When we arrived in the Cameron Highlands it was dark. The dashboard clock of my friend’s little red car flashed 11 p.m. As a driver my eyes had been fixed on the curving, swirling, serpentine road. Now demoted to passenger I was free to admire the slashes of light in the distance. What were they anyway?
At first I was set on the idea that they were small towns and villages. But—how to put it—they looked too orderly? They weren’t the mess of lights at different heights and angles. They didn’t depict a series of light bulbs fixed to buildings, street lamps, doorsteps and windows. They reminded me of ski slopes. But that couldn’t be right, there was no snow to speak of in this corner of the world.
As we sped around yet another corner the answer would be revealed in all its splendour.
After a quick supper at a Mamak—the nickname for the stalls or restaurants catering to Muslim-Indian men in Malaysia—we settled into our beds at the cheapest hostel we could find in the town called Tanah Rata. KRS Pines Guest House was nothing more than a house with its belly separated into tiny dorm rooms by dividers too thin to repel the sounds from fellow travellers.
Throughout the night the rustling of shifting sleepers could be heard and by 7 a.m. no one was left asleep as the noise of the showers at the end of the hall roused the remaining travelers.
When my phone alarm sounded at 6 a.m. we were so tired we didn’t reach for it immediately. I remember registering its call but instead of turning it off, I focused my energy on willing my travel companion to turn it off.
He slept on.
It was only when I heard a grumble and the sound of someone shifting their door across the way that I swiftly terminated the alarm’s sputtering. The grumbling faded away and I oriented myself from blissful horizontal to groggy vertical. Wiping my eyes in the hopes of smearing away the sleep I gazed across the tiny aisle to my friend’s back wondering whether I should wake him.
“Morning,” I whispered sharply across the dim room. My friend sleepily flipped over, his eyes crinkled in skepticism as though he couldn’t believe it was time to wake up.
“Morning,” he whispered back. We pulled ourselves from our 20-ringgit beds and headed for the showers. By the time we left everyone else in our block could be heard shuffling around as they went through their morning rituals.
The day hadn’t started overly bright, but with some money saved during that stay we could splurge on breakfast. I’ll admit, I was a bit wary when my friend said we were going to be visiting a tea plantation. I thought, well isn’t that an activity for the elderly? I’d been expecting hikes and maybe some ATVs. You know, “do it while you’re young” stuff.
But, call me a granny any day if it means I get to munch on the sweetest, freshest, most delightful strawberry cake, mushroom soup and mango tea I’ve ever had.
Before this delightful breakfast we found ourselves winding around the mountains on a road so narrow cars had to sound their horns in warning around the tight turns—and edge past each other when opposing traffic was met. The crisp mountain air had me chirpy quickly despite my cranky start. I’d always loved waking up to cold air. My mind felt sharp and my spirit alive. I soaked it all in, knowing I’d be back in the murky heat of Thailand soon enough.
Tossing my head out the window like a dog lapping up the air stream I stared expectedly ahead. There was something about corners in this place. You never knew what you would find around them. They revealed things, they hid things, they opened up the countryside and closed away entire landscapes.
Last night a corner had finally solved the mystery of the distant lines of light. The darkness had slide aside to reveal brightly lit, wait, were those… greenhouses! Row after row of jovial greenhouses! Why were they lit up at night anyway? Maybe for longer growing periods? Security? Aesthetics?
This morning I quickly found myself gasping as the mountain hugged by our road stepped aside to reveal a vast valley of tidy green bushes combing the mountains. They were like a hedge maze for children, a straight line to the finish. My friend and I gawked at the sharp slopes, wondering how the plant tenders could stroll up and down the steep angles each day.
How did the harvesters bundle the plucked leaves and carry them down the mountain? Well it turns out they, mostly workers from India imported by the British, used to take a big basket up and down the lanes filling it leaf by leaf. Then they lugged that basked all the way back to the factory on their backs. Later someone created a sweeper-type device that could be hand cranked (later turned by a motor) over the bushes, tugging free the ripe leaves and stuffing them into a light bag.
“If I worked here for three months I’d probably come out of it a wonder woman with power legs,” I speculated out loud as my friend nodded vigourously. We surveyed the land around us, gawking at the paths winding up the the sharp inclines.
When the road ended in a parking lot we spilled out of the car. A stout sign informed us that we’d have to walk to the factory because only “tours” could drive up and receive the red carpet entrance. No I jest, there was no red carpet, only green, which we happily wandered through.
Minutes later, with sparrows artfully nabbing at any mosquitoes that might have made it through the cool night, we were free to enjoy our breakfast peacefully at the Boh Tea Plantation. I decided to take a risk and ordered the mango tea. To my delight it would become my drink of choice for the rest of my stay in Thailand. My friends were also delighted when they tasted what I’d brought back as a souvenir.
Once our breakfast had concluded and we’d slowly sipped through two pots of tea, my friend and I broke away from the elevated restaurant to get ahead of the tourists trickling in. We marvelled over the process of making tea made our way through the factory as employees filtered, dried and shook the tea leaves into the powder that would become savoury tea.
With clouds lazily drifting by over head we finished our tour, tumbled back into the car, squeezed our way past incoming traffic and decided to walk among the bees at a honey farm. There were so many beautiful flowers there! I was on a photo spree, hoping to capture as many as possible for my mom.
Playing at being tourists, we wandered around the countryside taking in two more plantations and their neighbouring homes, factories and scenery. The road to the other Boh plantation was freakishly narrow and we had to skirt around a fallen tree on the way but the scenic point at the end was again, worth the adventure in.
It was interesting to see how one Boh factory was surrounded by what seemed to be decent houses while the next, more tucked away, plantation was surrounded by tin shacks.
Then, just like that, we’d toured around the area, tasted as many strawberries, corn cobs, teas and veggies as we could stuff ourselves with and we were on our way out to the city of Kuala Lumpur.
If you are a food fiend or “foodie” as I like to call people interested in culinary pursuits then this is your area. The soil is rich according to locals, their kids are strong and healthy and the veggies are even encouraged to grow with music. Yeah, you read right, these strawberries get a lullaby each night!