|Selamat from Malaysia! Last week we left off at the unforgettable Pangkor Laut Resort (here's the link to the archives). This week we finish our incredible trip to Malaysia by going into the highlands and experiencing an entirely different side of the country. If you're interested in coming, bring a sweater -- it gets chilly up here. Don't worry if you're in a hurry or have ADD; there's a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week's story (it's on YouTube, so it takes only a second to load). Also, be sure to check out my sister (Georgie-Jet) as she visits Albuquerque, New Mexico -- including taking part in the famous Balloon Fiesta (Here's the link to her story).
GETTING TO CAMERON HIGHLANDS
Cameron Highlands are located 136 miles (219 km) north of Kuala Lumpur in Pahang, Malaysia. The fast road takes 2 1/2 hours. If you don't want to drive yourself or take an inexpensive taxi, your hotel can hire a private car service for RM700.00 ($200) each way. There are two roads to Cameron Highlands from Kuala Lumpur: the Simpang Pulai exit (a newer, wider and less windy road) or the Tapah town exit (the old, much windier road, but 45 minutes faster). I took both (one in each direction) and I prefer the old road - not only because it saves time but it's much more scenic. It is quite curvy, but I sat in the front seat and had no problems. A couple of friends who normally get carsick sat in the back. They took Dramamine, and also had no problems. The best part about the old road is that an hour from the highlands you come across an incredible stopping point that has public bathrooms (they charge 1RM [.28 cents]), outdoor souvenir stalls (ridiculously inexpensive), and a fantastic waterfall. Don't miss out!
The Cameron Highlands are the highest area of mainland Malaysia. At 5,000 feet above sea level, the temperatures are quite cool year-round. They rarely go higher than 77° F (25°C) or lower than 50° (10°C). At night I wore a light jacket. William Cameron, a Scottish colonial surveyor, came upon the plateau in 1885 during a mapping expedition. Yet he did not mark his discovery, so it was not developed into a resort until 1925, by Sir George Maxwell. During the colonial era the popularity of Cameron (as the locals call it) grew, when British expatriates came there to escape the lowland heat. Soon after, British planters realized that the fertile mountain slopes would be perfect for growing tea, which back then was a highly valued commodity. As you will soon read (and see), the Cameron Highlands are still home to many tea plantations -- and much more. For more background info, including the history of the Cameron Highlands, please see this link.
WHAT I IMAGINED
When I first heard about the Cameron Highlands Resort and scanned some background information, I thought I was headed to a very quaint, quiet and exclusive part of Malaysia. I imagined a charming Victorian hotel in the middle of a tea plantation, miles and miles from civilization. What was I thinking? When we first arrived into town - yes, there's a town; actually, three little towns: Ringlet, Tanah Rata and Brinchang, with approximately 7,000 people -- I was surprised. This is a tourist area, though not for Americans. I didn't see any. However, you will find plenty of folks from Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and Europe. They typically spend just a couple of nights (I recommend a night or two).
CAMERON HIGHLANDS RESORT
The Cameron Highlands Resort, just a few minutes from the town of Brinchang, is exclusive -- the only 5-star property in Cameron. But what shocked me most is that it's only 40 feet from the busy main roadway. To my dismay there were no tea plantations to be seen. But when I learned they were just around the corner I relaxed, and came to enjoy the hotel's hospitality. The Cameron Highlands Resort is an elegant traditional property. Had it not been for the Asians working there, I would have thought I was in England. The service is excellent. You notice it the moment you check in, when guests are offered hot chrysanthemum tea and a warm towel.
The resort has 56 rooms and suites. Each room is spacious, with an elegant colonial design. My very comfortable room featured a cozy four-poster king bed, a flat screen TV (with satellite), telephone, mini-bar, coffee/tea machine and hairdryer. A balcony overlooked the golf course across the street. It was a joy to sit out there, marvel at all the pine trees and realize: This is Malaysia. The bathroom had black and white marble floors and the water pressure was just the way I like it: nice and firm. My only complaint about the room -- and I found this in all five of the hotels I stayed in in Malaysia was that the walls were thin. So in case you have loud neighbors (which I highly doubt), bring earplugs. It also would have been nice if the wireless internet reached the room, but I was grateful they had it at all (in the lobby), and that it was free. FYI: They are two computers for guests to use for free.
Two of the hotel's three restaurants are downstairs near the lobby. There is also a bar there with a snooker table, and a fancy boutique shop just over a koi pond. The shop is called Jim Thompson, and features fashionable silk goods that its namesake was famous for exporting. To learn more about this legendary Chicago native who mysteriously disappeared, click here.
One of the highlights of my three nights at this hotel was tea in the Jim Thompson Tea Room. At first I just thought it was neat that they kept the English tradition alive. After I ordered one of their wide selection of teas (many are locally grown; others are imported), out came a three-tier tray filled with English scones, pastries and finger sandwiches. But the bottom plate included regional treats, like egg rolls and dumplings. There was also homemade orange, grape and strawberry jam. There are strawberry fields all around, so dessert was a bowl of fresh-picked bright red voluptuous strawberries. They came with three kinds of dip (chocolate, fresh whipped cream and custard). This was far better than anything I've ever had in England. And the best part: It cost a quarter of the price (40RM [$10]). Tea time alone is worth coming to this hotel -- I'm not joking!
DINING AT THE RESORT
Unfortunately, dining at the hotel did not compare to the tea. The food was okay, but nothing to rave about -- and I dined in every restaurant. I'm not a sushi or sashimi fan, so I didn't appreciate Gonbei, the traditional Japanese restaurant located just four steps from my door. I loved the open-air design and colors, and they did serve some tasty tempura -- but you can get that anywhere. The Dining Room, which overlooks the golf course and is the other restaurant that serves dinner, has a wide variety of dishes, from local specialties to international cuisine. Breakfast is also served in the dining room, which is very elegant. I felt like I slob when I walked in with shorts on (though it's totally acceptable during the day). Breakfast is not a buffet. The menu included a nice selection of fruits, pastries, cereal, yogurt, eggs, waffles, pancakes and local treats like chicken curry. In the Jim Thompson Tea Room a traditional luncheon English roast is served once a week. This large buffet has all the English delicacies, like shepherd's pie and Yorkshire pudding. When there is no lunch buffet they offer a menu with a number of salads, soups, even burgers. Nightly rates begin at 700 RM ($197). Cameron Highlands Resort, 72, Pekeliling Tun Abdul Razak, 39 Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, Pahang Darul Makmur, Malaysia; tel.: 011-60-5-491-1100.
There are plenty of activities to keep guests busy, but many people come there just to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city (most come from Kuala Lumpur or nearby Singapore). This is a perfect place to relax, read a book or play golf. The 18-hole golf course across the street is public, and on weekdays costs only 56RM ($15). I didn't feel like swinging clubs or using the hotel gym, so I just took a 45-minute walk around the golf course. Talk about being lazy! The course looked nice, and along the way I stumbled across a hotel called Ye Olde Smokehouse. If someone hit me over the head and I woke up on their doorstep, I would swear I was in England. Even without the red telephone booth out front, from the moment you step into this hotel - your nose and eyes make you think England, not Malaysia. However, I'd much rather stay at the Cameron Highlands Resort!
Most guests who stay at the resort get a spa treatment - and so should you. At the very least, take one of the tea baths. Treatments at Spa Village Cameron Highlands feature healing therapies based on produce from the surrounding jungle, and ancient tea rituals. There are six treatment rooms, four tea bath rooms and two outdoor cabanas. In Asia, bathing rituals are an important part of physical as well as spiritual cleansing. What's great is that before each treatment, every guest has a tea bath. These are supposed to relieve stress, refresh the skin and slow down the aging process. Women can take either a yellow rose tea, Cameron's mint, strawberry or chrysanthemum flower bath. There are similar-sounding names for body scrubs and massages.
MY SPA TREATMENT
Being the man that I am, I had a traditional male treatment called Tok Batin. It takes three hours, and costs RM600 ($169). After taking off my clothes, I dove into a hot tea bath in an old-fashioned tub, where I soaked for 30 minutes. The attendant brought over a tray filled with kaffir limes and sugar crystals. Both were to be rubbed on my elbows. There was also a dish of ground-up tea leaves to rub on my face, a glass of iced tea and a refreshing towel. After doing my rubbing chores I was given a pillow, tea bags for my eyes and noise reduction headphones. I laid back and listened to soothing music. After 30 minutes I was escorted to the chill room, where the therapist placed a heated, heart-shaped rice bag on my chest. I waited patiently until my masseuse came to get me. Once in the massage room she handed me some paper underwear. Yes! I got to wear these things one last time (here's a picture of how stylish they looked on me). It didn't matter how uncomfortable they were, because my treatment was that good. It began with hot towels on my feet, then progressed to the best body scrub ever (not that I get very many). The main ingredient was - you guessed it -- crushed tea leaves. They did a fantastic job of removing all my dead skin. She then wrapped me completely in warm towels, as if I was a mummy. As I lay there with only my head exposed, she gave me a head massage. She then put me in a portable steamer. The last step was a shower. I didn't want to leave, so I took my sweet time sipping hot tea and eating biscuits with different jams. I am now officially spoiled.
Just a mile down the road from the hotel is the night market (Pasar Malam). It takes place every Friday and Saturday, from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Street vendors set up little stalls with a wide variety of souvenirs (I bought a fridge magnet for under $1). They also sell plenty of tea, honey, honeycomb, vegetables, fruits (especially strawberries), flowers and street food. While table hopping I ran into the girls from the hotel spa, who insisted I try the sweet corn on the cob. It was delicious and inexpensive - and so were the peanut pancakes.
Near the night market are strawberry farms, where visitors can pick their own strawberries. It cost only 5RM ($1.40) per person, which I think included the one kilo of strawberries that I took back to the hotel. Is that ridiculous or what?! Thousands of ripe strawberries just waited to be picked, in the huge warm greenhouse. At first I thought it was kind of a bummer that the strawberry picking I had heard so much about did not take place out in the fields. However, there were no snakes, and the workers are very friendly.
A short distance away in Brinchang is the beautiful Sam Poh Chinese Buddhist temple. It's free to visit - including going inside. The attendant watching the door was very friendly, although he did not speak a lick of English. He gave each of my friends a little book about Buddhism, and showed us around - including where and how to place and light the incense sticks (a batch of 12 cost 3RM [84 cents]). Don't quote me on this, but I believe you light three sticks at a time for each prayer stand. Then you are supposed to bow three times, toward each corner. It was hard to understand, because I don't speak Chinese. All I know is, I'm glad I visited this colorful, peaceful temple.
VISIT TO A TEA FACTORY
No trip to Cameron Highlands -- Malaysia's largest tea-producing region -- would be complete without visiting at least one tea plantation. We drove 45 minutes to the Boh Tea Plantation. It was founded in 1929 by John Archibald Russell, the son of a British officer. Boh Tea, the first to be founded here, is supposedly the biggest tea plantation in Southeast Asia. The highlight is actually the drive. You climb higher and higher, up the narrow, windy mountain roads. With every turn the scenery became more spectacular. The lush green hills, neatly lined with row after row of tea bushes, was unforgettable. At the Boh Tea estate, guests get a free tour of the working factory. The owners realize once you've traveled that far, there is a slim chance you won't buy anything from their large gift shop. I brought home 20 boxes of a wide variety of their teas. It was all inexpensive, including Gold Label -- their finest. TIP: Don't go on a weekend -the traffic is insane.
HIRING A LOCAL GUIDE
The hotel hired us a guide for half a day. His name was Ahmad Zamri, but he goes by Bob. If you deal directly through him (tel.: 013-460-5631) he charges only 70RM ($20) -- much cheaper than what the hotel charges. The rate is not based on per person, but even if it were it would be well worth the price. Practically anywhere else the price of a guide would be 10 times that. He even picks you up in his own van. Bob was a fun, knowledgeable guy (and he's the one who took us to the Boh Tea Factory).
GUNUNG BRINCHANG TRAILS
From there he drove us to the Gunung Brinchang Trails to see what normally is a spectacular panoramic view from the highest peak in the Highlands (6,666 feet above sea level). It was cloudy, but that didn't stop me from climbing five flights of the steep, rusty lookout tower to get the absolute highest vantage point.
THE MOSSY FOREST
We then went on a short (20 minute) trek through part of a 200,000-year-old mossy forest. That was something! Part of the time we were walking on huge, thick tree braches. If we ventured too close to the edge, it would have been bye-bye. The forest was damp, dark and exotic, with deep jade green colors and the soothing sounds of cicadas and birds. I didn't see any wild animals, because not many live this high up. Fortunately I did not run into the ones that do live there: cobras and pit vipers.
The last place my friends and I visited was one of the two butterfly farms. It cost only 5 RM ($1.40) for adults, and visitors see a whole lot more than just the hundreds of butterflies flittering around the greenhouse. They were so beautiful, but they live for only four to five days. However, the highlight of our visit was not the butterflies. It came when one of the workers showed us around the other part of the farm, where there are cages of other unusual insects and reptiles. I stayed far away from the poisonous snakes, but in the cages next to them the worker kept taking out crazy creatures like scorpions and walking leaves (Phyllium bioculatum). He put them in our hands before we could even say "no thank you." The funniest part -- which you have to see in the video (below) -- was when he put the funkiest looking frog on my friend's arm. I just happened to have the camera rolling. Click here to see the 30-second clip of our special trip to the butterfly farm.