In Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, carpets of tea, strawberries and lavender sit amid vestiges of British rule. Beneath a swirling cloud forest, Michael Raffael samples its richly rooted cuisine
Malaysia’s national currency is the ringgit, and the time is eight hours ahead of GMT. The average high temperature in Cameron Highlands during April is 23C and the average low 16C. The area is situated on the Malay Peninsula about a 3-hour drive north from Kuala Lumpur. Flights from the UK to the capital take about 12.5 hours.
Tourism Malaysia has news, events and advice, as well as regional guides for exploring the whole of the country. For ideas, itineraries and tips about Cameron Highlands and beyond, visit http://malaysia.travel/en/uk
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Five cars have stopped at the roadside stall on Federal Route 59, the winding road leading to Cameron Highlands. Why there and not at the stall nextdoor selling bottles of wild honey? Answer: it has tongkat ali. The root is, as every hot-blooded Malaysian knows, a natural Viagra. It works too.
The Orang Asli, natives who forage for it, subsist in jungle kampongs, all but unnoticed by the region’s anarchic boom economy. Aphrodisiacs aside, they can earn as much from raja kayu, magical hardwood that’s translucent when light is shined upon it. The Chinese buy a stick to make amulets and bracelets that heighten the force field around them.
Born as a hill station in the Twenties, Cameron Highlands has lost all but a ghostly presence of its colonial heyday. Instead, it has mutated into a curious hybrid. Malaysians from the humid heat of Kuala Lumpur or Ipoh drive here to breathe the cool air. Under many hectares of plastic canopies, farmers grow almost half the vegetables eaten in the country. Tea plantations ride the roller- coasters of switch-back slopes and valleys. On either side of the road from the capital Tanah Rata to its neighbour Brinchang, bumper-to-tail businesses compete to turn a fast buck.
The region owes its name to William Cameron, the Victorian surveyor who explored it on the back of an elephant in 1885. Europeans didn’t settle here for another 40 years. When they did they built mock-Tudor cottages. The few remaining ones – like The Smokehouse Hotel or The Lakehouse, converted to country house hotels – have a Betjeman-esque authenticity. Echoing them, condos with half-timbered fascias speckle the tropical landscape: pastiches of a pastiche. This isn’t a remote getaway spot of pristine natural beauty. It’s lively and surprising.
STRAWBERRIES FROM HEAVEN
The reputation for growing strawberries is more a lasting legacy of the British Empire. From an annual crop nurtured in privately owned kitchen gardens, it has swollen to become the major attraction and industry. Raju Selveraj Veerapen has grown them on his farm at Raju’s Hill for over two decades. His south Indian parents had produced vegetables on a single hectare given to them by the government. When he started out, he recalls, he planted them on the ground. ‘We had to use a lot of chemicals and the cost was very expensive.’
Since then he has switched to a Dutch system, cultivating them on trays, where he can grow his 100,000 plants under corrugated PVC roofs. ‘Most of the tourists who come up here for pick your own want to take strawberries back home with them. Festival, the variety we use, is quite firm and it won’t spoil on the way back. Sweetness in Cameron depends on weather and it’s always changing: hot, cold, wet, dry. When it’s too cold or there’s not enough sun or just raining the strawberries are no good.’
Sold all year, the berries have infiltrated every conceivable marketing niche. Raju Hill’s café offers strawberry waffles, three kinds of cheesecake, floats, ice cream, jams, milkshakes and freshly pressed juice. Gift shops dabble in anything from strawberry- coloured shoelaces and fruit knives to parasols, purses and pyjamas. Queues form in Brinchang’s Night Market to buy strawberry satays for dipping in melted chocolate. At the Spa Village in the impressive Cameron Highlands Resort, a Balinese masseuse bathes her client in a strawberry tea bath before scrubbing her head to toe with crushed strawberry purée. Fibreglass berries at the roadside present an image more Blackpool circa 1950 than Disneyland. Instead of dodgems and shooting galleries, visitor attractions include a patchwork of mushroom, lavender and cactus farms. Its tunnel of love is a time tunnel displaying the detritus of the 20th century staking its claim on virgin rainforest. Seen through the eyes of Malaysia’s expanding urban society, bric-a-brac bygones have the fascination of relics.
Off the beaten track, it has a more functional vintage curio. Superannuated Land Rovers enjoy a special status here. There are more per capita than anywhere else in the world. With ‘CH’ stamped on their doors or bonnets they pay a trifling ten per cent of road tax so long as they stay within the regional border. At a rough tally there may be over 7,000, about the population of Tanah Rata. Owners drive them and repair them until they end up, stripped of any usable spares, in a tropical ditch.
GATHERING AROUND THE STEAMBOAT
Without the trusted 4x4s, fruit and vegetable growers would never access their plots. Their farms are invisible except as anonymous patches of shiny roofing surrounded by jungle. The produce is everywhere. It’s a unique mix of European and Asian crops. Next to the cabbages and cauliflowers at 168, a Kea vegetable stall, are sweet potato fingers, wild garlic, white and pearl sweetcorn and a gallimaufry of tropical fruits. The owner, Mika, offers a sample of buah cinta. Its name in Chinese translates as ‘fruit of love’, she says, which describes it perfectly. ‘It’s sweet and sour.’ To eat it, she snips off the egg-shaped top, then tells me to pop the rest of it in my mouth, then squeeze and suck at the same time.
Cameron Organic farm boasts its own eponymous restaurant in Brinchang. Its speciality ‘steamboat’ is the Chinese-Malay take on Mongolian hotpot. In the middle of the table, Shifu, the waiter, plants a pot of broth. Burning charcoal underneath keeps it simmering and a metal funnel poking out the middle acts as an exhaust pipe. All around are plates for sharing: greens, pak choy, broccoli, mushrooms, carrot, dumplings, egg and noodles with a couple of dipping sauces. Eating is a communal experience where everyone tucks in. Chopsticks grab mouthfuls of bean sprouts, enoki or tofu to poach in the soup. The trick is gobbling as many choice morsels as possible before anyone beats you to them. Why steamboat is the fish and chips of Cameron (at least a dozen venues lead on it) is down to the weather. Temperatures here float around ten degrees below KL. Balmy by European standards, it’s the closest many Malaysians will ever come to wintery weather. For them it’s a warming comfort meal costing no more than £4 a head.
Cactus Valley is on a hill, an oversized hothouse garden centre displaying thousands of cacti in all their prickly forms. It too has a steamboat restaurant, but for meat-eaters. At one end, the owner Mr Yeo’s son fires charcoal in a brazier; at the other his son-in-law Wei How rules the kitchen, supervising claypots of vinegar pork and bak kut teh, a meat stew flavoured with garlic, liquorice and goji berries. The steamboat here has a sloping griddle around the central chimney. As a kind of ritual first step to eating, diners fry wafer-thin slivers of pork belly until brown. Hot dripping and juice dribbles into the broth giving it added flavour. This in turn supplies an extra zing to the veggies and tiger prawns.
Guess what? It’s on the menu at Water Crest Valley too. A terrace overlooking neat paddies of watercress (planted by a former British Army officer in 1966), it’s a Highland-style cafeteria. Visitors coo over the pleasure of shivering while drinking sweetened watercress tea, eating stir-fries and popping popsicles in their mouths.
A VERY BRITISH AFTERNOON
Going from here to a Devon cream tea at The Smokehouse gives you a small culture shock. The scones are genuine and so too the strawberry jam. The finger sandwiches might only be better enjoyed in cricket whites. It would take a true Devonian to pass judgement on the clotted cream though. Built by the golf course, it could almost pass for Walton Heath or Wentworth. Inside and out, it’s primped and polished to suit the standards of demanding memsahibs. Chintz and Chesterfields, a cottage garden, breakfast with baked beans, mushrooms, grilled tomato and a slice of bacon – it captures the spirit of English hotels during the Fifties where couples escaped for naughty weekends.
It’s a pity to chip away some of the illusion it creates. Truth is that Cameron never really expanded into a hill station like India’s Shimla. Japanese occupation, followed by a communist insurgency then independence fractured any sense of continuity. What has survived, even flourished, is tea. An obituary of John ‘Archie’ Russell described him as an entrepreneur who pioneered coal mining in Selangor. It doesn’t mention his role in clearing a swathe of jungle and planting the first terraced tea gardens in the Thirties. They now spread over 1,000ha; ruffled emerald carpets supplying most of the peninsula with its daily culpa.
Boh, the brand he created, provides the orange pekoe poured through a strainer at The Smokehouse, without a teabag in sight. At Singh Chapati in Tanah Rata – a Punjabi restaurant that warns customers ‘We don’t cook until U order!!!’ – it’s the base of almond milk teas flavoured with cinnamon, clove and green cardamom. Powdered black tea is the guts of teh tarik, a frothy brew mixed with condensed milk that’s poured from a height to aereate it, as well as the closely related teh halia spiked with ginger.
TABLEAU FOR TWO
We are sat sipping coffee, lese-majesty, from bone china cups on a hillock somewhere on Boh’s Sungai Palas estate. Cameron Highlands Resort has organised a private picnic for us. The scene has a sense of fantasy, a clip from a Fellini film. Cross-legged on a starched tablecloth spread over the ground, our photographer holds a golfing umbrella against the sun. Two white-jacketed waiters serve crudités, wraps, sandwiches, dips, cake, madeleines and banana bread. In the background, we hear the full-throttled buzz of a mechanical picker. From time to time a worker, Nepalese or south Indian, appears with a 30kg hessian sack of leaves on his head. Accident or staged photo opportunity we can’t tell.
On one level it is idyllic in a way that the British who introduced their brand of civilization could never have imagined. On another, it’s just another aspect of make-believe that sets Cameron apart from so many other tourist destinations. Above the expanse of tea bushes, 2,032m above sea level, looms Gunung Brinchang. Surrounded by cloud forest, it’s the start of trails where walkers can trek without fear of stepping on a snake or scorpion. Either side of the paths, growing on moss-covered boughs, are exquisite orchids.Should your guide point out a furry-leaved shrub called kacip fatimah, listen. It is the woman’s version of tongkat ali. Steamboats and cream teas have a place, on either side of Route 59. The tropical wilderness and its secrets all around it have theirs too.
Where to Stay
Cameron Highlands Resort Adorned with fabrics from the Thai Silk Company, this spa hotel has 56 rooms and suites all with bespoke furniture and views over the golf course towards lush hillsides. Beyond the four-poster beds and grand colonial facade, you’ll find excellent concierge services and activities for guests. At the spa, try the strawberry and tea bath, crushed strawberry scrub and wrap followed by a massage. Doubles from £70. Tanah Rata, 00 60 5 491 1100, http://cameronhighlandsresort.com
Casa dela Rosa Well-appointed three star with clean, modern rooms, close to the golf course. Doubles from £33. Lot 48, Jln Circular, Tanah Rata, 00 60 5491 1333, http://hotelcasadelarosa.com.my
Planters Country Hotel Formerly ‘Bala’s’. It needs the helping hand of The Hotel Inspector but it’s a lovely mock-Tudor building full of bygones with a quaint garden. The Indian owners employ a good cook; word has travelled far about its curries, not to mention tea and scones. Doubles from £23. Lot 55, Tanah Rata, 00 60 5491 1660, http://balaschalet.com
The Lakehouse Half-timbered with pretty gardens overlooking a lake, this hotel near the rural town of Ringlet is far from the bustle of city life. Rooms from £92. 00 60 5495 6152, http://lakehouse-cameron.com The Smokehouse Hotel ‘A traditional English inn’ is how it bills itself. And that is what it delivers, down to the beef Wellington and fruit crumble with custard on the menu. Rooms are more homely and cosy than the average inn though, being closer to the ethos of a country house hotel. There are also three private bungalows, as well as suites. Doubles from £65. Tanah Rata, 00 60 5491 1215, http://thesmokehouse.com.my
Where to Eat
Brinchang Night Market Don’t make any plans to go to a restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night. ‘Pasar Malam’ is a wonderful display of every conceivable ethnicity and food style to be found in the region. There are hawker nibbles like boiled groundnuts in their shells, assorted curries, chargrilled corn, sweet potatoes dusted with sesame seeds, apam balik (sweet pancake with corn and nuts), satays and, of course, more strawberries. Eat a bit of everything and it will be hard to spend a fiver.
Cactus Valley It’s a Brinchang tourist attraction-cum-shop, where daytrippers buy plants to take home, but its restaurant – you don’t need to book – has scrummy Sino-Malaysian food. A feast here with steamboat heated over homemade charcoal and the claypot dishes advertised on a wall will cost about £12 for two. Pekan Lama, 39100 Brinchang, 00 60 5491 5640, http://cameron.com.my/cactus-valley
Cameron Organic If you are unlucky, a tour coach will have shown up and all the tables will be taken, but come back half an hour later and you’ll be just fine. This is the first organic steamboat restaurant in Malaysia, supplied by the farm that owns it – and it’s well worth a visit. Costs about £10 for two, including drinks. 10 Bandar Baru, Brinchang, 00 60 5491 4807, http://cameronorganic.com.my
Singh Chapati In a Tanah Rata backstreet (there aren’t that many, so it’s easy to find), this is proper Punjabi home cooking. There are many other routine curry houses in the region, but this provides simple, fresh, tasty food. Be patient and drink lassi or tea while waiting because dishes are made to order. £10 for two. 1 Brij Court, Tanah Rata Water Crest Valley A working watercress farm, and a real curiosity too. Nice place to eat steamboat, plus a fantastic view. Couple of watercress- related dishes and drinks, from £5 for two. Jalan Besar, Tringkap
Don't missKea Farm Market On either side of the road between Tringkap and Brinchang, it’s the obvious place to stop, especially for those caught in traffic, and buy fresh produce. It’s the centre of a terraced agricultural district that hasn’t altogether succumbed to charms of PVC roofing. Lata Iskandar On the edge of Cameron Highlands if you are approaching from Kuala Lumpur. It’s a spot to stop and bathe in the pools at the foot of a waterfall that cascades over tiers of granite rock. Browse the roadside stalls too for an array of tasty snacks. Mossy Forest It’s a trail through jungle above the clouds, close to the summit of 2,032m Gunung Brinchang (Cameron’s second-highest peak). Don’t expect a theme park stroll along a manicured country lane. This is beautiful and secluded, even though you have to share it. Going with a guide who knows the botany is a help. Free but a personal guide may cost up to £10. 8km from Brinchang and well-signposted. Raju’s Hill Strawberry Farm There are probably a dozen such farms in the area that you could visit, but this particular one is a favourite, being well-maintained and set up for you to pick your own. The strawberries themselves are more suited to a tropical climate rather than those found in Europe. Try them dipped in salt and icing sugar. Entrance free. 42nd miles, Kea Farm, 39100 Cameron Highlands, 00 60 195 753 867 Sungai Palas Tea plantation with a Tea Centre and Factory. Naturally, it’s a great place to drink a freshly brewed cuppa, and take in the dramatic vistas. 5km north Brinchang, 00 60 5496 2096, http://boh.com.my
This article was published on 25th April 2016 so certain details may not be up to date.