Before our travels, Dom and I divvied up the planning responsibilities: I (mostly) booked our South America travel and it is therefore now Dom’s turn to take care of Southeast Asia. This means that despite the many blog posts and comments Dom read about the tortuous bus ride up the mountains to the Cameron Highlands, he booked it for us anyways. And while I definitely wasn’t pleased with this division of labor while exercising every muscle in my body to prevent myself from puking during the WINDIEST bus ride up to the Cameron Highlands, now that I am safely back on flat ground I suppose the detour was worth it.
Located just 120 miles north of Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands are a popular tourist destination for Malaysians and I can (kinda) see why. We only had one full day there, so Dom booked us on Eco Cameron’s Full Day Experience tour to ensure we made the most of our time. Once again we lucked out with the size of the tour; despite not paying the extra fee to make it a private tour, only one other guest joined our group (Tanya, a great woman from Switzerland who I accidentally implied was from Germany at one point).
The first half of the tour was great; Vin, our guide, led us to the famous tea plantations that characterize the Highlands. I hadn’t forgotten about British colonialism’s past (after all, the Cameron Highlands is named after William Cameron, a British explorer who “founded” the area), but its legacy was reinforced upon learning that BOH, the tea that comes from the Highlands, is owned by a Scottish family.
Vin was quick to dis BOH’s tea, exclaiming “I don’t want to spread fake news!” after explaining that Malaysians value quantity over quality. He showed us a single tea sprig, which is comprised of three distinct leaves: the tiniest has the highest quality and the largest the lowest. When they used to harvest the tea by hand, they separated the leaves; now that they use a machine (just to be clear, the machine is still operated by two humans carrying it under the blazing sun), all of the leaves get jumbled together. Hence BOH’s low quality.
After the tea we moved onto the other great part of the tour: the Mossy Forest. Although the forest’s trails are closed to help with preservation, Vin walked with us down one of the roads pointing out all kinds of interesting plants. I felt like a scout eager to earn my forestry badge! Did you know that plants can get cancer (Amanda, did you know that?!)? One plant in particular ultimately dies from cancer after ants insert urine into its perimeter…apparently ants really like this dead plant as a shelter. Another fun plant fact, you say? Well, the Pitcher Plant (pictured to the left) is carnivorous! It creates a sweet-smelling liquid in the bottom of its “pitcher” that attracts insects and lures them in where they drown to death. Forests are full of sinister stuff. Speaking of sinister stuff, we did see a *massive* snake from the jeep while exiting the forest and I felt vindicated in our decision to not go on a hike in these areas.
We did do some other stuff on this tour (visit a strawberry “farm”, a butterfly “farm”, a market and maybe something else?), but suffice it to say that the tea groves and mossy forest were by far the reason to actually go on this tour.
After our quick visit to the Cameron Highlands we unnecessarily split our next journey in two so we could finally take a train (remember, Dom is doing this planning 😉 ). So off we went back down the mountain to Ipoh where we had a few hours of exploration before hopping on the train to Penang.
Penang is a state in the northwest of Malaysia that has both an island and mainland component. We went to George Town, the capital of Penang and second-largest city in Malaysia, which is on the island bit. While the city is definitely large, the historic core is a UNESCO World Heritage site and where we spent our 48 hours on the island.
George Town will most fondly be remembered in my heart for providing a (somewhat) safe place for me to finally do an outdoor Malaysia run (I have a goal of completing at least one outdoor run in every country we visit!). In addition to that, we were also extremely lucky to be there during one of the 15 days Kek Lok Si, an incredible Buddhist temple, was all lit up for the Chinese New Year. Wandering around the 30 acres late at night was mesmerizing–think Christmas on steroids times a bajillion. Honestly, witnessing this alone would have made the trip to George Town worth it.
The other George Town highlight was wandering around its historic core and admiring the street art, both the official steel rod sculptures that were commissioned by the state government in the early 2000s and the less official traditional murals. Less of a highlight was becoming drenched in sweat after two minutes of said wandering.
Before taking the ferry back to the train station, we did make sure to walk out onto the famous clan jetties. The six clan jetties are rows of wooden stilted homes that preserve the old Chinese culture. One of the jetties has been largely made into a tourist pier, but I think the other five are less commercialized (or at least I hope). Fun fact for you (as taken from this Penang website): to this day none of the families pay any tax as they are not living on land.
We are now back in Kuala Lumpur where Dom will settle down through the weekend while I make a very quick hop over to London to pick up my just-approved visa…!