Feb 2, 2016 7:00am. We are in a cab en route to the Melaka bus terminal and it is the earliest we have been on the road so far. Packs are weary on the shoulders at this hour but they are starting to feel more like part of us. We celebrated this past few days by going through a bar of soap, a toothpaste, a face cream and we only have 3 Ferrero Rocher remaining from Christmas (the pack is 0.5lb lighter!). Christine even went so far as to say her pack felt good… I better check mine to see if she moved some items to my bag!
Our taxi driver just dropped off his 12-year-old at school. School starts early for these little ones. The taxi cars in Melaka are very old and our seat belts are locked in an open position large enough to fit two of us… so no point wearing one. The taxi driver is chatty once engaged in conversation and we learn that Barack Obama came to Malaysia recently representing a first time U.S. visit. He said he loves Obama and the fact that ‘white people are working for a non-white person’ and that in the U.S. people can see each other as equal and not judge by the color of their skin. We did not have the heart to burst his bubble.
We boarded our bus to head towards Cameron Highlands. No toilet on the bus, and too early for the toilet at the bus station to open, so we set off on our journey with tongues pasty, lips cracked and scared to drink anything. Our bus driver today loves a type of music we have never heard before, we believe it is Indian Heavy Metal (rock on), we chuckle while whizzing by vehicles, passing ambulances with their lights on (go figure) and bundling up because the air conditioning is so cold. I believe he just answered his cell phone while driving!
Cameron Highlands are where Malaysians travel to seek some refuge from the heat (and business) of the big city. They are 1,500 meters above sea level …so much cooler! Equivalent to us heading to the mountains to go camping and hiking, the Cameron Highlands provide comfortable temperatures, unlimited shades of green, rain forest, strawberry farms, tea plantations, and home to the largest selection of Land Rover Discovery sport utilities of varying years that I have ever seen. It must be an off roaders paradise in the jungle.
The highway is old asphalt! It clings to the side of the mountain with continuous ‘S’ turns in every crevasse or jut the mountain can provide. The bus driver honks his horn as he approaches most turns knowing that the ‘highway’ is just the width of the bus around the blind corner. There are green plants, trees, and bushes so thick, they hang over the roadway and cover every square inch of the ground. A car honks as it squeezes in beside the bus to pass us going uphill on the narrow road as a Shell fuel truck approaches. Fun!
We arrive in the mountain town of Tanah Rata with Christine feeling a little green (she gets car sick just being a passenger in the car). The temperature has dropped to a comfortable 20C, there are clouds in the sky. Buildings appear to be crumbling down, paint is chipping off the sides, tacky signs are posted everywhere, garbage in the ditches, the occasional stench of raw sewage, brown water in the drains and yet we know we are going to love this place. A small town where you can get off the bus, throw your pack on your back and just walk to your $20.00/night room. There are backpackers everywhere and we see more white (European) folks than we have seen our entire journey so far. However, we may be the oldest – which either strokes our ego because we are out here ‘doing it’, or just made us realize how youth is so awesome. (If you are young and reading this… get out there!!)
We learn on our first day that local buses no longer run between the main towns or attractions. Tour companies or rather expensive taxi are the only choice (we could take a 45-minute taxi ride in Kuala Lumpur for $9Cdn and in the Cameron Highlands it will cost $5Cdn to take a 5 minute, 4 km ride). This annoys us, so we take to our feet for most of our travels. Tour companies are too restrictive and dictate how long you spend at a place, but not for these stubborn, old roaming two.
Our first day, we travel to Cameron Highlands Tea Plantation. The hills are covered in tea bushes and the shades of green are amazing. A tea house perched above the plantation provides samplings of their teas and dessert cakes that look like they had been sitting in the display case way beyond their shelf life. We hiked down into the tea bushes and imagine what it must be like to trim the bushes on steep slopes for minimum wage just so that you and I can sit, sip and gossip about irrelevant information over tea (can you believe they play Justin Bieber music here?).
That evening, our high school friend, Fred, tells us that his uncle plays jazz piano at an upper class hotel a few km up from where we are staying. We head off to Cameron Highlands Resort, introduce ourselves to Fred’s uncle Steven, chit chat and then proceed to sit and enjoy his piano magic while SHARING (I can imagine Marty squirming as he reads this) our $10Cdn beer – boy, it tasted good!
We wake up to rain the next day and decide to go to Boh Tea plantation 14km away from town. A taxi will cost $27Cdn and we will be pressed for time at the tea plantation as he waits to take us back. Instead, armed with our combined four University degrees +, we decide today will be the day we hitchhike for the first time in our life! We set off in the pouring rain with a grin on our face feeling so proud that we are going to save $27Cdn and knowing that we are going to conquer the world. A few kilometres up the highway, with no pickup, the romance of it all is wearing off on Christine. I tell her to start ‘wiggling it’ and to ‘swoosh her wet, sopping, curly hair’ … but she does not find my comments amusing.
We look ahead after a grouping of cars go by and there is an old Mercedes pulled over on the side of the road. Our heart skips a beat as we realize we have just been successful at flagging down our first ride. I hear my mom’s voice in my head, “do you know where your children are”, as we get into the car. Our ride is an Indian couple heading to Kuala Lumpur after spending a few days in the Cameron Highlands. He is 49 years old, she is 40 years and born in the Cameron Highlands. He worked in Iowa, U.S. for a long period of time. He had diabetes since he was a kid, his kidneys failed, he was on dialysis for the longest period of time before they learned that she could donate one of her kidneys to save his life. They were just spending some recuperating time as his surgery was only 3 months ago. I see the scars on his arm where he would have had access ports and I ask him what he is going to do with all his free time (since he will not be at the hospital every 2nd or 3rd day for dialysis). They both laugh out loud and he expresses how he is slowing down and starting to really enjoy life, and forget the material things. They think it is incredible that we are taking a year off to travel. We spent 10 kms in their car, they dropped us off with 4km to go and it feels like our chance meeting was for a purpose. He offers us his business card so we can look him up if we are in his town, and we wave goodbye while standing in the pouring rain.
It felt good to know that we did not pack our Gore-Tex jackets for no reason. As we walked in the rain, the hills were beginning to become even more alive than they were on the highway. We were not walking down the very narrow abandoned-looking road for long when we heard a horn honk and an old flat bed truck pulled up beside us. The driver rolls down his window and (in an unrecognizable language) asks us if we want a ride up the road. We jump into the open back of the truck, grasp the roll bar, and head off down the windy, twisty, narrow road. Rain is smacking us in the face, our pant legs are soaked, we hold on as tight as we can and I am laughing out loud as the green hills pass us by. The truck stops at an intersection and he indicates this is where we have to get off and walk one more kilometre down the hill to the tea plantation. Christine held on so tight, there were flakes of paint from the roll bar ingrained into her hand.
We were not on that road for more than a few minutes when a car stops and offers us a ride for the last leg of our journey. They were from Iraq, he was finishing his PhD in Engineering and she was completing a Masters degree in Engineering in Kuala Lumpur. They hope to relocate to Canada or the U.S. when they complete their studies. Their two kids just looked at us so intrigued by these two strange people that just entered their car. A short trip down the road and we arrived at the Bah Tea Plantation. We high-five each other and turn to the mountain range covered in tea bushes for as far as our eyes can see. Life is good!
The rain continued throughout the day, so when it was time to head back, we thought we would try and get a taxi. Only, now it is almost 4:00pm and no taxi’s want to come out this way for a one-way trip (greedy!). We set off on foot, and see a young man taking a photo of a girl under an umbrella. We offer to take their picture before setting off on our way. They graciously accept and smile. As we are later walking in the rain, mentally preparing for our 14km trip back to Tanah Rata, a small car stops beside us as we are climbing the hill out of the plantation. It is the couple we took a picture of and they would like to know if we would like a ride. Alleluia, and we jump into their vehicle. He apologizes in broken English for having such a small car. Little does he know I want to give him a big hug! It turns out they are going to Tanah Rata and we have a ride home for the entire journey. We pass a couple other white folks hiking in the rain and he says, “sorry, car full”. We grin from ear to ear.
The windows start to fog up and he can barely see out of his windshield. It is our fault for being so wet, we apologize, and I try to explain that if he turns the knob on his dash from the foot setting to the defrost setting, the window will defog. I have an a-huh moment as I realize, oh my gosh, they have never had to use the defrost setting! They did not even know it existed. We all laugh and we explain to them how our vehicles come with heated seats. They express shock and amazement. To celebrate our day that evening, we go out for a huge plate of Indian cuisine served on a real banana leaf on an outdoor patio/walkway… all for $3Cdn each. Once again, life is good.
On our last evening while walking to our room in the rain, a local said to us, “this is cold weather”. We smiled knowing that we were heading back down to 30+C and so, so grateful for our time in the Cameron Highlands.
Come to think of it, we have been smiling a lot lately!
Sample Cameron Highland Expenses
1 Canadian dollar gets you almost 3 Malaysian Ringitt (RM)… exchange rate is going down a bit
- $3.20 or 9.60RM breakfast at hotel, eggs and toast for 2
- 11RM tea and scone for 2
- $4 or 12RM fresh strawberry milkshakes at a strawberry farm
- 27RM South Indian banana leaf deliciousness
- 33.60RM pizza dinner with 2 hot milo
- $10 or 31RM Starbucks Internet(venti matcha latte x 2)
- $10 or 30RM clay pot veggie rice, Chana masala, 2 Roti Chana, 3 drinks… Too much food
- $10 30RM beer at Cameron Highlands Resort
- Hitchhiking free fun to Boh tea
- $5 or 15 RM Taxi to Cameron Valley Tea Plantation
- $3.30 or 10RM to Cameron Heights Resort hotel.
- $5 or 15RM back to Tanah Rata… Up charge after 7:30pm
- $20 CDN/night at KRS Pines in Tanah Rata. Budget large, double room with hot shower.
- 9.8RM Sensodyne toothpaste (with free toothbrush)
- 6RM 6 bars of soap