While tourists still flock to Cameron Highlands for its natural landscape and cool clime, many fall for dull and hackneyed tours such as visits to strawberry and vegetable farms. To truly experience this charming eco-tourism destination within the Titiwangsa range of Pahang, West Malaysia, it is best to immerse yourself in the highland’s natural beauty, biodiversity, heritage and culture... and learning something about the forest ecology too. Mallika Naguran, who's been to Cameron Highlands numerous times as a kid and still visits, shares some pointers.
Bird Watching at Cameron Highlands
You don’t need to go too far to encounter birds when you are in Cameron Highlands. From your balcony, colourful montane birds - ones you might not have seen before - will fly past or perch on shrubs close by. Song birds rouse you gently as you wake up to a sunlit morning bathed in fresh mountain air.
Second to Frasers Hills in terms of listed bird species variety, Cameron Highlands has recorded 177 bird species as stated in Montane Birds of Cameron Highlands by REACH. These include the numerous and cheerful Silver-eared Mesia, Oriental Magpie-robin, Streaked Spiderhunter, Black-throated Sunbird, Mountain Bulbul, Yellow-vented Bulbul and more. As an amateur bird watcher, I recorded 30 species on my own, mostly from my rented apartment in Tanah Rata, and the rest from morning walks.
Cameron Highlands’ increased development continues to impact forest cover and natural habitats severely, though. The Malaysian Whistling-thrush and the Mountain Peacock-pheasant, whose populations are dwindling due to increased agricultural land conversion and poaching activities, have ended up in the 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Still there are plentiful birds to spy on. Arrangements can be made with local tour operators such as Eco Cameron to take you bird watching for a fee. Common spots for birdwatching are Parit Falls (Path 4), Boh tea plantation and Brinchang trails.
But of course, you can explore bird sites on your own. It is mostly safe even for single women to wander and discover these trails (I am still alive and well as I write this). Sometimes that’s the best way to meet others who are solitary trekkers, photographers or artists with a sketch book.
Do check on the status of Path 9 to Robinson Waterfall as sporadic knife-point thefts have been reported there and it is still unclear if the crazy chap has been arrested.
Genuine Trekking in Cameron's Montane Forest
Whether you are a seasoned trekker or a beginner, there are numerous trails that take you around and into the heart of the montane forests. These trails are located in various districts within Cameron Highlands that sit on elevations ranging from 1,100 m (3,600 ft) to around 1,600 m (5,200 ft).
Tanah Rata town itself is nestled on a plateau at 1,540 m (5,050 ft) elevation. Mountain summits chalk fairly impressive heights: Gunung Jasar at 1,696 m (5,565 ft), Gunung Berembun at 1,841 m (6,041 ft), Gunung Brinchang at 2,031 m (6,666 ft) and Gunung Irau at 2,090 m (6,858 feet). Not all trails take you right up to the summits though, but they are among the best that eco-tourism can offer.
To my knowledge, there are 12 cultivated walking trails into the forest and these are Paths 1 to 9, Path 9A, and Path 10, plus the Mossy Forest track that is unmarked on the tourist maps (available for purchase at local shops for RM3). As these forest trails are not paved or concretised, most may notbe suitable for those with cranky knees or bad backs.
Jason Chin of Cameron Secrets explains the symbiosis function of the ant fern plant (Lecanopteris carnosa).
The beginning of Parit Waterfall trail (Path 4) is suitable though, as it is fairly flat in most parts, especially the trail extension behind the hotel mentioned above. This trail offers views of streams hence some waterbirds, low waterfall, a bridge and an open area that offer a rest point and picnic ground, plus toilets. There’s a public carpark too if you must drive to get there.
The Mossy Forest trail is another trek that is not too difficult but needs some wheels to get up into mountainous area.
Eco Cameron tour guide explains the medicinal properties of the wild banana plant to nature trekkers. More on this in another article to come.
The carved out trails minimise intrusions into the forest and prevent undue disturbances to wildlife. You’ll walk on hardened soil or mud, if it had been raining. Roots protrude, branches hang out - even thorny ones - so watch out, ascending the mountain can be steep and getting down can be slippery. But always an adventure! Children and teens are encouraged to go as there’s lots to see, touch and learn about nature.
It is fun coming down a rope at Path 4 in Cameron Highlands.
Best to check with the tour operator or guide the difficultly level of the trail before going on one. Good walking shoes with a grip and drinking water are must-haves. For unaccompanied walks, pack food and a whistle, just in case.
Where nature tourism is concerned, Eco Cameron Travel & Tours and Cameron Secrets Travel & Tours offer guided forest trekking and have experienced local guides with excellent ecological knowledge of the local flora and fauna. For personalised trekking depending on your needs, Jason Chin of Cameron Secrets will take you on foot to discover the forest from a naturalist point of view.
According to Jason there are more than 4,000 mushroom species - of which 70% have yet to be described. If you love flowers, well there are more than 500 recorded species just in Cameron Highlands alone and about 260 fern species in Malaysia, says Jason. Now that’s a lot of plants to discover!
Beetles and butterflies buzz about as you walk for tea or trek. Cameron Highlands has attracted scientists who study insects and are delighted to find rare ones. Vasu Karuppiah, Eco Camerons' chief, is a great source of knowledge about beetles, having played with them since he was a kid and is someone you could touch base with if you have a similar interest.
The huge Emperor Cicada, colourful as it is noisy, is a common insect you will hear as you get higher in the forest or even find on trees or by the roadside - dead or alive.
Cameron Highlands Heritage Discovery
History buffs will be interested in the remains of World War ll in Cameron Highlands. The Convent School used to be the British Military Hospital, housing the sick and maimed during and after the Japanese Occupation. The sight of the convent on a hilltop looking down at the rest of Tanah Rata still brings tears to returning survivors of war. Few have donated valuable memorabilia, which can be found at the rather eccentric Time Tunnel.
The Time Tunnel is best described as a memorabilia museum - looks rather ordinary from the outside but upon entering, it is a long passage with lots of stuff to see. Located in Brinchang and around 6km from Tanah Rata, Time Tunnel has photographs and explanations of the war, along with equipment, belongings of soldiers and civilians during the 1940s.
There are interesting exhibits of local cultures as well such as the re-enactment of the Orang Asli (indigenous people) home and hunting tools, Chinese foodstall and barbershop. Collectors would love to browse the thousands of knick knacks from coins, toys, radios and cooking tools. Considering that it is the initiative of one resident and not the government, the Time Tunnel deserves kudos.
Cameronian black and white houses in mock Tudor architecture still exist as lodges or homes. A few are drenched with history, whatever their individual stories may be, since the 1930s where the British cultivated the highlands as a cool and refreshing refuge and summer vacation away from the heat of the tropics. The house of Jim Thompson, the American silk king, still exists long after he went missing in 1967.
Local operators offer Jim Thompson Walking Trail but don't fall for this marketing gimmick. That bloke’s long and gone and nobody really knows where he walked to or how he had disappeared. Numerous theories exist, from being eaten alive by tigers, abducted by aliens or kidnapped by secret agents. There’s also word out that the CIA was involved, which inspired a book to be written. I’d say read the book while you’re drinking tea in Cameron Highlands instead of paying to go on a random tour that’s made up of fantasies. Which takes us to the next point.
Drink Tea at Cameron Highlands
Cameron Highlands has become synonymous with tea for a good reason. As you walk, cycle or drive, sweeping valleys carpeted with tea shrubs will take your breath away if not your thirst, so stopping for a cuppa tea is a darn good idea.
Sipping hot tea brewed fresh from the plantations to warm up on a chilly afternoon or taking cover from the rain in a car - these situations are most probable as a day planned for out in the sun can turn dull and downcast. No worries, there’s always a choice of tea places, from nondescript coffeeshops to tourist-oriented tea houses.
There are those that offer amazing views as you sit and drink tea, and these are BOH Tea House (one at Brinchang and another between Tanah Rata and Bertam Valley) Cameron Valley Tea House that is also Bharat Tea (two at Tanah Rata and one at Kuala Terla).
Storing tea leaves in a wooden box like this keeps them fresh and avoids the use of excessive materials such as tea bags.
Flavoured teas like white tea and masala chai are available for purchase at tea retail outlets there too. I like spending time looking at the various teas for sale, from loose leaves in packets or wooden boxes, which I bought and use at home as it’s easily refilled. If you have a fetish for mugs or tea pots, you might get carried away here.
It is worth the while to pay a guide to take you to the tea plantation and factory and to give you detailed explanation on the makings of tea. Raptors like the Crested Serpent-eagle can be seen flying overhead as you walk through the neat rows of tea bushes.
Eat Scones at Cameron Highlands
Amazingly Cameron Highlands still retains another element of its British heritage - tea and scones! Again you don’t have to trudge long and hard to sink your teeth into the fluffy scones or biscuity versions, depending on the cafe you go to.
The Smokehouse Hotel offers afternoon tea in their garden setting, which is pretty when sun rays beam on the many flowers there and garden birds appear. Other places include Cameronian Inn, The Lord’s Cafe (both at Tanah Rata), Bala’s Chalet - I recall seeing vans pass by with the slogan “Take me to tea and scones at Bala’s Chalet”!
While I have not sampled tea and scones mentioned at all of these places, I’ve enjoyed the garden setting at The Barracks, which serves scones in its original recipe and flavoured ones such as orange and cranberry, blueberry, strawberry, peanut butter, and chocolate and banana scones. They come with clotted cream and freshly made strawberry jam. Coconut scones are served with kaya and butter, talk about culture fusion!
There are a few reviews written on where to go for the best tea and scones in Camerons, and I like what’s written on Mrs Potato Pigs Out. Still that was in 2011. No, I don’t trust Trip Advisor and its many paid or biased reviews.
One should never leave Cameron Highlands without having tea and scones.
For that matter, to sum up, one cannot truly say one has experienced Camerons if one has not gone bird watching, forest trekking, appreciated some Cameronian heritage, and had tea and scones with lumpy jam freshly made from handpicked strawberries from the local farm.
Text and photos by Mallika Naguran.
Huge thanks to Jason Chin of Cameron Secrets for sharing his knowledge on forest ecology and helping to identify the names of the plants. Join Jason Chin's community page on flora and fauna appreciation.
Eco-traveller tip - take a re-usable water bottle with you for refills rather than purchasing plastic water bottles. Do not litter. Collect and keep your trash with you and dispose them at bins provided. If you can, pick up rubbish if you spot them in the forest.
Recyclable materials should be bagged and left by the side of the Tanah Rata market and at the rubbish collection point. There isn't a recycle bin there but a waste disposal truck passes by to pick up recyclables from that point.
It is a good idea to look up the community-based NGO in Cameron Highlands called REACH for conservation activities such as tree planting and pollution prevention activities such as river water quality testing. REACH, short for Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands, has produced nature calenders, T-shirts, bird ID and wild orchid books that are available for purchase. Send an email to nitiya31880 AT yahoo.com.sg or call +60 05-4914798 from 9 am - 12:30 pm Malaysia time.