Monday, December 30, 2013

Malaysia - Cameron Highlands

Sunday, October 27

After breakfast and settling our account for the apartment, we lugged our bags to the nearest local bus stop for a one-stop ride to Pudu Raya, the terminus for long-distance buses, getting there well before our 10:30 departure time. This gave us plenty of time to look for some food for the 4-hour journey, after which it was  just a question of waiting.
It was already hot and humid, and the bus station appeared to have no cooling apparatus: no AC, no fans. The ceiling was only about 6 1/2 ft high which Michael at 6 ft 1 in. found particularly oppressive. To reach the bus you had to descend a concrete staircase into a a dark cavern rich with diesel fumes so that was even worse. We stayed above until our bus appeared ready to go. Nevertheless, once on board we waited an additional 15 minutes, perhaps for late-arriving passengers.

It was a relief to get under way, and once out of the terminus, we found it very comfortable. The bus had well-upholstered reclining seats with footrests, and since it was only three seats across (two on one side of the aisle, a single on the other), they were wider than average. Mesh pockets on the back of every seat held pink plastic bags; a sign at the front of the bus advised "Plastic bag is for vomit." Fortunately, no-one needed it despite the swaying of the vehicle as it snaked its way around hairpin curves on the narrow road up into the mountains.

Blocks of highrises gradually gave way to lower apartment buildings and finally to jungle as we left KL behind. As we climbed into the hinterland, our driver frequently honked as we approached a bend, to warn approaching traffic that our behemoth of a bus needed the whole width of the road to make the turn. There were a few hair-raising moments as we came face to face with another huge bus or a truck.

 From time to time we passed small kampungs (villages)

..or sometimes individual huts tucked among the trees.

As we climbed higher there were also several roadside stalls selling vegetables, fruit, objects made of cane, or something mysterious in cloudy bottles that I later found was wild honey. I was also told that the cane items, which I had assumed were handmade and regretted not having an opportunity to examine more closely, were actually made in factories elsewhere to be re-sold to gullible types like me.

We passed through a couple of cloudbursts en route, and it was raining and cool when we stepped off the bus at Tanah Rata, the largest town in the Highlands. Breaking out the umbrellas, we negotiated the few blocks the Cameronian Inn where we'd booked their only room with private bath. Most of their accommodation was dorm-style for young backpackers who arrived in two and threes all afternoon and congregated in the cafe area, where wi-fi was available. All of them had smartphones or iPads. The decor in both the common areas and in our room with its two narrow, single beds was pretty spare, but clean, and the management not only spoke excellent English, but served fabulous scones every afternoon with locally-made strawberry jam and very good tea from a large nearby plantation.

Dinner was at an Indian restaurant in the town, where the manager was chatty and amusing, complaining about the rain and the cold. He'd only arrived 4 months ago himself, to help out a friend.

Monday, October 28

A quiet night, broken in the early morning by other guests using the showers, located only a thin wall away from the head of my bed. The Cameron Highlands are almost impossible to get around without transport, so we had booked a morning tour that included a butterfly farm, strawberry farm, tea plantation and a short jungle hike. A small 4WD bus picked us up with two other couples and then collected another two couples en route for a complement of ten.

We hadn't been very impressed by the butterfly farm in KL, but this one was a pleasant surprise, with some attractive plants and many more butterflies. Perhaps because of the cooler temperature, more of them were at rest and it was easier to observe their beautiful wings.

It was hard not to stop and photograph just one more!

A separate area held enclosures of snakes, spiders and even a pit of large, evil-looking scorpions. Some of snakes were entwined in intricate knots of 7 or 8 together.

By comparison, the strawberry farm was a disappointment. The strawberries were being grown in long, polythene tunnels filled with a fine mulch and fed by drip irrigation. It was not exactly a scenic sight, but I had to admit that the strawberries we bought there tasted delicious.

Winding higher toward the peaks, we came to a viewpoint from which we could survey one of the vast tea plantations, the main source of income in this region. Constant picking grooms the bushes into waves of green,

 ... and turns individual plants into bonsai.

While we were standing on the roadside, admiring the sight, a small plane flew over our heads.

Moments later, a rain of little pellets fell over and around us. Our guide explained that this was the modern way of fertilizing the bushes. I was glad that it wasn't dust. Who knows  what we might have inhaled?

From the tea plantation we motored even higher on what became little more than a goat track to reach Bukit Brinchang, the highest point in the range, where a metal tower and viewing platform gave us a panorama of the surrounding, tree-clad slopes.

On the way down our driver parked the van and led us off on a short but tortuous track into the jungle. We were not surprised to learn that people had got lost in there without a guide. The ground under our feet was springy with fallen leaves and bark, and in some places squelchy with water. Several times we had to duck under low branches or long vine-like tendrils of bamboo.

I was fascinated by the variety of plant life, and our guide proved to be a good ethno-botanist. Though self-taught, he was knowledgeable about many of the different species we encountered.

A final stop on the route back to Tanah Rata took us to a Buddhist temple.

By this time our tour had run overtime; it was two in the afternoon and we were all getting hungry. We asked the driver to let us out in the centre of town, and everyone else followed suit. Clearly we were not alone in needing some fuel. All the same, the tour was certainly excellent value for money, and more comprehensive than we had expected. Just for a change, we ordered muffins and coffee at the local Starbucks - a mistake as it cost us more than our entire meal of the night before. We bought some fruit to take back to our inn, and made it there just as the skies opened. With other guests we sat around in the cafe area, everyone reading or doing on-line games or email while we waited for the downpour to ease.

Dinner was another good Indian meal, and we went to bed early as we were leaving first thing in the morning to return to the coast and the island of Penang.

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