Traffic in the Cameron Highlands can be fiendish at weekends, big-hitting attractions often turn into a scrum, and some travellers are starting to murmur about spoiled hiking trails and 'green-washing' by a few rogue tour operators. Despite these grumbles, a little preparation will ensure you find much to enjoy in this lush corner of Malaysia: excellent hiking, wondrous fauna and the occasional glimpse of serenity amid the tour group mayhem.
Thirty seconds of Highlands history
British explorer Sir William Cameron first spied these heights in 1885 and gleefully reported back about their mild climate (at the time, temperatures barely exceeded 20°C). Sadly Cameron's maps were lost and little came of his discovery, until a second expedition was sent out 40 years later. Led by Sir George Maxwell, another colonial explorer, the mission to rediscover the highlands succeeded and their future was soon sealed with plans to develop plantations, holiday homes for perspiring Brits, and even a golf course.
The Cameron Highlands today
Tourist brochure spin trades on the Cameron Highlands’ colonial history. Cream teas and beef Wellington grace menus; townhouses have been developed into hotels with no expense spared on period detail; and it's virtually impossible to leave without at least one cuppa.
Much of this nostalgia is manufactured, with Tudor-style fittings clamped onto the exteriors of modern hotels and a lively trade in strawberry-shaped souvenirs. A few other attractions, like Cactus Valley and the Lavender Farm, were conceived largely as money-spinners that loosely fit the organic vibe of the highlands. But that's not to say they're not fun: visitors rock up in their thousands to Instagram purple flowers or take home souvenir succulents.
The impact of tourism on the land, however, is cause for concern. Popular nature walk the Mossy Forest boardwalk has been dubbed 'Muddy Forest' as a result of travellers snatching flowers from along the path. Meanwhile there are whispered reports of a few supposedly ecofriendly outfits doing more harm than good on guided walks, especially regarding damage to rafflesia flowers. Choose your tour provider or guide with care, and take care to stay on marked paths, refrain from touching plants or feeding wildlife, and take all rubbish out with you.
Treks, teas or temples: choose your Cameron Highlands adventure
Forearmed with the potential pitfalls, here are the unmissable attractions to weave into your trip:
Hiking and nature spotting
Fantastic hiking trails through lush forests extend from Tanah Rata, though the trail markings could be improved. Seek advice locally, especially on weather conditions that may make trails impassable or dangerous. Always let your guesthouse know your timing and intended route, and never leave without water, maps and some layers. Engage a guide from reputable Eco Cameron to hike through a pristine section of the Mossy Forest or plan a route to take in some of the Camerons' best birdwatching sites. For independent hikes, Trail 4 to Parit Falls is one of the easier and more popular routes. Only hardcore hikers with excellent fitness and trekking should attempt Trail 1 (start from the summit and work down) and Trail 8, but both return the effort with remarkable scenery.
Gourmandise and high teas
These hills were made for chilling. The Brits knew it, and you'll know it too, over a cup of tea at scenic Boh Sungei Palas. Tea aficionados will want to book in for a tea appreciation tour (9am and 11am Tue-Sun); part-time tea drinkers will be satisfied with a wander in the display rooms and a cuppa overlooking the hills. Cameron Bharat is also a fine choice for a brew with a view. The best strawberries can be found at Raaju's; blended fresh drinks and a range of berry-themed cakes are in abundance (if plucking your own strawberries sounds like hard work).
Culture and history
Compared to the temples and museums of Kuala Lumpur or Melaka's jewellery box of galleries, the Cameron Highlands couldn't possibly measure up. And surprisingly few attractions give authentic insight into highland heritage. Nonetheless, there’s a handful of sights to give you a culture fix: Sam Poh is a well-tended temple complex with formidable golden warrior statues within, while the newly made-over Hindu temple is worth a short trip. As for museums, the Time Tunnel will give you an eccentric glimpse into the region's history.
How long to spend
The Cameron Highlands are doable in a weekend if you simply want a taste of strawberries, a sip of tea, and a half-day hike. Hopping aboard a tour group will help whisk you around a few sights if you don't have a car; try CS Travel & Tours. If you plan to hike, stretch your stay for a few extra days, allowing time to ply the trails wending through the highlands' teeming forests; outdoors enthusiasts will get a lot of mileage from basing themselves at a guesthouse with hiking expertise, like Father's.
Where to stay
The Cameron Highlands encompass a cluster of towns and villages. Mode of transport should dictate where you base yourself. If you're arriving by public transport and don't plan to rent a car, stay in Tanah Rata, the highlands' main traveller hub. Bus links will connect you to Brinchang and Boh for day trips, and hiking trails begin right from the outskirts of town. You'll also never be short of cheap eats. For good value with decent connections, but more of a local tourism feel, try Snooze in Brinchang.
For travellers planning to road-trip their way around the Cameron Highlands, Tanah Rata is still a good choice for its amenities and eateries. But with your own wheels, you are free to try out some of the highlands' more charismatic places to stay, like Bala’s Holiday Chalet. Higher budgets can take advantage of the relaxing Strawberry Park Resort or the country manor atmosphere at the Smokehouse or Lakehouse.