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Tea Drinking in the Cameron Highlands

Published 30 March 2016

Angela Griffin

Angela Griffin

After two hours of hauling ourselves through the thick jungle, the path opened out onto a road. Sweat stuck my clothes to my back as the hot sun beat down and I struggled to catch my breath. I stepped out onto the warm asphalt and took in the view. Before us stretched mile upon mile of emerald hills, neat rows of tea bushes dotted with hard-working pickers and their baskets. This is the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s most extensive hill station.

Boh Tea Estate, Malaysia

© Angela Griffin

The highlands are named after English surveyor William Cameron who stumbled across the mountain plateau in 1885. Noting the lush vegetation and cooler temperatures, he spotted the area’s potential, but it wasn’t until 40 years later that Sir George Maxwell developed it into a hill station, building homes, schools and hotels to help homesick British expats to relax and feel more settled.

At an altitude of between 1,300m and 1,829m, the hills are a welcome respite from the humidity of the lower jungles and the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur. The unhurried pace of life and fresh air lures tired city-dwellers away from the capital, and weary sunburnt travellers from the heat of the beaches. A popular weekend retreat, this is a land of rolling tea plantations, butterfly farms, flower nurseries and freshly-grown fruit, where the temperature rarely exceeds 25°C.

But this was not what attracted us to the Cameron Highlands. For us it was all about the tea.

Being a little cash-strapped we decided to walk the seven miles to the Boh Tea Estate from Tanah Rata, where we were staying. It’s not actually necessary to do this – tours, taxis and buses can take you there in a fraction of the time for minimal cost. But we chose to walk.

Cameron Highlands forest hike, Malaysia

© Angela Griffin

This involved an exciting hike through the mossy forest, more challenging than we expected due to the humidity, tramping over twisted tree roots and under fallen trunks. It was sweaty work, but we had the path to ourselves, allowing us to go at our own pace. We were able to stop when we spotted some of Malaysia’s rather freaky wildlife – troupes of monkeys shrieking and jumping through the treetops, giant millipedes, elegant orchids, various colourful sunbirds and the rafflesia, the world’s largest flower.

Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

© Angela Griffin

We emerged from the jungle and followed the road uphill for three miles, winding past fields and vegetable farms to the Boh Tea Estate. Here you can learn all about the tea making process on a factory tour, but for us the first stop was to sample a cup of the local brew.

Now’s the time I should probably make a confession – I am not a big tea drinker. I know this is almost unspeakable for an English person, but it’s true. I never really got into drinking it when I was younger, and often find it far too strong and bitter, preferring coffee or just plain water. But, with the coffee in Malaysia resembling treacle, I had taken to drinking tea instead.

Scones and tea in the Cameron Highlands

© Angela Griffin

Sitting in the café, looking out over the estate with its vividly green tea plants stretching as far the eye can see, I sipped on a freshly-brewed cup of milky tea. Made with leaves rather than tea bags, this was the best cup of tea I have ever had. The flavour was so delicate, not bitter, just refreshing and comforting, like a good brew should be.

We fully indulged our Englishness and had our tea accompanied by freshly-baked scones, butter and homemade strawberry jam. It was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon. Yes I know, we came half way around the world to eat tea and scones, but we loved it – it was a little taste of home amongst the freneticism and unfamiliarity of Southeast Asia.

Too tired and full of scones and tea to walk back to Tanah Rata, we took a taxi. That didn’t stop us indulging in some wonderfully aromatic Malay-Indian curry with roti for dinner though.

Tea Factory, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

© Angela Griffin

We had planned to stay in the Cameron Highlands for just two nights, giving us the day to explore the tea plantations before continuing to Penang. But we loved our day in the hills so much we extended for another, and this time trekked to one of the many strawberry farms. This was a much simpler hike than the day before and we were rewarded for our efforts with fresh strawberries, strawberry ice cream and strawberry juice. It’s possible to pick your own fruit if you wish to, but we just had a look around the greenhouses and saw the berries sitting in neat rows of plump redness.

Strawberry Farm, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

© Angela Griffin

Yes Olde Smokehouse, Cameron Highlands

Ye Olde Smokehouse © Angela Griffin

Walking back from the Strawberry Farm we stumbled across a sign proclaiming ‘Ye Olde Smokehouse’ on the side of a hill. Feeling inquisitive we had a look and, lo and behold, there was an English pub built in mock-Tudor style with wooden beams, white walls, open fireplaces and heaps of old-world charm. Built in 1937, the Smokehouse is modelled on its namesake in Mildenhall in England, with the hope that its presence would make British colonists feel more at home. Testing the theory, we pulled up a table on the manicured lawns and devoured yet more scones, tea and jam. Feeling rather stuffed, we headed back Tanah Rata, but not before we spotted an ornamental red telephone box, as if cut straight from the streets of London.

It’s a bizarre little place, the Cameron Highlands: a slice of the English countryside in the middle of tropical Malaysia. It seemed a world away when we reached Georgetown the following day. But to escape the heat and sit down to the most invigorating cuppa I’ve ever had, it’s a must-do stop on any Malaysian itinerary.

English phone box, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia


Visit the Cameron highlands with Round the World Experts’ Culture, Highlands & Beach Journey.


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