Vignette: Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Cameron Highlands is a temperate hill station about halfway up the otherwise blistering Malaysian peninsula. Bill Cameron was a surveyor, working for the British government in 1885. Just 125 years ago, these highlands were being mapped for the first time. (Photos from Malaysia)

About five or eight of us jumped off the train at Tapah Road, Malaysia, on schedule at 9:51. Ten minutes later a taxi rolled up and we piled in, Mirja and Peter and me. 

Peter's an Aussie who runs transport for a coal mine in Indonesian Borneo. Like us, he was headed up here with just a vague idea why. He had to be in Singapore on the fourth. We had to be in Bangkok next week.

We agreed on the ringgits (Malaysian money) for the load of us and drove into town, where we swapped drivers and climbed into a beige, pre-war Mercedes. Our new driver was ancient, gnarled. He laid his safety belt over his lap, but he wouldn't attach it.

Every four minutes he'd dredge phlegm from deep on the bottom of his lungs with a low, two step wheeze. He had a lump the size of half a cue ball on top of his old bald head.


On the road up into the hills, the only suggestion of commerce was a series of untended bamboo poles. Durians dangled from some.

Most of the time the old man was generally in the correct lane, and he never overtook a bus, though not for lack of trying. He got to fourth gear fast as he could and slowly accelerated up the switchbacks. But somewhere along the way he got fire in his belly and drove like a bat outta hell the rest of the way.

With the switchbacks, the 57 kilometers took an hour and a half. Toward the end he ran up onto an exhaust-spewing bus he couldn't get around. Rather than fall back and breathe, our man stayed right on its butt and cursed the black smoke that coursed through the Mercedes at every curve.

Later, another driver knew old Cue Ball. He told us everybody thinks he's too old to drive. Claimed he was over 80. 


The Cameron Highlands is a cluster of three little towns, all above 1400 meters. The highest peak hereabouts, Gunung Brinchang, is 6666 feet. We're due east of Medan, Indonesia, the main town on Sumatra.

The only way to get up here is the road from Tapah. Once you're here you find the villages of Ringlet, which is scruffy and unremarkable, then Tanah Rata, which is scruffy and unremarkable, then Brinchang.

It ain't the towns. It's the cool. Average is 10° to 21° C. And it's the flora. These highlands are a nursery for Malaysia and Singapore, producing roses, chrysanthemums, carnations, dahlias, geraniums and gladiolas. Hibiscus grows wild. 

Then there are the terraced farms growing cabbage, lettuce, leeks, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and tomatoes. And they've made something of a tourist attraction of strawberry farms and tea plantations.


We woke to the songs of birds and Mirja sang with them, a song about loving all the flowers in Cameron Highlands.

They've done a full-blown English garden here at the hotel – not a dazzling one, but cute. The grounds are thick with flower beds, there are flower boxes under all the windows. It's wet and pretty and everything smells fresh, except the linens on our four-poster bed. They smell like mildew.

But there's a fireplace en suite, a love seat and chair, heavy wooden tables and a bureau. High, wood beamed ceiling, and the four-poster is draped to match the curtains in red and white pin stripe. There's a fire-breathing dragon in the Olde Smokehouse Inn – or else the steam pipes sigh all night. English memorabilia everywhere and a foot-and-a-half tall bottle of insecticide on the bedside table.

We walked three kilometers into Tanah Rata through a light mist – more from being in the clouds than actual rain. There's nothing in Tanah Rata, really. Dark, dispirited shops, Indian merchants, poor, listless Malaysians.


The Malaysian forest was moss and lichen and gnarly roots rampant along the top of the ground. At the  jungle's edge, big white buttercups dripped dew. Up a nearly vertical part of the path we listened to an auditory display from one bird with a particularly metallic call. This guy whined a constant whine, and then made little noises like a circular saw hitting wood.

Seldom did the sun hit the ground, and then only in spots. Chirps and buzzes and whines. Birds and mosquitoes and beetles and catydids and grasshoppers.

Fat, green voluptuous banana-leafed plants uncurled their leaves. The air was still. Thick bushes along the trail, and gnarled trees, not tall, with oval leaves. Ferns. Four foot ferns. Here were trees with hundreds of one-inch red and white lanterns for flowers! Whole trees threw off spider-plant-like shoots to take root.

More moss than leaves. When we set out the sun was straight overhead. We were only four degrees off the equator, but at this altitude my thermometer showed 75 degrees.

Here and there a small six-inch gray squirrel. Not much other arboreal life but we knew it was there because of the distant coos and caws, and then a single clack from ten feet away, as if to say, "I see you and you don't see me."

We climbed out of the forest at a village called Murit, where we met Sophie, a seven year old who introduced herself and asked our names. We walked down past a flower farm and the agricultural station, then alongside a park with big plastic vegetables – a twelve foot corn cob, four foot high cabbage – and back into Tanah Rata. Flowers grew everywhere. They couldn't’ve stopped ‘em if they tried.


Friday morning at 5:30 when we began to stir, it was almost cold in the mountains. Only the bottom eighth of the moon, a sliver not long before risen, lit the clouds. A skyful of stars twinkled and the Imam's Koranic chant somewhere in the hills signaled the start of the holy day.

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