It took about 4.5 hours on a minibus to reach the Cameron Highlands from George Town. Travel is extremely cheap here, the journey only cost £8 each.
As we climbed we had fantastic views of the vast forested hills. It was a bit of a shock though the nearer we approached the Cameron Highlands, to see acres and acres (and acres) of farmers' poly tunnels. So much has been given over to agriculture... they grow strawberries, cut flowers, vegetables and herbs on, what looked like, a global scale. More on this later...
This was only a tiny fraction of what we saw, multiply this by mile upon mile
Most tourists facilties are in Tanah Rata, our accommodation (Father's Guesthouse) was good with exceptionally helpful staff, but we weren't keen on the town itself. It's overdeveloped, busy with traffic and is dotted with half-built structures, some deserted where funds ran out and others in the process of being completed. It wasn't quite what we pictured as the genteel tea-drinking mountain retreat the British colonised 100 years ago... 'progress' eh!
But it's certainly not all bad and we did a couple of really good excursions to get closer to nature, the remaining forests and tea plantations.
One option was a Rafflesia tour to see the world's largest flower, named after Sir Stamford Raffles (of Singapore fame). I'd seen one of these as a kid in the Guinness Book of Records and remember being fascinated by it, hoping to see one one day. Here was my chance!
We then learnt that during the wet season (we're now back in a monsoon season here) the blooms are few and far between. There are 54 sites around the Cameron Highlands and the guides go out spotting for new flowers which could appear anywhere in these sites. Secondly, the blooms only last a week before rotting and of course it's better to see them as early as possible when they're at their best. As we only had 2 days here I started to accept it was unlikely we'd get to see one, but we got word that the guides had found one which was 3 days old, so we booked a tour!
We had an hour's drive and 1hr 45 minute round trek to get to its location. Pretty good considering we were told some sites take 3 hours trekking just to get to!
Trekking to see gert big flower
Best quote of the day.... we were 5 minutes away from the flower and I turned to Ant and said "I feel like a kid at Christmas"... "I feel like an adult in a sauna", his reply...
It was so good to see one. Now, the specimen we saw certainly wouldn't win best in show - it was already 4 days old and they don't grow as big in the wet season - but it was still worth it. They're amazing... they're actually a parasite, living off one specific vine, so their condition relies heavily on the health of their host. They also take 5 years from germination to bud and the flower takes another 6-9 months to open... but there's only a 60% chance it opens at all due to fungus/disease. Man, these things are like gold dust!!
The cabbagey looking thing to the right is a new bud which may flower in a few months time
On the way back our guide pointed out lots of interesting plants including a yellow flower that we tasted which is a natural anaesthetic. We saw a large nephila female spider (common names - giant wood spider or golden orb web spider) with two tiny males in the web. They're so much smaller than her because she eats them after mating. Another bizarre nature fact is that as their web is the strongest of spider webs, their silk has even been used in the process of making bulletproof vests! I bloody love nature me.
Shock shock horror horror... the female of the species...
Ants on a route march
Our guide was locally born and made his feelings clear about what has happened, and is still happening, to the Cameron Highlands. The British based in Malaya started coming to this area for a holiday to escape the heat (it's around 20 degrees during the day) at the end of the 19th century.
They started to colonise and develop the area for agriculture (tea and strawberries... God love 'em) from the 1920's. Over the following decades development was tightly controlled by the British with farmers being allocated a limited sized plot. When Malaysia gained independence in 1957, the British began to move away from the region. With the last of them gone the locals had free reign and farming has since expanded beyond any control - with the most being in the last 15 years. When I asked about who/what body has any authority to govern now, he simply said "they are there, but they are sleeping".
He indicated that 75% of the forest has now been cleared and given over to agriculture, and that the farmers don't care about the future, they're just in it for the now to make as much money as they can. Such is the greed of man. Very sad.
Our second tour was to the BOH tea plantation (BOH stands for Best of Highland and is a superbrand in Malaysia) and the 'Mossy Forest'. The tea plantation was stunning and after seeing the processing methods, we supped a cuppa of their finest blend whilst enjoying an incredible view.
Our guide was hilarious and had us in fits with his quips and anecdotes, but he also had genuine passion for nature and talked of his own travels to some of the world's less explored rainforests. He reassured us that the oldest parts of the forest here are protected now.
Some of the mosses can hold 16-20 times their weight in water, and at certain points you could bounce on the forest floor like a natural trampoline. Botanists have also catalogued that 75% of the plants here have medicinal purposes!
Views from Cameron Highlands' second highest peak, Gunung Brichang, at just over 2,000m.
Pitcher plants which trap insects
Where are the hobbitses precious?
Both tours were half day morning excursions so we welcomed two free afternoons to book onward travel and recharge ready for our final busy leg of Asia... 3 days each in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
We changed our minds about squeezing Borneo & Brunei in as they would've been quite rushed, plus east Malaysia is more affected by the monsoon right now.