Losing Yourself in the Cameron Highlands
Continuing their Malaysia travel adventure, Roger Hermiston and Eileen Wise, escape the heat of the capital KL and journey to the northern Cameron Highlands.
British involvement in Malaya goes as far back as 1786, when the East India Company first established a trading post on the island of Penang. We were keen to take a closer look at one of the areas where the British made their home. So we packed our bags at Hotel Stripes in the capital Kuala Lumpur, and made the three-hour car journey north to our second destination on our trip – the Cameron Highlands, on the western fringes of the Pahang state, where British settlers decamped in the early 20th century to escape the heat and humidity of places like KL and carve out a hill station.
Cameron Highlands Tea Plantation
They did their best to bring a feel of old England to their new tropical home – the high altitude, frost-free climate, acidic soil and abundant rainfall was perfect for growing the nation’s favourite brew. So it was that in 1929 J A Russell, one of the great British colonial entrepreneurs, defied the gathering Great Depression and took a steam roller and mule teams to flatten out the jungle terrain on Cameron Highlands. He developed Malay’s first tea plantation and named the brand BOH, which remains the country’s premier tea today.
We took a fascinating tour round the Sungai Palas Tea plantation factory, observing how leaves are withered and dried by alternate blasts of hot and cold air, then rolled by machine to release moisture for the vital process of fermentation. The soggy mass is then heated to 120 degrees centigrade and the dried black, crisp leaves are finally sorted and graded after passing through vibrating sieves.
Just down the road we dipped a toe into an industry you might not necessarily associate with Malaysia – strawberry farming. In our garden back home plants grow on the ground; at Raju’s Hill Farm they avoid pests – and prevent workers backache – by raising them up. Whatever the methods, the result is great; sweet strawberry jam which, as the owner explained, doesn’t need as much sugar as other varieties.
Tea and jam, along with finger sandwiches and scones, were on the afternoon tea menu at our residence, the Cameron Highlands Resort. This elegant hotel strives – most successfully – to capture something of the spirit, the gentility and the sense of adventure of those bygone colonial days, while fusing it all with modern day discreet yet welcoming Asian hospitality.
The latter is guided by an outstanding management team led by guest liaison executive Sherry Villarreal and executive assistant manager Ong Hend Ley. Luxury hotels can have all the superior facilities in the world, but it is courteous and knowledgeable staff who bring added value to your stay – and Sherry and ‘Mr Ong’ certainly did that.
Cameron Highlands Mystery
But it was their colleague Madi, naturalist, local historian and jungle guide, who gave us a colourful insight into the most enduring mystery of the Cameron Highlands – the disappearance of Jim Thompson, American businessman and intelligence officer, on the afternoon of 26 March, 1967.
When he vanished from the face of the earth Thompson was one of the best-known men in Asia, famed for revitalizing the Thai silk industry in the 1950s – so much so that he earned the sobriquet the ‘Thai Silk King’. Previously, the Delaware-born businessman had worked for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during WW2, and then for its successor, the CIA. Those links with the intelligence world only added to the raft of conspiracy theories that have developed since he disappeared that day 52 years ago.
Facts easily become muddled with fiction in the Thompson case. All that is really known for sure is that after lunch on that fateful day he left Moonlight bungalow, where he was staying with his friends the Lings and close companion Constance Mangskau, telling them he was going for a short stroll to get some fresh air. He never returned.
Our guide Madi was a young boy at the time, and his father had worked at the bungalow across the valley from Moonlight. During a walk on the road and the tracks where Thompson may have trod, he ran through the various theories for us. Killed by a tiger, captured by Communist bandits, murdered by the Orang Asli (local tribesmen), abducted by his own side, the CIA, for his opposition to the war in Vietnam. And there are quite a few more.
The tea room at the Cameron Highlands resort is named after the missing silk magnate, and haunting photographs of him are dotted around the hotel. Investigative journalists and documentary crews regularly land in the area, all hoping to be the ones to finally solve the mystery.
Trekking in the Cameron Highlands
Madi took us on a short jungle trek, on a trail he himself has carved out over the years, and gave us a superb lesson on the varied flora and fauna and insect life that flourishes under the green canopy.
Some of those jungle plants went into the lotions that helped make up Eileen’s treatments in her soothing three-hour signature experience at the hotel’s Spa Village – named The Semai, after the area’s indigenous people. Roger relaxed in a different way over the road at the challenging 18-hole golf course, named after the local Sultan Ahmad Shah.
In the evening we ventured out to the nearest town, Tanah Rata, where we enjoyed splendid Indian food, banana leaf curry, dhal and spicy sauces. Ever the sybarites, we rounded off both those evenings with some reflexology at a wonderful massage shop down the road. All preparation for the final leg of our journey, the tropical island of Pangkor Laut.
Cameron Highlands Hotel
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For more information on the Cameron Highlands Resort, click here. Rooms start from £270.
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