We went to the Cameron Highlands in search of clean, fresh mountain air. Instead what we got was overpriced lodging, a relatively tiny selection of food options including a ridiculously first-world priced Starbucks, too many tourists, price-gouging taxis, and gimmicky tourist attractions. If you can’t tell already, we weren’t crazy about Cameron Highlands.
We saw a lot of foreigners including the typical backpackers, but more interestingly we saw a ton of Middle East Arabs. We know they were from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq because we overheard some of them talking to hotel staff or wait staff about where they were from and we soon learned that it’s holiday time in the Middle East. Their holiday lasts for two months and I assume they come to Malaysia because it’s cheap, different, and they don’t get discriminated against for their conspicuous religious attire. Islam is the federally recognized religion of Malaysia. It’s also the most practiced religion here, over 60% of the population is Muslim. I haven’t seen this many Muslims since we were in Turkey last year and I have rarely seen Muslim women fully covered in black with only a slit for their eyes. Sure, I’ve seen a few here and there in Brooklyn, but not this many. They seemed to be having a blast in Cameron Highlands.
The backpackers like us, on the other hand, didn’t seem to enjoy it as much. They all had the same bored look on their faces as they walked up and down the one small street in Tanah Rata trying to decide if they want to eat at the only decent Indian restaurant again or go to Marrybrown for fried chicken. Like us, they probably found a brief description about the beautiful tea plantations and decided to come here since it’s only a bus ride from KL and on the way to the beaches on the east coast. By the looks of it, they were just as unimpressed as we were with the place.
There were only two attractions that we found worthwhile in Cameron Highlands — The Boh Tea Plantation and Cactus Point. The Boh Tea Plantation is the largest in Malaysia and it’s probably the main reason most people visit the Highlands. We were lucky enough to have a driver who had a fascinating background in the Highlands and he told us about his time as a tea picker and how he used to make about .23 cents per kilo and now most of it is picked by machine except for really hard-to-reach plants. The plantation has little cabins around the perimeter for the workers and he lived there with his young family while working as a tea picker and even though they were poor, he said it was the happiest time of his life. Now he’s a taxi driver who works 10-hour days and has to eat his meals in the car while waiting for clueless tourists to wander around the plantation. He drove us to the plantation and pointed us in the direction of the tea factory before going back to wait for us in his navy blue Mercedes.
The factory is nothing special, but the tea plantation itself is fabulous! We saw a tea plantation on Jeju Island in South Korea, but this plantation is much more impressive. The vibrant green of the plants neatly lined up on the mountains is a beautiful sight that pleases my OCD senses. From afar it looks like a giant plush carpet. If you find yourself in Cameron Highlands, this is the one place that you must visit.
My other favorite spot was Cactus Point. It’s really just a large retail plant nursery specializing in cacti and we weren’t planning to stop there but we had another 45 minutes to kill on our 4-hour taxi “tour” and it was on the way back to our hotel so we asked our driver to stop. I’m glad we did because it was the best collection of cacti that I’ve ever seen in captivity. The had all sizes, shapes, and colors of cacti and succulents. They also had some native plants that we might see if we went to the jungle but since we aren’t going to a Malaysian jungle I’m glad we saw it here. It’s not considered a stop-worthy spot on any tours but it should be because it’s way cooler than the Big Red Strawberry Farm or the Lavender Garden.
All in all, I’d say that The Cameron Highlands is more of a long weekend getaway for locals with cars. Without a car you’re trapped in your immediate vicinity or forced to pay way too much money for a short taxi ride. Walking isn’t a great option because thunderous downpours occur without warning and the roads weren’t designed with pedestrian safety in mind. And, as flashpackers on a budget, we found that the cost of lodging and food in this area was higher than expected and tour prices are absolutely overpriced. I don’t know if it’s my picky New Yorker ways, but I just can’t be impressed with a place like this and keeping it to myself would be a disservice to all of my fellow flash- and backpackers. Go if you must, but don’t expect to be blown away.