We boarded the bus to the Cameron Highlands at the busy Puduraya Bus Terminal. The terminal is an impressive operation; the buses unload their passengers and then enter the terminal via a ramp at one end of the large building. They pull into pre-appointed slots and the passengers descend from the floor above via stairs down to each loading bay - twenty-three in all. Tickets are sold on the floor above the waiting buses and passengers can also purchase reading materials, food and beverages and trinkets for presents for those at the end of the line. The terminal is surprisingly clean for such a busy place, the only annoyance are the hundreds of "touts" who vie to sell you a bus ticket long before you ever approach the ticket windows. There are dozens of private bus companies operating out of the terminal and the touts earn a commission if they can convince you to purchase a ticket for their bus line instead of someone else's.
The bus line we ended up using to the Cameron Highlands was called "UNITITI", I translated that to mean "one-breasted" and I don't even speak Malay! Our bus had one seat on one side of the aisle and two on the other side. The seats were spacious and comfortable with leg and foot rests, much like a Lazy Boy chair. We settled in and before long we were passing through the city and heading north. We were both so very comfortable that we fell asleep and missed the scenery along the way. I dozed on and off for over two hours and missed the fact that we stopped twice to let passengers off.
We left the National Highway at a small city called Tapah and from there we gradually climbed through 653 bends in the road to Tanah Rata, the main town in the Highlands. The area is named for William Cameron, a surveyor who arrived in 1885 and mapped the area. The altitude varies from 1300m to 1830m and has a cool climate with the temperatures ranging between 15 and 21 C. For decades, people have been coming to the region to escape the heat of the lowlands. The humidity is high here and it rains throughout the year, but the land is fertile and it has become a major vegetable, flower and tea-growing region of Malaysia.
The journey took us just over four hours and the scenery along the winding road was breathtaking. We passed a few traditional Orang Asli villages and noted some villages selling produce along the road. The bus let us off near the main strip of restaurants and old-fashioned shops. There are several small guesthouses, hotels and a few large resorts but the blocks of apartments that have sprung up to meet the demand of holidaymakers from Kuala Lumpur and abroad dwarf these. The town is exceptionally clean and there are well-manicured lawns, gardens and beds of flowers everywhere. I was reminded of Banff, both for the beauty of the natural landscape and the rampant development occurring at every turn.
We took refuge in a small bakery because it had started to rain just as we entered Tanah Rata, but hot tea and a freshly-baked bun was most welcome. We hoisted our umbrellas and walked the short distance to the Jurina Hill Lodge where we had booked a room for the first night. The manager was exceedingly friendly and let us have our pick of the available rooms. We chose the one with the largest bathroom; Anil likes the bathroom to be both roomy and modern. This lodge is a little older than we would have liked it to be, but it was okay for the first night. We could always scope out the town and move if need be. We had a long conversation with the manager and his partner; he is Malay and she, Chinese. They have retired after a long career with Shell Petroleum and he has made this his home for the time being. Christine has a married daughter living in Park City, Utah and has made many trips to the US. She even managed to tour western Canada and has fallen in love with BC and Alberta. It was wonderful to meet someone who has been to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton and now lives in a highlands area reminiscent of some of Canada's scenic areas.
Unfortunately, I didn't have a good night at Jurina as the mildew in the ceiling settled down on me and made it difficult for me to breathe. Anil slept like a baby and wasn't bothered at all, but he was only too happy to look for a newer hotel, as he likes fresh new bathrooms. The manager completely understood and suggested we check out the Hill View Hotel just next door as they had recently added a new addition and we should have no trouble there. We did just that and have settled into one of the new rooms - very clean and comfortable. Anil is thrilled with the new bathroom. Hot showers too!!
In the morning we ventured out to walk through the town and explore one of the simpler trails in the surrounding hills. We walked along a creek on Trail 4 that leads to a small waterfall. The Lonely Planet had warned us that the bucolic setting is spoiled by flotsam and jetsam that come down the creek from a village upstream. We were delighted to see a dozen green garbage bags filled with debris along the path just short of the falls. Several large tents were being erected in a clearing in the area for a function of some sort. We guessed that their workers had decided to clean up the area to improve the ambience a little. As we crossed a delightful little wooden bridge near the falls, we were dismayed to see a shocking amount of plastic garbage swirling in one of the eddies and draped over the branches of trees above the falls. I took a picture as this clearly qualifies for the Good, Bad and Ugly journal entry. So far the country has been so clean and beautiful, we were lulled into thinking that we wouldn't see anything to add to the G,B and U. So sad to see.
After lunch we signed up for an afternoon tour of the areas highlights. The driver/guide suggested we bring along umbrellas, as it tends to rain in the late afternoons. Our first stop was the ornate Sam Poh Temple, a Chinese temple recently constructed in a neighbouring town. Chinese residents of Singapore supplied half of the funds for the temple because the priest was originally from Singapore. I have taken a few pictures of the temple to show you how different it is from the Tibetan gompas in Sikkim and Darjeeling. I especially liked the green tiles on the roof and the mosaic tiles on some of the pillars near the entrance. The Chinese believe that fish are good luck; I got a great photo of the fish in the koi pond at the entrance to the temple.
Our second stop on the tour was the Rose Garden. It is built up the side of a mountain with one of the best view points in all of the Highlands located at the top. Our guide suggested that we head straight to the viewpoint as the heavy clouds were rolling in and it was threatening to rain. We took his advice and climbed the zillion stairs to the top, stopping to admire the amazing variety of flowers all along the way. I'm not really fond of roses but there were hundreds of unusual flowers to see and I photographed many of them. The view from the top was all that we had hoped it would be. We just started down when the first few drops of rain fell and the first crack of thunder knocked us off our feet. I thought that we have amazing thunderstorms in Alberta, but they are nothing compared to the ear-splitting thunder here. I am told that Singapore is the Lightning Capital of the World, and we are not all that far away from Singapore at the tip of the Malay Peninsula.
We hurried down the stairs to the large section of the garden that is under plastic roofing and dashed in just as the skies opened up with a torrential downpour. Others in our group weren't so lucky, and they scurried in soaked from head to toe. The flowers seemed all the more brilliant in the diminished light and I loved the few hearty plants that happened to sit beneath a gap in the roofing. They glistened with the rain upon them and their colours seemed even more intense.
The nine in our group took turns running through the downpour into our waiting van, the people in the back seats entering first. Anil sat up front with the driver, a young Indian man whose grandfather settled in the Highlands two generations ago. I was impressed with his ability to switch from Hindi with Anil, to Malay with the two grandmothers seated beside me, and then English with me. How fortunate that Rajesh grew up speaking three languages fluently; he probably speaks Cantonese as well.
Just up the road we pulled into the Strawberry Farm. We had been advised to make sure we had a strawberry milkshake at the farm, but found that the storm had knocked out the power to the whole area so we had to settle for strawberries and ice cream. I don't think I have ever had better berries - picked fresh that morning from the farm opposite. I was delighted to see that the berries are grown in small containers set high on wooden stands so that the are about eye-level for the workers. This means that picking the berries is not the backbreaking labour that I imagined it to be. I am told that the berries grow virtually all year round; there is no actual season for them. The plants last only two years and bear fruit continually. The fruit is all consumed locally and is such a drawing card for tourists from the lowlands that much of the souvenir kitsch is strawberry-themed.
The next stop on the tour was the Butterfly Farm. I had seen these types of farms in Thailand but had never visited one. I don't know that I would have if it had not been part of a tour such as this. Before entering the butterfly enclosure, we were shown some unusual insects in glass cages. These included a three-horned rhinoceros beetle, amazing orchid beetles, large spiders and tarantulas. We skipped the lizards and snakes - too creepy! I was delighted to find that we were to enter a large netted enclosure full of flowers, with the butterflies flying all around us. The enclosure was filled with the Malaysian national butterfly, a very large black and green creature with a colourful underbelly. Their wings were easily as large as a man's hand span. Other butterflies were nestled in the flowers and provided a fascinating half-hour of discovery.
Our second-last stop was the Sungai Palas Tea Estate. The tea factory was closed on the Sunday we visited, but we had previously toured a tea factory in Kerela, India, so were happy to just drive through the estate and take pictures of the undulating tea-covered hills. This particular estate is owned by a Scottish family and was planted in 1929. The tea plants are over 70 years old, with another 50 years before they reach the end of their natural life span. Eighty percent of the tea grown in Malaysia is consumed locally, while the remaining twenty percent is exported to neighbouring countries. I was thrilled to capture a small valley of tea gardens on my camera, as I had been so disappointed not to take a similar shot when we were in Mirik, near Darjeeling. The setting could have been straight out of The Lord of the Rings, a gleaming green Hobbiton.
I immediately noticed something different with the tea gardens in Malaysia. When we traveled to India and saw the tea plantations in Munnar and Darjeeling, I was struck at how much the hills reminded me of turtles. The tea plants covered the softly rounded slopes with narrow spaces between for the pickers to walk. From a distance, the pattern formed looked like the intricate designs on the shells of the turtles. However, in Malaysia, there are long narrow strips of space between the tea plants and the effect was quite different. I later learned that virtually all the tea in Malaysia is harvested by machine and this explains why the plants are arranged differently. Tea picking is tough work, but there is something lost when one doesn't see the colourful sight of pickers scattered through a tea garden. I only hope that this has not resulted in less employment for the people of the hill regions.
The final stop on the tour was a Bee Aviary, probably the least interesting to us, but I can see for the lowlanders, this would be another unique experience. We passed up the opportunity to taste the honey and walked across to the market stalls next door to admire the fresh locally-grown produce and purchase some fruit to take back to our hotel. We couldn't resist a cup of the same sweet corn we had eaten on the cob the night we arrived. Mine came oozing with melted butter and salt; Anil asked for his au naturel. We were both more than satisfied.
I must not write about our time in the Highlands without telling you about a fascinating pair of young women we met our first night here. We chose to eat at Restoran Kumar, one of the numerous food joints that line the main street of Tanah Rata. Kumar himself stands along the covered walkway and invites you to eat at his place, with a hearty handshake and a disarming smile. He is a descendent of one of the hundreds of Indians who were brought to the Highlands to develop the tea plantations. When the British left fifty years ago (in fact Malaysia is celebrating 50 years of Independence in 2007), they rewarded many of their loyal Indian employees with homes and businesses they were forced to leave behind. Since then, the Indians have really prospered and are thriving today.
But I digress... Back to the young women. They were seated at the table beside us and after ordering a "set meal"; one of the women was struggling to order a beverage she could not describe in the limited English she knew. As it was an Indian restaurant, I was pretty sure that she wanted "macula chai" and leaned over to make the suggestion. "Yes", she exclaimed, that was exactly what she wanted and our friendship started from that moment. She explained that she and her friend are of Turkish origin, but live in Northwest China, an autonomous region tucked between Mongolia and Tibet. They speak a dialect of Turkish, learned Mandarin as a second language at school and have picked up English along the way. They are so western in their dress and habits; I imagine that they are from upper class families in Urumchi, the capital city of the region. They have been in Malaysia for several months while they apply to study abroad. They are interested in becoming teachers and Rayile has been accepted at Oregon State University. I neglected to get the name of her friend, an equally lovely young woman, who has aspirations to study in Canada, hopefully Vancouver.
I was so embarrassed to tell them that although I have always prided myself on my knowledge of Geography, I had little experience with their homeland. They were not at all surprised to learn that, and quickly told me that their area is along the famous Silk Road. The climate is very similar to that of Alberta, with winter temperatures dipping to the minus 30s. If the people of the region are even remotely as friendly as these two, I have to add Urumchi to my list of must see places. We parted after exchanging email addresses. I would love to let them know that they inspired me to visit this "off-the-beaten-track" part of the world, once I finally make it there.
It's strange how fate seems to put you in the path of wonderful people. Before leaving on the tour, we headed back to Restoran Kumar for a light meal, but found all the outdoor tables occupied. I noticed that one table had two bags on the chairs, but the other two chairs appeared vacant. It's common for people to share tables in Malaysia, and just as I was about to ask if we could sit at the empty chairs, the two Turkish girls arrived to claim the bags. We were delighted to see each other again; they had found the early bus to Kuala Lumpur filled and had to wait for an afternoon bus. We all had time for a quick meal before we had to rush off. This added time gave us a chance to learn more about their life in Malaysia; they work at a small restaurant in KL, "under-the-table" so to speak as they are not allowed work permits. They live in a tiny apartment near the city center so they must rely on funds from their parents to support them while they await their study visas abroad. We told them a little about our children, Adia and Raj, as they are probably around the same age. The time came for our tour to start and their bus to leave, so we said goodbye quickly and promised to email each other. They were pleasantly startled when we offered to treat them to their lunch, I don't imagine that has happened to them too often before. I see it as payback time for all the generosity that was shown to me when I was young and travelling around Africa on a tight budget.