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Tea-time in the Cameron Highlands

Despite a slightly saggy bed we both slept well and again struggled to drag ourselves out of it. It had been a cold night and blankets and bedspread were well and truly needed, the first time in quite a while that we had felt chilly. Mizan picked us up shortly before nine and we then headed out to pick up another person before starting our tour for the day. Our companion for the day was an eighty year old German who lives in Indonesia and has been travelling for about three months.

Our first stop was a visit to the BOH (Best of Highlands) Tea Plantation. A vista point along the way showed the expanse of the plantation which was started in 1921 but only incorporated as a company in 1929. It was founded by a Scot, JA Russell, and his family still own and run the plantation today although they rarely spend much time here. It is the largest in the Cameron Highlands, the others being about tenth the size and owned and run by local cooperatives. Everywhere you look there are rows and rows and rows of tea plants from the valley floor all the way to the top of the hillsides. It is almost like looking at a sea of green with waves of green rolling across the valley.

Like the Cadbury and Fray Bentos sites, Russell founded not just the tea plantation but also created the village and facilities required for his workforce. Houses, schools, a temple, mosque, church, shop and small medical clinic are all part of the mix to cater for the eighty five employees of the site we visited. Today the company has four separate plantations and mixes traditional and modern methods of production depending on the local geography of the site.

Here, where the plants grow along steep hill sides, manual labour is still used to pick the leaves, although clippers are now used rather than picking by hand. Where machines can access the plants, machine harvesting techniques are used. The tea pickers are mostly from Indian and Sri Lanka and earn very low wages but all accommodation, electricity water, schooling, medical facilities etc are provided free of charge. The local Malay community fulfil the higher paid jobs or work in the burgeoning tourist trade in the nearby towns.

It is a continual process with new leaves being ready to pick every three weeks. Every four years the plants are severely cut back to ensure that they remain low bushes and do not grow into trees, as tree leaves are no good for tea. When picked the leaves are first rubbed to crush them slightly and release their moisture. There are three separate stages to crushing and once crushed the broken leaves are then dried out by passing them through hot air. It’s a different process to the one used in Darjeeling where the leaves are dried first and crushed later.

Next the leaves are passed through large sieves to sort them into different sizes and quality and to remove the stalks and other rubbish. From every two hundred kilos of leaves picked only forty kilos of finished product is produced. The leaves are then stored for six months before being sent to BOH’s plant near to Kuala Lumpur for packing. A promotional video they showed in the accompanying museum/tea house ran through the list of products they now make. As well as normal tea you can buy different flavoured teas, instant tea (one which looked like a cappuccino made from tea), tea in bags, loose tea, you name it, if it is to do with tea you seem to be able to buy it from BOH.

They have recently completed a new visitor’s centre on the site which has a small museum, a room where you can watch short programmes on the production process and company background, a shop where you can buy their products and an all important café where you can try them. We shared a pot of medium flavoured tea and it was very tasty. I think though that the location has a lot to do with it. The end of the café is open and you get great views of the plantation stretching out below you. Today was warm and sunny so it made a very pleasant stop for a while.

From BOH we followed a narrow road up to Gunung Brinchang, at 2031m the highest peak in the area. Part of the road was washed away a couple of months ago by a landslide so we crawled behind a big truck taking raw materials up hill so that they could rebuild the road. It is open and passable but it looked like a pretty nasty slide.

Before we reached the top we took a slight walking detour off through the moss forest to get views down to Ipoh, a large town at the bottom of the highland hills. The path through the forest was very muddy and springy underfoot because we were not really walking on the ground but on decades worth of decaying leaves. Stef and I managed to get pretty muddy but our guide Mizan who does this walk most days came away without any mud at all!

As it was a rare sunny day for this time of year we were rewarded with great views down. The jungle was surprisingly cool and fresh and along the way Mizan showed us different plants that you can use for medicinal purposes or simple survival if you get lost. The moss which covers the ground yields a fresh supply of drinking water. Some plants are used by women who have recently given birth to aid their return to full strength. Others help to stop the bleeding when leeches have been feeding off you, not that I would ever find it again if the need arose.

We followed the road up to the top where there was a small observation tower giving unobscured views of the valley. By this time it was late morning and you could see the clouds starting to gather. As with Kuala Lumpur, heavy rain showers are common in the afternoon and Mizan predicted that today would be no different. We certainly had a good downpour yesterday. Some of the men working on the road repairs were also taking a break there and we chatted to them for a while. As with all Malays we have met so far they were really friendly and wished us a good stay in their country.

We wound back down and round the hill, managing to avoid banging our heads on the low roof of the Land Rover (essential work car in these parts) as we lurched round corners and over bumps. Our next stop was at a village of the Orang Asli, the original indigenous people of Malaysia. Important in the early days of foreign trade subsequent years saw their land being eroded and their land rights not being recognised. They were useful to the British Malayan government in fighting the guerrilla war against the Communists and this led to the establishment of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs.

Today the government is trying to encourage these people to move into settlements where through the Department they provide most basic necessities. Food, running water, electricity, clothes, medical care and education are all provided free of charge to the Orang Asli although all other Malays have to pay for them. Some of these people have chosen to stay in the jungle following their traditional lifestyles but most have moved.

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Can't be England - it has a working phone inside!

The village we visited was small, with less than one hundred families. Typically a family will have at least five children. The girls marry young, at fourteen or fifteen, and then stop their education although these days most will go to work to earn a living. Tourism has brought employment for these people who work as cleaners, maids and caddies on the local golf course. In turn though, this has brought drug and alcohol abuse problems to the teenagers of the town.

Following us around the village was a steady stream of young children calling “hello” and waving to us. The houses here varied from brick, to wooden, to bamboo to corrugated iron structures, all perched up on the hillside. It seemed a very colourful setting against the lush green of the landscape but I think it may just have been the sunlight that made the place look rosy. The arrival of the school bus in the square down below prompted a scurry of uniformed children who suddenly appeared from the houses and ran down the hill to make sure they did not miss the bus.

From the village we made our way to the Parit Falls stopping en route at Ye Olde Smokehouse. This transported us a few thousand kilometres into typical English countryside as this hotel could be in deepest darkest Surrey. It is definitely an English country house and even has its own King George red phone box outside. A look at the menu (Beef Wellington, Steak and Kidney pie, fish and chips, fruit crumble gives you a flavour of what they have on offer) sent shivers down Stef’s spine and he booked us in for dinner tonight.

The waterfall itself was a bit disappointing. Minute compared to others we have seen the view is marred by the rubbish lining the banks and floating in the water that comes from the near by villages. A short loop takes you through canopy jungle, very different to this morning’s moss jungle, over the waterfall and back round to the start. Mizan confirmed that not many people, even the locals, know about this place. The locals he said have little interest in the jungle that surrounds them.

We were dropped back at the bus station in Tanah Rata so that we could get our tickets for tomorrow. Unfortunately the VIP bus is sold out so we are probably on a bit of a bone shaker but at least the new road is open so hopefully it will not be as twisty as the road on the way up. We ambled through town stopping for a late lunch at an Indian restaurant which simply reinforced our feeling that the Chinese and Indian cultures are more easily accessible here than Malay.

A short afternoon nap and a shower left us both feeling refreshed and we headed back to Ye Olde Smokehouse for some traditional British fare. With no taxis available the owner of our hotel very kindly drove us there in his car. The hotel is a mix of local country pub and someone’s house. The staff were very friendly but there were few diners so the atmosphere was a tad on the quiet side. Our food was OK but certainly not as good as we had expected and I do not think I would recommend it to other people. Probably one of the highlights was getting home. Apparently it is difficult to get a taxi in Tanah Rata after seven at night but the taxi has its own limousine and driver which took us back to our hotel.