Sick of the humidity? Want some peace and quiet? Just fancy spending a few days not melting? The Cameron Highlands beckons. Nothing much happened here until 1925 when it was developed as a hill station and used by the Colonial British as a retreat from the fierce heat and humidity of Malaysia.
A road was soon carved through the jungle and the wealthy British Government officials and traders began building homes and setting up farmlands. The Japanese occupied the area during world war two, but retreated in 1945, the British began repopulating the area up until 1957 when Malaya claimed mederka (independence) from the British.
The name conjures up images of a mountain hideaway but unfortunately, due to increased tourism and agriculture, the road in from Ipoh is all bad traffic and strawberry or tea related tourist tat. It’s a bit of an eyesore. Once you’re on the trails, the jungle is everything you could want. Just don’t think you’re headed to a secret corner of Malaysia – KFC & Starbucks have also, unfortunately, found their way up here.
The area of Cameron Highlands stretches several kilometres and is made up of several connecting small towns including the most popular, Brinchang & Tanah Rata. If you are getting a minivan transfer from another area of Malaysia make sure you agree which area you will be dropped at.
Why visit the Cameron Highlands?
Situated at a higher altitude than the rest of mainland Malaysia it is surprisingly cool, with a temperate climate all year round rarely topping 25C any time of the year. The evenings are notably cooler – when the heat of the sun fades, the temperature drops too. With low humidity, you’ll find yourself wrapping up in a jumper in the evenings.
There are trekking options for all fitness levels, trails can last from one hour up to the whole day. Mix it up with some mountains, tea plantations and waterfalls. Bring plenty of space on your memory cards, there’s beauty up there in the mountains!
Where to stay
Tanah Rata is the best set up for budget travellers, it has plenty of cheap hotels and dorm rooms as well as ATMs, restaurants and a bus station for onward travel. It’s compact, with almost everything within a five minute walk centred around Jalan Pasar and many of the trekking trails start from here.
Brinchang is further north and is bigger with more shops but less geared for the budget travellers. It’s the starting point for trail number one and also closer to the Boh Tea Plantations and the Mossy Forest – they are all accessible by (irregular) public bus or an affordable taxi from Tanah Rata. Busier than Tanah Rata, with increased through-traffic.
Another option is to camp – The forestry department has a quiet campsite with running water and toilets further away from the town. To find directions look for SG Puah Campsite – guests need to provide their own tents, pitching fee is around 5 R We stayed at TJ Lodge in Tanah Rata who were excellent – Clean, cheap & helpful.
What to do in the highlands…
Trekking! The whole area is set up for walking and exploration – First thing to do is get a map from your accommodation, The free tourist maps were a bit out of date when we visited as some trails are closed due to tree-fall and general trail maintenance. One option is to buy a more detailed trekking map locally, but be sure to find out from your hotel the situation at the time.
Here are some trekking tips:
- Speak with your hotel about the trails, check which ones are in good condition check that they suit your level of fitness and find out estimates distances and times.
- Make sure your hotel know which trails you are going to explore.
- Take water and snacks – no 7//11 here!
- If you have a torch, bring it.
- Footwear – I don’t travel with hiking boots, in the dry season runners are fine – the more adventurous who want to trek in rainy season will need better footwear.
Guides and Tours:
- I read before we left that the trails are notoriously poorly marked and one website even suggested that guides hide signs to make it harder to trek on your own! In our experience, we found them fairly easy to negotiate and we did not get lost, or ever feel like we needed a guide to complete the walks. There are lots of small signs (some were made of red, or yellow ribbon, some are photocopied and laminated) which are put up by local hikers to tell you which path you’re on, sometimes they are far apart (and potentially easy to miss) but just remember which way you came and you should be fine. If you’re unsure of your map reading or hiking abilities it might be worth hiring a guide, but it’s not cheap.
- Another option is a 4WD tour – it’s not for me as I want to experience the outdoors but I appreciate it has its place.
- TJ Tours & Travel (associated with the hotel we stayed at, TJ Lodge) have two desks in Tanah Rata and having got to know Ahmad, one of the guides during our stay I can say he is honest and knowledgeable about the area and not at all pushy to sell the trips. If you just want some advice on where to go walking speak with him at their travel desk – the opposite end of Jalan Besar to the bus station, near to Suria restaurant.
- If you chose to go on a 4WD tour try and include a Rafflesia hunting trip – they are one of the strangest and largest flowers with no leaves, stems or roots and a smell to rival durian – they can also be found in the national parks near Pangandaran in West Java & Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. They are very rare, with a short flowering life and are endemic to South East Asia.
- Lastly, the sun is just as fierce in the mountains, even without the heat and humidity – respect the rays and slap on the sun cream, especially if you’re trekking all day.
Visit the tea plantation: Boh Tea Plantation is one of the oldest and biggest – they have two sites that you can visit for free! The most popular one; Sungai Palas north of Brinchang is absolutely beautiful and easily accessible without a tour. You can get an irregular local bus or a taxi (20R from Tanah Rata, potential to negotiate lower) Get off near the butterfly farm and walk an hour, mostly downhill through the plantation to the tea shop. With some of the best views in Cameron Highlands, it would be criminal to skip the walk and drive. If you’re a strong walker or keen to trek as much as possible you can also get here via trail number one (steep, uphill 2+ hours) and also walk through the mossy forest. Earn that tea and cake!
Tip: Café and factory are closed on Mondays so if you’re not that bothered about drinks (it’s busy, overpriced and noisy anyway) go on a Monday, with little to no traffic and peace & quiet.
Butterfly farms: If you fancy a bit of variation there’s a butterfly farm near to Brinchang (5RM) including lots of species as well as lizards and spiders. You can also see wild butterflies around, specifically trail number ten, which leads to the summit of Gunung Jasar.
Ponder an unsolved mystery: The Cameron Highlands are the location of a long investigated missing person case. The American entrepreneur and Thai silk magnate, Jim Thompson famously disappeared here on Easter Sunday in 1967 whilst trekking in the highlands. Some say that he was eaten by a tiger, said to roam the hills here 50 years ago, others say that he was kidnapped and murdered or fell into an aboriginal animal trap erected by the native people (the Orang Asli) who then buried him when they found what had happened. The mystery remains unsolved to this day
Local culture: The Orang Asli (literally meaning ‘original people’) are the indigenous people of the surrounding forest and high jungle. Trips can be organised on the main street in Tanah Rata to visit a local village and explore native pre-colonial heritage. Famous hunters, the Asli historically used blowpipes tipped with snake poison to bring down prey in the dense flora, and will now happily pass this skill on to backpackers!
Shopping: Nestled in between the various restaurants and tour operators the backpacker will find no shortage of shops stocking souvenirs ranging from blowpipes to strawberry scented slippers. Other non-walking activities include the bee farm, a temple, Time Tunnel Museum and golf course!
When to go?
The dry season is the best, from February to April. The monsoon season lasts from November to February, although it does rain all year round. Often it will be bright and sunny in the mornings with potential for rain/overcast in late afternoons. Local public holidays can push the prices up.
Where to eat…
Considering the captive audience, the food is surprisingly good – loads of Malay choice, a few South Indian options on the main street which are OK. We found Suria Bunga Restaurant further away from the bus station one of the best Indian options, tastier and cheaper than the two competing restaurants on the main strip. The Malay stalls opposite Starbucks offer tasty meals and fantastic value – Our favourite is Fisha Foods, the kampung rice is awesome!
Strawberries are an ideal fruit for growing in the climate and you can feast on strawberry teas, fresh fruit, smoothies, cakes and all sorts of berry-based goodies. Tea & scones seem to be a leftover of colonial time and are served with a good dollop of strawberry jam. Goes well with a lovely cup of local tea – you could almost pretend you were in England.
Public buses run from Ipoh for around 20-25RM (two hours) Ipoh is connected to most of Malaysia via the train network. Private shuttles run from many cities, including Georgetown for around 40RM (four hours) and minibus are also available from KL.
Where to go next?
- Ipoh – a city of great heritage and tasty food is a bus ride away.
- Pangkor Island – the jewel of Perak and the perfect place to relax is only another two hours away via a connecting bus & ferry.
- Penang – could be next on your wishlist if you’re after some of the best food in South East Asia!
- Taman Negara – only a few hours to the west if you want to carry on with more outdoor pursuits including jungle trekking and animal spotting.
- Perhentian Islands – warm up on some of Malaysia’s best beaches in the tropical Perhentian Islands. White sandy shores, great snorkelling, diving and laid-back beach bars are the ingredients for the perfect backpacker getaway.
Originally written by Tim Goodson.
Updated by our Ambassador, Ben Turland