Still playing catch-up, so this post is a “flashback” to more than a month ago and our visit to the Cameron Highlands area in Malaysia.
From Taman Negara, we took a “minibus” to the Cameron Highlands area in central Malaysia. It is mountainous, highlands area and the “breadbasket” of Malaysia. In colonial times it was a hill-station for the British ruling class – a cool retreat from the unending heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown. The British established tea plantations. It’s climate is excellent both for tea and other produce and it remains one of the most productive agricultural areas in Malaysia, with many vegetable farms, orchards, apiaries, and of course tea plantations. One of the most popular activities besides scenic walks through the tea plantations is picking strawberries. Yum!
There are a number of small towns or villages sprinkled through the area. Tanah Rata is the biggest and really the commercial center. All of the towns are a bit on the grungy side – they are working agricultural towns – and many of the smaller towns or villages are really nothing more than a collection of agricultural and industrial suppliers. The “supply chain” here is quite visible, in a way that you would never see in the West. The open storefronts have truck tires, pipes, concrete, gravel, lumber, and all kinds of supplies and equipment spilling out onto the street. The narrow roads are jammed not just with tour busses and cars, but also with giant, overloaded, under-maintained trucks and heavy equipment. As you drive through the mountain roads you see vast tea plantations, terraced vegetable farms, orchards, and miles and miles of plastic sheets in the form of greenhouses. In a couple of areas, there are quarries – whole mountainsides that have been blasted raw, and once pristine, now shockingly polluted lakes. You have the sense that the earth all around is being torn, ripped, and molded to man’s will in a fairly brutal way and you are right in the middle of the chaos. At the same time, there are many areas of untouched forest. From distance it is all quite beautiful. Up close sometimes less so.
There are four main ethnic groups in Malaysia: muslim Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the aboriginal people – called “Orang Asli.” The Orang Asli are jungle dwellers and the original inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. Like many native peoples, they have fallen victim to conquering peoples and more recently, “modern” life. Here’s a snippet of Orang Asli history from Wikipedia:
Slave raids into Orang Asli settlements were also quite common feature back in the 18th and 19th centuries. These slave-raiders were mainly local Malays and Bataks, who considered the Orang Asli as ‘kafirs’, ‘non-humans’, ‘savages’ and ‘jungle-beasts. The modus operandi was basically to swoop down a settlement and then kill off all the adult men. Women and children were captured alive as they are ‘easier to tame.’ The captives Orang Asli slaves were sold off or given to local rulers and chieftains to gain their favour. Slaves trade soon developed and even continued into the present century despite the official abolition of all forms of slavery in 1884. The derogatory term “Sakai” is used to refer to the Orang Asli until the middle of the 20th century meant slave or dependent.
Today, the forests that have housed and fed them for generations have largely been destroyed or repurposed, and they have been pushed to limited tracts of land and the margins of a new society.
When we looked for accommodation online we found a place called the Rain Forest Inn that had really good reviews. We booked it and it turned out to be a fantastic experience. It was started by two partners – an Orang Asli man named John and his Chinese friend. It is on Orang Asli lands, and is a series of mostly-traditional bamboo huts built on a hillside, next to a beautiful stream with a waterfall.
We had lots of fun playing in the stream, exploring the creek, and climbing the waterfall – there’s a upper falls area with a small pool that is perfect for a relaxing soak. But watch out! The rocks are slippery. At dinner, we were treated to a big spread of traditional Orang Asli cooking. It was simple but very delicious and many of the things we ate were grown or gathered on the property.
That night Jette got really sick. She had a headache and was vomiting. After throwing up a few times she fell asleep. She slept through the night and in the morning she felt fine. We think it may have been something she ate at lunch, but we’re not sure. It could have been something at dinner, but no one else was sick, and we ate a similar dinner on our second night with no ill effects. Both Mila and Jette have had similar episodes a couple of times on our travels – a sudden headache followed by vomiting, then a quick recovery. We’re thinking that they are allergic or sensitive to some ingredient we have yet to identify, perhaps MSG. We’ve found that we all get headaches if there is too much MSG in our food. Luckily we’ve been very healthy overall and have managed to avoid the typical “travellers tummy” that has struck so many of our fellow travellers.
John, one of the owners of Rain Forest Inn, is quite a character and has interesting background. Unlike most Orang Asli, he is educated. He studied mechanical engineering and joined the military. He was “Seal” in the Malaysian Special Forces and saw combat in places like the Philippines and Somalia. He lost part of one foot to a mine, and has a large, vertical scar down one cheek where a islamic extremist in the Southern Philippines stabbed him with a knife. After 15 years, he retired from the service and came back to his village. He spent a couple of years lobbying the local government to build a road to the village (it was a two-day walk to the nearest town). After he succeeded in getting the road built, he built a grocery store in the village. He had the idea for the guesthouse, and the Rain Forest Inn was born.
After breakfast one day, John and the village chief showed us how to make a variety of traditional snare traps, and also how to shoot a blowgun. The Orang Asli hunt and fight with blowguns and poison darts. Different poisons are used for hunting different animals (they eat everything, even the local monkeys) and there are special poisons for dispatching people. Firearms are not easy to get in Malaysia, so the Orang Asli still use blowguns for self-defense. Given John’s past line of work, he is very security conscious. I would hate to be the hapless criminal who happens to look for mischief in this village. Let’s just say that the Rain Forest Inn is a very safe place to stay, LOL.
We did a day tour of the tea plantations and various sights around Cameron Highlands. My photos are rotten and really don’t do justice to the beautiful, undulating hills covered in tea bushes.
We also toured the BOH factory where tea is processed. To make black tea, the tea leaves are rolled, fermented, dried and sorted in a very simple process using equipment that dates back to 1928.
The guys working at this farm were from Bangladesh. They obviously get a lot of tourists, as they really had their schtick down. One of them insisted on taking photos of us, so Mila gave him her phone. He proceeded to pose Jette and snap some hilariously cheesy photos.
It went on, and on. Mila and I were called in to pose too.
Clearly, this was our moment of glory.The bangladeshi with the camera wanted us to do more kissing and his pose suggestions got more and more “interesting.” I think he was trying to recreate Bollywood movie posters with posed gringos and fruit. We’d had enough and called it quits. We do have our limits.
All in all, our visit to Cameron Highlands was great. Staying at Rain Forest Inn and getting a peek into Orang Asli life was definitely the highlight.