One of the things that drew us to Ipoh was the city’s proximity to the Cameron Highlands. With the promise of good weather, we decided to head straight up there today to see what all the fuss is about.
We didn’t have to drive far out of Ipoh to discover why the Highlands are so highly rated on travel sites. The jungle-lined road wound ever upwards with vast mountain views at every bend. Once again, Malaysia’s quiet and well-maintained system of roads provided pleasant and easy driving to allow us to concentrate on the scenery.
Small stalls lined the lower stretches of the mountain road. Some were vacant while people sat on their haunches at others selling bottles filled with cloudy liquid. I’m not sure what the liquid was but it was variously coloured milky white, golden yellow and polished bronze brown. We wondered whether the liquid might be some sort of fermented alcohol.
The people selling the bottles of liquid lived in small huts that were nestled in the jungle. This one was close to the road and had a narrow walkway to it. Others were clumped together between the trees. Paths led into the jungle from some of the stalls, indicating that there might be more huts tucked away out of sight. I couldn’t help but ponder the way we in the West think about this reality of life. Some will see these pics and say “oh it’s wonderful that people still live in the traditional ways foraging in the woods and leaving a small ecological footprint” or “it’s sad that this traditional way of life is being destroyed by roads, mass farming and forest harvesting”. Me, I see the way the people here in the mountains live and feel grateful for the card I drew in the lottery of life.
The Cameron Highlands are as amazing as the internet sites promised. But you have to look for the tea plantations; they are not just lining the sides of the road. The main road in the Highlands is densely packed with a mix of industrial complexes and high rise apartments. The industry here is agriculture. Enormous tea, strawberry and lavender packaging and despatch depots fill the roadside landscape. Higher up in the mountains where the roads must be too steep for the trucks, the roadside is taken up by enormous multi-story concrete apartment blocks, resorts and hotels. And there are more being built as we speak. I wonder whether there is that much demand or whether they are working on an ‘if we build it they will come’ philosophy.
But once off the main road, the tea plantations are truly stunning.
The best road is definitely the one from the top of the range where the new shopping complex has been built. It is signed to the Mossy Forest. It is narrow and twisting (not gravel like the photo above – that is a private tea plantation road). And it winds through the gorgeous mountainside tea plantations.
We follow the road all the way down to Boh Plantation, which is one of the oldest tea plantations in the Highlands, dating to the 1920s (yes, they have only been growing tea here for less than a century). If you don’t like narrow one-lane roads with steep drops to either side, then this is probably not the place for you to drive. Or, you can challenge yourself to get past the fear by realising that local drivers are used to tourist traffic and that tourist traffic moves slowly. Also, Malaysian drivers tend to be courteous so they will make use of the many passing bays. And the scenery is worth the effort. Me, I like roads like this so was having a ball both driving and looking at the scenery.
As we neared the Mossy Forest, the road grew increasingly steep and worn. We could touch the jungle on either side of the car if we’d opened our windows to do so. The little Proton Saga that we hired struggled, even in low gear and there was no way we could stop in some sections to let cars pass because we would have needed to roll all the way backwards down the hill because the car lacked grunt. But we got there and felt quite sorry for the many tourists we saw walking up the long steep road.
The Mossy Forrest sits atop Gunung Brinchang (Mt Brinchang) at 2,000m above sea level. Here a timber walkway weaves through moss covered trees that look like Antarctic Beech trees but are actually a variety of oak tree. There are more trails to explore up here and you can walk to other mountains but it was hot and humid with storm clouds closing in so we decided just to stick to the boardwalk. It was a challenge on its own in some areas where trees have fallen or grown across the path.
And if you like moss, this is definitely the place for you because there is plenty of it.
After the mossy forest we continued along the main road to Brinchang town. Here we took a tour through the local history museum (they call it a time tunnel), which is actually just a heap of hoarded stuff that a picker has collected. But between shelves heaving with old Milo and Ovaltine tins, a box full of thousands of pencils (yes, pencils), walls filled with old advertising signs and random other collections of stuff (including a large display of piggy banks), there was some interesting historical information about the area. The Cameron Highlands were ‘discovered’ by Westerners in the late 1880s and tea plantations established in the 1920s. The area was later invaded by the Japanese on their march south to Singapore in the 1940s and became home first to British military bases and then Japanese prisoner of war camps.
The thousands of battered old Land Rovers that drive up and down these roads are probably one of the things that remain from those military days. There was a photo at the time tunnel museum showing over 500 jeeps all parked at the highlands for a field day. Apparently the Cameron Highlands have the highest concentration of Land Rovers outside of British military bases. I’m not sure how accurate this statistic is but that’s what we read. The Land Rovers only pay 10% of the normal road tax if they stay within the Cameron Highlands, which is why they have the CH stickers on the side. The two I photographed above are two of the more road-worthy looking examples we saw; a testament to the old style Land Rovers’ toughness …
… because these things are being used to haul some serious loads.
Our day in the Highlands was magical. We saw some beautiful landscapes, learned about Malaysian history and witnessed the contrast that still exists here between rich and poor. On our way home we even got to see the power of Malaysia’s tropical weather when we just missed a massive storm that took down not just a few small trees but about a dozen large mature trees around the area near the mushroom farm where we are staying. The storm even ripped off shop fronts and caused trees to drop heavy branches on cars. Unlike at home in Brisbane where a summer storm of this magnitude would cause mass chaos and frantic radio reports about every little leaf that fell, the radio continued to play music and regular news (it’s in English language so we know what’s happening on the radio), police simply directed traffic around the many blocked roads allowing traffic to continue to flow, and the lady at our hotel smiled and asked how our day was. And we just took ourselves out to the pond in the mushroom farm to enjoy the most magical sunset (there is no photo shop in the photo above – this is actually what the sunset looked like).