The Cameron Highlands…tea plantations and intrigue in Malaysia

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img_2936Forgive me for musing that death by trampling elephant, marauding tiger or mysterious jungle disappearance would have been more intriguing. Instead, and rather ignominiously, Sir William Cameron succumbed to an accidental overdose of medication for insomnia.

Needless to say, I’m not wishing for any such wildlife encounters here in the Highlands. A visit here had long been on my wish list – the romance of a hill station, vestiges of colonial life, sweeping tea plantations, and the mystery of a man who truly did disappear into the jungles of the Cameron Highlands. But more of Jim Thompson in due course.

In 1885 after the British cartographer’s death, his detailed maps of this area were somehow lost. Yet Sir William’s stories of a Shangri La-like plateau lived on in popular lore and fuelled the imagination of the generation to come. Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands pay homage to this intrepid explorer. His explorations would often last for months…risking malaria, leeches, snakes, tigers and Malaysia’s ferocious sun bears.

We begin the 60 kilometre ascent from the main highway towards the promise of the temperate retreat. Kuala Lumpur with its modern skyline and grand hotels is now a few hours behind us. This road, the infamous Government Route 59, snakes treacherously to an altitude of 1600 meters with its precipitous and ‘prone to landslides’ slopes.

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The narrow thread of tarmac hugs the contours, dipping in and out of verdant valleys past whale-sized palm fronds, dense creepers and riots of wild hibiscus and tall, crimson poinsettia trees. And bamboo, so tall and wayward, it arches into a natural canopy shading the road below. I am struck by the sheer enormity and improbability of forging a trail though this impenetrable, primal landscape.

I imagine Cameron’s forerunners hacking a pathway for the convoy, elephants steadily plodding, shouldering and crashing through. I picture the explorer sleeping atop his sturdy pachyderm, safer there than on the ground below. His is an image of the quintessential British adventurer; intense and curious, indomitable and stalwart. Perhaps like others he hoped for fame, but the spirit of the times also created remarkable individuals driven by sense of duty…and many who simply craved the adventure.

The plateau that Cameron spoke of would later entice the British Government to the Highlands. They desired a hill station – a retreat of cool, misty air – also ideal for cultivating tea and vegetables and flower gardens.

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Forty years on, Sir George Maxwell launched a new expedition. Starting where Cameron had left off, it was soon evident that elephants were not suited and Maxwell diverted to the once bridle path that we are now cruising on.

Route 59 weaves its way through settlements of the indigenous Orang Asli people. Their traditional wooden houses are set back from the road and stand on short stilts, protection from floods and ideal for air ventilation. Dogs laze out front and roosters peck all around. We pass the most basic of settlements, a woman cradles a pet monkey like a precious baby and children play with make-shift toys. I take a photo of a vendor’s baskets. They are brilliant against a striking vista and I buy something…anything…just to contribute to the family’s income.

Between the villages, the road is punctuated with hut after hut, in reality just rudimentary lean-tos with atap roofs. They are crucial venues from which to sell, providing income for the Orang Asli and other locals. Often just a few bunches of an unknown fruit, bananas and long, long runner beans dangle from the lengthy bamboo beams. And maybe some vivid dome-shaped baskets (to protect food from flies)…it isn’t a lot to sustain a family. But then, I don’t know the whole story.

This contrasts a small, hectic village where a gaggle of tourist buses threaten to block the junction. Mass tourism has reached the Highlands and stalls are grouped to entice the crowds, and the odd backpacker more prone to jungle treks than shopping.

A young man at a well-stocked stall notices me eying the mysterious fruit. Wedging out a piece from the tough, unadorned skin, he offers a sample of the fleshy fruit inside, “Jungle mangosteen,” he tells me. It tastes like the anti-oxidant-rich mangosteen I’m familiar with and this variety seems to be in abundant this time of year.

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Further down the road we pass a trio on a motorcycle. Junior is napping on the handlebars, nestled into dad who threads the family vehicle along the twisty road. A tall basket hugs the young mother’s back. I know these rattan vessels are used for collecting the ‘King of Fruit’, the durian. Despite its spikey armour, the durian is a fickle fruit. Once it has tumbled to the jungle floor, it must be collected quickly before its freshness fades.

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img_2827Risking tiger attacks as they scour the jungle undergrowth, durian pickers rush to bring the costly commodity to market. The putrid aroma of durian belies its creamy, sweet taste. Or so I’m told…I can’t bring myself to try the noxious fruit. In hotels and public transportation throughout S.E Asia, signs strictly forbid durian on their premises.

As we arrive in Ringlet, the first township in the Highlands, we chance upon Mr. Lee offering the coveted produce from the back of his battered Land Rover. He has an awarding-winning smile and does his best with his limited English. Yet he seems distracted, peering up and down the road for potential buyers. Mr. Lee needs to sell his ‘heavy as a bowling ball’ fruit…durian has a short shelf life.

Nearby, Sun and Crystal run the family nursery shop. “The Cameron Highlands is also the land of orchids,” Sun shares, “and for vegetables and strawberries.” She shows me stalks of spear-like asparagus, while Crystal peels back the husk of a sweet corn cob and proffers it raw. “It’s how we eat it here,” she says. When I attempt to buy some strawberries I’m refused, “No these aren’t tasty enough today, can you come back tomorrow?”

Sun shares that she has lived in Kuala Lumpur, yet prefers life in the hills amongst family, friends and fresh mountain air at the family farm. We’ll soon see the vast number of small farms for ourselves as they compete for prized terraced land alongside tea plantations. As I bid farewell, Sun and Crystal insist on having a photo taken with my business card. Promising to include them in this blog, Sun’s radiant face beams even brighter.

img_2894We arrive late afternoon at one of the former colonial hotels, The Lakehouse. Upon retirement Colonel Stanley Foster opened it in 1966; relatively late as guesthouses and bungalows sprung up here from the 1930’s onwards. The Lakehouse is how I envisioned.

It sits pretty in Tudor style and stately atop a manicured terrace with its white picket fence and pristine gardens. Once inside, reminders of the past conjure days when British government employees left their ‘posts’ and retreated to the hill station…or indeed decamped here to work for ‘The Empire’.

Victorian furniture and Persian carpets decorate The Lakehouse, objects from simpler times: archaic desk telephones, copper vases and spittoons, framed polo photos and worn church settles, cozy next to walk-in stone fireplaces. Yet a framed collection in the hallway conjures the true tonic of the Cameron Highlands, its flora and fauna. On display are green blumeis, lemon migrants, jewelled nawabs and Malay lacewings – delicate butterflies of breathtaking beauty.

Lemon migrants have flitted around us in abundance today. But as we enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, it isn’t what we see…it is what we hear.

Dusk is approaching and if you have not heard the ‘call of the jungle’, it is an awakening in itself. A rousing masterpiece, a veritable soundtrack of curious and mysterious notes. The din of frogs, insects, birds and monkeys. A sizzle of an electrifying buzz that vibrates the dense evening air. A backdrop for a second melody of chirps, coos, hoots and howls, of slow languid flutters and then long, rattling rattles crescendoing to a lingering his-s-s-s-s.

From the gorgeous terrace view, the silhouette of the jungle provides a provocative  backdrop. All aglow under the luminous super-moon, magical and mysterious. Nevertheless, I simply cannot contemplate the thought of stepping into the clamour and its known dangers (and I now fully understand how poor Cameron could not sleep.) And then I remember the afore mentioned Jim Thompson.

It was 1967 when the American architect, former spy, art collector and founder of the Thai Silk Company holidayed here with friends…just up the road at another colonial guesthouse, the Moonlight Bungalow. After an Easter church service and tea on the terrace, Thompson chose not to take an afternoon nap as the rest of his party had. He fancied a light stroll. Perhaps he donned his straw trilby hat and grabbed a walking stick before stepping into the jungle. Jim Thompson would never return.

I know of Thompson from his House On The Klong. On my first trip to Asia I visited his home, now a museum. The art collector assembled a number of houses into a luxurious long, open air home along a muddy canal in Bangkok. I was bewitched. Its art, sculptures, thai silks, and the sultry air intoxicated this young traveller. Was the wonderment due in part to the disappearance of the flamboyant owner who simply never returned?  And so this is where the mystery lies, in the thick of a Malay jungle…

At the time of the disappearance, local guides with extensive knowledge spent days searching for the 61-year-old. But to no avail, Thompson’s body has never been found. Any number of theories exist – devoured by a tiger, a planned disappearance, or being a former OSS agent, perhaps an elaborate kidnapping? But I digress…we are here to visit the tea plantations after all…img_3007

By chance we only have time to visit one of Cameron Highlands tea estates. The narrow road leading to the BOH Plantation is layered with small farms, providing a peek into daily life on the terraces.

Verdant terraces of vegetables…colossal cabbages, patches of mint and scads of corn.

Greenhouses with creeping strawberries, silky orchids and festive poinsettias.

And places to worship; a Chinese shrine, an Indian temple, a simple sacred family alter. It is a picture of cultures in harmony.

Yet before we arrive at the oldest plantation in the Cameron Highlands, we do stop once or twice. I must capture these dated Land Rovers that are ubiquitous and innumerable in this highland terrain. They have clearly been the work-horses for decades – rather endearing in their rusty, run-down, yet reliable condition. The Rovers ply these roads with produce on its way to market, with workers back and forth to the fields.

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The family business of the BOH Tea Plantation reveals itself like an emerald, undulated carpet. Rather than busing it to the base of the entrance, we choose to walk the kilometre to the factory. img_2995We pass barrack-like cabins where the pluckers live and we take the liberty of skirting the road, treading on water channels that double as steps and define the vast fields of the Camellia Sinensis.

The higher the tea plantation’s altitude, the better quality of the tea. A tea plant can live to 100 years, the BOH’s planted their first  in 1929.

The estate sweeps in all directions. One wants to roll a hand over their manicured patterned rows. Glide it across their unblemished, waxen leaves. How is it, how are they all plucked? One can’t imagine.

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We climb to the lookout for the view that must be one the finest in the Highlands. We sip tea on the terrace and sit contentedly. Yet now I’m distracted. One can’t help but theorize about poor Mr. Thompson. Yes, it must have been a tiger…

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