The Cameron Highlands have hosted tourists for almost a century. Most visitors come for the cooler climate, which also permits a thriving tea and vegetable industry found nowhere else in Malaysia. Throw in an uncanny resemblance to the English countryside, some truly unusual wildlife, and one of the most enigmatic mysteries in Malaysia’s history, and you’ve got one fascinating destination.
The Cameron Highlands, which cover an area more than twice the size of Penang Island, are home to one of Malaysia’s largest hill stations and some of its oldest resorts. During the colonial period, both British and Malaysian residents flocked to the higher altitudes of the Cameron Highlands for their cooler and cleaner air. The Brits built retirement homes and golf courses, while Malaysians took a break from the stifling lowland heat. As holidaymakers relaxed, farmers grew lettuce and strawberries. It didn’t take long for the tea-loving Brits to realise that the temperate climate was perfect for cultivating their favourite drink.
Fast forward to the present and BOH Tea, one of three plantations in the Cameron Highlands, produces over four million kilograms each year – almost enough to give every Singaporean a cup every single day of the year. Modern-day farmers grow organic carrots, onions and cauliflower, while vendors sell these along the main road in all eight of Cameron Highland’s loosely-connected villages.
British land surveyor William Cameron stumbled upon the highlands in 1885, home to forests and a handful of Senoi Orang Asli settlements (West Malaysia’s indigenous people). After the popularity of Taiping’s Maxwell Hill and Penang Hill, the Brits quickly realised the area’s commercial potential. In the 1930s, the Cameron Highlands (named after their founder) became what was known as a ‘health hill’ for British residents. The average altitude sits above 1,200 metres (3,937 feet), which creates a climate similar to English summertime. Temperatures hover in the low 20s (Celsius) with more persistent drizzle rather than intense tropical downpours. More affluent visitors (and retirees) spent their time sipping tea, picking strawberries and pruning roses. The popularity drew in expats from around Southeast Asia, including Jim Thompson, an American expat living in Bangkok who revitalised Thailand’s silk industry. However, Thompson eventually became the subject of Malaysia’s biggest unsolved mystery of the 1960s.
The name Jim Thompson shook 1960s Malaysia in the same way MH370 does today. One day in 1967, Jim went for a walk along a well-trodden trail in the Cameron Highlands. He didn’t return. Authorities searched the forests and couldn’t find anything. Orang Asli trackers had no luck either. Jim Thompson vanished. Conspiracy theories exploded: some suggest he was an undercover CIA agent secretly extracted at the time when Communism gripped Southeast Asia. But nobody heard any helicopters or saw anything out of the ordinary. Others say a tiger attacked him, but no remains were found. To this day, nobody knows what happened.
Due to their popularity among tourists, getting to the Cameron Highlands from either Kuala Lumpur or Penang is straightforward. Regular buses make the three and a half hour journey from Kuala Lumpur. Buses leave from Terminal Bersepadu Selatan and arrive in Tanah Rata town, costing RM35 (approximately $8.46 USD). From Penang, take the bus from Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal to Tanah Rata. Tickets cost RM40 (approx. $9.66 USD) per person, with trips taking up to four hours.
The Cameron Highlands aren’t accessible by train. But the KTM travels from both Kuala Lumpur and Penang’s Butterworth to Ipoh. Ipoh is the last city before starting the climb up mountain roads. From Ipoh’s AmanJaya Bus Terminal to Tanah Rata, expect the bus to take 90 minutes for RM18.50 (approx. $4.47 USD). It’s a good idea to take a stopover in Ipoh, Malaysia’s unsung food capital, before (or after) the Cameron Highlands.
After reaching the Cameron Highlands, travellers have three ways to get around: on foot, by shuttle bus or by taxi. On a dry day, the comfortable 4-kilometre (2.5-mile) walk between Tanah Rata and Brinchang town takes an hour. Shuttle buses leave Tanah Rata (passing through Brinchang) to Kampung Raja. Tickets cost RM2 (approx. $0.48 USD). Budget-conscious travellers and backpackers rely on a combination of walking and the shuttle.
Pro tip: the shuttle has irregular schedules and usually faces delays. Make sure you have a rough idea of the timetable.
Taxis are the fastest and most convenient way to get around the Cameron Highlands. Cabs idle outside of tourist attractions and resorts. Expect fares hovering around RM15 (approx. $3.62 USD) for a short journey. If you’re out in the evening, you’ll need to rely on a taxi. The main road lacks adequate street lights.
The Cameron Highlands divide into three: Tanah Rata, Brinchang and Kea Farm. Budget-friendly accommodation, including hostels and guesthouses, cluster in both Tanah Rata and Brinchang. A smattering of colonial-period resorts line the main road. If you to experience British Malaya and don’t mind splurging, book a night at either The Smokehouse Hotel or Cameron Highlands Resort. However, there are a lot of great places to stay in the Cameron Highlands.
Thick forests cover more than two-thirds of the Cameron Highlands (the other third is mostly agricultural land). Over a dozen colour-coded trails penetrate the eight surrounding mountains. Follow trail number one up Mount Brinchang, Cameron Highland’s tallest peak at 2,031 metres (6,663 feet). Others lead to waterfalls, vantage points and through the otherworldly Mossy Forest. More than a quarter of the plants are rare in the tropics. Sumatran serows (which look like a cross between a goat and an antelope) and the Malaysian mountain peacock pheasants live in these eerie forests. Inverted bell-shaped pitcher plants wait for insects to crawl inside before devouring them. Guides can take travellers to see these plants, as well as the infamous rotting-flesh Rafflesia.
English-style tea rooms resemble those in British Malaya. Tea plantations, strawberry farms and a memorabilia museum cater to the ever-present tourists.
International visitors enjoy hiking and exploring the Cameron Highlands, as well as learning about the area’s history, while Malaysians simply like the chance to wear their jumper and wrap up warm in a blanket for once.
Daytime temperatures hover in the low 20s (Celsius), dropping to an average of 15C (59F) at night. But the mercury can dip into single digits. Bring warm clothes (jeans and at least one jumper). The Cameron Highlands get chilly and often catch unsuspecting travellers off guard. The mountains get a lot of rain, which tends to be more of a persistent drizzle. Bring a light waterproof jacket, especially when hiking.