In Tanah Rata, a small town in central Malaysia, the old men have not got used to the new ways. Old men, it turns out, like Madi, my guide for the day. Outside the Cameron Highlands Resort, the region’s swishest hotel, where high tea is still served as it was to colonial army officers – by smiley waiters in immaculate jackets, bearing bone-china cups and tea-stands of cucumber sandwiches – Madi told me of his childhood in the days of the British Empire. He lived in a steel hut in a pre-independence era long before the Cameron Highlands became the draw it is today for weekenders from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore looking for respite from the lowlands’ treacly, year-round heat.
“We learned you buy proper cutlery: ‘Made in England’. Proper dressing, too: long-sleeve shirts, big shorts, long socks. Everything must be tip-top.”
I was in the mood for something tip-top myself. I’d read about the Cameron Highlands as a place to wallow in colonial nostalgia, escapism and dreamy languor. Three or so hours north of Kuala Lumpur, the area was first discovered in 1885 by a British surveyor, William Cameron. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that colonialists planted tea and built a hill station. I’d also read that, as a Brit, my visit would be mildly discombobulating, and it was. At the top of Tanah Rata, above the area’s cheerfully scruffy downtown, are buildings like Ye Olde Smokehouse, a half-timbered pile you’d swear was from the London commuter belt were it not pillowed in tropical flowers. Next door, with a billboard reading “Tea Off”, an old-boys’ golf course offers immaculate fairways beneath dense, dripping jungle. Discombobulating is right: this is the English home counties in the heat; Surrey with sambal.
As planned, my first two days passed in a colonial torpor. I took high tea and read books by the fire in the hotel’s library. Then I realised this was someone else’s idea of a good time. I became intrigued instead by what Madi wanted to show me: the forest.
Fourteen numbered walking trails criss-cross the region, from hour-long rambles to serious, multi-day hikes. Choose No 10 for a tough, four-hour yomp along a ridge to Gunung Jasar Mountain; or try No 5 to potter around Tanah Rata. Better yet, go with Madi to walk a path he created five years ago “for fun”. Well, so he said. It turned out to be a bit more than that. We stepped off a sunlit road into crepuscular gloom. Colours in the soft, leaf-filtered light drained to a thousand shades of green. The air smelled of fecund decomposition. The forest seemed to be silent, although you only had to be still a while to realise it wasn’t. Exotic trills from unseen birds slid through the canopy and water droplets pattered on glossy, oversized leaves.
As we walked, Madi helped me to see beyond the depthless tangle of vegetation. The fascination of forests lies in their details: the prints of a passing wild pig, pin-headed mushrooms on a fallen tree, fragile orchids and star anise fruits on the ground, bird’s-nest ferns whose roots can be turned into a natural thread, leaf holes caused not by caterpillars but the acidic poo of bats. Seen together, they turn the forest into a single living organism.
Madi was enjoying every moment. “If I don’t visit this every couple of days, I feel lost,” he said. “This forest is spiritual. It is sanctuary.”
I understood what he meant. The forest had a secretive, numinous quality, like a sylvan cathedral buttressed by tree trunks. I found myself talking in a whisper. Yet not everyone respects sanctuary. We paused at a concrete dam across a stream. “Strawberry farmers,” Madi hissed. Having covered crops with plastic tunnels to restrict UV light, farmers now tap streams for water. Their pesticides and fertilisers have leached back into water sources.
“Now, no insects, no butterflies, no trout, no frogs. All gone. In Malaysia, they say we must save orangutan, save tiger. But what about forest? Farmers say, ‘We are protecting our future.’ There is no future like this. Malaysia’s treasure is not in the city, it is here. It is for everyone. One person cannot own it.”
The irony is that the Cameron Highlands were once seen as ideal terroir. As the British discovered, thin, acidic soils are perfect for growing tea. Colonial growers left swathes of forest between plantations as windbreaks. Madi approved of tea plantations. Alongside a forest walk, he thought a visit was essential.
“Tea from the Cameron Highlands is just about as good as it gets in Malaysia”
I booked a visit through a tour operator, TJ Nur Travel. Ahmad arrived in a mud-caked Land Rover with two bikes in the back. We saddled up and hair-pinned through the plantations of the Boh Tea Company (founded 1929). Green corduroy from a distance, at close quarters, the bushes resembled the parterre hedging of a dilettante gardener. As we swooped downhill, we passed workers trimming leaves with a gizmo that was half hedge-strimmer, half-vacuum cleaner, before we rode through their shack-village below a half-timbered Tudorbethan pile, once the colonial-era manager’s place. The work was evidently tough going; Ahmad told me that the workers get 10 cents per kilogram of leaves.
That seemed like a pretty rum deal to me. But one straw-hatted worker, Habsa, busy planting new bushes, insisted this was a decent job. Sure, her back was giving her gyp and her legs ached. But $400 a month is good for rural Malaysia. Besides, the hours – 7.30am to 3.30pm – suited her: “More time for the children.”
Further along, we passed another workers’ village, its tin-roof mosque next to an Anglican church and Hindu temple bearing candy-coloured gods, a reminder we were in multifaith Malaysia. We arrived beneath a glass box cantilevered over slopes. This was the Boh Tea Centre. Ahmad took it upon himself to explain tea production. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, with the growing, picking, fermentation and drying, it’s a monumental faff; I’ll never begrudge the price of a cuppa again. So, of course, I tasted it.
Tea has a terroir: strong if grown above 750m, more refined above 1,100m. That makes the stuff here, grown at 1,600m, just about as good as it gets in Malaysia. I ordered Boh’s “exquisite black tea”, the finest, tips-only brew. It was delicate, subtly fragrant and entirely wasted on my British palate, ruined by years of milk and sugar. Local cuppa teh tarik brewed from scraps was more up my street: strong, malty, sweetly syrupy from condensed milk. Delicious.
On my final day, I bumped into Madi. There was something else I should see, he thought. Heading north, we drove past vales ribbed by plastic tunnels. The 40 or so tea plantations of colonial days, he said, had dwindled to two as farmers turned to vegetables. Why? Because tea provides only two harvests per year; vegetables take a couple of months to mature in the Cameron Highlands. Which would you choose?
After 45 minutes we turned off the road and jolted down a potholed track to Kampung Palas, a scattered group of stilted bamboo huts on a ridge. Chickens pecked. Half-naked children fled giggling as we got out of the car. I sat in a palm-thatched house with head man Ayung beside a crackling fire. His grandchildren gawped. How many did he have? Ayung started counting on his fingers, then shook his head.
“Many,” he said.
Until the asphalt road arrived in 1997, the village’s 10 families lived in remote forest. The road made life easier but it was still the woodlands that provided everything Ayung wanted: sweet-sour wild honey, durian fruit, capioca, the wood with which he’d built his hut. “The forest was my forefathers’ home. It is my life. It is our people’s lives.”
He walked me through the village to a watchtower. When I asked what villagers looked for Ayung stared at me hard, then gestured beyond the ridge. “See,” he said finally, “it’s beautiful.” Beyond the village, blue-grey mountains faded into the distance, passing clouds snagged on their slopes.
We stopped before a wall of green where the village ended and gazed across a valley. “I see tiger here last year,” Ayung said, casually. He lifted a hand to waist height to show its size. Was he scared? “I say, ‘I am living in the jungle. You are living in the jungle. I respect you. You respect me.’ Why would I feel fear?” He gave a chuckle like the crackle of dry leaves.
Some Chinese and Malaysians hunters had offered big money for a hunt. No chance. “Tiger is a guardian of our village. It is like ancestor.” He thought, then added: “Tiger is the king.” Of the forest? “Of everywhere.”
The trouble is that these primeval forests are disappearing through a mix of slow regulation and apathy. If most Malaysians don’t seem overly bothered, it’s because most of us aren’t, either. Many visitors to the Cameron Highlands prefer shiny plastic tourist farms to raw, natural forest. Yet tourism, if done well by people like Ayung and Madi, can alter that. It can provide forests with a value beyond mere agricultural land.
And, perhaps, if it does, the old men will finally get used to the new ways.
Where to stay?
What Easily the plushest hotel in the Cameron Highlands, it offers all the region’s colonial splendour as well as easy access to forest hikes and the other outdoorsy stuff there is to do here. Set on the highest point of Tanah Rata, most rooms come with epic views of the rolling hills from their own private terraces. There are three restaurants (including the delightful, colonial-era high tea) as well as a world- class spa set within the jungle. However, the private tea- plantation picnic is the real must-do. Transfers from the airport available.