embarked on path 4 again. I walked leisurely towards Parit Waterfall and beyond, determined to complete the whole path. It was not a tough walk as most of the walkway was  brick-laden. Less than an hour later, I was at the Forestry Department, near the end of path 4. Following the map, I walked out of the jungle and came to the All Souls Church. The settings of this small church against nature looked peaceful and scenic.

The 18-hole golf course was a short distance ahead. I was at a T-junction, the road leading to the right was a shortcut to Brinchang but there were more things to see by taking the road to the left. Eventually, I came to Smokehouse Inn (or Ye Old Smokehouse), which was an attraction itself with its award-winning garden.

Continuing the road to Brinchang, I passed by Cameron Highlands Resort. A side road to the left led to two strawberry farms. I walked into Healthy Strawberry Farm, looked around and departed shortly. It was 2pm when I reached Brinchang and had lunch at a chinese eatery. The supposedly bak kut teh (pork rib soup) that I ordered came with chunks of fatty meat, which I left untouched.

After lunch, I stroll along the main street of Brinchang until I reached the Cactus Valley (MYR$4). It was at the bottom of a V-shaped valley with one slope full of different varieties of cactus plant. Flowers and fruits on the opposite slope. Further inside the valley was Big Red Strawberry Farm which grew vegetables and had pots of strawberry plant for sales.
Outside the Cactus Valley, the locals were setting up stalls on the road, selling clothes, toys, vegetables, etc. I realised that I was standing right in the middle of a pasar malam (night market) which was held only on Fridays, Saturdays and school holidays. It was a Sunday when I was standing there but I found out later that it was Malaysia's one-week school holiday starting the following day, no wonder all hotels were fully booked. It started to drizzle and I headed back to Brinchang instead of continuing to the farms further downhill.

For 10 minutes, it only drizzled lightly, so I decided to visit Sam Poh Buddhist Temple at the other end of town (towards Tanah Rata). I followed the road to the temple (there was actually an  unmarked shortcut) and was caught in the heavy rain that followed. Luckily, I still had my broken umbrella and reached the temple partially wet. The rain stopped 5 minutes later.

After 20 minutes in the temple, I left and took the shortcut back to Brinchang where I took the local bus back to Tanah Rata (MYR$1). It was 4.30pm and I decided to visit Robinson Waterfall. It took me another 20 minutes along the road behind the new bus terminal to reach path 9. Ten minutes later, I was standing opposite Robinson Waterfall, which was much higher than Parit Waterfall. It was not spared from litters too since both waterfalls belonged to the same river. I headed back to Tanah Rata. All the walking caused abrasions on my feet against my sandals, which were wet due to the rain earlier. I bought a pair of socks, to reduce the abrasions, before heading back to the lodge.

While charging my camera at the reception, I spent 2 hours pouring over the guidebook and tour brochures to determine where to go next. Most tourists would opt for either Perhentian Islands or Taman Negara. Undecided on the next destination, I signed up for an adventure-cum-trekking tour (MYR$80) in the jungle of Cameron Highlands for the following day and had dinner again at The Orient.

21 August 2006 (Monday)
I was not the earliest person at the Jungle Bar, which was filled with guests who were checking out this day. Most were heading for Perhentian Islands or Taman Negara. At 8.45am, a jeep drove up the road to the hotel with a tour guide at the wheel and three young European ladies in the passenger seats. I had a feeling I would like this adventure trip before it even started. I joined two of the ladies in the rear seats and we began the day’s journey. 
We stopped shortly at a shop in Kampung Raja where we bought some bread and water, just in case we felt hungry when in the jungle. At 10.15am, the tour guide stopped by a small aborigine village and hired a native guide, who armed himself with a parang knife for clearing paths. Beside the village was a yellow muddied path, just wide enough for a car, leading up the mountain. The tour guide switched the jeep to 4-wheel drive and began driving up-slope. He told us that there were 16 participants the previous day and a mini-bus was used. The mini-bus was not able to go up the mountain and had to stop at the village below. The participants took an hour to hike up the path. Which was why he drove a jeep today.
Due to the heavy downpour yesterday, the path was muddy and slippery, causing the jeep to be stuck about 100m from the end of the path. After 15 minutes of failing to free the stuck wheel, the tour guide remained to handle "the situation" and we were led by the native guide to the end of the path to wait. One of the ladies commented that we were so naive to follow a native, who was armed with a knife and we were unarmed, into the jungle. The rest of us giggled but the native could not understand what we said.

Half an hour later, we were joined by another tour group of seven people with their native guide. Their vehicle was held up by our stuck jeep and both tour guides, both drivers, needed to stay behind to move the vehicles. Anyway, the second native guide passed the message that we should move on. Following the guides, we cut through the rainforest, crossed river using bamboo bridges and skipped small rapids. Each of us had our shares of slipping and falling on slippery slopes. It was a hot sunny day but the native guides, who could not speak English, did not stop for resting breaks. They trekked very fast, making us panting heavily behind them. 

An hour later, we walked up to two large orange flowers. There were Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world with no leaves and stem. They were parasitic plants. A full-grown bud that was ready to blossom in the next few days was nearby. This was only the second day that the full-bloom flowers had blossomed. (We were told later that these flowers would lose their colours after the fifth day. Two weeks later, it would turn black and musangs, a type of civet cats, would eat the fruits of the flower and the seeds. The musangs would pass motion at other spots of the rainforest and new Rafflesia flowers would grow again. This meant that the Rafflesia flower would not always be at the same spot.) We took turns taking photo with a rarely seen 8-petals Rafflesia (usually only 5 or 6 petals). Some distance away, we were shown a smaller white- coloured Rafflesia bud on a tree. Then we were trekking out of the jungle to where the tour guides and their vehicles were waiting.

The drive down the mud road was very bumpy and I banged my head against the window once. We were back to our small group. Back at the aborigine village at 2pm, we were introduced to the aborigine's hunting equipment – the blow pipe. The pipe was made from two bamboo stems, double-layered, and the darts were from some kind of leaf-stalk sharpened at one end. A soft fluffy object at the other end provided the windage. When the aborigine hunts, the sharpened tip was coated with a poison obtained from the ipoh tree (guess where these trees used to grow in abundance). A villager demonstrated how to use the blow pipe and we took turns blowing darts at a scoreboard 15m away. The blow pipe was very light and accurate. Most of us had no trouble scoring a hit.
Leaving the village, we stopped at Kampung Raja again and had lunch in a Chinese restaurant. After lunch, we visited the honey bee farm, the same one that I visited two days ago. I just loitered in the farm and re-took some photos. It started to rain heavily, so our guide took the long drive to Gunung Brinchang, which took up to 30 minutes, passing the BOH tea plantation. On Gunung Brinchang (6,666 feet above sea-level), we could not see much as the atmosphere was very misty but the rain had dwindled to a light drizzle. After 10 minutes, we departed.

On the way down the mountain, our guide stopped the jeep at an isolated spot and showed us the Mossy Forest. We stepped into the forest. The wet green mosses, coupled with vapour rising from the ground, made the Mossy Forest a beautiful place. Minutes later, when we were shown the edge of the "ground" where we were standing did we realised that we were actually in the canopy of a big tall tree. The dark-brownish "ground" that we were standing on was actually dead mosses. The tour guide also pointed out to us a red pitcher plant (or "monkey cup", which monkeys used to drink the water that was trapped in it) and joked about it being the aborigine's traditional condom. There was also a rare white one on the canopy of a tree below where we were standing. Our guide also told us the story of Jim Thompson, believing him to be kidnapped than simply "disappeared" as quoted in most guidebooks and media.
Further down the mountain, at the perimeter of the BOH tea plantation, which we passed by earlier, we took photos of the tea plantation from the roadside. The tea factory closed on Monday. The tea estate looked much greener and scenic after the rain. The photos I took two days ago showed the tea plants to be much drier under the hot sun.
Next stop, the butterfly farm, but I did not go in as I had been there two days ago. I loitered at the shop outside the farm. Last stop was the pasar malam outside Brinchang. It was fully setup at 6pm and there were many people. I bought a barbequed puyuh, or quail (MYR$4), and savoured its meat while strolling around the night market. 30 minutes later, we were driven back to Tanah Rata and the tour ended. If I had signed up for the adventure tour first, I could have skipped the country-side tour since they overlapped.

Back at the lodge, I showered and went to the reception to book a ticket to Taman Negara (MYR$70) using the jungle route. Most tourists would head for Perhentian islands but I had no mood for beaches with all the bedbug-bites on my back and limps. Then I went to town and had Malay food at a stall near the town's carpark.
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