The sun sets over a white sandy beach and music blasts out from a nearby bar as tourists and locals alike dance the night away in a haze of pina coladas and tequila… We stereotype places just as we stereotype people. Reporting for The Budapest Times, Niklas Jakobsson travelled east to find another side of one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations: Malaysia.
Flying out of Budapest with a connection at Istanbul, the two-part kingdom split by the South China Sea can be reached in under 14 hours’ flying time. Once you arrive at the bustling metropolis that is Kuala Lumpur it could be tempting to enjoy the endless shopping options, take in the modern architecture or stroll down to the underwhelming Chinatown.
But what about going somewhere different – to a place where you can escape the choking fumes of a million cars, the constant chase for profit and the never-ending stream of people on the streets? In the heart of mainland Malaysia there is a hidden gem – a place where you can mix relaxation and adventure: the Cameron Highlands.
Resorts amidst the jungle
Known for its lush tea and strawberry plantations, this 712 square kilometre area has gone from a backpackers’ heaven to a place where ever more tourists are coming to experience a different, relaxing side of Malaysia. At the same time, the various resorts spread out over the mountaintops and in the villages offer visitors a range of excursions and “adventures”.
It can feel like an adventure without a punch line. A three-hour jungle walk in a well-preserved rainforest is all well and good – for the first hour. With the dense jungle it is near impossible to lay your eyes – or your camera lens – on a stunning view or an exotic animal.
However, if you are fortunate enough to have a real native guide from one of the local tribes, they will show you everything from how to make a trap to catch squirrels to the basics of making a fire from tree bark. It is certainly an experience in its own right – but one that could be cut short after the first hour.
Tea is in the heart of many countries – from India and China to England – and the plantations on the rolling mountainsides of the Cameron Highlands are famous across Asia. Visiting a tea factory is an option, if you are up for a trek. The Boh tea plantation is the most famous one in Cameron, mainly because three-quarters of the production is still done by hand. Enthusiastic tourists and backpackers make the hour-long uphill trek, whilst the more comfortable travelers put down 20 Ringit (EUR 5) and take a taxi.
At the visitor centre you can enjoy the dazzling views of the plantations, sip a cup of local tea or even have a photo-shoot for your wedding. A stroll through the factory only takes a few minutes, but the tantalising smell of fresh tea leaves will keep you inside for a lot longer.
But the Highlands are about more than just tea: strawberries and street markets are just as popular amongst tourists as the plantations. In the case of the markets, it is safe to say that they do not live up to the expectations of many seekers of authentic south-east Asian bargains. Everything is mass-produced, mainly from China, and it is more of your standard tourist experience than a unique treat.
Accommodation in the Highlands is in large supply, with options to suit any traveler’s wallet. Low-budget hostels cost as little as 15 Ringit (EUR 3.60) a night while more luxurious resorts can set you back upwards of 500 Ringit (EUR 122).
Transport to and from the area might be where you fork out the largest wedge of cash. One of the safest, and fastest, options is to book a tour bus from Kuala Lumpur airport and take the three-hour ride to the top of the Highlands. A brave soul might jump on a local bus or even rent a car and tackle the winding roads.
Tours to the area are widely available from operators in Malaysia and abroad. If your idea of holiday bliss is tranquility, peace and quiet – and a nice cup of tea – then there are few better places to find them than the Cameron Highlands.