Cameron Highlands - Of Memories and Sceneries
Updated: May 2, 2019
I did not have the opportunity to travel much or far when I was young. Nonetheless, I still have fond memories of the very few holidays I had with my parents, which were all to Malaysia.
Looking back, I am very thankful to my parents who had managed to bring the family out for short holidays despite the difficult times. These days, children in Singapore are extremely fortunate as many would have taken the plane and been to many cities at a very young age, some even before they could spell the city's name or understand that the Earth is round instead of flat like a pin-up poster.
But sadly, I guess it's exactly because of the ease of travelling, both financially and infrastructurally, that many kids these days do not appreciate travel experiences and would return with little or no impression of the trip or its destination. Often, they take for granted holidays as a given, instead of with gratitude.
I remember a major and "exotic" trip was to Cameron Highlands (CH). Well, I guess calling such a trip as major and exotic could easily snicker many today. But hey, that was in the early eighties where having KFC for our family was a rare, luxurious, fine dining experience with crispy chicken served on porcelain plates by waiters. And where a McDonald's hamburger was my reward for doing well in exam.
I was only in my first or second year of primary school. It was exotic to me because of the long journey from Singapore in an air-conditioned coach, the uphill ride to a real mountain ten times higher than Singapore's highest peak, the cool and high altitude climate, and the overwhelming environment of floral and fauna that I was surrounded with. Till this day, I could still recall the many moments I had during that trip three decades ago, including puking into a plastic bag inside the taxi while journeying up the mountain.
With the convenience of my own car and improved accessibility today, I decided to revisit this little hill station atop the Titiwangsa Mountain range, and hopefully rekindle and relive a few of my childhood moments, except for the puke of course.
Indeed, the road to CH has improved a lot and the journey from Singapore did not feel long or tiring at all. And as a result, I ended up doing two trips there within a three-month period.
The drive was easy and slightly boring up the North-South Highway, with the usual heavy traffic skirting around the capital. However, the road up the mountain was exciting, fun and highly enjoyable. I could feel the immediate awaking after turning off the highway at Tapah when the roads started to twist and weave like a strand of ribbon dropped around the mountains.
Several small villages and the occasional sight of indigenous orang asli houses along the way have added some colours to the dense tropical forest that carpets the entire mountain range. This old uphill road via Tapah was what I enjoyed most with its sharp turns, 2-lane single carriageway, and some tight corners right against the cliff.
Along the way, one could choose to stop by a few sights to take a break, or for passengers to acclimatise themselves to prevent any graphic divulgement of what they just had for lunch. The first possible stop is Kuala Woh Recreational Park, located just 9 km after the Tapah highway exit. There is a shallow river with a subterranean hot spring that heats up a section of the sandy river bed, a hot spot (literally) for the locals to spend the day sitting in the running stream.
Another popular stop is the Lata Iskandar waterfall, located around 20 km after exiting the highway from Tapah (or 11 km after Kuala Woh). The 25 metres high waterfall cannot be missed as it sits beside the road, fronting a hairpin turn. It should be easy to find a space along the road to park your car, except on weekends and school holidays. The majestic waterfall is a good stop for photographers and to have a good stretch, since it is located at almost mid-point of this uphill journey.
Continuing for another 22 km, one should reach the first township of Ringlet, sitting 1,200 metres above sea-level. This is the main agricultural hub in the Highlands, and with a number of car workshops giving hundreds of old Land Rovers their second life.
Moving on for another 12 km, the hills come alive with the sound of Tanah Rata. This is the main township where the bus terminal is located, and many government offices, a hospital and the district police station gather. There is a long row of shops offering souvenirs, cold wear, groceries, delicious cooked food, foot massages, day tour bookings, and a Starbucks to satisfy the city dwellers' caffeine needs.
Moving on and driving past the golf course, one would enter the town of Brinchang, 5 km from Tanah Rata. This is where most of the tourist hotels/motels and steamboat restaurants are located. Traffic jams and parking problems are common during the weekends here. Ringlet and Brinchang are the only places one could top up petrol on the Highlands as well.
Beyond Brinchang are several towns where most attractions are located. They include Kea Farm, several strawberry farms, butterfly and bee farms, the Time Tunnel Gallery, and Boh tea plantation. The Sungai Palas Boh Tea Estate is one of the more popular places to spend the afternoon, sipping their freshly harvested tea while enjoying a breath-taking view of the tea plantation from the cafe's cantilever verandah.
The same road leading to Sungai Palas Boh Tea Estate would also lead you to the second highest peak of CH - Gunung Brinchang. At 2,032 m above sea-level, it offers an extraordinary view of the entire Highlands in all directions. Thanks to the slightly corroded 3-tier watchtower standing at its peak.
However, the drive up to enjoy this magnificent 360 degree view might not be for everyone. The narrow single-lane but two-way road cutting through dense forest in some areas, decorated with potholes, collapsed edges and landslides (especially during the rainy season), and steep gradient towards to top, could be nerve-racking for some. Not forgetting the risk of potential damages to the car should there be insufficient ground clearance while going off the track to negotiate a pass with an oncoming vehicle. However, it is clearly a rewarding experience for me, considering the multiple trips I had made up the summit during my recent stays.
Fret not if you do not wish to drive. There are many day tours available to bring tourists the same way up the summit. The most exciting part is that they are mostly operated with the Land Rover Defenders - a hardy 4X4 that eats the most challenging terrain for breakfast. Mostly conducted in small groups, the tours would include the Mossy Forest, which is located near the summit of Gunung Brinchang. Other interesting day tours include forest trails to hunt for the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia.
(Above) Mossy Forest - At 2,000 metres above sea-level, the low-level clouds blanket the forests with constant mist and moisture, creating an ideal biotope for moss, ferns and lichen.
(Above) Stopping by the edge of a tea plantation for photo shoot. Dark clouds loom in the sky often during this rainy season.
The entire drive from Tapah exit to Tanah Rata should take around 1 hour 30 minutes, excluding stops. This is based on a leisurely pace with the inevitable traffic hold-up by heavy vehicles. The drive was most exhilarating to me, especially so in a MINI. Although much heavier and taller, the Countryman was sure-footed through every corner and confident with every overtaking up the mountain. With its excellent handling, ample torque and nimble physiques, it managed to get me to my hotel sitting 1,500 metres above sea-level with ease. The narrow single-lane track up Gunung Brinchang made the Countryman felt at home. It was easy for the MINI to squeeze through tight situations or go off-track during car passes in opposite directions. Unpaved terrain was never a real worry, thanks to the assurance of ALL4 and a decent ground clearance.
My memory of what CH was hasn't changed much some thirty years later, which is wonderful. The strawberry farms wrapping the hills, the fresh vegetables and flowers at the bustling markets, the rolling mountains covered in a manicured carpet of tea plantations swept gently by low-lying clouds, the Tudor-style houses perched on hills that look like sets from a fairy-tale or horror movie, all located on a plateau more than a thousand metres above have been largely untouched.
Inevitably, I'm sure many things would have changed too. There wasn't Starbucks or Marrybrown, the roads were worse and hotels were limited back then.
But the beautiful sunrise that greets the rolling hills, warming the dews on the tea leaves and a sea of clouds making way for this glorious entrance, will always remain. Similarly, the soulful sunset seen from the top of Gunung Brinchang would take anyone's breathe away with clouds dancing beneath your feet, exiting the stage for the day.
Before I made my way home, while sipping my Boh tea and gazing into the mellifluous scenery of tea plantation and tropical rainforest across the hills, I couldn't help but imagine Julie Andrews singing, dancing and waking the hills alive. The enchanting landscape of Cameron Highlands is so alive indeed; so alluring and hypnotising with a sense of mystic that not just takes our breathe away, but our soul, including of Jim Thompson's on his fateful stroll.
Facts and Figures: Date: March and May 2014
Accommodation: Cameron Highlands Resort, Century Pines Resort
Equipment: Nikon D800E, Nikon AFS 17-35mm f2.8, Nikon AFS 24-120mm f4, Nikon AFS 50mm f1.4, Samsung EX2F, Sony HX50V
Tips: The distance from Singapore (Tuas) to Tapah, the highway exit to CH, is around 500 km. This exit leads to the old 50+ km road leading up to the townships of Ringlet, Tanah Rata and Brinchang. Overtaking is rare and difficult on this route due to the narrow 2-lane single carriageway road. To make things worse, the bends and turns follow very closely one after another, hence resulting in perpetual blind spots. But the bonus is a more exciting journey, plus a worthy stop at Lata Iskandar waterfall.
Alternatively, one may choose to exit the highway at Simpang Pulai, 40 km north of Tapah. This exit leads to the new 70+ km road leading up to the townships in the order of Kampung Raja, Tringkap, Brinchang, Tanah Rata and Ringlet. This route offers much wider roads with several overtaking sections, and the bends are gentler both in gradient and radius. Take this route if you prefer a leisure drive. However, it is further compared to the old Tapah access for travellers coming from the south.
Staying in Tanah Rata offers the convenience of local eateries, several cafes, fast food, convenience stores and other services like local day tours and foot massages.