Visiting the cool mountain air of the Cameron Highlands immediately after the hot sandy beaches of the Perhentian Islands has been a wonderful exercise in contrast. On the islands the average high and low temperatures were 93 and 72; in the mountains the high was 72 and the low was 70. On the islands you could stare across blue waters as far as your eyes could see; in the mountains you could stare at tea plantations and strawberry farms until your neck hurt. The list goes on and on: fresh fruits and food, internet connections, and coffee.
I purchased a ticket for a 10am bus to the Highlands and was scheduled for an 8am water taxi back to the mainland. Since this is Asia, the water taxi showed up around 8:40am. Transportation is never late in Asia; the people who were impatiently waiting around for a ride are merely early. Back on the mainland, I was greeted at the boat by someone from the bus (minivan) company I was to be traveling with. We walked to their store and I was able to leave my bag there while I went and found a quick breakfast. For $3 I had fresh orange juice, two scrambled eggs, and “banana pancakes.” In actuality I had two pancakes with half of a banana cut into pieces and placed on top of them. I haven’t had a banana in ages though, so it was a welcome surprise.
Once back at the bus stop, we had about 20 minutes to kill waiting for our minivan to arrive. Just outside a competitive game of Sepak Takraw going on so I grabbed my camera and went over. I had seen this game played a few times in Thailand, but never really understood the rules or idea behind what I was seeing. The game is insane and a blast to watch. The simplest way to describe it is ‘volleyball without hands’.
Driving from just outside the islands to the Cameron Highlands took roughly 4.5 hours. I used the majority of this time to start book two of the Game of Thrones series. (As a side note – there are few things more discouraging than reading for 2.5 hours and finding yourself just over 10% through a book.) Eventually I became distracted by the scenery. Regardless of where you are coming from, driving to the Highlands will involve a long and winding road going ‘up’ for a number of hours. In the process, you’re surrounded by forests of lush greenery and the occasional farm – easily identifiable by the plastic roofing used to trap moisture around the plants. As we ascended the mountain, the driver eventually turned off the air conditioning and opened his window. I followed suit and within no time had my head hanging out of our minivan like a happy dog in the summer.
Contrast 1: These minivans are typically jam-packed with people. The stereotypical explanation would be sardines. A normal minivan journey would involve the driver and one passenger in the front. Three in the row immediately behind. Four people in the back row. And depending on the size and configuration of the van, three to four people in the two rows between the first and last. That’s up to 17 people in a minivan. On this trip, there were four of us. The driver, me, the girl from George Town and the Perhentians that I was now traveling with to the Highlands, and a snobby girl from New York who found a way to mention that she went to Harvard and was going to Yale for graduate school a few times a minute. Each of us took a row and sprawled out. It was fantastic.
Eventually we arrived at our hostel – The Cameronian Inn. Clare (Claire without an ‘I’), the girl I met a week ago, had a reservation in the dorms here, and so I followed along to see how the place looked and if there was another spot open. This would be the second time in a row (also only the second time) I would show up in a city without having at least one night booked somewhere. The place was lovely, set just off the main road, and extremely clean. It turned out that there was one bed left open in the 4-person dorm they had, so I was able to get in for the night. I thought to ask how much the room was, but I wasn’t that concerned since Clare seemed to be more of a budget conscious traveler than I have been. (Much later when checking out, I discovered that I was paying $5 a night for accommodation in one of the cleanest guesthouses I’ve stayed at on this entire trip…)
After checking in and getting situated, I grabbed my laptop and headed into town to explore. Considering that one of the biggest draws to the city was its tea fields, I was convinced that I would be able to find an ample supply of cafes with a wide variety of tea to sample. Unfortunately all I was able to find was a Starbucks. I’ve never been so happy and sad to find a Starbucks, and only a Starbucks, but it would have to do. I was able to break what essentially felt like a 5 day internet time-out. Eventually it got late and I left to find dinner. After walking around for a bit, I ended up at the Indian place right next to Starbucks for a small feast…that only cost $7.
The highlight of my second day in the Cameron Highlands was a sprawling farm/flower garden run by a local agriculture and technology university. A 10-15 minute walk from my hostel, I paid the $1 entrance fee and went exploring. The primary crop at this place was strawberries, but they were also growing everything from apples and grapes to oregano and roses. While there I was able to have freshly picked strawberries. Strawberry Ice Cream. Strawberries dipped in chocolate. And a strawberry milkshake. I tried everything since no one item cost more than $2. While walking around the area for 3ish hours, I took roughly 300 pictures. Below are a few of my favorites.
As I continued to wander through the fields of hydroponically grown plant life, the sky grew cloudier and darker and eventually it looked like it would rain. It seemed like a good time to leave, so I walked back to the hostel. It never rained. After the sky cleared up I traded my camera for my laptop and headed back to…Starbucks…to check out the pictures from the day and find dinner afterward. I ate dinner at the Indian place right next to the one I was at the night before. The food was just as good – as it turns out they share a kitchen yet somehow have a different menu with different prices on food.
Day 3 in the Cameron Highlands is where the second contrast begins. I signed up for an all day “Adventure Tour” after hearing from various people that the Half Day Tour was crap. The full day tour sounded like it would be a good time and involve a bit of ‘adventure’ and hiking. We would go to the tea plantations, the highest peak of the Highlands (6,666 ft high), The Mossy Forest, a local village, and chance to shoot blow-darts with the locals. All of this for the low price of just 80 Ringgit/$25…(don’t wait, there’s not more).
As it turns out, this “Adventure Tour” was crap. “Starts at 9am” means that at 9:15 you’re picked up and spend the next 45 minutes picking up everyone else. After we were all loaded in, the minivan driver (same kind of minivan from above) goes over the agenda for the day. Midway through he mentions that, “after that I’ll drop off all of you just doing the Half-Day Tour.” So it turns out that the full-day tour is just the half-day tour with some extra crap thrown on the end. Without going into all of the specifics, the Adventure Tour had little to no adventure, and consisted of us being driven to a place, getting a 10 minute explanation about what we were looking at, and then given 5 minutes to take pictures. The highlight for me was in the Mossy Forrest when I continually disobeyed our guide and didn’t follow the exact trail that he was walking – since he was concerned that I may not realize I was about to step in a whole or could slip on a tree branch. I disliked the tour so much that, after we dropped the Half-Day people off at their hotels and had a break for lunch (which also happened to be crap – at first my chicken and noodles came out as shrimp and noodles, then after they fixed it…it still tasted like absolute crap), I decided to leave the tour and rent a bicycle and visit the places I wanted to go.
Every day I had been walking by a place that advertised renting motorcycles and bicycles. I walked there and went in – there were two mountain bikes behind the girl at the counter. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Hi, do you have bicycles to rent?”
Me: “What about those two behind you?”
Her: “No bicycle.”
Me: “What about tomorrow?”
Her: “No bicycle.”
Me: “So your sign is wrong and you don’t actually rent bicycles here?”
Her: “No bicycle.”
Me: “Is there anywhere else in the city that rents bicycles?”
Her: “No bicycle.”
Me: “Oh okay, I understand, there are no bicycles left in the entire city. Thank you.”
Arguably at this point I could have asked about renting a motorcycle for the day, but (A) it was already 2pm, and (B) At this point I had enough of this girl.
Contrast 2: On my first full day in the mountains I paid $1 for a tour, had a great time, and took over 300 pictures. On day 2 I paid around $25 for a tour, left the group halfway through, took around 60 pictures, had a terrible lunch, and couldn’t even salvage the day by making my own tour and biking the 5 miles back up the mountain to the places I wanted to visit. I didn’t even have any luck with dinner – I went to another Indian place that looked good and had the worst dinner of my three nights in the Highlands.
Overall, the Cameron Highlands were a wonderful place to visit. Knowing that I have a July 1 flight out of Kuala Lumpur, I decided that I would leave the next morning – a change of plans from taking the “sunrise tour” to the exact same places I went the day before. If I had rented a motorcycle at the start of the last day, I could have seen nearly everything in town that I didn’t get to see …and the stuff that I did. While you certainly could “do” the Cameron Highlands in three days, it was the kind of place that I wouldn’t mind sticking around for a week to just enjoy the cool mountain air and fresh fruit.
It’s strange, but I feel that actually booking a ticket out of Malaysia was a bad idea. More specifically, it’s probably that booking a ticket out of Malaysia without doing any research on what else I could do here has been the bad idea. Malaysia has been an extremely pleasant surprise that I wasn’t prepared for – I’ll admit that I came simply because it was ‘the country next door’ and not because I specifically wanted to see something here. As such, with my exit planned to Bali in a few days, I feel as though I’m leaving Malaysia before I was able to see all of the things worth seeing in the country. Two immediate places come to mind – Malacca (an old colonial city) and Taman Negara National Park.