“There is no bus to Brinchang today” was the curt reply of the ticketing agent at Tanah Rata bus terminal. He looked rather engrossed in what he was reading so I left without further quizzing him. It was our last day in Cameron Highlands so it wouldn’t have made a difference for us if the bus was going to resume tomorrow or next month.
Like a manic gambler on the verge of losing her last bet, I instantly thought of an alternative plan to get to the tea plantation. I am no tea fanatic but the lure of sprawling tea plantations stretching as far as the eyes could see was one of the main reasons we had made our way here.
BOH Sungai Palas Tea Plantation
Availing of a Tour versus Independent Travel
With no public transport to take us, my partner and I decided to try hitchhiking and if push came to shove, hail a cab as a back up. Availing of tour wasn’t an option at the time. Charles didn’t want to pay someone to guide him in trekking the so-called mossy forest. It was something we had already done the previous day for free under our own steam, and we had seen enough of butterfly farms, honeybee farms and rose gardens.
Seeing a rafflesia however, almost enticed us to avail of a day tour but we decided to put it off until our visit to the dense jungles of Taman Negara and Borneo. We only had one full day left so we reckoned spending our time at the tea plantation and strawberry farm would be a satisfying alternative from gorging on more roti and banana leaf.
Hitchhiking From Tanah Rata to the tea plantation
We hesitantly stuck out our thumbs and jokingly thought of ways we could make ourselves look like credible tourists in need of a lift and not like some random muggers. After a few cars went past us, we decided to walk farther away from the main town. This time I slung my bulky SLR around my neck in full view of the motorists, not that it would make a difference.
I have this insane theory that waiting in the middle of nowhere would add more drama and air of helplessness while the camera and backpack would either identify us as penny-pinching backpackers or crazy tourists.
To our great surprise, a grey SUV pulled over after just a few minutes of waiting. We had expected to wait for at least half an hour.
“Where are you going?” a Malaysian couple in their forties asked in unison after rolling down the windows.
“Tea Plantation, but you can drop us anytime if you need to go out of its way,” we replied in the most genial manner we could muster.
After giving us a nod, we hopped in at the backseat and were quite relieved we would make it at least to the next town. We didn’t know how common hitchhiking was around Cameron Highland but they seemed not to find it odd. We only found out later that the bus serving the route between Tanah Rata and Kampung Raja hadn’t been operating for the last few months.
Walking out of Brinchang, the next town north of Tanah Rata
After customary exchange of pleasantries and small talk about “where we have been and where we were headed” we found ourselves walking again, on the outskirts of the town of Brinchang. We only had a vague idea of where the turn-off to the tea plantation was but based on our map, we knew we weren’t that far. We stuck out our thumbs again.
Don’t Judge a Driver by his Truck
The noontime heat was at its peak while we were waiting by the roadside just outside Brinchang. A few sedans, one tour van and some 4WD vehicles later, a rundown and grotty truck slowed down and came to a complete stop. A rather amiable Malay with a sheepish grin got down from the truck and ran towards us.
Before we knew it, we were sitting in the tray of his truck together with two young local hitchhikers he must have picked up along the way. He dropped us in front of a roadside market brimming with souvenir stalls, tourists and locals alike. There were strawberry candies, strawberry stuff toys, strawberry pillows and stalls of other bits and bobs which somehow reminded me of Baguio City in the Philippines.
Giving the first Butterfly Garden and Strawberry Farm a Cold Shoulder
There was nothing much that grabbed our fancy here except for a pack of strawberry candy, which we nibbled on while trudging along the highway. We moved on and came upon a roadside stall sporting a wide variety of cactus and ornamental plants as well as a butterfly farm, which we both agreed to skip.
After indulging on an overpriced ice cream, I somehow lost interest in picking my own berries from what looked like rows of hydroponic strawberries at Raju Hill Strawberry farm. We continued walking along the highway and ended up at a fruit and vegetable market near the turn off to the tea plantation.
We sampled a handful of sweet Cameron apples, a native fruit from South America and more commonly known as pepino, as well as an apple-like, sweet tasting coated fruit. It was actually a guava soaked in crystallized sugar and coloring. We bought a pack of jackfruit as well and a bunch of what looked like a tiny, reddish version of passion fruit to take with us before hitting the road again.
Hitching a Ride Again from the Turn-off to the Tea Center
It only took about ten cars before a truck loaded with sacks of compost pulled over near the turn-off. Luckily, this young farmer was on the way up to his farm and let us hitch a ride. He wasn’t as chatty as the Malaysian couple but we were more than grateful to enjoy the unfolding scenery in comfortable silence.
Our 3rd Ride
It was about 20 minute walk to the Tea Factory from where he dropped us but we took our time and enjoyed walking between the rows of neatly-trimmed tea bushes. It was indeed rolling hills of vibrant greenery patterned in a wavy and delightful disharmony. We were glad we could linger as long as we wanted. We also walked past a Hindu Temple and met a couple of tea farmers as we leisurely weaved our way to the top.
Why BOH Sungai Palas Tea Center
Choosing Palas Sungai Tea plantation out of the three farms owned by BOH Tea (the largest tea plantation in SEA) and over the numerous tea plantations in the highlands was easy for us. It offers a free factory tour every 30 minutes, a well-stocked gift shop, and a spacious café that affords you an extraordinary view while sipping some of the mountain tea. We only had two criteria anyway; see a tea plantation and FREE.
The notorious highland rain made its presence felt before we even left the Tea Center. We whiled away our time learning about the history of the tea industry in Cameron and listening to the colorful family history of a Hindu Indian taxi driver we met at the Tea Center.
View from the Cafe
Conversations with Amal
Apparently his only son, who used to work in the Philippines, broke his heart by marrying a Filipina Christian wife. But like a prodigal son, he was forgiven and was lured back to Cameron Highlands with a big chunk of land to farm in exchange for his IT job. He was still not convinced, however, about his grandson going to another church and only speaking English to him. But he was somewhat grateful because his English had improved and it now came in handy for his job.
Village of Tea Farmers
Five minutes into our conversation we were invited to visit his farm and talk to his daughter-in-law on the phone. I accepted graciously and gave the name of our lodge in Tanah Rata in case she wanted to do a meet-up. After the rain subsided we started to trek down and was offered a ride by a Malaysian Chinese father and daughter from Kuala Lumpur. Reenie works in Singapore and was currently on a holiday with her father in Cameron Highlands.
Right Timing and Good Luck
Upon learning that we didn’t have any fixed destination, she asked if we would like to join them at the strawberry farm. We immediately said yes and before we knew it we were exploring the highest village in Peninsular Malaysia. We were in the middle of Kea Farm, a touristy spot filled with stalls of fresh produce, butterfly farms, hillside vegetable patches and rows of strawberry plantations.
Our ride to the Strawberry Farm
After our futile attempt to find the entrance to the strawberry farm, we found ourselves instead exploring the multi-leveled, landscaped and terraced gardens at the Rose Center. For 5RM it’s more than enough to satisfy any flower fetishes and rose garden desires. It was free too – Reenie insisted on paying for our tickets and later on dropped us back along the main road.
A section of Kea Farm at Rose Valley Village
And in case you’re wondering how we got back to Tanah Rata, an Indian lady driving an empty Lite Ace van drove us all the way back to the main town. It was the cheapest adventure we had in Malaysia, and one of the most memorable to date