Cameron Highlands today has changed from how I remember it in my childhood trips. The climate is not as cool anymore, because agriculture has expanded in the Tanah Rata and Ringlet areas. It could be very crowded in peak periods, though the winding hill roads were never meant for heavy traffic. But, like most foreign visitors, Jason still wanted to visit Cameron Highlands. Somehow, despite returning fairly regularly to Malaysia, my new friend had not been.
I thought about it. It is normally a popular tourism spot. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be peak period in the fasting month. The majority Muslim population in Malaysia does not tend to go on trips during the month of retreat and reflection.
Besides, there was a place that had long been on my local shortlist: the Gunung Irau hike through the Brinchang Mossy Forest. I reckon by now, my mental fortitude could handle the driving and hiking, despite fasting in Ramadan. It was as good a time as any.
I showed him photos of the Mossy Forest of Cameron Highlands; there was no further question that we would go.
- Cameron Highlands to a Malaysian
- Driving to Cameron Highlands
- Passing through Ringlet
- Finding hikes around Tanah Rata
- The setback of our Mossy Forest hiking plan
- Appreciating the tiny botany of Cameron Highlands
- When did I start to see the little things?
Cameron Highlands to a Malaysian
Cameron Highlands is often on the tourism shortlist for Peninsular Malaysia, and there are still many reasons why it is worth a go. The tea plantation valleys are breathtaking, and it is very accessible from the cities of the west coast.
But, as a local, I remember it from the way I saw it in my childhood in the 90s. It was cooler then, and the rolling hills were entirely picturesque.
The strawberry farms were charming, having not yet been industrialised. There were more flowers grown due to the reliably cool weather. The roses were massive. There were wild orchids flowering randomly at the back of resorts. There was fog in the mornings, and sometimes you could see your breath, a novelty in a tropical country. Holidaying there really felt like you went to another country.
Even allowing for the sepia-tinge of childhood memories, today’s Cameron Highlands is a pale version of what it was.
Nonetheless, I had never gone to Cameron Highlands as if I were a backpacker. That experience in itself might be an interesting perspective for me, even if I could not show my guest the Cameron Highlands that I remember.
Driving to Cameron Highlands
The thing about road tripping in Malaysia is, every few years or so, the landscape seems to change dramatically.
I guess it follows the urbanising trend in the world. Rural areas becoming semi-urban, villages turning into townships, as they begin to merge into each other.
The state of Pahang, with its permissive attitude over forest conversions to oil palm, and oil palm conversions to townships, is where I found this to be the most striking. Mainly because it has most of the central forest spine of the peninsula, and so had more of it to lose.
Once, if you were to drive the route from Kuala Lumpur to Tanah Rata in Cameron Highlands through Pahang’s small state roads, you would often be flanked by rural sights interspersed with thick secondary jungle. So I chose to do this instead of the highway route through Perak, to get a more scenic drive.
But we quickly discovered that those roads I remembered are wider now, and the landscape has shifted to a more monotonous one of plantations, utilitarian townships and commercial buildings.
Passing through Ringlet
Coming from this direction, you would pass through Ringlet, where the agricultural areas of Cameron Highlands are concentrated; the high density farms that grow the vegetables you find on the Klang Valley’s supermarket shelves.
These are grown on an industrial scale now. Rows of utilitarian greenhouses occupy the landscape – no longer the charming furrows of old.
I understand why. Farming technology improves yield and quality of produce. More land would be required otherwise. It’s hard to be upset with that.
But, as a road tripper, the character of the route has changed.
So, for road trips, I’d advise people to drive to Cameron Highlands from the Perak side like most people would, instead. From Ipoh or Tapah, the routes retain much of the original character of the classic Malaysia road trip.
Finding hikes around Tanah Rata
Many other travellers have written guides for visiting Cameron Highlands. For example, I thought that for a first-time visitor, this one is pretty good. So I would not seek to write a guide myself.
Instead, this article would be an ode to the small things of the highland forest, that would enrich your Cameron Highlands visit.
We booked ourselves on a small group tour that I mistakenly thought focused only on the Mossy Forest (it actually covered the tea plantations as well). It was a good tour, though!
However, if you brought your own transport, there is another way you could explore Cameron Highlands. You could just drive around and pick random signs to follow.
You could drop by a random Buddhist temple up on a hill in Brinchang, perhaps. Or decide to explore obscure hiking trails at the end of roads in Ringlet.
Like a proper road trip should be!
The setback of our Mossy Forest hiking plan
Notwithstanding my error with the tour booking, we were hopeful that we could at least return to the Mossy Forest to do a longer hike ourselves.
But the guide told us that entry into the forest was barred (again!) by the Forestry Department due to a combination of two reasons: (1) excessive damage to the moss beds from hikers, and (2) safety risks (there had been robbery cases reported during hikes in the forest). A case of a nature destination suffering from its own popularity. So much for the Gunung Irau hike!
Any doubts we had over this information eased when we found some evidence that both issues were true.
At the entrance of the showpiece area of the Mossy Forest (still open for admission), there were signs forbidding visitors from leaving the boardwalks and venturing into the forest proper, to allow the iconic moss to regenerate. And at the start of another hike that we did the previous day, there was a warning scrawled on a wall – apparently by a victim – warning of robbers hiding in the jungle.
It is likely that you could disregard the warnings and find a way into the forest. There are probably local guides who would be willing to take you. But I felt it was not right to insist to enter the forest, knowing that the delicate moss habitats were already compromised.
Besides, the part that we could see from the boardwalk was quite beautiful too.
Appreciating the tiny botany of Cameron Highlands
I do not admit to any particular botany passion. However, I do have the general interest of a naturalist.
The altitude of the Cameron Highlands jungle lends itself to a different sort of natural diversity than the more typical Malaysian rainforest. On our hikes around Tanah Rata, I found myself looking more closely at the flora rather than the fauna. (This could also have something to do with having newly acquired clip-on macro lenses for my smartphone).
The reason for this is that the epiphytes and mosses of Cameron Highland’s forests are wonderfully diverse. In a single photograph frame, it is easy to capture multiple plants, all very different from each other. And they’re usually tiny too – super cute.
It doesn’t really matter what the plants were. Having the freedom to zoom into this scale, was the real fun. Nonetheless, a few specific plants caught special attention.
The pitcher plant (or ‘monkey’s cup’)
A carniverous plant commonly found in the forests of Malaysia, the pitcher plant has a distinctive shape. There is usually a lid, and a long pit where the unsuspecting insect falls in and becomes trapped.
Many different species can be found in Malaysia. In fact, the second tiniest frog in the world was found in Malaysian Borneo, living in a pitcher plant! (And if you were wondering, the tiniest known frog species in the world is in Papua New Guinea).
Highland orchids are another thing to look out for, although at the time of our visit they weren’t flowering.
Orchids are epiphytes, which means that they evolved to grow on other plants (i.e. trees) to obtain some kind of advantage – to better access light, for example. They are therefore adapted to obtain moisture and nutrients from media other than the ground soil (e.g. tree branches).
Cameron Highlands has a diverse range of orchids. However, leave them in the wild. Over-collection for home gardens has had negative impacts on orchid abundance in the area.
I also enjoyed looking out for ferns during the hikes. They are more common in these higher altitude forests, ranging from super tiny ones to large ones that remind me of the tree-ferns of New Zealand.
The cobra lily
A flower that I found interesting was pointed out to us by the guide on the Mossy Forest tour we booked. It was a black lily, unlike any I’ve seen before. The top of it curled over the front, giving it an almost sinister appearance.
I can’t tell you how it can be said to resemble a real cobra, because it actually doesn’t. Yet, when he told us it was called the ‘cobra lily‘, it instantly made sense anyway.
When did I start to see the little things?
Observing these small plants felt so natural and fulfilling to me, that it took me a very long time to realise that, actually, I rarely did it before last year. In fact, because of the funky things I found in all our subsequent hikes together, my new friend would insist that it is one of my defining traits.
Yet, my later trek through Annapurna was practically defined by this attention to the small things.
I really can’t say for sure when it happened, or how.
So, like a proper scientist, I considered my hikes in Taman Negara, where I had gone hiking two different times – once in a tour group with strangers, and again with a friend who was at ease with hiking. True enough, on the second trip, I found and took pictures of funky moths and spider webs. The first time, hardly anything.
Maybe it’s a combination of things.
Perhaps when I’m hiking alone, I feel like the duty of vigilance is the primary one deserving my attention as a solo female hiker. Maybe that’s why I mainly noticed things that are wide-angle sights.
Perhaps when I’m hiking with others who are less athletic or at ease with hiking, I feel like I must reserve some attention in case they need help.
And perhaps with friends or strangers who are there primarily to be social rather than to explore, my attention is diverted from the nature around me to the people who are with me.
Perhaps without any of these subtle demands on my attention, I could relax. And when, for once in my life I could relax, apparently I look into the little things.
Appreciating the little things
The epiphany led me to think about the Mossy Forest and why it is closed. A forest that owed its ethereal fairy landscape to the ancient layering of the smallest of small things, it’s carpeting of moss.
I’ve seen the viral reports and news stories, the alarm over photo evidence of hikers clambering and trampling all over the thousand-year tufts of delicate moss. All for the epic photo op – the ultimate Instagram image. This is why we can’t have nice things.
How different to the way properly guided nature hikes are run! Where the guides would carefully draw your attention to the things around you, one by one.
Perhaps we would be able to have nice things, only if we learned to see the little things. And learn to handle delicately, the delicate things in life.
Hike slowly, and appreciate the little things! Do you agree?