Driving Through the Cameron Highlands

The road was dusty and the road was hot. Inside the air-conditioned car much of this didn’t matter as much. From Ipoh, the highway curved steadily between limestone bastions that seemed to have risen from the earth like mushrooms. Eventually the road climbed and these individual giant outcrops melded into larger formations, and before long we were winding through these formations that were now the beginning of a larger mountain range.

The more the road climbed, the further it went from what would commonly be referred to as civilisation. With that, the jungle seemed to take over as the trees rose higher and the variety, from what I could see from the back seat, seemed to be changing every time we went another hundred metres above sea-level.

The road was typically mountainous but well paved, fortunately, so this allowed for plenty of progress as the engine constantly gunned up and around another inclined bend. For several hours the road continued like this, rising and rising, and then it seemed to drop downwards again following the contour of the valley. This rise and fall and rise again pattern carrried on kilometre after kilometre. Always the road was ascending until it led to the crest of the hill with oversized white capital letters that proclaimed we had finally arrived in what are known as the Cameron Highlands.

The highlands, as far as living memory and the memories of those who lived before are concerned, have always been there. The area was discovered, in the colonial sense, when a surveyor by the name of William Cameron returned from an expedition there and reported on the contents. Prospectors initially carved a roadway through the jungle hoping to develop the region as one both for health reasons, but also as an agricultural area. Then nothing happened for another thirty or so years.

The plateau itself is around 700 square kilometres in size and on arrival there, two things are automatically quite noticable; the cooler and less humid climate, and the intense levels of market gardening.

As I mentioned, as you enter the Cameron Highlands from the Ipoh direction you are welcomed by huge white capitalised lettering informing you that you have entered the Cameron Highlands. Almost instantly pick-your-own-strawberries farms pop up on either side of the highway. We pulled in, opened the doors and stepped out, stretched, and breathed in the balmy summer mountain air which felt more look it belonged in the best Irish summer, rather than the tropical rainforest we had just finished driving through.

We took a short rest, while making it our priority to stock up on strawberries. As we wandered around we made our way to where the strawberries were kept, reaching through the fence every so often to pick a few slyly when the workers’ backs were turned. We weren’t sure if they cared or not, as most of them looked like Malays or Indian, while the business itself appeared to be run by Chinese Malays, although I might have been wrong. But, at the same time we didn’t want to find out the hard way.

Back on the road again, the highway seemed to narrow and slope downward as it crossed a few shallower and less steep valleys that dissected the plateau. On either side of us, four wheeled drives plastered with red mud lined the sides of the road around the entrances to the many farms which seemed to be increasing in density. These farms where mostly made up of greenhouses that provided vegetables, fruit, and herbs which didn’t naturally grow in Malaysia. I imagined that most of this produce got sold on to the big hotels and supermarkets in Kuala Lumpur, but it was also quite likely that there was a high demand from Singapore, and even Bangkok and tourist hotspots in Thailand to a lesser extent.

The road got busier and soon it looked like we were passing through an area that was a few steps short of being industrial. The road was filthy with mud, and the streets were as packed with traffic as any Asian street I’ve ever travelled on. This was the town of Kampung Raja. Behind the various restaurants and hardware supplies businesses that lined the muddy streets, tall apartments that lost their decadent appearance the closer we got to them rose, and around them low lying wooden huts appeared to stacked on top of each other. In the middle of all this was a new building still under construction belonging to the Malaysian immigration authorities.

Malaysia would be one of the wealthier countries in South East Asia, and even in Asia I suppose, and the fact that migrant workers are employed in agriculture should be of no surprise. Of course sometimes we are slow to catch on to these things. When we visit places as tourists we only see things at face value. We see a person who looks similar to other people and the language that is spoken is, to the unpractised ear, indistinguishable from another similar sounding tongue.

When I visited Thailand in February, there was a large amount of Cambodian workers employed in many of the resorts, and when I was in Ko Pha Ngan a few years before I recall there being a fair amount of Burmese people there to. Seeing the work that these people have to do and comparing it with my own life and work here in Korea, it’s hard for me to ever make any comparison between me and them. I doubt that they see any fair comparison between us either.

It didn’t take long for us to pass through this town and we were soon back winding away through touristy tea shops and strawberry fields. I had dozed off after the long journey, but I suddenly felt the car stop, reverse, and then pull back onto the road in the direction we had come. I tried to open my eyes to make sense of it, and when I had eventually cleared myself of sleep I could see that we had pulled down a narrow, twisty road which was surrounded by trees and bushes on both sides. Closing my eyes again, I was woken briskly by the exclamations of my fellow travellers: stretched out to our right, sloping down, and up the sides of a small valley and marking the rise and fall of the land in between like the rings on mountain map, was a tea plantation.

I had always wondered how a tea plantation would look. As I am Irish I’m an avid tea drinker, and as I’d grown up seeing where things came from – usually fields for cattle and potatoes – it was something I had not considered I would see unless I went to India. I had an impression of how it might look, but any ideas were clearly influenced by pictures and television.

But here I was in Malaysia, around 1,500 metres above sea level, driving slowly through acres of tea. At irregular intervals there were workers busy in the warm midday heat tending to the almost uniformly level tea plants which literally did stretch as far as I could see.

We drove further into the plantation, past some old British Tudor homes, past more tea and more workers, and finally through a small village of wood huts, that included a mosque, a hindu and a Taoist temple, a government school, and plenty of recreation facilities. There was obviously still a large manual requirement for maintaining the plantation, which I suppose is the case for most agricultural products which we consume, and especially those which come from less developed parts of the world. The huts looked quite basic, but the area was clean and definitely not cramped, and at face value the conditions looked much better than they were in Kampung Raja.

When we stepped out the car we walked up the tea shop which was a far cry from the rustic wooden huts below. This modern facility was an impressive sight. A long platform projected out from the crop of a small hill, with windows opening a view along each side. At the end of this there was a covered balcony. The tea shop was busy and lively, mostly with visitors who came to enjoy the view and to try some of the tea which was growing around them. After we had done this, we had a look around and then went back to the car.

This tea plantation was actually the first in the Cameron highlands and the very reason that the area was developed in the 1920s as a hill station by the British colonial government. Hill stations were popular phenomena for the British who undoubtedly struggled under the constant suffocating heat of a tropical country. I’d read about them a fair bit in novels which touched on the British colonial experience, but my knowledge of them was, and still is, very limited.

There was more of this hill station to see along the road. As we drove around the Cameron Highlands we made a number of stops, but most notable was a spot called The Smokehouse, which had been a former club house for the colonial elites. I was told that this spot now is a good spot to get some beef Wellington, a dish I don’t think I have ever eaten. The house itself though was beautiful, and the gardens were manicured to the highest standard. It was essentially a British Tudor style house surrounded by tall pine trees that didn’t fit into the environment at all, standing out as a sanctuary for homely comforts.

It was a bit surreal to be honest, standing there looking up at this house and feeling more comfortable within the surroundings than I had with my own surroundings that I had had for the past few years. It wasn’t just because the house was nice, it was because it reminded me of something which was distantly connected to my own culture, even though I’m not British. I suppose I could compare this kind of building and environment with places like Itaewon where people have tried to open their own bars which cater for people looking for a particular atmosphere reminiscent of that which they had left in the their own home.

This feeling didn’t last long however, and a quick marvel at the exterior was enough for me. We jumped back in the car and continued our journey.

After passing through the busy town of Brinchang, which had a lively bustle as the evening was coming, we drove directly to Tanah Rata where we stopped to eat. As we didn’t stop in Brinchang, a comparison is difficult but it was clearly more of a tourist orientated town with restaurants, a starbucks coffee, tacky tourist everything-under-one-roof supermarkets, and all in all, not a lot of evidence that a lot of people lived around the place, unlike Brinchang and Kampung Raja with their apartments and locals going about their daily business. In Tanah Rata there were some more old British colonial buildings, including a church. We looked around briefly, ate, and then hopped back in the car for the long winding road back to the main E1 expressway which would take us back to Ipoh where we were staying.

We left Tanah Rata and returned to the main highway which again hugged the side of the hills as it descended in looping twists and turns. At first there wasn’t much to see as we were quite high up, with the exception of some magnificent fern trees. We have ferns in Ireland, and in Korea they cultivate them as they are used as a key component in the popular dish, bibimbap. However, these trees were enormous. Many were several metres high, and many looked like they were from the Cretaceous or Jurassic periods, or at least that is what I thought based on the illustrations from dinosaur books when I was younger.

The road descended further and soon it crossed a small bridge and we passed another tudor outpost in the growing jungle. This one was called The Lakehouse. We didn’t have time to stop as it would be getting dark soon, but as the car drove by I took a look at the lake, just for posterity’s sake, and it must be said that I don’t think I’ve seen a muddier lake in my life.

Driving onward, the jungle started to grow up as the road began to snake down through more bendy roads and switchbacks passing along the curving mountainside which the road was built on. The further we moved through the jungle, the greater it became. There was hardly any sunlight shining on the road as it was completely obscured by the foliage. I looked into it as we passed and it seemed completely impassable. To imagine what it lay inside that natural maze would only sell the diversity of its contents short.

Since I have returned from Malaysia I have scanned over this area a few times with Google Earth and I all that I can see here is dark, unpenetrable green forest. There are no patches of brown or light green caused by farming or forestry, just apparent preservation of this amazing ecosystem.

This is probably one of the reasons I will return to Malaysia. It’s has been classified as a megadiverse country, along with places like Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, and Madagascar, making it one the most diverse ecosystems in the world. It is home to the oldest rainforest in the world, and many endangered species. The Cameron Highlands was only one small example of this. But there are still concerns serious concerns.

The mountains in areas such as the Cameron Highlands protect the jungle from deforestation and agricultural development. On lower and flater ground, palm oil plantations are the new tea and they do not require high altitudes to grow, and slowly these crops are taking over many parts of country, which was clear to see when we drove from Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur the next day.

I wish that I could say more on this, but I just don’t know enough, but I think that if we make ourselves aware of these things when we travel we can become better travellers, and more aware of the world we consume when we go to the supermarket.

The drive through the Cameron Highlands was a day trip. We saw some truly breathtaking scenery on our drive, and I got an impression of how and where a place like Malaysia now fits within the world. Although a small country, it has much to offer and by one drive over six or seven hours I could feel that I had seen not only scenery, but also history, both human and of course natural history. This history had given the experience and knowledge to new generations to utilise for their own good. While the word has negative connotations, exploitation is not always a negative thing.

Mistakes will always be made, especially when humans are involved, but I hope that we are gradually realising these mistakes and taking steps to make a change to the way we interact with the rest of the planet.

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One thought on “Driving Through the Cameron Highlands

  1. Pingback: Malaysia Photographs | If I had a minute to spare…

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