Strawberry quest in strawberry hills
Traveling through Malaysia, one generally has to be prepared to endure pretty hot, humid, tropical weather, with temperatures around 35°C every day and year round. There is however a place on the peninsula where temperatures rarely climb above 20°C, thanks to its location on about 1500 meters altitude, Malaysia’s preferred hill station: the Cameron Highlands.
Thanks to its altitude and fresh climate, it is the only place in Malaysia where it is possible grow tea and some for us very common, but for Malays and Singaporeans extremely exotic fruit: strawberries.
Of course, neither the size nor the quality of the tea is comparable to plantations of countries with a long tea tradition and even far more favorable climate, like India or Sri Lanka, but still we wanted our friends to experience walking through a tea plantation once, especially as they are – typically Chilean – enthusiastic tea drinkers.
Who expects Cameron Highlands to be a romantic mountain hideaway will however be drastically deceived. The area and particularly the three small cities located inside the Highlands are completely eaten up by the tourist industry – and most of it is not particularly the eco-friendly type. Large concrete resorts, copying Black-Forest style facades, continue popping up like mushrooms along the narrow hill roads, the cities’ streets are lined by one-menu-fits-all restaurants and made-in-China style souvenir shops, competing only in who would offer the largest, most fluffy strawberry cushion. To us it looked very much like Strawberry Disneyland, but local tourists actually seemed to seriously enjoy it.
Tanah Rata, the main drop-in center for foreign backpacking tourists, is not even 250 km and normally a 4 hours drive from Georgetown, but we didn’t make our counts with Malaysian school holidays. Moreover we arrived on a Saturday afternoon and so got into the traffic jam of both, holiday making families and weekend trippers – which merely doubled our travel time.
To get to see the tea plantations and to eat some strawberries the next day, or last day in a group of four, we had to do what we hate to much: take a tour who would take around basically everything that is grown in the Higlands. We started visiting a butterfly and a bee farm, then went on to the Boh tea plantation and a rose garden close of a vegetable market, and finally finished with having our strawberries. Jesus, it must really be a delicacy to them, considering the price of 100g of fresh fruit (5 Ringit, the price of one plate of Nasi Goreng or of five plain Roti Chennai, the Tamil Nadu version of porotha) and all the fuss they make about it. Three guys from Oman doing the visit with us bought kilos and kilos of packages strawberries, strawberry chocolate, strawberry cake and strawberry biscuit to take home and additionally had perhaps three juices, shakes and ice creams each.
The tour was a typical hop-on hop-off the minivan, have 30min to look around, buy something and get on the minivan again business and all places we visited totally overcrowded with other visitors, particularly the tea plantation. Still the butterfly farm was a positive surprise, as it hosted some very colorful, huge species of the insects we had never seen before and if one managed to stretch her fingers appopriately towards the flower one was sucking nectar from, some would even move on it.
Returning to Tanah Rata in the afternoon it was time to say goodbye, as Israel and Carola were directly catching the bus to Kuala Lumpur. We had already got used to traveling in a group of four, so it was quite a sad moment and the first days afterwards we felt some part of us was missing in some way.
Left with some spare day to spend in Cameron Highlands, we decided to explore the nature a little bit by taking one of the jungle trails through the hills behind Tanah Rata. The trail we chose was only 5 km long and known as a little steep and tricky. It turned out to be permanent climbing up or down the roots of giant jungle trees and many times doubting about the continuation of the track hidden by tumbled trees or sprouting tropical plants. It took us about four hours to find the road again, exhausted, but without any major incidents on the way, enthusiastic of the forest and the marvelous view from the hill top and more convinced than ever that our physical condition definitely needs to be improved!
Getting back to our hotel, the Twin Pines, run by an Indian couple, we fell into bed for a siesta and were just starting to relax our muscles when a loud, buzzing noise from the outside alarmed us followed by thick, acrid smoke entering into the whole hotel. Fire, we have to get out of here!!! So Javier fetched some pants and I wrapped my naked self into a blanket and we tried to get to the end of the corridor, already completely filled with smoke it was impossible to see through. We were among the last guests to arrive outside, all with anxious faces and no understand at all of the situation. Seeing the daughter of the hotel owners walking by and looking quite relaxed I asked what was actually going on and she replied:”Fumigating, local government, against mosquitoes!”
We thought our lives were in danger and in the end it was a planned procedure, just that nobody bothered to warn the people inside the houses that they were going to be fumigated.
After the shock and the exercise of the day, and as our room would be inaccessible for at least tow more hours, we decided to reward ourselves with a dish they offered in all of the restaurants around the village: the Steamboat. It reminded us quite a lot of the barbecue in Thailand and Laos and basically consists in a big pot of soup put in the middle of the table – which can be chicken or Tom Yam spiced soup – heated by a small gas stove. The ingredients – noodles, fish, prawns, chicken slices, fish balls, different types of salad and mushrooms… – are then served raw and one combines them by preference, giving more and more flavor to the soup while one continues eating. A very tasty, healthy and social meal and another culinary idea we noted down to apply at home.