Tea Estates and Ancient Forests; wonders and threats in the Cameron Highlands

I am an advocate of exploring a place on your own terms rather than signing up for a packaged experience, but if you can find the right guide who respects the nature and history of a place, a guided tour can definitely be worth the money. That’s how I ended up on a full-day adventure with a handful of travellers around the Cameron Highlands.

2 July,

Our guide was worn down by over twenty years working the tourism beat, but he was energetic enough to share an abundance of information about the area with us. A Dutch couple that I’d met the other night turned up for the tour, and so did a French couple who mostly kept to themselves.

The first destination was Gunung Brinchang (2,032 metres), a forest reserve with a lookout tower at the very top. After scrambling up the rusted staircase to get a view of the rainforest, we descended and found our place among the other tour groups along the “mossy forest” trail. Our guide called this “trekking” but it was only a short climb through somewhat difficult terrain near the roadside. Nevertheless the trail did allow us to experience a natural world that is quickly dying away.

“This habitat is millions of years old,” our guide told us. “What you’re seeing here you cannot see until after trekking for three days into the Taman Negara.”

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He told us that ever since tourism exploded in the area, the ancient stretch of forest has been crushed. The guides are the main problem, he told us. They are untrained and have no certifications, yet they set up tour companies and bring tourists there, and they trample new paths through the forest, causing problems with erosion. What’s worse, they have no respect for the environment. “You will still find no mosquitoes here,” the guide said. “Everything you see is native.” He stalled us in front of several different plants along the trail. “We call this the green pharmacy,” he said while describing the various plants. Wild ginger, for aches and insect repellant. Another was made of the same stuff they put in Tiger Balm, and the natives used it for headache and muscle pains. There was “melastoma” for tending to small wounds like those from leeches, and wild betel leaf for migraines. “Nose bleeding?” our guide asked, then lifted a leaf to his nose. “Inhale it.”

That wasn’t all; there were citronella trees, the “pritya” berry (a laxative), and “plantego” is good for the liver, but its seeds are used for suppressing a bad cough. There was a fat root that is boiled and drank by women post-pregnancy “to bring their parts back to normal size,” our guide explained. We all laughed at that and even more when he finished, “Men take this and you know what gonna happen?” There was a men’s version, of course; “kati kontuma”. “It’s like natural Viagra,” our guide said. “But it doesn’t work; it only makes the blood thicker. Good for circulation, thicker sperm.”

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There were times when we stood over on nothing but a heap of moss and roots overtop a vertical drop. Above us in the canopy were other big tufts of moss. “That up there will eventually become another layer of the forest,” the guide explained. “Maybe another two million years.”

He was hardly joking about the depth of the moss. Demonstrating, he stomped on a part of the trail so that we could listen to the hollow thud of all that living earth below. We then followed his lead and softly pressed our palms on the mossy heaps. It was moist, like a fully saturated sponge. “The deep moss holds over seventy percent of the water that falls here,” our guide said. “It is crucial to the environment, and important for controlling floods and water levels down in the valley.”

Our guide warned us to stay on the trail so as to not damage the delicate moss. He explained the shamefulness of untrained and careless guides who came there and clenched big tufts of moss just to wring it out in front of the tourists, all for effect. That moss would take ages to grow back, and it is disrespectful to ruin the trails for future visitors. Recognising the dangers, the government had closed off the area for a few years, but due to popular demand they opened the trails up again, and the new regulations have hardly made an impact on the damages.

“This whole area is not actually protected,” the guide explained. “It is a reserve, not a conservation park. If the government decides to develop it or cut down the forest for resources, they can. And often they do.”

I thought of all those palm and rubber tree plantations around Southeast Asia, and all of the logging that I witnessed in Laos and Thailand.

“This is a pitcher plant,” our guide began. We gathered around to see the strange vine that he was holding. He demonstrated how the “pitcher” collects rainwater, which then becomes highly acidic. Insects search for the water and fall inside, drowning in the poison. “But this one is already dead,” he explained. “The water is empty so the pitcher can no longer feed. The guides are responsible because they tip the water out into their hands to show tourists what is inside, and this usually kills or stunts the plant. The guides just do not care about the nature.”

He later explained that there were around twenty-four thousand species of moss in the area, an incredible statistic for such a small area. However, only about twenty-five percent of the virgin mossy forest remains, and over ten percent of the losses happened over only the last few years. This is why the boardwalk was constructed, so that tourists were no longer walking on the forest floor.

We visited the boardwalk (I had to catch up with the group due to some preoccupation that’s worth another story), which is a bridge that leads right into the middle of the forest and climbs almost as high as the the canopy. “This is a forest because of the elevation,” our guide told us. “Anything below this is considered to be jungle.”

The air was ringing with the chorus of cicadas, which are giant insects that live in the ground for up to ten years. The cicada only exists aboveground for a few weeks, just enough time to sing its song and find a partner. There was a chill in the air, and noticing the wind our guide joked, “A leech can smell an animal from forty metres away. But don’t worry, there are no leeches at higher altitudes because there are no large animals!”

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We returned to the jeep and traveled to the Scottish-owned Boh tea plantation, the largest of its type in all of Malaysia. There is always something deeply refreshing about wide-open mountainous landscapes, and enormous tea estates such as Boh are quite special in that regard. I was calmed by the deep, glossy variations of green against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, the manicured rows of tea plants that stretched for over twelve hundred acres, and the way you can sense the vastness of the valley in the form of peaceful winds and silences. As such a lover of nature and trekking, I’d say moments like that are worth all the struggles of travel.

Our guide stepped in between the bushes and pulled off one of the young branches, then urged us to gather around. “What you see here are the young leaves. They’re fresher, taste better, and take more time to harvest. Boh mainly uses the commercial method of tea farming, which means that they use special machines to harvest the entire plant at once, collecting everything from the youngest to oldest leaves with it. This isn’t good because the tea is much lower quality, and sometimes you’re getting dirt, twigs, and dead leaves.”

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He explained that Boh does sometimes separate the young leaves, and that there’s a different process for different parts of the leaf, though all of the variations of tea we were accustomed to came from the same plant. The young leaves were used for white tea, whereas the mixed tea bags were produced by the commercial method, and who knows what ended up in that. He told us that in some tea plantations at the end of the day (not necessarily Boh), the staff in the factories swept the floor and gathered all of the refuse into bags, then poured it into the cheapest batches to be sorted again. “The Cameron Highlands is one hundred percent ‘highland’ tea,” he said. “Whereas Boh’s product is only partially highland. The lowland tea has a stronger taste but is considered to be lower quality.”

It was a lot of information to chew. Tea can grow as high as four thousand metres and if left alone it will grow up to twenty metres tall. Cameron Highlands tea is thought to have come from India and has no native equivalent in Malaysia. Tea needs a special climate to thrive, such as that of the Cameron Highlands, and a single plant can be harvested multiple times a year.

We were able to walk through parts of the Boh factory and see different parts of the process. Some of the machines looked ancient. Men and women with special suits and masks idled around the doorways, and the place smelled of damp tea leaves. “The workers don’t buy the tea,” our guide said. “They’re from Bangladesh and India, they can’t afford it. During their lunch break, they clip off the young leaves and boil that instead.”

We visited the museum and cafe overlooking the valley. It was a gorgeous location for a cafe, though I felt that the service was akin to a canteen in a military barracks. Because of the prices I didn’t order any food or drink. Instead I bought some of Boh’s best batch of tea, the Palas Supreme.

After our tea break, we moved on to the butterfly and insect farm. Imagine a zoo, now replace the staff with random people you found on Petaling street one night, now ask the staff to put the animals onto the visitors. Snakes, giant millipedes, scorpions, and other things we generally don’t think to put on our bodies, were placed on heads that day. But I really enjoyed it, as there were some bizarre creatures there that I haven’t had the chance to get up close and personal with before, such as the wood tree nymph and the giant walking stick, not to mention the massive locusts and rhino beetles, thumb-sized ants and colorful lizards. It was a memorable oddity of a zoo; hard to forget walking around with six giant butterflies crawling over me while the zookeeper pointed at various critters while saying “this one, Thais eat it. And that one, Chinese eat it.”

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We continued from the zoo and spent a little time at a strawberry farm where only sour strawberries are grown. The cafe there makes the world’s best strawberry smoothie. We then drove through Ringlet, the first town of the Cameron Highlands. As recently as ten years ago the whole place was nothing but wooden huts, but now it was a rapidly growing and unplanned city, with ugly and haphazard architecture.

At the halfway mark of our trip, the Dutch couple parted ways and I stayed on for the full-day tour. The French couple stayed back as well, but we hardly spoke. We had our lunch at the beautiful golf course near Tanah Rata, and I felt as if I was intruding on the couple’s afternoon date. I tried to get them to talk, but all I got was that the lady was a journalist interning with the French expat community in Kuala Lumpur. She was hired through one of the big airlines. I added some of my own story, but their silences make me feel as if I was only name-dropping or bragging to sound more interesting.

The guide had lunch with us on the veranda, but I didn’t join him. He lead the same tour seven days a week, and I imagined that he was tired of talking with people. But as we were leaving and passed a big picture of elegantly dressed gentry, I decided to ask about the Malaysian royalty. He assured me that the region’s sultan was a lunatic.

After lunch we made a short stop at a honeybee farm, which had an interesting encased bee hive with a glass wall, so that we could watch the bees at work. Then we drove deeper into the mountains, into the territory of the Orang Asli (translated as “the original people”).

“There are five tribes of Asli,” our guide told us, “and five different religions. Recently the government has done a lot to help the younger generation. Now they have schools and better education. Many work in the cities and send money home. They are a modern people now.”

These days the Orang Asli drive around on motorbikes while carrying blowpipes and spears. They poke at the bush along the shoulder of the roads with their bamboo prods. The older generation lingers around the roadside in huts made of bamboo and leaves. They smoke cigarettes and talk in disappearing languages, and sell the smelly “Patay” beans, a kind of enormous pea pod. Their roadside shops also carry durian and coconuts, medicinal herbs and divination objects, all harvested from deep in the jungle.

We passed a man leaning against the bamboo foundation of a half-constructed produce shop. Village children were dancing around him while he gazed across the mountain vista. I wondered what may be on his mind.

The jeep rolled to a stop by one of the bamboo huts, and a nearly naked man with a huge and frizzled beard came hopping out to greet us. He had crazed eyes, skin like charcoal and leathery hands. He didn’t wear shoes and on his waist was a satchel full of long darts. He bounced over to a clearing and called us over with plenty of wacky gestures. Then he lifted up a handmade bamboo blowgun that must have been two metres long and gave it one hard “phfoo!” With that, he sank the dart into the bullseye of a target several metres away.

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He showed us the darts and then demonstrated how to administer the “latex”, which is a black poison that is drained from the trees that hung overhead. He explained that you must first soak the dart in the latex for a few minutes, then you can use the dart for hunting small animals like “jungle dog” and “jungle cat”. Our guide tried out the blowgun and then I was next. There beneath a durian tree, I had my first Orang Asli blowgun experience.

Our next stop was a trek through the “dipterocarp forest”, where I saw a countless number of enormous trees, all of which had strange and unpronounceable names. The sheer amount of variety among them surprised me. The tree that stood out the most was the huge fern. I’d seen nothing like it anywhere but in Malaysia; it resembled something out of a prehistory museum, the way the curled vines reached out of the centre of the branches towards the heavens like giant green caterpillars. Our guide told me that when the trees are very small, you can cut off the curly parts and eat them like a vegetable.

The last stretch of the trip took us through small villages that were a mix of beautiful bungalows and old shacks. Our guide believed that the more attractive dwellings were an effect of that family sending their kids to school so that the children could find work in the city and send money home. School life seemed to be closely connected to village life in the Highlands; in one village I saw children idling around a school bus (bas sakula) as if attached to the familiarity of it.

Our last stop was at the waterfall I’d passed on the way to Tanah Rata. I climbed to the top and found some Orang Asli boys swimming at the base of the waterfall. They all stared at me and made jokes. I then strolled around the market that bordered the road by the waterfall. The guide had told me that the locals do not make many products themselves, like the baskets. Rather, agents bring them up to the hills and the Orang Asli sell the goods for commission. The locals also sold durian, bananas, coconuts, nameless root clusters and impure royal jelly with the honeycomb included. The most bizarre of the jungle products are the “golden chickens”, which are hairy onion-like creatures that are thought to bring good luck into the home. Alongside that were slabs of “big grass” which held a lot of water, like celery.

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We drove on to Tanah Rata as the evening shadows stretched between branches and across the tarmac. There were feral dogs and cats along the roadside, and I noticed that most of the human faces were either very old or those of children. The people waved to us and made silly expressions as our jeep rolled by.

That evening in Tanah Rata I sat by the bar with two Czech ladies. We had Tiger beers and shared stories. They were buyers in the commercial alcohol industry, thirty-somethings here on vacation. They invited me to follow them through the Taman Negara all the way to the Perhentian islands in the northeast. I slapped my hand on the table and said, “I’ll go!”

Then a moment later I experienced a traveler’s nightmare — debit card trouble.  More on that in the next post.

.      .      .      .      .

Thanks everyone for following my stories. It feels good to publish some of the things that have been swimming through my head or gathering dust in journals. I should be able to crank out another one by the end of next week, though my teaching work is consuming an enormous chunk of time. All the best to you, dear reader.

-Bradley Stone

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