Malaysia | Cameron Highlands (and Ipoh)

By S


The Cameron Highlands are a mountainous region in Peninsular Malaysia, to the northeast of Kuala Lumpur (KL). There are several small towns in the Cameron Highlands, but most tourists end up in Tanah Rata. When you are buying a bus ticket to ‘Cameron Highlands’ the destination on your ticket is ‘Tanah Rata’. For tourists, they are synonymous terms. The are several other smaller villages in the Highlands, but we did not make it to any of them.

The Cameron Highlands, like the name implies, is at a higher elevation than the rest of Peninsular Malaysia. Tanah Rata, where we stayed, is at an elevation of nearly 5,000 ft (4,720 to be exact). Higher elevation means cooler weather – highs in the 70’s instead of the 90’s (Fahrenheit, y’all). Cooler weather means a happier Danielle. As you can imagine, she was practically skipping the entire time we were here. “THIS WEATHER IS AMAZING” being a common refrain. Other than the temperate climate, the Cameron Highlands are known for three additional things:

  1. Tea. Yet another sign of British colonialism.
  2. Strawberries. This could be ‘all fruits and veggies’, but strawberries appears to be their thing here.
  3. Hiking. Tanah Rata is a small town, but there are 11 or 12 numbered trails in and around town for hiking. We found the signage and directions to the trailheads to be lacking, but for the dedicated there are a lot of options.

We enjoy all three of these things and, as such, were pretty excited for this part of the trip. We spent 1 night in Ipoh (the gateway to the Highlands) and 3 nights in Tanah Rata (the major town in the Highlands). Overall, we enjoyed our visit. The Cameron Highlands provide a nice change of pace from the heat and bustle of Kuala Lumpur and the rest of Southeast Asia. We used our time here to recharge a little….and to eat.

Video

Getting there

High level. Bus.

Detailed.

  • Bus from KL to Ipoh. We left from the TBS bus station in KL. Tip – if you are leaving from TBS, leave earlier than you think you need to in order to make it there on time. It took us an hour to make it to TBS from the Chinatown area. Meaning we BARELY made it to our bus on-time. Ugh.
  • Bus from Ipoh to Tanah Rata. Look on Wikitravel and you’ll be fine. I think we had to buy our ticket from one bus station and then we actually left out of the bus station way north of the city. Getting from the ‘ticket buying’ bus station to the ‘this is where you leave’ bus station was super easy – a local bus. Tip – pay attention to your bus number NOT platform number on your ticket. This was the second time in our Malaysian travels the bus has arrived at a different platform than we were expecting. You might expect this to be something they would announce…but nope. Or maybe they did, and I couldn’t understand.

Sleep

eLoft Hostel. We stayed here in Ipoh. Weird all around. Half of the people staying in the hostel were also working there through workaway.net. I like the concept, but in this particular hostel, it felt overdone. Like there was a huge party that we showed up to but weren’t really invited. Also, it was hot in the dorm room (we didn’t have a fan near our bunk) and the downstairs area was a restaurant. Any hostel also trying to be a restaurant is a no-go for us. This is the second time we have stayed at a place doing this and both times it was awkward. We never felt completely welcome in the common area (aka, the restaurant). Like we were taking up a table that could potentially be earning them more money.

Father’s Guesthouse. We stayed here in Tanah Rata. Wonderful place. Good common area, tea (from like 2 miles away) and coffee available 24/7, nice rooms, good location. Nice all around.

 

Eat

All of these refer to Cameron Highlands (although we also did eat in Ipoh).

Steamboat. Our sister-in-law told us this was a Chinese New Year tradition, so we figured we had to try it out. Steamboat is a fondue type meal. You receive a large bowl of broth (we chose the mixed option – half chicken broth and half Tom Yam broth) on a burner in the middle of your table as well as 5 or 6 smaller plates of raw meats, veggies, noodles, and eggs. The routine is to put the raw meats and veggies into the boiling broth, let them cook, and eat them. Once all of the meats and veggies are done you put the noodles and eggs in and finish the broth/noodle/egg combination like a soup. Aside from the fish balls (one of the few SE Asia things we can’t get into) our Steamboat experience was great. The fish and mushrooms were the star of the show.

The Barracks. The staff here were incredibly nice. They helped to explain the influences of the dishes they served and one of them even sat down with me and Danielle to tell us what we should do when we went to Borneo (where he was born). Also, the food was great. Danielle’s chickpea curry was outstanding. If you are wondering about the name, the site of the restaurant was originally a barracks for the British.

Lord’s Tea and Scones. We ate here twice. The scones were delicious. They came with clotted cream (This is a Danielle edit. I originally wrote ‘whipped cream’ but apparently there is a difference between the two.), strawberry jam (sooooo good), and butter. Also, the place was quite religious (the title of the restaurant is not an accident), but hey…to each their own.

 

Do

Hiking in Cameron Highlands. We attempted two hikes and completed one. First, we attempted trail #4 (I think). It was super easy. It probably took us one hour round-trip and that included the 20 minute nap I took on a bench on the side of the path (trust me, traveling is tough work). The second hike was a failure. Our plan was to hike up to a summit on trail #10, but we lost the path almost immediately. The research I completed prior to our attempt made it seem like the most difficult part of the trail was finding the trailhead. And yes, I would agree that the trailhead is poorly marked and awkwardly placed. We did find it though (Tip- look for Tan’s Camellia Garden on Google Maps and go there). Our issue came AFTER the trailhead. Specifically, our issue was with the constant ‘which way should we go at this fork in the road?’ question we encountered. My guess is we should have stayed to the right at the initial fork and we would have been fine. However, I read something about taking the first two lefts and things got weird. We got to the point where we had passed at least 10 decision points and the trail was not heading up (gaining elevation) like we were expecting it to. To prevent the whole ‘getting lost, dying, and becoming a cautionary tale’ thing we decided to turn around and call it a day.

Cameron Valley Tea Plantation. This the lesser known tea plantation in town. Most folks head to the Boh Plantation north of town. It has a large visitor’s center, a good tour, and a large cafeteria.  The Cameron Valley Tea Plantation does not have a visitor’s center or tour but it supposedly has better views and it allows you to walk amongst the tea plants. For us, the deciding factor was ease of access – we could easily walk to Cameron Valley while we would need to either hitchhike, sign up for a tour, or walk for over an hour to get to the Boh Plantation. The walk to the plantation was easy enough – just hike down the main road out of town (towards KL). The first building is immediately after the large parking lot on the side of the road. The second building is less than 1 KM after the first.

The tea and scones they have for sale are quite expensive (because they can be) but the dry tea for sale in the store is reasonably priced. The highlight of the plantation for us was walking amongst the tea plants. It was beautiful. The contrast between the jungle and the tea plants was incredible. The jungle, of course, was unruly and deep green while the tea plants were neatly trimmed and lighter green. I read that they trim the tea leaves before they turn dark green for the best tea quality.

Walk around town in Ipoh. I enjoyed the murals (a poor man’s Penang if you will). We also saw Concubine Lane and a few other interesting areas in town. We stumbled upon this strange/cool area close to Concubine Lane. It felt like the most hipster area in Denver had been picked up and plopped down in the middle of Malaysia. Once we got over the shock, we went into one of the shops (see: Burps and Giggles) and I ordered an overpriced coffee (because that’s what you do in hipster hangouts). Overall, it was a nice way to spend a day.

 

Fitness

One run. Start run. Stop at a roadside strawberry farm. Consume a strawberry lassi (shake). Run back. Stava file HERE.

 

Yes, please

Those scones. If I could have ordered a baker’s dozen I would have.

Tea plantation. Gorgeous and fun. That’s how I like my tea plantations…and women.

 

No, thanks

Signage on trail 10. The trails in Cameron Highlands were poorly marked in our experience and based on feedback we received from other hikers as well. I found it strange the lack of signage for how much the trails are talked about.  Maybe this is based on our US idea of hiking, where all trails are marked to the n-th degree.

eLoft Hostel. Hot and awkward. You would expect to hear these words used to describe a middle school dance, but not a hostel. Go elsewhere.

 

More

  • Growing region. On the bus ride up to Tanah Rata, we saw tons of greenhouses. The greenhouses were built into the mountain side. It reminded me a little of the slums on the outskirts of Caracas in Venezuela…shanty looking structures tenuously clinging to the mountain side, built so close together that they seemed to be a single entity. The only difference here being that the structures were not people houses (like in Venezuela) but were, instead, food houses.
  • Strawberries. We didn’t end up eating too many strawberries since they weren’t in season, but the amount of strawberry infused items in the town was unreal. Strawberry coffee (tried it, didn’t care for it), strawberry tea, strawberry scones, strawberry nick nacks, strawberry EVERYTHING. It would worth a return visit here just to see what the town is like during high strawberry season.
  • Chicken and bean sprouts (without chicken). You know that whole “we are trying to eat vegetarian when possible” thing we mentioned a few posts ago? Well sometimes that doesn’t work out. Case in point: one of the famous dishes in Ipoh is ‘Chicken and Bean Sprouts’. We went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch one day and EVERYTHING in the restaurant was in Chinese. Everything. No worries, we’ve been travelling for a month. We’ve GOT THIS. The owner comes over with a menu and we point at two things and I say “no meat?” He gives me a strange look, but seems to understand. Turns out I ordered a ‘Chicken and Bean Sprouts’ without meat. You can probably guess how this story ends….my lunch was a plate full of bean sprouts with a soy-based sauce.
  • Burps and Giggles (in Ipoh). This place wasn’t delicious enough to make the ‘Eat’ section, but it was interesting. It felt like a hipster/Instagram paradise in the middle of Malaysia. Super eclectic.
  • Met a cool Canadian couple at the Guesthouse in Tanah Rata. They are a couple, traveling for 1 year, and are both ultra-runners (can you guess what we talked about?). They have a blog (click HERE) documenting their travels as well. They have a slightly different style than Danielle and me…they are visiting fewer cities but for longer periods in each city. I feel like this is a natural progression for long-term travelers. Danielle and I are still in the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) stage where we have a REALLY (no acronym this time) hard time passing up a city. Live and learn.

Pictures

 

Strawberry Dessert in Tanah Rata.

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Cameron Valley Tea Plantation

Cameron Valley Tea Plantation

While eating lunch at The Barracks in Tanah Rata, our server drew us a map of Malaysian Borneo.

While eating lunch at The Barracks in Tanah Rata, our server drew us a map of Malaysian Borneo.

Trail 10 in the Cameron Highlands. We were probably lost at this point.

Trail 10 in the Cameron Highlands. We were probably lost at this point.

Our first Steamboat experience - the aftermath.

Our first Steamboat experience – the aftermath.

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