Cameron Highlands: Malaysia's enduring 'Little England'

Cameron Highlands: Malaysia's enduring 'Little England'

For nearly a century, the former hill station has been a retreat from blast-furnace summer temps. Here's why it's still cool
Cameron Highlands travel
Gotta hand it to the Brits. They knew how to build a hill station.

Wherever they went, the British built hill stations.

Lofty retreats from the tropical heat, these slices of "little England" popped up throughout Asia, including India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Myanmar and Malaysia.

In the latter, the occupying colonials founded several small settlements -- including Penang, Maxwell Hill, Bukit Tingii and the Genting Highlands -- leaving a colonial mark that stands today.

The granddaddy of them all is the Cameron Highlands, which sits 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) above sea level.

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Highland history highlights

The Convent Primary School, a landmark of the Cameron Highlands since 1935."Discovered" by British surveyor William Cameron in 1885, the verdant, green plateau now known as the Cameron Highlands lay undeveloped for the next 40 years.

That is until Chief Secretary of Federated Malay States Sir William Maxwell -- who already had a hill station named after him outside of Kuala Lumpur -- decreed that the area should be developed. 

Within a decade, a nine-hole golf course, cottages, inns, a police station, boarding schools, dairy, nurseries, vegetable farms and tea estates had replaced impenetrable jungle.  

Today, with temperatures rarely rising above 25 C (77 F), the Cameron Highlands is still one of Malaysia's top tourist destinations -- particularly among those looking for an escape from Kuala Lumpur's crushing heat. 


Tea with 'ummph'

In 2007, Boh opened a new visitor center in this ultra-modern building.Displacing the Orang Asli aboriginals as residents, the British who flocked to the area soon realized the cool climate and fertile soil was perfect for growing vegetables and tea.

One company still around is Boh -- you might know them by their memorable slogan, "BOH has Ummph!." (We don't know what that means either.)  

Founded in 1929 by Malayan-British entrepreneur J.A. Russell, these plantations are still important to the local economy, though now as tourist attractions.

Before settling down for a pot of comforting "teh" -- the Malaysian word for tea -- visitors can join one of the regular free tours of the factory, where the intricate manufacturing process is explained with passion.  

Boh, 39200 Ringlet, Cameron Highlands; +60 (0)5 493 1324; open Tuesday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

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Tracking Jim Thompson

The famed Moonlight Bungalow at the Jim Thompson Cottage. Over the border in Thailand, the name Jim Thompson is synonymous with silk –- he founded an empire in the fabric there.

But in the Cameron Highlands, it's the 1967 disappearance of the American millionaire that will live on in unsolved infamy. 

On Easter Sunday, March 26, Thompson was visiting friends in the Highlands. After attending morning services at the nearby All Souls' Church, they retired to their "Moonlight" cottage. 

At 1:30 p.m., Thompson left for a walk on his own -– never to return -- launching the largest manhunt Malaysia has ever known. For more than a month, some 400 police, soldiers, aboriginal trackers, helicopters and even a psychic investigator tried to find him.

To this day wild theories abound: Thompson was kidnapped by Chinese communist guerillas, eaten by a tiger, assassinated by the CIA, faked his own death in order to start a new life or simply just got lost in the jungle.  

There are a few options for travelers looking to feel some of that Thompson mystery vibe. 

Visitors can stay in a room in the actual "Moonlight" cottage at the Jim Thompson Cottage.  

Close by, the Cameron Highlands Resort has its own Jim Thompson Mystery Trail and hosts regular "Murder Mystery in the Misty Mountains" whodunnit events, in which guests are encouraged to dress up in 1960s clothing as they try to figure out who killed Jim Thompson.

Meanwhile, the Cameron Highlands' Strawberry Park Resort has its very own Jim Thompson Terrace. On the menu? The Jim Thompson Burger, naturally.

Tudor mockery

The Smoke House was built in 1937 to cater to homesick Britons. The Smokehouse Hotel wouldn't look out of place in an English village –- exactly the intention of its first owner, Englishman Douglas Warin, who built the then six-room property in 1937 to cater to homesick Britons.

Three decades later, the mock-Tudor building was sold to retired Colonel Stanley Foster before being acquired by Malaysia's Lee family in 1977.

Foster, an eccentric former military man, built another mock-Tudor property for himself in 1972. 

Known as the Lakehouse, it was his private residence until his death in 1984. It too has been turned into a charming hotel.

Unlike his properties, Foster wasn't charming. Legend has it he used to chase Asian visitors away from the house with a whip or cane and put up a sign on his lawn that read: "No Dogs, No Children, No Asians Allowed!" 

Both properties are worth a visit -- even if it's just for a spot of tea.

The Lakehouse, 30th Mile Ringlet, 39200, Cameron Highlands; +60 (0)5 495 6152
The Smokehouse Hotel, 39000 Tanah Ratah, Cameron Highlands;+60 (0)5 491 1215 
 

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Living luxe

Deluxe room in the Cameron Highlands Resort.Heading north from Tanah Rata, the administrative center of the Cameron Highlands, the main road winds through mist-shrouded hills before emerging onto the tricky 18-hole Cameron Highlands Golf Course, one of Malaysia's best places to tee off. 

The Cameron Highlands Resortthe grandest place to stay in the hill station, overlooks the course.

This 56-room property plays up the area's colonial past with plantation-style window shutters, an elegant Tea Room and fireplaces for cool evenings.

Cameron Highlands Resort, 39000 Tanah Ratah, Cameron Highlands; +60 (0)5 491 1100

Strawberry fields and time travel

Leaving behind the golf course, the main Cameron Highlands road heads through the area's second biggest town, Brinchang, and past butterfly gardens and strawberry farms.

Thanks to the area's elevation, it's one of the few places the fruit can be grown in Malaysia.

The biggest of the batch is the Kok Lim Strawberry Farm, which lets visitors head to the fields and pick their own. 

One man's junk is Time Tunnel owner See Kok Shan's treasure. Not far away is the Time Tunnel, filled with curios and collectables assembled by owner and history buff See Kok Shan.

The split-level museum is often full of nostalgic Malaysians and Singaporeans who come to check out objects that remind them of their childhood.

For visitors, the sepia photos show just how much the area has changed through the years. 

Time Tunnel, 39100 Jalan Sungei Burung, Brinchang; open daily, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. 

Best time to visit

During peak times in the Cameron Highlands –- school holidays, weekends, national holidays such as Chinese New Year –- most hotels are full and roads become extremely crowded.

The temperate climate remains constant year-round, but the coolest part of the year is December through February, when temperatures can drop as low as 10 C (50 F).

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How to get there

The Cameron Highlands is 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Kuala Lumpur.

The best way to get there is to rent a car. Malaysia has great infrastructure and driving is easy. 

Follow signs heading out of the capital city to Ipoh, and then head north on the E1 highway for roughly three hours.

Take Exit 132 and then take the road up to the Highlands. From here it's 47 kilometers to Ringlet, and a further 12 kilometers to Tanah Rata, the administrative center of the Cameron Highlands. 

Comfortable buses make the trip from Kuala Lumpur daily. To book online, visit www.busonlineticket.com

The nearest airport to the Cameron Highlands is Ipoh, 122 kilometers away. It services flights from Singapore via low-cost airline Firefly.  

With additional reporting by CNN Travel staff.

CNN Travel's series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries and regions we profile. However CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports. Read the policy.

 

Growing up in colonial Hong Kong, Simon Ostheimer always felt more at home in Asia than anywhere else. He is now in Phuket where he is Managing Editor of The Phuket News.

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