We’d just been in the Perhentian Islands for a few days diving, then headed back to the mainland to see a bit of Malaysia’s interior hill country.
The main reason we were heading to the hills was the heat – everyone wants sun, sea and sand on their holidays but after a few months of sweating buckets, we couldn’t wait to get to a cooler climate. We’d definitely noticed an increase in bad moods and snapping at each other when the weather got ridiculously hot, so a break from the constant heat was just what we needed.
At 2,000m above sea level, the Cameron Highlands has an average daytime temperature of around 25 C, only dropping to 18 at night, which are perfect conditions for growing heaps of fruit, vegetables and the all-important tea.
In the 1920s the British decided the Cameron Highlands was pretty similar to Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka, and therefore would be perfect for tea plantations. By the end of the 1930s it was a well-established weekend retreat for those wanting a cooler climate than could be found in the rest of Malaysia.
Today, the weekends are super busy as local Malaysians as well as international tourists are drawn to the beautiful rolling hills and cooler weather. It’s also relatively close to KL, so easy enough to reach for a weekend away.
I’d recommend trying to go during the week – the traffic on a weekend is just ridiculous.
A not-so-great hostel
I think staying at Sleepbox in the Cameron Highlands reaffirmed our growing sense that hostel life is possibly not for us. Finding a good one is so difficult… even having good reviews on Hostelworld is no guarantee of comfort, friendliness or a good night’s sleep.
We walked in to the common area to find no one looking up from their phones to say hello – unfortunately this is pretty common – and the check in staff were less than enthusiastic. To be fair though, the bathrooms were clean and the breakfast was free, so it wasn’t all bad.
The worst thing was definitely the ‘rooms’. Hostelworld showed we’d booked a 10 bed dorm – a little bigger than we’d usually like, but we thought it would be OK. It turned out to be a 40 bed dorm, which was the largest we’ve ever stayed in, and definitely not something we’d ever choose.
I think we really began to question the whole hostel style of travel when the guy in the next bunk’s alarm went off at 6am… then again at 6.15… and 6.30… and then 7am, when he’d finally get up. This happened every day. Come on! Fair enough if you need to get up early, but snoozing is definitely not OK in a dorm. Every morning we’d lay there wishing him a painful death.
The hunt for the stinking corpse lily
Having done little to no research, we didn’t know much about the Cameron Highlands except that the temperature was good, and that we might finally get a decent cup of tea. We weren’t expecting much else, especially not a chance to find the world’s largest flower.
Blakey told me that when he was a kid he’d watched a documentary on TV about the rafflesia plant – famous for being the biggest flower in the world, and also for smelling like rotting meat. It only grows in Southeast Asia, and only flowers for 3-5 days before dying. He said he’d remembered thinking ‘I’ll probably never see that’.
Luckily, he was wrong. Fast forward twenty years or so and he finally got his chance. We booked a day tour including jungle trekking, tea plantations and the mossy forest, and the first stop was the trek into the jungle to find the rafflesia.
Our bright orange land rover bounced us along a dirt road to the middle of nowhere, where the 8 of us on the tour all piled out and got ready for our hike. Luckily it wasn’t raining, but the ground was still pretty boggy and we all looked doubtfully at one couple’s plimsole style trainers, which really didn’t look up to the task. They just shrugged and didn’t seem bothered about ruining their shoes, so off we went.
We’d read pretty mixed reviews about the trek, so didn’t really know what to expect. However, we really enjoyed it. The path was rough, clearly made by locals hacking their way through the bamboo jungle to find promising rafflesia buds. They went out every day to locate the flowering plants, then notified the guides where they were. The trek itself wasn’t particularly challenging, except for the muddy ground and a few steep and slippery uphill sections, but it felt like we were genuinely working for the privilege of seeing the flower, which is so much better than it being super easy and right in front of us – it felt much less touristy.
After around an hour of muddy jungle, we finally came across the rafflesia… except it was black and mushy and clearly dead. The guide explained that it had been flowering only a few days before, and he’d expected it to still be alive now. I think everyone’s faces looked the same… trying to look interested but actually being really gutted. That changed though when our guide said he’d been told there was another one higher up, just another half an hour through the jungle. On we went.
We finally peeked something big and red through the undergrowth and then there it was… big and red and looking kind of fake and rubbery, like it was too big to be real. We’d heard that these flowers gave off a rotting meat kind of smell when blooming, hence their moniker – the stinking corpse lily. Luckily for us, the wind wasn’t blowing our way so no stinky flower smell, just plenty of pictures with the world’s largest flower. We were all very careful not to touch it – apparently the rafflesia plant is pretty sensitive, just one touch could kill it.
After that, it was a long hike back to the land rover. We only passed two other small groups on the way back, which made it even better – I hate going to places where all the tourists are herded around like they’re on one giant money-making conveyor belt, and you’re just one of the masses.
Boh Tea Plantation
After our rafflesia adventure, the tour guide took us up to Boh Tea – Malaysia’s largest manufacturer of black tea, founded in the 1920s by a British guy who wanted to take advantage of the Cameron Highlands’ cooler climate, and cash in on the growing global demand. We Brits just love our tea!
The drive up to the plantation was just stunning – tea carpeting the hillsides as far as we could see. I cannot imagine the effort involved in clearing the jungle with the limited machinery available at the time. It was staggering.
The Boh Tea shop and café have stunning views out over the rolling hills… of course we had to sit out on their beautiful raised terrace and drink some of the local favourite – Boh Teh Tarik, which is a strong black tea blended with condensed milk. While it was far sweeter than either of us generally like our tea (no sugar unless hungover), there was something soothing about sitting in the heart of tea country, drinking tea made from leaves picked right beside us.
Boh Tea have a weird version of their tea (well, weird to us) where you can buy sachets of teh tarik in powdered form, just mix with hot water and you’re good to go. As a British person who loves her tea, I can say there’s something really wrong with making tea from powder. That didn’t stop me buying a whole pack of the reduced sugar version though… Teh Tarik is delicious.
The final part of our guided tour (£20 for the day, bargain) was a visit to the famous Mossy Forest, which lies up a narrow windy road a little further on from Boh. We’d heard great things… it was meant to be like a magical ancient fairy forest, cloud-shrouded old trees coated in moss, where you can endlessly explore…
Unfortunately they’ve closed the forest trails so it’s nothing like the old info and blogs say. Now, you can just walk on the boardwalk then come back… it takes about half an hour. They’ve done it for a good reason of course, got to protect the moss. But now they charge you for the boardwalk, whereas before it was free.
Don’t get me wrong, the cloud-covered forest is haunting and beautiful, but if you are expecting a magical woodland realm like something out of Lord of the Rings then you might need to lower your expectations, because they’re definitely changed the rules.
Cameron Highlands – worth a visit?
If you’re going to mainland Malaysia, then I would say that one of the top places to go would be the Highlands, just because it’s so different from the rest, and the old colonial influences are still strong. The cooler temperatures are also amazing, and of course the possibility of seeing the rafflesia just adds something a little special.