There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 3 March 2017

From the Cameron Highlands to Kuala Kangsar and George Town: Part 5 of the Malaysian Peninsula

Despite yesterday’s fascinating walk, another night of wind and rain meant we were not desperately sorry to be leaving the Cameron Highlands.

With A, the same driver who had brought us from Kuala Lumpur, a friendly young man with a good command of English, we headed north along the highland ridge, through some pleasant scenery…

The Cameron Highlands looking good

…and some rather less attractive. Fresh flowers and strawberries are the highland’s main crops and the growers have blanketed the once green hillsides with polytunnels. It is ugly and looks uncontrolled, but apparently regulations exist; we passed tunnels smashed by the authorities for being unlicensed.
The Cameron Highlands despoiled by plastic

Turning west we gently wound our way down to the coastal plain, leaving the state of Pahang and entered Perak. Cocooned within an air-conditioned car we failed to notice the steadily rising temperature.

On the plain we passed a marble quarry, an ugly gash in a mountainside, and a line of workshops. Buildings and vegetation were sprinkled with white specks of marble and dust hung in the air.

We stopped at a service station for fuel and a comfort break. Stepping from the air-conditioned car the heat was momentarily overwhelming. The maximum daily temperature in the Cameron Highlands is 22 or 23 °, on the coastal plain the overnight low is higher than that and day time temperatures hover round the mid-30s 365 days a year.

We reached the E2, Malaysia’s north-south Expressway in the outskirts of Ipoh, Perak’s capital and largest city. Founded during the tin-mining boom of the 1880s, Ipoh grew to become Malaysia’s third largest city with a current population of around 650,000, though the city has struggled since tin mining collapsed at the end of the last century.
Today's journey from the Cameron Highlands down to Ipoh, Kuala Kangsar and over
the bridge to Georgetown

Progress along the motorway was swift. Some 40km north of Ipoh A asked if we would like to see a rubber tree. We wondered what he meant, Malaysia is the world’s biggest rubber producer and although straight, slender rubber trees are now outnumbered by palm oil trees, plantations remain widespread.  ‘In Kuala Kangsar,’ he added as though that was important. We quickly said ‘yes’ as apparently light needed shedding on an area of ignorance.

Kuala Kangsar is only a couple miles east of the E2. It is a neat little town with several buildings painted to look like something they are not, but the town centre is dominated by the buildings and playing fields of Malay College, which likes to refer to itself as the Eton of the East, and its local rival Clifford College.

Kuala Kangsar and interestingly painted buildings

The rubber tree we had come to see stands beside a road between the two schools. Rubber is a native of Brazil which at first had a virtual monopoly on production. In 1876 British explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Wickham acquired (or stole) 70,000 rubber seeds in SantarĂ©m and took them to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. Seedlings were cultivated and dispatched to likely parts of the Empire. According to A (and The Rubber Economist) 9 seedlings were brought to Malaya (as it was then) by Henry Ridley, first Director of the Singapore Botanical Gardens, who planted them in 1877, and we were looking at the last survivor.
The Old rubber Tree in Kuala Kangsar

Unfortunately, according to The Singapore Botanic Gardens (from whom I have ‘borrowed’ the photo below – thank you SBG) Ridley was not appointed until 1888.
Henry Ridley, the father of the Malayan rubber industry
Enthusiastic and eccentric, but not actually 'mad' Ridley married for the first time at the age of 83
and died in 1956 just before his 101st birthday

He is celebrated as the father of the Malay rubber industry and was so fervent an advocate of rubber he became known as ‘Mad’ Ridley, but either he did not plant this tree, or it was planted later than 1877 and is not an original ‘Kew seedling’. Either way, it is undoubtedly a very old tree and very different from the young specimens from which rubber is tapped. I should now make that point with a photo of a Malaysian rubber plantation, but I have none, instead here is a picture I took in India in 2010.
Tapping rubber, Kerala, Southern India, 2010

Driving to the edge of town, A paused by the bridge over the Perak River.
The Perak River, Kuala Kangsar
We drove through prosperous riverside suburbs expecting to return to the motorway but there was more to see. Not content with having two elite schools and a venerable rubber tree, Kuala Kangsar is also the royal capital of Perak. Nazrin Shah, the 35th Sultan of Perak, (educated at Malay College Kuala Kangsar and Worcester College, Oxford) has occupied the throne since 2014. Istana Iskandariah has been the Sultan’s official residence since it was completed in 1933 but the sultan does not welcome unannounced visitors, so we left him in peace….

The entrance to Istana Iskandariah, Kuala Kangsar

….and went to see the nearby Istana Kenangan instead. The floods of 1926 persuaded Iskandar Shah (the 30th Sultan) that he needed a new royal palace slightly further from the river. The remarkable little Istana Kenangan was constructed as a temporary royal residence while Istana Iskandariah was being completed. Built of wood without the use of nails, the carvings and woven decorations were added later. It is now the Royal Museum of Perak, which, sadly, is closed on Fridays.
Istana Kenangan, Kuala Kangsur

Our wanderings had taken us right round the Ubudiah Mosque, so we went for a closer look.  In 1911, when Idris Shah I, the 28th Sultan, was taken ill, he vowed that should he recover he would build a mosque and this is the result. Building started in 1913 and took four years, a significant delay being caused by two fighting elephants destroying much of the stockpiled Italian marble.

The Ubudiah Mosque, Kuala Kangsar

The design was by AB Hubback who was also responsible for the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. It is surprising enough that this Liverpudlian brother of an Anglican bishop was entrusted with two of Malaysia’s foremost mosques, even before considering the design. Ubudiah is all right, maybe a bit fussy, from close to, but from a distance the proportions are strange and like the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, it presents a version of ‘the orient’ that only ever existed in the minds of Europeans. No matter, Idris liked it, so that was good enough.

From a distance the Ubudiah Mosque just looks wrong to me

Pausing only for a picture of botanical interest – this was in the flowerbed outside the mosque, I believe it is a member of the ginger family - we made our way back to the motorway.
A member of the ginger family, I think, cultivated at the Ubudiah mosque

We soon left Perak and entered the State of Penang, bringing on a couple of digressions.

I have probably not looked at my stamp collection for over 50 years, but it seems to be deeply imbedded in my memory. In 1957, as the Federation of Malaya gained independence the youthful Queen Elizabeth disappeared from the stamps and the standardised designs, customised for each individual state, showed the head of the local ruler. I was fascinated by ‘faraway places with strange sounding names’ (actually, I still am), so re-encountering the states of Malaya; Selangor, Johor, Negri Sembilan and the rest was like meeting old friends. Today's journey had taken us from Pahang to Penang via Perak, names I remembered well.

9 of Malaya’s 11 states had hereditary rulers (7 Sultans, 1 Raja and a Yamtuan Besar) who appeared on the stamps, the other two, the former Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca used a heraldic device.
I liked the headgear of some of the rulers - particularly this one from Perak.
Now THAT is a turban
‘Perak’ is written at the bottom in Jawi script, Arabic heavily modified to suit Malay and related languages, though Rumi (Latin script) is now used almost universally in Malaysia.
Malaysia is unique in being a ‘federal parliamentary elective constitutional monarchy’. When Malaya gained independence in 1957, the 7 Sultans, 1 Raja and theYamtuan Besar (who are constitutional monarchs within their own states) met to elect one of their number to be Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the head of state and constitutional monarch of Malaya, for 5 years. They have met every five years since (or earlier if the grim reaper intervenes – they are not generally young men) to repeat the process. In 1963 Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo joined Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia (Singapore left again in 1965) and although none of them had hereditary heads of state, the system survived. In practice, this small and very exclusive electorate has avoided disputes by electing the monarch in strict rotation of the states. It is a pretty safe bet that in 2021 the successor to Muhammed V, Sultan of Kelantan, will be the Sultan of Pahang (though it may not be the current Sultan as he is already 86.)

Here endeth the digressions…

Penang is Malaysia’s second smallest but most densely populated state. It consists of a coastal strip on the mainland and Penang Island, with George Town, the state capital and Malaysia’s second largest city at its north-east corner.

We crossed to the island over the 24km long Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge, Penang’s second link to the mainland, opened in 2014.

The Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge to Penang Island

And swung right up the coast to George Town.
Nearing Penang Island on the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge

Central George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and our hotel, 23 Love Lane, was right in the heart of it.
23 Love Lane, George Town, Penang

Inside is an atrium where complementary tea and coffee are always available, as are snacks in the late afternoon. We said goodbye to A, who had served us well for the last three days, enjoyed a welcome drink and inspected our characterful room on the first floor overlooking the courtyard.
The entrance 23 Love Lane, George Town, Penang

Our Kuala Kangsar detour meant it was now 3 o’clock and we had missed lunch (oh the horror!). Love Lane acquired its name when it was George Town’s red-light district, but apart from our chic boutique hotel it is now mainly occupied by back packer hostels. We repaired to one for soup and a beer.
The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering George Town’s characterful narrow streets. Street art is much in evidence. Some is for its own sake….

Street art, George Town, Penang
…and some is informative. Before it was a restaurant the premises below are where Jimmy Choo (born, George Town 1948) served his apprenticeship. I am at a loss to understand how anyone can become famous by designing shoes, but I have to admit even I have heard of Jimmy Choo.

Jimmy Choo first made shoes here, George Town, Penang

As we arrived A had pointed out and recommended the Red Garden food court, so in the evening we entered the large court lined with food stalls. As we looked around a beer man approached to explain the procedure - and sell us some beer. Having bagged a numbered table, you wander round the stalls seeing what catches your eye, you order a bit here and a bit there, give the stallholders your number and in due course the food is delivered and payment made. Then you go round again - if the fancy takes you.
Red Garden food court, George Town, Penang

Kuey Teow (fried flat noodles with egg and prawn), crispy duck with vegetables and rice and a handful of fiery satay sticks made an excellent meal. Our only regret was that we had missed Selina the lady-boy, who performs only on Thursdays.
Strolling happily back to the hotel through the warm night air under a shining half moon, I could not help but think that already I preferred Penang to the decidedly parky Cameron Highlands.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Cameron Highlands, A Rainforest Walk, BOH and Curry: Part 4 of the Malaysian Peninsula

I cannot be sure it rained all night, but it was raining when I went to sleep, raining when we had a cup of tea at 4.30 (after being woken by the rain) and raining when we got up.

It was raining when we dashed to breakfast, skipping lightly (as I don’t) round the puddles. A ‘Forest and Farm’ walk was scheduled for the morning but over breakfast we considered the need for a plan B.

The cool, wet Cameron Highlands in the centre of the Malay Peninsula
When we met our walk guide, Francis, the rain had actually stopped. We asked about the forecast and he pulled a face, but we went anyway - why come all this way and be put off by a little rain?

Francis drove us down into Tanah Rata and out the other side, parking his Land Rover where the tarmac finished and the jungle started.
Lynne and Francis at the start of the walk, near Tanah Rata
We set off into the trees on a flagged but slippery path...

A flagged but slippery path into the jungle
…which took us past a Poinsettia tree. A native of Mexico, it derives its English name from American diplomat Joel Poinsett who took it to the US in 1830 from where it has travelled the world. Familiar as a pot plant, we had never realised it can grow into a small tree.

Poisettia Tree, near Tanah Rata
It is always nice to know where you are going….
So that is where we are going.
….when you are following an awkward path along the side of a heavily wooded valley. Down to our right we could hear a rushing stream, but no waterfall as yet.

Along the valley edge above a rushing stream, near the Robinson Falls
Francis was good at spotting flora; Poinsettia may have become a citizen of the globe, but Golden Balsam, impatiens ocidioides is endemic to the Cameron Highlands.

Golden Balsam, Impatiens Ocidioides, near the Robinson Falls
He was good with fauna, too, spotting a giant snail which had climbed a tree to well above head height….

Giant snail hauled down to head height, near the Robinson Falls, Cameron Highlands
 ….and a small multi-legged creature, presumably a caterpillar. We had never seen anything like it, and even Francis was stumped.

Unidentified caterpillar(?) near Robinson Falls, Cameron Highlands
We had been walking for half an hour before the final 20m drop of the Robinson Falls came into view. There are, apparently, more tumbles upstream but this is by far the biggest and the only one visible from the path. Herbert Christopher Robinson was Director of Museums for the Federated Malay States from 1903-26. After retiring he started the massive five volume Birds of the Malay Peninsula, though completing only two before his death in 1930. I cannot guarantee the falls were named after him, but I know of no other likely candidates.

Robinson Falls, Cameron Highlands
By now the flagged path had given way to a muddy track, sometimes wide and easy…

Sometimes the path was wide and muddy, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
… sometimes tucked into the edge of the steep valley. In places trees had fallen across it; we ducked under some, climbed round others.

Sometimes the path was tucked into the edge of valley, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata 

We paused to admire fungus growing on a rotting log and then,…

Fungus on a rotten log, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
…but for Francis’ sharp eyes, would have walked into the little creature below, or at least its web. (S)he is one of the spiny-backed orb-weaver spiders, the Gasteracantha. There are many species, a dozen or more resident in Malaysia, but I think this is Gasteracantha Kuhli. They are common, Francis said, but difficult to spot.

Spiny-backed Orb-weaver spider, Gasteracantha Kuhli, Cameron Highlands
The gasteracantha come in a variety of shapes and colours. Kuhli is almost identical to Gasteracantha Cancriformis which is widely distributed throughout the Americas. It easy to know which is which - provided you know which continent you are on (and not all internet users do, apparently).
No rain had fallen the whole time we were walking, and I removed my jacket as the day warmed up.

The path had been dropping from the start but now began to descend more sharply as it twisted along the valley side.

The path begins to drop more sharply, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
As we rounded the bend we saw an old man walking towards us, naked except for a blanket slung round his neck, the loose ends dangling down his back. He was plodding up the path barefoot and muttering to himself. As he drew closer I realised how small he was; he passed me by, his head lower than my shoulder. However much I wanted a photograph I could not bring myself to stick a camera in his face; these were his hills not mine and a guest should not be so rude. He continued up the path. Lynne turned hoping to photograph him as he walked away, but he turned at the same moment and stood motionless staring down at us. Lynne waved, he waved back and was gone.

‘Orang Asli,’ Francis said. Most of the local members of Malaysia’s ‘original people,’ he told us, had moved into town. Three old men continue to live in the old village – Francis pointed up the valley side – they cultivate some land and hunt a little. Occasionally one of them ventures into Tanah Rata to collect plastic bottles in return for a few coins from the recycling company.

A little further along we marvelled at the steep, almost imperceptible, track on which the old man had descended the valley side. Francis had been young, he told us, when he first encountered the man who seemed old then. Now admitting to be well over forty, Francis had no idea how old the man was.

The traditional world of the Orang Asli was as incomprehensible to us as our world was to him, but he was also a source of wonder to Francis; he may have lived close by geographically but his life style was much closer to ours.

So I have no picture of one of the Original people, but I offer some wild ginger flowers, instead.

Wild ginger, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
An hour and three quarters from the start Francis turned onto a path dropping steeply into the valley….

The start of the steep descent
….from half way down we could see the trees gave way to cultivation on the valley floor.

Cultivation in the valley bottom, Cameron Highlands
We were soon down among the cabbages. They looked healthy to me, but Francis lamented that it was a poor year and the hearts should be twice the size – which would make them monster cabbages.

Descending through the cabbages, Cameron Highlands
We reached a lane running between the fields. ‘Japanese cucumber,’ Francis said, pointing to the verge. He told us that most farm workers were Bangladeshi seasonal migrants who planted these little extras on the roadside to sell for a ringgit or two. At the end of the month they might have 50 or 60 ringgits to send back to their families, roughly £10 – hardly enough I would have thought to be worth working thousands of miles away from home. ‘50 Ringgits goes a long way in Bangladesh,’ Francis observed.

I spotted a huge centipede working its way along the gutter. Scolopendra is a large genus of large centipedes and Scolopendra dehaani or Malaysian Cherry Red as it is known locally (other names occur throughout SE Asia) is famed for its painful, poisonous bite.

The extremely unpleasant Malaysian Cherry Red Centipede, Cameron Highlands
This was as close an encounter as any sane person could want

Finding a waiting Land Rover, we hopped in and were delivered to Francis’ office in Tanah Rata to await our own driver. We said goodbye to Francis and thanked him for a fascinating walk which had been entirely in the dry. As he left the drizzle restarted.

‘Lunch,’ said our driver when he arrived. ‘No,’ we said, as one. After a couple of hours slogging along muddy paths in high humidity ‘shower’ felt a more immediate need.

He returned us to our hotel and when we emerged, clean and refreshed we went not to lunch but north past the Big Red Strawberry Farm (strawberries – considered extraordinarily exotic in Malaysia - are a major local product) and on to the BOH tea plantation.

The BOH tea company was founded by JA Russell in 1929 and is the biggest tea producer in Malaysia responsible for 70% of the country’s output. The name probably refers to Best of the Highlands, but other derivations have been suggested.

They have four ‘tea gardens’, three of them in the Cameron Highlands, and we visited the largest, Sungai Palas. We have seen several tea factories recently in Sri Lanka and India and from what we could observe through large Perspex windows the production process varies little.

BOH tea factory, Sungai Palas, Cameron Highlands
After a wander round and a visit to the shop (and the inevitable purchases) we had a pleasant cup of tea on a platform built out from the hill to give impressive, if misty, views over the rest of the estate.

BOH Sungai Palas Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands
Here, too, the pickers were migrants. BOH makes a big play of treating their workers fairly, supplying accommodation, recreational facilities, and mosques and temples for all persuasions.

And then we did go for lunch. It was nearer 3 o’clock than 2 before we were sitting outside the Restoran Sri Brinchang in Tanah Rata. They promised the best south Indian food in town (hardly an extravagant claim in such a small town!) but also offered clay pots (Vietnamese) and tandoori dishes (north Indian) among other delights.

Restoran Sri Brinchang, Tanah Rata
We went with the south Indian theme ordering mutton varuval, which was served on a banana leaf with appropriate accompaniments. Varuval is a Tamil dry curry, suitable for a banana leaf, but this came in a pot with ample sauce. No matter, it was an excellent lunch. While we were eating, the sun came out and I removed my sweater. The climate is described as cool and damp with an average high of 23 or 24° - and today had been a perfect example, the ‘high’ being reached for some 30 minutes before ‘cool’ reasserted itself.

Mutton Varuval, Restoran Sri Brinchang, Tanah Rata
After lunch, we walked around Tanah Rata, there is little to see, and made some purchases. Clean and prosperous, it is a typical Malaysian small town – apart from the climate.

Tanah Rata, unofficial capital of the Cameron Highlands
The temperature dropped and the rain reappeared as we returned to our hotel.

In the evening we found the hotel bar occupied by a Dutch tour party. We squeezed onto the two remaining seats in time to see the barman lighting the fire; the evening looked more cheerful with a roaring blaze. Finding they were offering Pernod at a reasonable price we ordered two glasses. Apparently few French groups come this way as they had no idea how to serve it, but they had the sense to ask rather than blunder on and spoil it. We dined, almost alone, in the hotel’s Thai restaurant where they managed a very decent red curry.

The Malaysian Peninsula

Part 6 'George Town' coming late August

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Batu Caves and North to the Cameron Highlands: Part 3 of The Malaysian Peninsula

With an 8.30 start we had an early-ish breakfast, but not so early we expected to have the breakfast balcony to ourselves again, but we did. I went for the local option of spicy noodles, Lynne preferred pancakes and bananas.

A new driver, a young man with a pleasant manner and a good command of English, arrived on time and we set off through Kuala Lumpur’s rush hour traffic.

Working our way out of central Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia has spent money on infrastructure, so once beyond the central area we made good time and….

The road out of town in the morning rush hour
...reached the Batu Caves before 9.30. The 400 million year old limestone caves were used for shelter by the area’s earliest inhabitants but they only came to the notice of the modern world in the 1860s when newly-arrived Chinese settlers used them as a source of guano. They were recorded by the colonial authorities only in the late 1870s.

In 1890, observing that the cave entrance resembles a vel, the symbol of Lord Murugan (aka Kartikeya and Subramanian, is the son of Shiva and Parvati and brother of Ganesh), the influential and energetic K. Thamboosamy Pillai (we met him yesterday, twice) built a temple to Murugan inside the cave.

Murugan was given his vel (a divine javelin) by Lord Shiva so that he could kill the demon Soorapadam. The gift is commemorated in Tamil Nadu and throughout the Tamil diaspora at the festival of Thaipusam in late January/Early February. Thaipusam has been celebrated at the Batu Caves since 1892, wooden steps being built in 1920 to increase participation. The location proved popular and they were replaced by the concrete steps seen below.

The Batu Caves guarded by Lord Murugan.
Seeing the cave entrance as the same as his vel requires some imagination
The 43m high statue of Murugan at the base of the steps was completed in 2006. It is the largest statue in Malaysia, the largest of Murugan in the world and the second largest of any Hindu deity.

At the base of the steps with one tourist, one local, four macaques and a pigeon, Batu Caves
Below Lord Murugan's pedestal is a green wheelie bin. We travelled half way round the world to find a bin identical to one that sits outside our own back door!
We set off up the 272 steps – no I didn’t count them, that is the official tally. They are extraordinarily crowded at Thaipusam, but on an average day there are a few pilgrims, a healthy crowd of tourists and more monkeys than people.

Climbing the 272 steps, Batu Caves
The caves were once well outside the city, but from level with the top of Lord Murugan it is easy to see that KL’s urban sprawl has lapped around the foot of the caves.
Kuala Lumpur stretching out to the Batu Caves
The first cave is vast and was still laid out for the recent Thaipusam festival.

The first of the Batu Caves
 So we took the steps up to the second cave…

Up more stairs to the second cave, Batu Caves
 …which is open to the sky. A small temple occupies one side….

Temple in the upper cave, Batu Caves
 …while the other has been left rough and rocky and is the domain of the large and unruly macaque population.

Macaque, Batu Caves
Descending to the car park, we located our driver and returned to the motorway and our northward journey.

Heading north from the Batu Caves
A couple of hours later we pulled into a service station. From the half dozen food outlets, little more than stalls, we acquired a snack lunch of a crispy pie (spicy sweet potato, we discovered), fried vegetables on a stick (mostly cabbage) and coffee.

A little later we turned off onto a smaller road rising into the Cameron Highlands.

Todays journey from Kuala Lumpur to the Cameron Highlands

We stopped where a stream cascades down the hillside over a series of granite tiers. Lata Iskandar is a modest waterfall but the final 25m slither (I cannot call it a ‘drop’) drags in the weekend crowds who sit around, or in, the pool at the bottom. On a Wednesday afternoon there were fewer visitors.

Lata Iskandar, Cameron Highlands
A path climbed up the side of the falls. I thought it might open up a view of the higher sections though Lynne was sceptical. I won the argument about going up, but Lynne was right, there was little to see beyond a close-up of the water smearing itself across the granite.

Lata Iskandar higher up - not really worth the climb
Back at the car our driver had discovered that he had parked beside the biggest spider he, and certainly we, had ever seen. This was not, I thought, a moment to leave my camera on auto so, to Lynne’s growing impatience, I played earnestly with the extensive variety of settings and modes.
Lynne photographs me fiddling while the driver thinks I am about to fall
Lata Iskandar

For all my efforts, the best picture was taken by the driver using Lynne’s phone. It was a handsome beast (the spider, not the phone), black with gold trimmings, a body two of three centimetres long and legs that went on for ever.

Handsome beast, the spider in its web, Lata Iskandar
I had another go, and despite its imperfection I think my picture catches something of the creature’s sinister menace – no, I am not particular comfortable with spiders, especially huge spiders.

Sinister spider, long, scary, grasping legs, Lata Iskandar
The Cameron Highlands, named after Sir William Cameron who surveyed the area in 1885, are 712km² of gently folded uplands 1,100m to 1,600m above sea level. Cameron suggested the area with its cool climate would make a healthy hill station, but no action was taken until Sir George Maxwell, Chief Secretary of the Federated Malay States visited the area forty years later and set up an experimental agricultural station. Once an access road was opened in 1931 tea planting and vegetable growing soon became established. Growth paused during the Second World War and the subsequent Malayan Emergency, but has continued unabated since 1960.

The once remote uplands are still home to several thousand of the peninsula’s aboriginal inhabitants known as Orang Asli (Original People) who mostly speak Mon-Khmer languages – suggesting they are related to the people of southern Burma and Cambodia. Their forebears either assimilated with or retreated from multiple waves of immigration over the last three thousand years. Although now specially protected by the constitution, the Orang Asli have a higher infant mortality rate and lower life expectancy than other Malaysians and the majority live in poverty. In the Cameron Highlands some still live traditional lives while others survive on the margins of society and yet more are well down the road to assimilation.

Orang Asli man and his roadside dwelling, Cameron Highlands
A regrettably fuzzy picture but it was a 'drive past shooting' (to coin a phrase).
The road continued to rise through the small but interestingly named town of Ringlet, the centre of vegetable and flower growing in the south of the highlands.
Ringlet, Cameron Higlands

As the picture suggest the weather was dull and overcast and compared to the last few days distinctly cool. Ten minutes further on we stopped at the Bharat Tea Plantation. We did not visit - a different plantation was scheduled for tomorrow - but enjoyed the view over the tea bushes. The average daily high in the Cameron Highlands is 22 or 23° all the year round. This sound pleasant, but it is the average - ie some days are cooler - and it is the maximum - so temperatures for much of even an average day are below that level. As we stood looking down on the tea I was toying with the word ‘cold’ rather than ‘cool’. And then the drizzle started.

Bharat Tea Plantation, near Tanah Rata

We continued through Tanah Rata (lit: Flat Ground), the highland’s largest town and unofficial capital. A little way beyond we turned off the main road and wound our way up to the Strawberry Park Resort, a large, well-established hotel with tiers of accommodation blocks climbing the hillside above the reception/bar/restaurant building.

Accommodation blocks, Strawberry Park Resort, Tanah Rata
 Our room was large, light and airy, ideal for hot weather, indeed it was so suited to hot weather it had no heating. Now with no doubt about using the word ‘cold’ we looked out the clothing we had put away at Birmingham Airport imagining we would not need it until our return.

It was raining heavily and our balcony, which was far too cold to use, looked out over an area of drenched jungle – or rain forest (there is a clue in the name!). I had checked the temperatures before leaving home, but I had neglected the rainfall. It is, I now learned, similar in pattern and quantity to the English Lake District. That would account for it.

Rain forest, from our hotel window, Strawberry Park Resort
A lull in the rain allowed a brief exploration. In Bangkok in Nov 2012 we visited the house of Jim Thompson, a former CIA operative who had become the saviour of the Thai silk industry and ‘the best known American living in Asia’.  In March 1967 while visiting friends in the Cameron Highlands he set out for walk after lunch and was never seen again. Despite SE Asia’s largest ever manhunt, his disappearance remains a mystery, though given his CIA connections lurid conspiracy theories abound. He was staying at ‘Moonlight Cottage’ two hundred metres from our hotel on the next hilltop. Now the Jim Thompson Hotel, the original ‘Elizabethan’ cottage has been surrounded by hotel buildings.
Jim Thompson's House
The rain resumed and at the appropriate hour we skipped over the puddles down to the hotel bistro for a dinner from which most of the spices had been omitted in deference to perceived European tastes.

The rain battered down throughout the cold dark night. We have been to hill stations before, most notably Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka and Ootacamund in India and wondered what it was that drove our colonialist predecessors to seek out places with such dire climates. In the absence of air conditioning the heat of the plain was doubtless oppressive, but what is the attraction of cold and drizzle? We were staying at a ‘resort hotel’; the whole of the Cameron Highlands is sometimes referred to as a ‘resort’ – why?

[In fairness I should add that Lynne’s parents stayed in the same hotel in the 1980s. Photographic evidence suggests it was shorts and tee-shirt weather. Lucky them.]