Following the two cities of Alor Setar and George Town we headed to Ipoh, another provincial capital, before we dared to approach nature for the first time in Malaysia. We found more nature than we had originally expected and enjoyed every moment in and around the Cameron Highlands. Of course we couldn’t miss a visit to the team and a strawberry farm.
At 9 o’clock in the morning, we already had to be near the KOMTAR tower, the tallest building in George Town, to catch the bus to Ipoh. We ate some breakfast in a Chinese restaurant and headed to the bus ticket office. Since we were still too early we opted to complement our breakfast with some Indian food before we returned to the bus ticket office. Just after 9 am we were sent on a bus only to alight one hundred meters down the road in front of another bus ticket office. Finally around 9:30 am we boarded the bus which should be bring us to Ipoh and after leaving the main bus station of George Town at 10:30 am we were finally on the road. The new bus terminal of Ipoh is located some 9 km north of the city, but luckily a city bus brought us to the city center where we started looking for a place to stay.
The city center seemed to be devoid of hotels, not one single place was in sight. We resorted to our guidebook which indicated a street where a few hotels should be located. We asked some locals where to find the street and they readily helped us locate the hotel district of the town. We found an okay hotel for a good price and left our belongings there before we went on the hunt for something edible. During our hotel search we had come across a few restaurants, but now they all seemed to be gone. We finally found a decent place and tried whatever they could recommend us, which was a good choice.
Our mandatory city exploration tour was next. During the walk around the place we got a first glimpse of the beautiful railway station, the city hall and the court house opposite. All the colonial buildings shone in impeccable white. During a short side trip to the local bus station we purchased two tickets to the Cameron Highlands, which had been used by the British as a hill station to recover from the heat in the Malaysian lowlands. We were told to be at the bus station at 7:45 am the next morning.
More accidentally than anything we came across the art street of Ipoh. Particularly one painter seemed to have had fun painting walls in one street of the town in a similar style as has been done in George Town. Besides many picturesque paintings there were also some examples making wise statements from famous people such as Albert Einstein, Bruce Lee or Nelson Mandela. One painting also remembers the victims of flight MH17 which was brough down over Eastern Ukraine.
For dinner I wanted to try the salted chicken, a local specialty. While we were enjoying an afternoon coffee however the restaurants offering the dish already started closing down, such that I had to try another local favorite: the Ipoh version of Hainan chicken rice. Served with bean sprouts and a delicious sauce the chicken was the most tender I have ever eaten in my life, just delicious! A very good replacement for the salted chicken I didn’t get to eat…
Early next morning we had to get up early after a surprisingly noisy night and headed to the local bus station. Across the road from the bus station we found another Indian restaurant where we could eat a breakfast before boarding the bus to the Cameron Highlands as almost only passengers.
By means of a few friendly pointers at Tanah Ratah bus station we quickly found a good room and immediately headed for a food stall for lunch. Besides lunch we bought some food to take along on the hike we had planned for the afternoon. The Cameron Highlands are one of the few places in South-East Asia where one can actually hike on their own. The wall marked trails are easy to find and well sign-posted. We were only warned not to use path number 9 as recently people had been victims of armed robbery on that path. We opted to start with path number 7 from Mardi, a collection of houses only about 500 m from the bus station. After just inquiring once we found the trail head and immediately started our ascent on the 2 km trail. According to the brochures, the trail should take about 90 minutes from bottom to top, which made us curious of what kind of trail we would find. Even though the trail was in parts very steep and we had to scramble, we managed to reach the top in just over 1 hour. While we were taking a deep breath and drinking a few sips of water suddenly two German couples appeared from different directions. Three different trails lead to the top of the mountains and each of the parties had taken a different route. We could thus compare notes about the different trails and decide which way we wanted to descend. We stuck to our original plan to follow trail number 3 which we did down to the big junction and shelter. While we took a short break and observed the monkey family it started raining. We had hoped for a short shower, however our hopes were crushed as the rain calmed but never stopped. So we opted to return to Tanah Ratah on trail 5, the most direct path to any kind of civilization.
When we stepped out of the forest the rain finally stopped and back in Tanah Ratah we ran into the other two German-speaking hiking parties. We sat down in one of the Indian restaurants to exchange experiences and while the others enjoyed a full dinner, we were happy with a small snack. We had planned to try the one famous specialty of the Cameron Highlands, the steamboat, that night.
What is called hot pot in China or Fondue Chinoise in Europe (at least they are similar), they call steamboat in Malaysia. Different from Europe, seafood, mushrooms and vegetables are cooked in the soup on the table, however not on a fork, but rather dumped in the soup only to be retrieved with large spoons later. As a basis we opted for the Thai Tom Yam soup which was just perfect for us, not too spicy and very tasty. We soon realized that we sat in a very famous restaurant, since every single seat was filled during the night. The excellent food also justified the restaurant being so famous.
A tour was on the program for our first full day in the Cameron Highlands. While apparently the Rafflesia, the world#s largest flower, only blooms in February and March in Khao Sok National Park in Thailand, it can be found year-round near the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. This doesn’t mean that one flower stays alive during the whole year, but rather that almost at anytime during a year, there is one flower booming (which it does for less than a week). Thanks to the aboriginal people in the area who look out for the blooming flowers to earn some money from the tour companies, the tours can actually take place almost anytime of the year.
Spencer, our tour guide, drove us from the Cameron Highlands about 1400 m above sea level to a much warmer place at around 700 m. From the main road we had to walk through secondary and later primary rain forest to reach the area where the Rafflesia is common. The tracks of heavy machinery points to a lot of illegal logging in the area until about 20 or 30 years ago. In the meantime the aboriginal people have learned about the importance of protecting their forest. The secondary forest consists of mainly bamboo which grew fast in the years since the loggers were active. The primary forest, not destroyed by the loggers, still contained lots of old and big trees.
Rafflesia is a parasite which grows on liana. The flower does not have an leaves. We soon saw buds which are likely to bloom in the next few months. The started at about tennis ball-sized and went all the way to cabbage size. We also came across a flower which had seen its best times which is lovingly called “elephant shit” by the locals. Finally we saw the reason for our trip, a nice Rafflesia, which had been blooming for about 5 days. While the flower was slowly getting darker it was still in excellent shape such that we could stay and stare at the flower until we had to return back to the car.
We returned back to the car along the same way we had come and after a short blow-pipe demonstration we headed back in the direction of the Cameron Highlands. Along the way we stopped for lunch and split up the group into people who had had enough, i.e. booked the half-day tour such as us, and people who wanted to keep going, i.e. people who had booked the full day tour. Instead of directly returning to Tanah Ratah, we asked Spencer to drop us off near the Forestry Department, such that we could walk back to Tanah Ratah on the very simple trail number 4.
We started the last day in the Cameron Highlands early in the morning. The first bus in direction of Brinchang is leaving at 8 am and since we wanted to have breakfast and buy some lunch we needed to be ready quite a bit earlier. We had breakfast and bought lunch at one of the many food stalls in Tanah Ratah. Our lunch consisted of Nasi Lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) along with an egg and some chicken respectively). At 8 am we boarded the bus in direction of Penang only to alight 10 minutes into the drive just after Brinchang. The hiking trail number 1 led from Brinchang to the top of the highest mountain in the area, the Gunung Brinchang at roughly 2000 m tall. Once again the trail was very steep and the rain of the previous night had made the trail quite muddy. Luckily the partially sandy ground and the many tree roots helped us to climb the mountain and we contrasted quite a bit with our dirty shoes and pants to all the city dwellers who had managed the trip to the top in minivans and Land Rovers. This didn’t bother us one bit and we enjoyed as much of the view from the view tower as the clouds would allow. We continued down the road to reach the Mossy Forest. Although we had already seen mossy trees during our climb, we had another chance to take a peek, this time from a clean wooden platform, without getting one spot on either shoes or pants.
We descended along the road, which was much less an adventure than the ascent. However the changing views across vegetable and strawberry farms as well as the large tea plantation more than made up for the lack of adventure.
The tea plantation was our last destination during the hike. A nice local drove us the last few meters to the tea plantation, since we had taken a wrong turn and were heading in the direction of his house. He dropped us right in front of the tea factory, where we could learn about tea production by reading the explanations and observing the machinery in the factory. Some of the machines have been in use for more than 80 years, apparently still good enough to cover the demand. Of course we couldn’t leave the place without having tasted some of the tea and eaten a delicious piece of pie.
We managed the rest of the descent down to Kea Farms on our own feet and after some delicious yoghurt and strawberies ice cream we hitch hiked back to Tanah Ratah bus station. We bought the bus tickets for the next morning to the Malaysian capital and after another decent dinner we dropped in our beds…