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Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

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The green Cameron highlands in Malaysia on a sunny day

In 1885, a British surveyor called William Cameron arrived in a remote part of the Malaysian hills to map the area. What he found was a fertile region, 1,200-1,800 metres1 in altitude, where the temperature rarely got above 25°C or fell below 8°C2. This wondrous discovery, in a land of tropical heat, meant that Cameron would eventually have the area named in his honour.

It would take some time, however, as Cameron forgot to record his discovery, and it wasn't until 1925 that Sir George Maxwell decided it to develop it into a hill station.

The area was a haven for wild flowers3 and butterflies, and also proved perfect for cultivating tea. The hill stations grew, for those who liked an escape from the oppressive temperatures of the lowlands and for botanists alike. It became a haven for wealthy residents and British officials. Tea was introduced, tended by British and Malay entrepreneurs and the hands of Indian immigrants; the first plantation in Malaysia was the Boh plantation, founded in 1929 by John Archibald Russell, the son of a British administrator. It also proved perfect for vegetable growers, and an influx of Chinese began. The Cameron Highlands would prove to be a popular place.


The Highlands are one of many former hill stations running roughly north to south along the centre of the Malay peninsula. They lie about 20km4 east of Ipoh, just on the Pahang side of the Pahang-Perak border (two regional administrative states; Ipoh is the state capital of Perak), and 150km5 north of the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (also known as 'KL'). The only access at present is by a lengthy and arduous drive along a twisting road from Tapah, to the south - though a new road to improve access from Ipoh is nearing completion and will undoubtedly speed up not only access but development.

Interestingly, the three main towns in the Cameron Highlands each represent a different one of Malaysia's major ethnic groups. Ringlet, in the far south, is a small town with a mainly Malay population, and contains little of interest to the traveller. Tanah Rata (which translates from the Malay as 'flat or even land'), the largest town, has a majority of Indian inhabitants, and is the centre for most visitors, while modern Brinchang, to the north, has a mainly Chinese population. Of the three, Tanah Rata is the best base for most tourists, being fairly central and full of accommodation and eating options without losing its individual character. The road from Tanah Rata to Brinchang seems to have a constant buzz of development, in seemingly soulless luxury resorts.

Why Do I Want To Go There?

A good question, considering the fact that the Highlands are a good five hours from KL and six from Penang, the nearest major tourist areas. However, the pleasures that William Cameron discovered all those years ago are still there. The mountainous scenery, waterfalls and agreeable climate are still good enough reasons to visit, and an air of colonial relaxation lingers. In some hotels, tea and scones and crustless sandwiches are still the order of the day.

Easy hiking is another good reason to visit the area. It is high enough to give sumptuous views without giving anyone altitude sickness, and much of the foreground is covered with tea. The Cameron Highlands is Malaysia's biggest tea-producing region, and big growers such as Boh and Blue Valley are only too happy to give tours of their estates. Visitors to the area in January are also blessed with the arrival of strawberry season, and many local farms offer tours and tastings. North of Brinchang, you can also find the Butterfly Garden and, immediately next door, Butterfly Farm, which are virtually identical attractions each boasting 300 varieties of our fluttering friends. In short, if you like the high life and excitement, it's probably not your scene.

When Should I Go?

If possible avoid the school holiday in December, April and August. The Highlands become very busy at these times, accommodation can be scarce and prices go up. The temperature is fairly constant year round, as is the rainfall, so weather-wise there are no really good or bad times to visit. This is one of those few lucky places to always have weather like a warm British summer's day. It is worth noting that November and December are the monsoon season in Malaysia, and though the effect of this is limited in the Highlands, other parts of the country are swamped by thunderstorms and heavy rain. This can make transit uncomfortable and is worth avoiding, particularly if you wish to visit any other parts of the country. Fog can be a problem, so it's worth checking the forecast the week before you go. Unfortunately this isn't something that can be predicted as a definite for certain times of the year, but is most common in the monsoon season.

Getting There

There are no train services to the Cameron Highlands and no airport, but regular buses run from KL, Penang and Ipoh to all three towns. Hitch-hiking is possible, but slow; be prepared for well-meaning drivers stopping to point out the nearest bus stop to you.

Travelling within the Highlands by public transport involves catching one of the services above to get from town to town. Taxis proliferate and are surprisingly economical; they can be hired by the day or half-day, and often the driver can be an interesting source of information. Some hotels, at busy times, also offer minibus excursions, and tour buses can also be booked. The usual limitation of not having enough time in any place applied here as much as in the rest of the world.

An Extra Exciting Point

The most famous visitor to this area was Jim Thompson, an American who became a multi-millionaire by founding the Thai silk industry in the aftermath of World War Two. On 26 March, 1967, he left his holiday villa for a pre-dinner stroll, and was never seen again. The mystery of his disappearance baffles to this day.

13900-5900 feet.246-77°F.3The Highlands are now the biggest suppliers of fresh, cultivated flowers in Malaysia.412 miles.593 miles.

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