Cameron Treats and Tours

Trip Start Jan 31, 2010
Trip End Jul 21, 2010

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Flag of Malaysia  , Pahang,
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I wake about 4:30 to the sounds of the night – bugs, howling dogs, other unidentifiable sounds, one I believe was a recorded chant echoing through the mountains. My stay in bed is short lived, as these sounds are putting images into my head and my tired eyes make the shadows dance a little too much like a bug, a snake, a moth, a shark.

I'm downstairs and reading in the near darkness. The helpers are sleeping in the common room next door, one of them snoring quite loudly. I move out to the garden out the front to watch the sun come up over the mountains. The sky is lit up by the time it reaches over, but it looks amazing. The air is so clear and a little crisp, has me thinking of early mornings at oma and opa’s farm in Taradale.

Breakfast is scones and jam (another Asian delicacy), the others are inside having theirs and I move in later to join them. Alice is freaking out over her fruit and natural yoghurt, which has separated slightly (if that’s possible). Terry and I out are out and down by the travel agent person place by 9, where we meet the other six in our group. Three couples, one from Brisbane in Malaysia for two weeks, one from Kuala Lumper here for three days and one couple who don’t speak any English to the rest of the group. The tour guide Nick welcomes us all aboard at tells us that since it’s such a lovely morning we will head to the peak first.

Gunung Brinchang is 6666ft above sea level, and the highest point of Malaysia reachable by road. The drive is a steady incline all the way, with the roads narrow and often one lane. Nick beeps the horn several times as we turn every corner, in case there is someone coming around in the other direction. There’s a sign at Laburnum Station that reads Beep Beep with similar intentions, though that road is a safe and easy two lanes.

Atop this hill are a number of radio towers that send all our mobile phone messages to the other side of the world (though Nick noted he can only get two bars under one of these towers) and one smaller, three-storey lookout tower. The steps up get so vertical it’s more like climbing a ladder with no hands, and we’re joined up on this rather petite platform by two other tour groups (one possibly Dutch, one Thai), with more flocking around the base. The view is amazing as you become more aware of the height once you can see over the canopy that surrounds you and ground level. The photos look wicked.

From here we walk a short way down the hill. The incline is not too bad, and along the way Nick stops us to act as jungle MacGyver. He points out the tiger balm plant, the one that stops snoring, the baby cobra lily, the carnivorous jug plant and countless others. Up a small path into the mossy forest has us tripping a little, sinking a little and trying not to touch anything for those wearing white shoes – we see the group before leaving a different way. One has a muddy bum, one a muddy face and a few with muddy hands.

The forest is in a state of decomposition. Australian flora has moss growing on the east side of the plants (I think), catching as little of the sun as possible. The mossy forest has moss growing everywhere, all sides of all trees (most of which are rhododendrons) Because of the even covering of moss on the plants, the trees are slowly dying, many becoming hollow and withering away. The ground beneath our feet is soft and springy underfoot. Looking over a ledge we can see that uch of the ground is like the trees – hollow underneath and decomposing. This rich decomposition is great for plants but not so for animals, thus only the smaller ones inhabit the area, along with several birds. It’s too high up for many insects (flies and mosquitoes we are told) so the walking is easy with little mud on our behalf. The views from several lookouts take your breath away.

Heading back down the mountain, attempting to walk of some of the mud people have accumulated on their respective feet, Nick runs back up the hill to get the car before we continue on to the Tea Plantation.

Down the mountain to the one of 2 BOH tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands only 234 hectares, small by standards – the one outside here is 800 hectares. Terry asks what BOH stands for, and Nick tells us of the long winded story about a boy who was down on his luck and such and such, then cuts it short and smiles saying that’s what other tour guides think the guests want to hear – a good piece of fantasy. Really, BOH stands for Best Of Highlands. This takes the mystery out of it a little but I like that he didn’t try to bullshit it.

Clouds begin to gather as we head down; the once brilliant blue sky now a murky grey that does little for the greenery. We pass several workers pruning like crazy with large whipper snippers, leaves blowing into the wind. I smile and notice his overalls are rather clean, he must have put on his new clothes when he known we were on our way.

John Archibald Russel was given much of the land to set up his tea farm in 1929. Up until then he had played a very big part in engineering and construction, designing the old Kuala Lumper Railway Station and owning or being part of 80% of the coal industry. The way Nick told it sounded like the government got scared that one man could have so many fingers in so many pies, so bought him off with land. The brochures at the sigh paint a slightly different picture, which still says much about Mr Russel. He saw during the great depression that the value of tea never dropped – unlike coffee which swung from rich to poor in a matter of days. It was with this in mind that he sought to build large farms to secure he and his family's future. Wicked and cunning no matter how you look at it.

The tea plantation is freaking huge. The workers have their own houses – complete with supermarket, day care, hospital and school to assist in raising a family there. Nice way to keep it in the family I guess – I ask Nick about the opportunities to get out of Tea farming, and he explains for many of them this is all they know, but the workers do get a decent salary and could most likely send their children out of the farm to grow up.

I was surprised to know the workers down cut with hands like you see on TV. Now two people (Men, I’m told, no longer for the ladies) man a strange hand held lawnmower and blower in one to trim and collect only the two three or so leaves of every plant. Any lower and the tealeaves become bitter. Plants can last up to 150 years, are harvested every couple of weeks and heavily pruned every couple of months.

The tour we are promised shows the drying and processing of the tealeaves. Crazy hot rooms expose the leaves to just over 100 degrees, the fire coming from the burning of rubber trees which add to the aroma and flavour of the tea. Separated in later rooms, the tour guide also mentions the super special blend (something Gold, I was distracted by two ladies laughing and tea leaves going everywhere as they attempted to change bags on a machine). The tour abruptly ends and we’re packed into the van again and back onto the winding roads of the highlands. We pass more vegetables; overtake heavy trucks weighed down with gardening and building supplies. Unlike our earlier experience with drivers, Nick is well aware of what he’s doing and performs the less scary maneuvers. We mention our trip in and he’s all "You drove with them? Oh…." Making us feel much safer.

The butterfly museum is up next. When the say butterfly museum, they really should say butterfly, insect, snake, lizard, cactus and heat stroke farm. All the animals are for petting (except the rabbit and the hedgehog. Hedgehog!!! And apparently the rabbit was not it such a large pen to make it more fun for the snakes, I’m just a sadist), including the three horn rhino beetle – which isn’t poisonous and can’t really bite you. It’s so cute when you touch it’s back and it rears up a little like a kitten with a “hey, don’t do that…..hey I said quit it…hey, I’ll tell mum on you. You’re gonna get it…” the tour guide throws a number of larger insects about at once.

Stick Insects – are stick insects. Sadly, you’ve seen one, even in books, and you’ve seen them all.

Leafy Bug Thing  - that looks like a leaf! He holds out a branch and every leaf on it is moving, not in the breeze but because they’re all crazy bugs.

Praying Mantis – which makes me think of that episode of Buffy with the substitute teacher.

And then he brings out the Scorpions! The glass tank holds about a hundred of these devils, and as it’s heating up a bit under the glass they’re moving about quite a bit. The guide assures us that one sting will not kill you, it’s fine really, as we watch one or two practice striking a piece of wood several times in quick sharp motions. Bring it on!

In the photo I’m actually holding it as far away as possible, but when the beast landed on the back of my hand I’m freaking out taking in every detail of it’s weird shaped head and pincers and long tail that’s moving back and forth like it’s looking for the right time to strike. The guide peels it off my hand, the hairy legs seeming to stick to my hairy hand (imagine waxing a scorpions legs) and leaves a tingling sensation (which may have been my skin catching on to the fact I just had a scorpion on my arm!).

Passing the snakes slowly – half of them are shedding their skin, something Terry has never seen before and is dry retching quietly to herself – we find other people from the tour on another mini tour in the butterfly house. Apparently there are about six tours that operate the same route within ten minutes of each other. I love tourism.

On the way out we pass through the cacti enclosure (because you need barbed wire fences to keep the wild things from escaping). Half of them are absolutely covered in people’s initials, followed by the Malay version of “waz ‘ere”, which is quite sad but at the same time looks kinds cool as the plants have healed over leaving white lines instead of open wounds.

The strawberry farm is next on the left, and a little disappointing. While there are strawberries in hydroponic farmable stations (you should see the crystal guava lab up the road) and strawberries to eat (for a price), there is no real picking to be done. I hide my disappointment in the bottom of a platter of the finest strawberries I have eaten, sprinkled with icing sugar and drizzled with honey. These are amazing, as agreed by the bees that chase a few of us around the car park. The man behind the counter and his wife(?) laugh a little and say if you leave them a lone and don’t touch them, they won’t sting you.

“But what if they touch us instead?”

“Oh, the not know the difference.”

Terry and I are the only two that booked a full day tour, so the others are dropped off back in town while we go to the provided lunch. Still full of strawberries, we ask Nick where is the best place to go in Cameron Highlands. He smiles and takes us around the corner to an Indian restaurant. He points to an outside table, shouts a friendly greeting to the workers inside and says “Enjoy” before dashing off (if that’s really what he does – dash).

Soon we are brought banana leaves in the cut shape of a rectangular tray. Onto this is placed rice, vegetable, chutney awesome stuff, chicken, samosa, papadums, vegetables and sauce. I believe we’re meant to eat with our hands, but the waiter brings out forks as well, knowing these damn tourist won’t have a clue.

One of the best best meals I’ve had so far, the concept of eating off a banana leaf is a great idea. It also has part of the steamboat aesthetic where you put the meal together yourself. Back at the van I as Nick what lunch was called, he shrugged and says “The Banana One. I’ve been ordering it for months and never really know. They catch on though.”

Terry, Nick and I  are back in the van and heading out to the waterfall of Cameron Highlands (with a name that escapes me, but is quite touristy). It’s quite a long drive through again winding roads, and we happily fill the time with talk of travel and other things. Nick divulges that he can speak about five languages, has lived in Cameron Highlands all his life, has holidays on small islands that no one really knows about so he can drink his beer in peace, and loves the fact that he knows just about everyone around here. The fact he knew our drivers into Cameron Islands was a testament to that. Eventually we come across another tour group of three and one leader on the side of the road. I’m not sure how planned this is but the four of them pile into the van and we continue on to the waterfall. The guide is a good friend of Nicks (I believe they all are) and his group consists of a couple from Finland and a lady from Italy. All are rather quiet as we continue for another 15 minutes or so.

The waterfall as mentioned is a rather touristy attraction. Shops surround the street at the bottom, tourists are stripping off to swim up top and crack their skulls towards the bottom. There is, however, a tranquility to it. About half way up you can stop and just watch the water, drown out the sounds of everyone one else and clear your mind. I found a similar spot further up the hill, about the tourists where the water seems to come out of the ground a little. Turning around I see the Finland couple attempt to walk down the slippery rocks of the fall without shoes on, past the signs asking they don’t. The Dorian fruit trees are felling their fruit and smelling place up a little. I will try it eventually, but not now, and not off the ground. Nick says there’s not much too it, but doesn’t go into details.

I notice we pass wild banana trees on the way back to the other van. Nick says the locals will pick what they need when they are ripe. Said local is our next destination.

In a three room shack made entirely of bamboo (fattened out for floorboards, turned into thatch, felled logs for support) is one native man who lives the way his ancestors did (with some upgrades, such as cigarettes). He hunts his food with a blow pipe, he weaves tales of spirits and homes, he dancing like a crazy man, he has very few teeth.

Out the back yard (I think it could be considered a garage if he had a car) is a mother mokey and baby. She is tied to the a post with a lead around her waist, and Nick suggests we don’t get too close, as she will be quite protective carrying a baby. Inside the shack is warm, a fire glowing at one end. The native man has us sit and plays traditional songs on the length of bamboo with, you guessed it, more bamboo. The hitting sticks are two different lengths, providing the dancers with a kick/snare feel to follow. The songs are chants to chosen rhythms – the one I remember is about a native women calling for her husband to return from the hunt, there is always time to tomorrow. The songs all have a melancholy quality to them, while the dancing we follow is quite happy and simple.

Back out to the garage and we see what could only be target – a polystyrene board on a stand with a toy monkey attached with twine, a horse on his shoulder (I think Nick calls it a Zebra, but they’re not in these parts).

Blow dart training is very much a follow and let the native man move your body around. The gun is about a metre long, with a bamboo casing protecting the thinner pipe inside. There are two kinds of dart, one normal skewer of bamboo, one skewer tipped with sap from a tree nearby that makes animals fall asleep (they don’t know what it does to humans, yet.) I get two shots - one hits above the head (apparently I’m aiming for the soul) the other hits the toy animal’s foot. One of the other three miss, the other two have already had a shot, and Terry nearly kills the zebra. Nick and the local show us how it’s done with four kill shots in a row. This is how the native man survives, shooting small monkeys, deer mouse and lizards for food.

After some money is exchanged between Nick and Mr Native we leave the other group and head back towards town. Along the way Nick explains that they are losing their culture, that none of Mr Natives kids wish to follow on the traditions and art of old. They’ve been to school and have seen what the world can offer them, and value these things more than their family history. I honesty don’t know if I could keep up something like this, especially after having a taste of the outside world. We also learn the reason he has so few teeth. The locals have found a leaf with hallucinogenic affects. They wrap a small piece of it up in tobacco and chew it throughout the day, keeping the piece between their bottom lip and gum when not chewing. This has him rather comatose by the end of the day, Nick learnt not to show up at his place after about 4pm, and the tobacco sits their slowly rotting his mouth and causing his teeth to fall out.

They also have very different views on family, wives and husbands and divorce. A man can have as many wives as he sees fit, fathering as many children to keep the family line. The new couple only tell the parents they’re getting married after the wife-to-be falls pregnant. A wife and husband can simply divorce with very little red tape and documentation - if it’s not working or one wants out of the relationship, they simply leave and everyone accepts it. It’s a simple life that is slowly disappearing.

Life in the Cameron Highlands seems pretty simple and easy going. Nick mentions that the work is hard, but that isn’t all day, and when the sun starts to go down people will usually met at a friends place and drink. It’s not the alcoholic kind of drinking, the sociable kind. There is little else to do her.

Passing vegetable farms on the way back to town, so we decide to stop and have a look around. Nick, knowing everyone and understanding more than a little about farming, takes us through the watercress, guava, spring onion, cabbage and Buddha Hand plantations. Photos are taken of this strange fruit that is more pith than juice, as Nick tells us of buddist belief that this is actually the hand of Buddha and is not to be eaten. Buddist also believe that star fruit is the heart of Buddha, and will refuse to eat it if offered. Nick also mentioned his Chinese friend who has and will eat anything, the only thing he hasn’t been able to get his hands on is human meat….

One the way back down through the plantations Nick takes us to the packing area, full of ice machines to keep the wares as fresh as possible when shipped throughout Malaysia, Southern Thailand and Singapore.

On to the beehives. These are across the road from where we’ve parked. Terry is a little antsy about bees, having never been stung and not wanting to find out. Fronting the farm are rows and rows of strawberries! I ask Nick if we’re able to pick at this one. He says yes but keep it quiet - so really that’s a no - he hands a few cigarettes around the workers and I get to pick a small bucket. These are eaten reasonably quickly.

The farm keeps four different kinds of bees – two introduced and two wild varieties of bee. The hives dot the hills side, a white scarecrow dressed in a beekeepers outfit stands amongst them keeping watch, though I’m not totally sure from what.

Up near the main house all the working parts of the hives shown complete with cut away areas of a hive in action and machines that remove honey from the frames.

All products have some sort of medicinal quality, when Terry goes to the bathroom (or washroom as she calls it) nick points out the concoction that is meant to improve virility. I let him know I’m already going bald, thanks anyway. There’s honey and garlic for sinus trouble, Royal Jelly to keep skin tight and firm (often bought by air hostesses, we are told), and honey and chilli to boost metabolism (which I’m pretty sure chilli does on it’s own, but honey would make it easy to eat).

Heading up the hill to the hives we pass a collection of wooden boards. Here hornets kept as mementos, each between two nails and curled into a ball. We see a few entering a hive; I ask Nick if we should, tell someone about it. He says probably, and lights up a cigarette. It calms him down and keeps the bees away – everybody wins. Terry never made it up, and is waiting for us amongst the strawberries. I pick some more on the way out, and Nick points out a fruit known as the Cameron Apple. I ask whether it’s sweet out powdery. He can’t really say either way, but if I want something sweet I should get a Crystal Guava.

There’s a fruit market on the way back so we stop for sure. Terry gets strawberries and I get to try a Crystal Guava! It is like a tropical kind of toffee apple – I ask if it’s grown like this, Nick says ye, but I learn later on that it is treated like a Toffee and soaked in a sugary syrup until preserved. Heck yes!). I pick up two and a Cameron apple, unsure of what it tastes like. Nick helps himself to a few cherry tomatoes from an open bag as we peruse the rest of the store. Out the back they have several carnivorous tube plants in different sizes, and bamboo bits that look a little “made in Taiwan.”

The drive home has us chomping into our respective wares – Terry on Strawberries, me on Crystal Guava and Nick on Cherry Tomatoes. I try to slow down my eating to share with the others when we get back.

We arrive back an hour before dinner and wish Nick all the very best. Much of the group is one the lawn out the front. I share the remainder of one Crystal Guava with the others – we’re meeting for dinner in about half an hour! – and they’re all equally impressed.

Dinner is at the “best western food in Cameron Highlands” as stated by Anne. No one gets what they expect but those who order steak, and they had to wait an extra half an hour to cook. My vegie burger was less than appealing, but I did order the Vegie Burger as Dan pointed out.

Noticing the time I dash out for watermelon – yet to have it today – and catch a pack as the place is closing. It’s a pre cut packet with a stick, which I’m not proud of but will eat regardless. I wonder a bit further out until I run out of street lights, passing a few more vendors and the yet to be finished bus terminal. There are a few huge concrete structures here that look like they were abandoned half way through completion. One appears to be a carpark, but I suppose there aren’t enough cars here to justify it.
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