Arriving in Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur and the Cameron Highlands

We had thoroughly enjoyed road-tripping again but we were really excited to be going further afield and diving back in to Asia. From Lille we jumped on a pre-booked, well air-conditioned bus to Charles De Gaul. Caro was sporting her finest traveller clothes.

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Our airport experience in Charles De Gaul was on a par with pretty much everyone’s experience at CDG… absolutely woeful. We survived and settled ourselves on to our first Royal Jordanian flight. We weren’t particularly impressed with the fairly indifferent service from the cabin crew, who had a habit of stopping for chats with each other halfway down the aisle and then appearing surprised when queues of passengers trying to get to on from their seats formed behind them. The plane food, a guilty pleasure of ours, was also decidedly average. The flight was fine though and we made our first stop at Queen Alia International Airport at 10pm local time. As we went through the transit baggage screening we were stopped because of the binoculars in our hand luggage. This caused a great deal of teeth sucking and mumbled conversation. We aren’t sure if binoculars are banned in Jordan but as we were only transiting it seemed a moot point anyway. We were asked repeatedly for our final destination and James’s passport was read by no fewer than 4 people before one of them came over and asked what country it was from. We tried various responses “United Kingdom, Great Britain, England”, all were met with blank stares; this did not bode well. After that we all stood around for a while waiting for something to happen. The chaps were perfectly friendly and repeatedly offered us seats but no one seemed to know what to do next. Half an hour later a phone rang like the banker in an airport security version of Deal or No Deal and after a brief conversation the nice man waved us through.

Once we had made it in to the departure lounge we carried out a brief tour of the shops before finding a quiet corner to try and get some sleep until our next flight at 2am. We probably managed about 15 minutes each but the upshot is that James has been forced to concede that the fisherman’s hat has its uses.

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We both managed to get a fair bit of sleep on our next flight and 12+ hours and a quick stop in Bangkok later we found ourselves in Kuala Lumpur. Immigration was an absolute breeze and we waited maybe 10 minutes for our bags. We had downloaded Grab, South-East Asia’s preferred ride hailing app, but hadn’t actually looked at it yet so we decided to go the official route and secured a taxi through the airport’s pre-paid taxi desk. This too is very simple, you just tell them where you want to go and give them some money and they give you a slip of paper and tell you which exit to go out of. Now, top tip: there are designating queuing areas just inside the airport doors but if you stand there you may never get in a taxi, you need to go out of the door and join the queue outside, once you reach the front the man there will direct you to a car. It took about 90 seconds for us to get a taxi. Our taxi driver knew the area but not our specific hotel so we had maps.me handy to direct him for the last part of the journey. As we approached the city the driver gave us a bit of a history lesson, in fact all of our taxi drivers in Malaysia have been friendly, chatty and helpful.

We were staying in Brickfields which is in central Kuala Lumpur and our hotel, Double M, was right on the edge of Little India.  All that we needed was a hot shower, some air-conditioning and a comfortable bed, all of which the hotel delivered and we proceeded to fall in to comas until 11am the following morning. We thought that a solid 12 hours sleep and waking up at an almost reasonable time meant that we had managed to avoid jet lag from our 28-hour journey. We had not, but that only became apparent later. Our earlier planning fail meant that we only had one full day in KL, so we decided that we should just make it an admin and prep day. We went to the nearest mall and stocked up on necessities and spent the afternoon finalising our route for Malaysia and booking accommodation. We spent enough time outside to register that it was really humid. That evening we ventured into Little India to the highly rated Vishal Food and Catering for a tasty banana leaf curry.

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A word of warning if you plan to visit, English is limited at this restaurant but you can get by with pointing and an open mind about what you may end up eating.

We tucked ourselves in to bed at 10pm convinced that we would drop off to sleep and be woken the alarm at 6:15am fully rested and ready to catch our bus to the Cameron Highlands. It was a very long night and for Caro included just 90 minutes of sleep, she was not a happy chicken in the morning. Nonetheless we roused ourselves and tried Grab for the first time, it was very efficient and about half the price of a taxi and we have used it almost exclusively ever since.

Once at the bus station we looked at the front of the buses for the one going to the Cameron Highlands, double checked with the driver that it was the right one and hopped on board. It was as easy as that. We have used easybook.com for all of our buses and it has worked seamlessly. The bus was clean, air-conditioned and left on time. The journey was ostensibly 2 ½ hours but no one was surprised when it took 4 hours to reach Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. Grab does not work up there so we picked up a taxi at the bus station, the world’s oldest Mercedes (complete with spare steering wheel in the boot) chugged feebly along to Brinchang where we were staying.

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When you say “highlands” it evokes pictures of misty rolling hills, colonial style mansions and tea factories however when it comes to the population centres the reality is somewhat different.

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Brinchang is not the prettiest place in the world but the area’s sights lie beyond the town and it simply serves a purpose. We had a passable lunch at Hong Kong Restaurant across the road and spent the evening settling in to our room, writing the blog and catching up with our trip diary. Caro, who had been running on tea up until this point, was starting to flag so an early dinner at another passable Chinese restaurant, OK Tuck, and bed was all she was capable of.

Our room was immediately behind the hotel’s reception, where the doorbell rang at strange hours of the morning. We also overlooked the carpark out front where the bin trucks came for collection at some hideous hour so our sleep wasn’t unbroken but at least we got some. The next morning, we made ourselves mugs of porridge, bizarrely Quaker Oats are widely available in Malaysia even up in the hills, and got ready of a full day tour with Discover Camerons. We are usually big fans of walking but everything that we had read about the available hikes had been a bit lacklustre, apparently they are only ok. So instead we handed ourselves over to a man with an old school Land Rover to show us around. We bounced around on the benches in the back with another English couple who had just graduated from university and made us feel exceptionally old. The itineraries for these tours are largely the same across all of the companies with a couple of bits and pieces that may be different. We thought it was worthwhile having the car because the traffic was absolutely horrendous and we would have ended up paying taxis a lot more to sit in traffic. If you were there on a weekday you could probably pick and choose the best bits for you and use taxis and it would work out cheaper. If at all possible you should go on a weekday anyway because the crowds and the fumes from the Land Rovers were overwhelming at times. Here’s what we covered.

Viewpoint over the BOH tea plantation:

There is a lovely viewpoint on one of the many bends in the road. It is obviously a known spot as jeeps pulled up and disgorged camera-toting tourists constantly. Our guide, Vin, said that we would hang around there for 20 minutes but really once you have a picture or two there isn’t anything else to do.

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It’s a nice spot though and we would recommend getting there early before the mist rolls in. On that note, it rains most days in the Cameron Highlands and the higher points are quite chilly so dress and pack appropriately for all weathers.

Mossy Forest:

Home to 700 species of moss and 70 species of orchid, the mossy forest has existed at the highest point of the Cameron Highlands for 200 million years. Which is pretty cool. We had thought that we would get a good bit of walking here but you are restricted to a boardwalk which takes about 30 minutes round trip if you really draw it out. There is a tower halfway along which you can climb up to get views over the highlands. You would have to be super lucky for it not to be shrouded in cloud though, as it was when we were there. The forest is quite cool and worth visiting even if it’s just to have a quick look. It’s also literally cool so take a jumper for this bit.

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The Mossy Forest was one of the places where having a guide really paid off. Once we had finished the boardwalk Vin took us a little way down the road to explain what some of the different mosses and plants are and gave us some interesting facts; just by stepping on the mosses you can kill them which is a major reason why they have closed the hiking trails beyond the boardwalk. Vin also gave us some survival tips if you are caught in the forest such as: you can drink the water from pitcher plants if they are closed and if you want to know if a berry is poisonous squeeze the juice on to your fingers and rub it on your armpit, if it becomes itchy within a couple of minutes the berry is poisonous, if not you can eat it. Apparently, this works with all berries. (Disclaimer: we are not doctors or berry experts. That being said, we have googled it and it seems vaguely accurate if not fool proof.)

BOH Tea Factory

There were an unbelievable number of people at the factory, it was absolutely heaving. We went to get a cup of tea from the café and couldn’t find a place to sit anywhere, we ended up perching on a step outside.

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The tea was ok and priced as you would expect it to be, the strawberry cheesecake wasn’t half bad though. After our tea, we went on the “factory tour” which consisted of a short walk through a corridor with windows on to the factory floor and some signs. We reasoned that had you never been to a tea factory before it would have been fine but in comparison to Dambatenne in Sri Lanka it was a light experience, but it is free so there is that. To be fair, there were a lot of informative panels in the lobby area but there were so many people trying to read them that we gave it up. Again, on a weekday it would definitely be better but overall we could probably have given it a miss.

Raaju’s Hills Strawberry Farm

This was a bit weird to be honest. For one thing, trying to sell a Cameron Highlands strawberry farm experience to English people is a really tough sell, we have pretty good strawberry picking at home. You could pay RM30 to pick half a kilo of strawberries in a polytunnel or you could pay RM15 for half a kilo of strawberries in the shop. With little joy to be gained from the picking experience we gave this a hard pass and bought a small punnet of average-tasting strawberries from the shop and ate them in the carpark. If you weren’t picking there was only one area that you were actually allowed to look in and then you just stand around for a bit waiting to leave again.

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There is also a really ugly fountain to be admired.

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And an incongruous pair of angel’s wings painted on the walls.

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According to our companions, the scones from the café were excellent but other than this we all agreed that there is absolutely no reason to visit a strawberry farm.

Butterfly Farm

We were a bit dubious about the butterfly farm, we had a fear that it would be a small collection of sad looking butterflies in someone’s back garden but actually the place turned out to be quite delightful. The butterflies seem to have a lovely habitat to live in and they are obviously successful as there are vast numbers of the enormous specimens.

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It wasn’t a perfect experience, there was a pen of rabbits living just on the concrete and a pretty miserable looking raccoon that really shouldn’t have been there at all.

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Largely though, the animal occupants were more odd than upsetting; turkeys and geese wandered around quite happily. The substantial collection of creepy crawlies and spiders made both of our skins crawl but we were rather taken with the enormous stick and leaf insects. The place also doubles as a sort of garden centre and there are plenty of pretty exotic plants and enormous hibiscus of every conceivable colour to admire.

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Orchid and Rose Garden

This was another pleasant surprise. It’s essentially like walking around a large garden centre with a “jungle trail” with some enormous leaved plants thrown in for good measure.

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The roses are gorgeous and, although a majority of the flowering orchids that we saw were in the shop at the end, these too were beautiful. We both have an intense dislike for repurposed tyres, particularly when they are painted white and used as plant pots or to line driveways, but our visit to the Orchid farm forced us to admit that there is in fact a valid use for them.

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The farm also felt like a nice oasis in the middle of all of the development that is springing up all around the highlands.

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Time Tunnel

This is exactly our kind of crap tourist attraction and it was only a shame that we didn’t go there earlier in the day before we got a bit weary, so we weren’t in the mood to dig to thoroughly through the material there. The Time Tunnel is called a museum but is more a collection of whatever random memorabilia and scrap that they could get hold of. A valiant attempt has been made to give some historical context but the scraps of information focus largely on Japanese occupation during WWII and is rather confused and repetitive so you have to go in with the right mind set. The “museum” section extends to some pretty ropey displays and vague signs when you first get in.

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After that they pretty much let the crazy run free and what follows is a glorious jumble of old household items, postcards, toys and general detritus. The photos showing the progress of development in the Cameron Highlands are particularly interesting.

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Sam Poh Buddhist Temple

The 4th largest temple in Malaysia is certainly worth a look, especially as it is free and was free from the crowds hording the other sights of interest.

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There are ponds overflowing with koi just inside the gates. The temple is maintained by resident monks who also feed a collection of some of the most contented looking stray dogs that we have seen. Another reason to visit is to appreciate the sheer scale of the development under way in the highlands. The temple was once surrounded by pristine forest but large swathes have recently been cleared to make way for apartment blocks.

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Given the circumstances we were glad that we had booked on to a full day tour and not had to worry from getting from place to place. We would also like to point out that Vin was very professional and our experience with Discover Camerons was a good one.  Now that we have done it there are parts that we could happily have skipped but we can certainly say that we have seen what the Cameron Highlands have to offer. That evening we went for a really yummy meal at Tuan Yuan in Brinchang. It was a bit of a wild card for us because it had relatively few views on tripadvisor but we had a great meal there. The lady who served us spoke excellent English and was very friendly and helpful and the food was fresh and extremely tasty.

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We certainly felt that our trip to the Cameron Highlands was worthwhile. Whilst it was not as rewarding as a trip to hill country in Sri Lanka, it makes a nice change from coastal Malaysia, not least because you have the opportunity to feel a bit chilly at times. In all seriousness, if you take the tourist attractions with a pinch of salt there are some real gems to be found in the highlands but go now, before it is ruined entirely by development.

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