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 officials and traders began building homes and setting up farmland. 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).
The name Cameron Highlands conjures up images of a mountain hideaway but unfortunately, due to increased tourism and agriculture, the road from Ipoh is all bad traffic and strawberry or tea-related tourist tat. Still, once you’re on the trails, the jungle is everything you could want!
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia – Backpacking Guide
Cameron Highlands Map & Resources
Best Time to Visit the Cameron Highlands
The dry season (February to April) is the best time to visit the Cameron Highlands. Monsoon season lasts from November to February, although it does rain all year round. Often there will be bright and sunny mornings with the potential for rain or overcast weather in the afternoons.
Situated at a higher altitude than the rest of mainland Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands is surprisingly cool. There is a temperate climate all year round, rarely topping 25°C. The evenings are notably cooler – when the heat of the sun fades, the temperature drops too. With low humidity, you’ll find yourself needing a jumper in the evenings.
Be aware that local public holidays can push the prices of accommodation up – factor this into your planning.
Where to Stay in The Cameron Highlands
The area of Cameron Highlands 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.
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 from Jalan Pasa. Many of the trekking trails start from here too.
Brinchang is further north and is bigger with more shops but less geared to 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. Brinchang is busier than Tanah Rata though, with increased traffic.
Best Hostels in the Cameron Highlands
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If you’re looking for digs in Tanah Rata, Sleepbox Hotel is a very popular choice. The comfortable dorm beds are individual pods, so you feel like you have a decent amount of privacy even though you’re sleeping in a dorm room.
Hikers Sleep Port is a highly-rated option with dorm rooms and tents. Located in the centre of Tanah Rata, it offers easy access to restaurants and trails. The dorms are basic, with mattresses on the floor and no privacy curtains, but are comfortable and clean. With breakfast included, this place offers good value for money.
Traveller Bunker is one of the most popular choices in Tanah Rata. Morning group treks are organised daily so it’s easy to meet people and the onsite café is a good spot to socialise. While the 24-bed dorms aren’t very spacious or private, the social scene makes up for it. There are also some female-only six-bed dorms that offer more space and ensuite bathrooms.
The best of the more reasonably-priced offerings in Brinchang is Hotel Flora Plus. Prices vary, but it’s possible to get a private double for cheap. Clean, modern and very well-located, Flora Plus is a good option all around.
Along with Hotel Flora Plus, Hong Kong Hotel in Brinchang offers decent private rooms at budget prices. Close to a variety of restaurants, it’s also only a few minutes’ drive to a number of attractions including the Time Tunnel Museum, Big Red Strawberry Farm and Coral Hill.
Hotel Remix has decent budget-friendly rooms. They probably won’t be the most spectacular rooms you stay in on your travels, but they are perfectly adequate for most travellers!
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 Kem Site Sg Pauh campsite. Guests need to provide their own tents but the pitching fee is only a few ringgit.
Things to Do in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
1. Tackle the Treks
The whole of the Cameron Highlands is set up for walking and exploration! 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.
The first thing to do is get a map from your accommodation, the free tourist maps can be a bit out of date e.g. failing to tell you which trails are closed due to maintenance. Another option is to buy a more detailed trekking map locally, but be sure to find out from your hostel what the situation is on the ground.
Here are some trekking tips:
- Check with your hostel about which trails are in good condition
- Make sure your hotel knows which trails you’re doing
- Take water and snacks
- If you have a torch, bring it
- Wear sensible footwear
- Respect the rays and slap on the sun cream
- Do your research by reading our trekking guide to the Cameron Highlands! (It will tell you trail distances, durations and difficulty levels.)
Trekking Guides and Tours:
I read before we left that the trails are notoriously poorly marked and one website even suggested that local guides hide signs to make it harder to trek on your own!
In our experience, the trails were fairly easy to negotiate and we did not get lost. There are lots of small signs (some were made of red or yellow ribbon and some were laminated) which are put up by local hikers to tell you which path you’re on. However, sometimes they are far apart and potentially easy to miss. Remember which way you came and you should be fine!
Download the app MAPS.ME to navigate when hiking (even the tour guides use it). It works offline and has almost all the local trails marked! If you’re not confident when it comes to your map reading or hiking abilities, it might be worth hiring a guide, but it’s not cheap.
Another option is a 4WD tour, though this is obviously more expensive than navigating the trails independently on foot. If you chose to go on a 4WD tour, try to incorporate a Rafflesia hunting trip too. They are one of the strangest flowers with no leaves, stems or roots and a smell to rival durian!
Rafflesia are very rare, with a short flowering life and are endemic to Southeast Asia. If you miss them here, they can also be found in the national parks near Pangandaran in West Java and Khao Sok National Park in Thailand.
TJ Nur Tours & Travel have two desks in Tanah Rata and the guides are honest and knowledgeable about the Cameron Highlands. If you want some advice on where to go walking, have a chat with the person at the desk. The office is located at the opposite end of Jalan Besar to the bus station, near Suria restaurant.
2. Check Out a Butterfly Farm
There’s a butterfly farm near Brinchang (approx. 7RM entry fee). As well as butterflies, they also house lizards and spiders. You can also see wild butterflies around trail number ten, which leads to the summit of Gunung Jasar.
3. Visit the Tea Plantations
Boh Tea Plantation is one of the oldest and biggest tea plantations in the area and they have two sites that you can visit for free! The most popular, Sungai Palas north of Brinchang, is absolutely beautiful and easily accessible without a tour.
You can get a local bus or a taxi (around 20RM from Tanah Rata with the potential to negotiate). Get off near the butterfly farm and walk for 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!
4. 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.
There are many theories as to what happened to him, including that he was kidnapped and murdered or eaten by a tiger, believed to roam the hills here 50 years ago. Another hypothesis is that he fell into an aboriginal animal trap erected by the native people (the Orang Asli) who then buried him. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.
5. Experience the 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 the 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!
6. Go Shopping
Nestled in between the various restaurants and tour operators, backpackers will find no shortage of shops stocking souvenirs, ranging from blowpipes to strawberry-scented slippers.
7. Go Back in Time at the Time Tunnel Museum
The Time Tunnel Museum is a quirky place that houses a huge collection of memorabilia and collectables from the Cameron Highlands and Malaysia more generally. Expect to learn about the history of the Highlands, the Orang Asli (original peoples), and the enduring mystery of the disappearance of Jim Thompson. The museum also features displays about World War Two and showcases a vast array of vintage advertising materials, labels and products.
8. Hike in Coral Hill
Coral Hill is a good alternative to the Mossy Forest, which can only be visited on a tour or with a guide (the steepness of the approaching road means only 4WD vehicles are allowed to drive to it).
Coral Hill on the other hand can be visited independently and unlike the Mossy Forest, in which hikers have to stick to a boardwalk above the forest floor, visitors to Coral Hill are truly immersed in the landscape.
Picture picking your way over tree roots, ducking under low branches and scrambling up muddy slopes. All the surrounding trees are dripping with soft, green moss, creating a scene that could be straight out of a fantasy story. Another bonus is that it’s free!
9. Visit Sam Poh Temple
The largest religious structure in the Cameron Highlands, Sam Poh Temple is nestled in the hills just a kilometre from Brinchang. This red and gold temple features golden statues depicting Chinese Buddhist deities.
10. Pick Your Own Strawberries at Big Red Strawberry Farm
The Cameron Highlands is famous for its strawberries, which are well suited to the climate. If you’d like to visit one of the farms, then the Big Red Strawberry Farm is a good choice. Pick your own fruit and enjoy a cup of tea at the onsite café.
11. Visit a Garden
The British influence is strong in the Cameron Highlands, from the architecture to the strawberry farms, scones, and of course the tea! You can also feel the connection in some of the gardens open to visit, including the Lavender Garden and Robertson’s Rose Garden, both popular plants in English gardens.
The Lavender Garden is a popular tourist spot where you can enjoy the sight (and smell!) of different varieties of this beautiful purple plant, while the much less-visited Robertson’s Rose Garden is a private multi-tiered garden overlooking the surrounding hills and showcasing different species of roses.
Food and Drink in the Cameron Highlands
The food is surprisingly good in the Cameron Highlands. There are loads of Malay choices and a few South Indian options on the main street which are pretty good too.
The Lord’s Café serves up some of the best scones in the highlands, plus they are significantly cheaper than at the tea plantations, a win-win!
Jasmine Café offers reasonably priced and tasty Chinese and Malay dishes, or if you’re craving some Western comforts, Scott’s Café has a range of salads, burgers, pizza and pasta.
We found Bunga Suria Restaurant to be one of the best Indian options but Yash Banana Leaf comes highly recommended too. There is no menu at the latter, you simply order the meat or vegetarian option and you’ll be served up a delicious array of curries from the daily offerings on a banana leaf.
The Malay stalls opposite Starbucks offer tasty meals and fantastic value. Our favourite is Fisha Foods, the kampung rice is awesome!
Getting Around the Cameron Highlands
Local buses run between Tanah Rata and Brinchang but are known for being unreliable with an irregular schedule.
If you’re looking to take in a few of the sights in one day, a group tour is the easiest and most cost-effective option if you don’t drive a scooter. A popular choice visits the BOH Tea Plantation and the otherworldly Mossy Forest.
Most travellers come here to hike and there are plenty of trails to get stuck into, many starting from, or near, Tanah Rata and Brinchang so you can walk straight out of your hostel and head for the hills on your own two feet.
To get a little further afield renting a scooter is a great option. Beware that the traffic can get very heavy, especially at weekends and around public holidays. This coupled with the winding and sometimes narrow roads, means you must be confident on a scooter to drive around the Highlands. You may even be asked to demonstrate your ability before you’re leased a bike!
Hitchhiking is common in the Highlands, especially for those that complete the joint Trail 10 and 6 hike that ends at Bharat Tea Plantation. Local drivers are used to travellers hitching on that stretch of road and many are willing to offer lifts back to Tanah Rata.
Local taxis are easily available and convenient for getting around the highlands. They charge by the hour so can be a good option if you want to visit a few places in one trip. While not the cheapest option, you can make it more affordable by finding one or two other travellers to share with.
How to Get to the Cameron Highlands
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 minibuses 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. It’s only another two hours away via a connecting bus and ferry.
- Penang: Penang could be next on your wishlist if you’re after some of the best food in Southeast Asia!
- Taman Negara: It’s 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 diving and laid-back beach bars are the ingredients for the perfect backpacker getaway.
Updated by Lisa Barham.