The Cameron Highlands is my favourite hill resort in Malaysia.
It is located 150 km north of Kuala Lumpur (about 4 hours drive). Usually said to be about 1850m above sea level, its altitude actually ranges from around 1500m up to the highest point, Gunung Irau, at 2110m.
This high elevation ensures a mild climate with temperatures not exceeding 25 degrees and seldom dipping below 10 degrees centigrade. Of course this feels refreshingly cool compared to the normal Malaysian weather and it is chance for people to wear their winter woollies especially in the chilly evenings.
The Highlands were named after William Cameron, a British government surveyor who was on a mapping expedition in the vicinity in 1885.
Its development as a hill resort never really got going until the 1930s. The uplands' potential as a farming and tea growing area was quickly recognised and before long the hills were carpeted with neat rows of tea bushes which, until now, continue to give Cameron Highlands its distinctive character.
If you are interested in history and like looking at collections of memorabilia be sure to visit the Time Tunnel Museum when you are in the Highlands. The Museum also has a section on the mysterious disappearance of Jim Thompson, the famous 'king' of the Thai silk industry, who went for an afternoon stroll from a holiday bungalow in the Cameron Highlands in 1967 and never returned. You must read about it, especially if you are thinking of doing any hiking while you are here.
There are so many attractions in the Cameron Highlands it is difficult to know where to start but I will give you a few of my favourites.
Since we had our own car we drove ourselves to all the attractions and did not take any tours during our stays.
On the main road (coming from the Ipoh direction) you will pass a butterfly park just before the town of Brinchang.
This butterfly park is just as good as the more famous one in KL and it is cheaper and a lot cooler to walk around. Besides some amazingly colourful butterflies they have a few snakes, iguanas, scorpions, stick insects, a giant tortoise and lots of flowers of course. During our visit a tourist guide was showing off his snake handling skills to a group of foreign tourists. The snake bit him on the hand! Sometimes you are a lot safer without a guide!
All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) Safari
If you are looking for something more challenging try riding ATVs round the tea plantations. Take a look at Tripcarte's secure website for a list of the activities on offer and get a 11% discount.
Highlands Apiary Farm
At the bee farm (close to the village of Habu) we got to see the inside of an active honeycomb and to admire the lovely flowers which are grown to sustain the bees. There was a selection of honey products in their shop. I bought some Tongkat Ali honey which looked like a jar of regular honey with a few sticks of wood inside. Tongkat Ali is a medicinal plant unique to Malaysia and is said to have energy giving powers (similar to ginseng), particularly for men. I cannot comment on its efficacy as this is a family website but the taste is somewhat bitter.
Boh Tea Gardens
There are a number of tea estates all over the Cameron Highlands and some of them are open to the public.
We went to the Boh Tea Factory & Tea Shop on Jalan Boh a couple of kilometres up the road from the apiary.
Here we were able to stroll through some of the neatly trimmed tea gardens up to a viewpoint on a hill with a panoramic vista of the whole estate.
We took a mini tour around the factory where one of the employees explained the sorting, drying and packing process.
Then the best bit, a large pot of delicious, strong, English style tea served with milk and a piece of home-made cake on the terrace of their tea shop.
I don't know whether it was the freshness of the tea leaves or the skill of the staff but you can never get a cup of tea as good as that in any restaurant anywhere.
We stocked up on teas of various blends from their shop before leaving.
Cameron Bharat Tea Shop
We were so impressed with the tea that we stopped off at another tea estate, Cameron Bharat, on the way back to Tanah Rata. Here we had an equally good cuppa followed by a pleasant walk through the patchwork tapestry of tea bushes down into the valley where there is a picnic area next to a stream. From here we could see the basic but tidy rows of housing for the estate workers and their families.
It is possible to drive to the summit of Mt. Brinchang (2031m) in a regular car. This is the highest mountain in Malaysia that you are able to drive up. The approach road, Gunung Brinchang Summit Road, is steep, narrow and winding so a bit of care is needed. If you can, avoid weekends when the traffic is heavier because there are not many places where the road is wide enough to allow oncoming vehicles to pass each other.
The drive is well worth the effort. Just before reaching the peak you will see a parking area from where a boardwalk takes you into a mossy forest where all the trees are coated in a thick moss. If the hill is covered in mist, which it was on our visit, the effect can be slightly eerie. Some have compared it to a set on Lord Of The Rings.
At the summit of Mt. Brinchang there is a lookout tower with magnificent views of the surrounding hills. There is very limited parking here so if it is busy you could leave your car back at the boardwalk parking area and walk to the summit along the road.
If you prefer to walk up your mountains rather than drive there are 14 established walking trails in the Cameron Highlands area and at least 7 mountains of over 1500 meters. (See my list of Malaysia's top 300 mountains). Take normal precautions, (see mountain climbing tips) and make sure you let someone know where you are going and when you expect to get back. Remember Jim Thompson! It is probably best to ask your hotel for up-to-date advice and a map on recommended trails.
I took my family on an easy trail (Trail #4) near the Parit Waterfalls which starts close to the Century Pines Hotel in Tanah Rata where we were staying.
There are 3 townships in the Cameron Highlands: Brinchang, Tanah Rata and Ringlet.
Brinchang is the biggest.
It is not a quaint place - in fact it is rather scruffy in parts with ugly apartment blocks, some of which have been decorated with mock Tudor beams that do little to improve their looks.
But it is a bustling town with a selection of restaurants and shops including a good handicraft centre in a former post office building. Stalls line the streets selling plants, vegetables, strawberries (fresh ones, dried ones and kitsch souvenir plastic ones), mushrooms, jam, honey and so on.
Brinchang's attractions include pick-your-own strawberries (or 'self-plucking' as the Malaysians call it), cactus valley, a weekend night market, an aboriginal village, rose/orchid gardens and a Chinese temple (Sam Poh Temple).
This township retains something of the old colonial township feel to it but there has been a lot of modern development here too.
Tanah Rata's main street has a lot of places to eat and shop. There are both Chinese and Hindu temples here.
Between Tanah Rata and Brinchang is a challenging 18 hole golf course overlooked by the luxury Cameron Highlands Resort, one of the top places to stay in the Highlands. The famous Ye Olde Smokehouse Hotel (same firm as the Smokehouse in Fraser's Hill) also neighbours the golf course.
The smallest of the townships has fewer tourist attractions but there is the scenic Ringlet Lake nearby with another Tudor-style hotel, the Lakehouse. You can top up with petrol at Ringlet if you are driving back to KL on the Tapah road.
There is a range of luxury, medium and budget priced hotels and holiday apartments available in the Cameron Highlands.
On our last visit we stayed at the Century Pines in Tanah Rata which was offering a very good promotion for families. The room was fine and the hotel is in a good location close to the restaurants and shops. The breakfast buffet though was so popular it was difficult to get a seat.
There are two routes to get to Cameron Highlands - the old road via Tapah from the south or the new Simpang Pulai highway which joins the North-South expressway near Ipoh.
I have tried both. The old road was narrow and bendy and my son was car-sick. The newer road is faster but some drivers take it too fast sometimes with fatal consequences. Both are scenic routes. I suggest you go up one way and down the other.