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Roses with real *natural* scent, what will they think of next!

We were up and about early today to catch our bus up to the Cameron Highlands further north in Malaysia. We had had a late night trying to make the most of the high speed internet connection at the hotel and both of us struggled to leave the warmth and comfort of our beds. Before long though we were on our way saying farewell to Kuala Lumpur and heading for the Puduraya bus station.

With some time to spare Stef went in search of breakfast, having sacrificed his daily feast at the hotel in favour of extra time in bed. We found our bus easily enough and it was surprisingly spacious and comfortable, in fact I would go so far as to say it was the best bus we have been on so far during this trip. The seats were comfortable and not falling apart, there were foot rests for everyone and even enough legroom for Stef. Amazing. The only slight irritation was that with all passengers on board by the 9:00am departure time, for some reason unknown to man it was almost 9:30 before we left.

Driving out of Kuala Lumpur seemed to be really smooth and fast and before long we were out in open countryside. Signs along the way with pictures of a motorbike and rain cloud showed where people could take refuge from the daily downpour. With the roads being long, straight and well maintained I started to read my book (very unusual for me as reading usually makes me travel sick) but lack of sleep won the day and before long I was fast asleep. I woke up a couple of times to look around the bus and I think that everyone was snoozing. It is a shame really as I think we probably passed some fabulous countryside. The snippets I got were of long expanses of banana style palm trees stretching away into the distance. We will be back in Kuala Lumpur before we go to Africa so I may get chance then to see it again.

As we turned off the motorway to head further inland everyone woke with a jolt. The bus went through a toll station and then pulled to a halt for a quick loo break. Having spent about ninety minutes on very smooth straight roads the next ninety minutes or so was a direct contrast. The road wiggled and wound its way up to Tanah Rata, the main town of the Cameron Highlands hill station. One person fed back to Lonely Planet that there are six hundred and fifty three bends on the sixty kilometre drive up and I can well believe it.

The fact that the road is so twisty seemed to make no difference to the driver (who is probably used to it) and he lurched and rolled around each bend a little more crazily than drivers in South America. One lady succumbed and had to use the sick bags provided on every bus we have been on in Asia (they seem to be very bad travellers). I was feeling pretty queasy and even Stef admitted later that his stomach was churning, most unusual!

It was though a beautiful route up driving through tropical forest. You could almost sense the temperature dropping outside as we climbed. My mind pondered what the journey must have been like for William Cameron who first mapped out this area in 1885 and for the first batches of tourists who came here to escape the heat of Kuala Lumpur. They must have had a much rougher journey, without the benefit of air conditioning, and one that no doubt took much longer than three hours.

The bus dropped us at the Tanah Rata bus station where a lady got on board handing out leaflets. In direct contrast to Vietnam and Cambodia there was no pushy sales talk trying to get you into a specific hotel or to do a specific trip. She was from the Titiwangsa Tours and Travel company but just quietly handed out leaflets and helped everyone to get to their chosen hotel, all of which provide a free pick up from the bus station, even though they are only a five minute walk away.

We opted for the Hillview Inn which matched its Lonely Planet description of “bright, spotlessly clean, large airy rooms in a quiet part of town” exactly. We had a friendly welcome from the chap who picked us up at the bus and then also from the hotel owner. It seems to be a family run place and all the family were very friendly checking to make sure everything was OK. Our room is basic compared to the luxury of our hotel in Kuala Lumpur but it is exactly what we need.

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I wanna be like you-hoo-hoo

The main things to see and do here are scattered around the nearby area so a tour is a good way to get to see them. We checked the leaflet from Titiwangsa and opted to join their Agro tour this afternoon. We were picked up at 2:30 by Mizan, also very friendly, and did a quick tour to a couple of other stops to pick up our full complement of ten people, two Malays, two Indians and a family of four from Singapore. Our first stop was meant to be a cactus farm but a landslide a few days ago has partly wiped it out and it is now closed to visitors.

Instead we went to the Rose Centre, a large garden housing different varieties of flowers, mainly roses. They also had brightly coloured gerbera’s, passion flowers, enormous gladioli, lilies, birds of paradise and a small selection of cacti and orchids. From some of the roses there came the most fabulous scent, sometimes sweet, sometimes perfumed. The gardens wound up the side of a hill giving great views of the valleys below and the terraced farming underway all around you. It was a bit tacky though with a large Snow White and her Seven Dwarves being just one of the examples of tat on display. One thing I did learn from here is that parsley plants help keep nasty bugs and insects away from your flowers and there was parsley everywhere.

Our next stop was one of the local strawberry farms, a big industry here in the highlands. Here the climate, not too warm, not too cold and a good supply of rain, makes it ideal for strawberries, vegetables and flowers. The farm we visited is quite new and about eight hectares in size. They are able to yield a crop all year round but primarily sell to the local markets or through pick your own for people who come and visit. The plants are grown in long grow bags full of coconut shell compost and where a flower blossoms one day, a ripe strawberry will be a few weeks later.

We opted to harvest our own small crop and with polystyrene tray in hand worked our way up and down the rows of plants. Both of us were thinking of my sister Beccie who is a big strawberry fan. She would have been in seventh heaven here. Eating our crop later those that were fully ripe and a luscious dark red were lovely and sweet. Those with still some white flesh were much more sour to the taste.

From strawberries we went down to a water cress farm which was probably the least interesting part of the tour. The cress is grown in watery fields similar to rice paddies, with a constant supply of water running through to ensure it is fresh and to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Our next stop was at a vegetable farm where they grown spinach, pak choi, cabbage and capsicums. The capsicum plants were the ones we walked around and the smell was intoxicating. It was as if someone had just sliced into a fresh capsicum in front of us. The crops here are all destined for Singapore and what is picked today will be sold in the markets tomorrow.

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Flowers pre-packed

A flower nursery was our next stop to see where they grow chrysanthemums. Here they were in deep dark reds, rusty browns, golden orange as well as white and yellow. With some varieties, where the flowers are complex and delicate, the young bugs are covered with plastic netting to ensure that they are protected through growing and transport. We have seen them like this is shops all over South East Asia. Disappointingly though these flowers had no scent probably due to the intensive techniques used. At night, artificial lights are switched on to trick the flowers into thinking they are in sunlight twenty four hours a day to speed up their growth. The flower nursery was looked over by a lively Dalmatian called Kopi (Malay for coffee) who really looked as if he wanted to be let off his lead so that he could have a good run around and play with all the visitors.

Our final stop was a restaurant in the local Chinese village for dinner. It was a tasty meal with noodles, fish, pork, chicken, vegetables and rice all washed down with chrysanthemum tea. The only thing that I did not really like was that even though serving spoons were provided a couple of people still helped themselves with their chopsticks as they would at home. This is OK when you know who you are eating with but with strangers I was wary.

By about 7:30pm we were back at our hotel at the end of what has turned out to be a long and pretty busy day. Stef had been sitting in the front of the minivan for the tour and was chatting away to Mizan, remembering bits and pieces of the Malay he had learned before we left London and picking up some local knowledge. They seem quite proud here that the pace of life is much slower than elsewhere and that here there are no traffic lights and no air conditioning units.