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"Have you ever seen a green rose?" asked Yap Hock Kee. "Or tomatoes that grow on trees? How about flowers that smell like coconuts?"

Rajah Brooke, the national butterfly of Malaysia
Rajah Brooke, the national butterfly of Malaysia
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Yap, our driver-guide, was talking about the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia's garden in the sky.

Yap Hock Kee not only showed us highland tea plantations, vegetable, butterfly, strawberry and flower farms, which we could have seen on our own, but he also pointed out things we would have missed, such as Malaysia's national butterfly. Called Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (scientific name: Trogonoptera brookiana) the black butterfly has neon-green leaf-shaped markings and a red head.

Where are the Cameron Highlands?

Located halfway between Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL) and the resort island of Penang, the hilltop retreat is a 3.5-hour drive from either center, making it an ideal overnight side trip. You can stay in resorts, budget hotels, guest houses and apartments.

To get to the Cameron Highlands resort area from KL, you can travel by bus, taxi, mini-van or rental car. We followed the North-South Expressway to Ipoh and turned off at the toll road from Tapah. Driving distance from the E1 Exit 132 is 37 miles (60 kilometers).

There are faster, more modern roads to the northwest corner of the state of Pahang, such as the Simpang Pulai Road, but Yap wanted to bring us by the scenic route. Gigantic hardwood trees, lacy tree ferns, wild bananas, tangled Tarzan-type vines and bamboo, the size of hydro poles, dwarfed our car as we snaked up 525 curves and turns through misty jungle. We were glad Yap was driving.

Man weaves basket in bamboo basket factory.
Man weaves basket in bamboo basket factory.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tour of Cameron Highlands

There are lots of things to see and do on a Cameron Highlands tour. We stopped at a family-owned bamboo basket factory. One person split the 10-foot (three-meter)-long cylinders into strips. Another used a machine to peel the strips into thin strands.

The remaining family members wove the strands into bushel baskets, which they sold to vegetable farmers. Later, we saw the bamboo baskets on trucks loaded with produce for markets in Malaysia and Singapore.

Smokehouse Hotel

As we climbed, the heat and humidity of the lowlands vanished. It was the cool mountain air that led the British to establish a hill station here after William Cameron, a government surveyor, discovered the "fine plateau" in 1885. Chinese planters followed, carving terraces into the rich soil and building a road to carry their vegetables to market.

Smokehouse Hotel
Smokehouse Hotel
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We were thankful for Yap's expertise as clouds descended over the road at the 5,906-foot (1,800-meter)-level. Fortunately, we were only a short distance from The Smokehouse Hotel, in Tanah Rata, where we spent the night.

As we turned into the parking lot, we drove from Malaysia into old England. The Tudor-style building, surrounded with flowers and strawberry patches, not only looked British, but also felt it—especially during afternoon tea.

We enjoyed hot scones with whipped cream and homemade strawberry jam at the cozy 20-room, half-timbered inn, surrounded by antiques and log-burning fireplaces.

Boh Tea Plantation

Excellent tea grows on the surrounding hills. The next morning, Yap brought us to the Boh Tea Estate. Green, chest-high bushes carpeted the hills for as far as we could see.

Tea picker with shears and basket in Boh Tea Plantation
Tea picker with shears and basket in Boh Tea Plantation
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Women dotted the slopes, using hand shears with scoops to clip the bushes and fling the cuttings over their heads into baskets on their backs. When the baskets were full, the women stuffed the leaves into plastic bags and carried them on their heads to the roadside for pickup.

We tried to lift a bag—but it barely budged. "They weigh about 60 pounds (27 kilos) each," said Yap. "The average worker picks about 660 pounds (300 kilos) of leaves each day." The pickers' diminutive sizes belied their strength.

Workers stuff tea leaves into bags.
Workers stuff tea leaves into bags.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We followed a tractor and wagon loaded with bags to a shed where workers sorted the leaves, discarding the tough dark green ones and keeping only the young, apple-green tips for processing.

Loose leaf tea

At the tea factory, we met Gaury, who explained that tea processing takes 22 hours. "After drying for 18 hours, the tea leaves lose 50% of their moisture," she explained, as we watched a conveyor belt full of leaves riding over a heater. "They are ground, allowed to ferment, and then ground again."

By now the leaves were black, but they didn't smell or taste like tea. "That's because they still have to mature for a couple weeks," explained Gaury.

Worker removes tea leaves from dryer.
Worker removes tea leaves from dryer.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The loose tea is first sorted into three qualities—Cameronian (the best quality tea), Boh (a medium grade) and Tiger Tea (the lowest quality). We bought several packages of the reasonably priced Boh tea in the small shop. Back at home, we sipped the flavorful tea and regretted not buying more.

Rose farm

Before we could see the green roses that Yap had promised to show us, we drove to a fruit farm near Tringkap. Yap showed us passion fruit flowers, lemons the size of grapefruit and teardrop-shaped tomatoes, growing—just as he said—on man-high trees.

He persuaded the owner to cut up a tomato so we could taste it. It was juicy and sweet.

A short drive brought us to the Rose Center in Kea Farm, near Brinchang. More than 600 varieties of blossoms perfumed the air.

Yap urged us to smell a golden trumpet flower. Its scent was remarkably like coconuts.

Yap Hock Kee points out Kiss of Fire rose.
Yap Hock Kee points out Kiss of Fire rose.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"This rose is yellow on the first day, pink on the second and red on the third day," he said, pointing to a variety called Kiss of Fire. "This rose has no thorns," he noted, touching another.

"And this rose is green," he added, proudly, directing our gaze to another blossom. We couldn't even see it, at first.

The petals were the same color as the leaves, and the flower was no bigger than a $1 coin, but Yap cupped his hand behind the flower to make it stand out. Sure enough, it was a green rose.

There were no green roses for sale in the small shop, but there were freshly cut bunches of gladiolas, daisies, dahlias and roses, as well as jars of ruby-colored rose jam and syrup—welcome souvenirs for tourists who can't cross borders with fresh flowers.

Lata Iskandar waterfall

The day passed quickly, so we had to hurry to be back in Kuala Lumpur by evening. Because we didn't have time to trek along any of the numerous jungle paths, known for their colorful butterflies and birds, Yap stopped at a waterfall park, just past Ringlet on the way down from the Cameron Highlands resort region.

The name of the waterfalls was Hutan Lipur Air Terjun, which Yap translated as "Jungle Unexploited Waterfall." Judging by the number of visitors and souvenir stands, it was named before tourists discovered it.

We hiked over a couple bridges and strolled around the falls, then stopped at a stand selling shrimp chips, nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) and soft drinks.

As we selected a bottle of Kickapoo Joy Juice, Yap explained that it tasted like ginger ale. We read the label and did a double-take. "Made in Toronto, Canada," it said.

Malaysia's Cameron Highlands had one last surprise for us.


Tourism Malaysia

Malaysia Airlines

More things to see & do in Malaysia

Day Trips from KL Malaysia to Batu Caves, Melaka and Genting Highlands

Penang Hawker Stalls Offer Cheap and Delicious Food

Ramadan, Hari Raya, Eid — Muslim New Year in Malaysia

Kuala Kangsar — Ubudiah Mosque and Sultan of Perak's Residence

Borneo Holiday in Sarawak Malaysia Longhouses