I was first – and last – in the Cameron Highlands 30 years ago. I arrived on a dilapidated bus from Ipoh and was disgorged into the main street of straggling Tanah Rata, with its colonial-era shopfronts, post office and market stalls piled with rambutans. Over the next days I hitchhiked up the valley to Sungai Palas tea plantation. I hiked jungle trails and paths between pocket-sized farms growing cabbages and strawberries. I'd round corners and, with a wonderful sense of dislocation, come across pretty English bungalows set in rose gardens.
I fell in love with the Cameron Highlands, and now finally I'm back. But will it be the same? Not likely. Malaysia has boomed and has a car-owning, weekend-getaway-loving middle class drawn to the same cool-climate pleasures as the British in the 1930s. At weekends, the few winding roads up from Malaysia's lowlands grind to a standstill as visitors stop willy-nilly by the roadside to snap photos of plunging scenery and sign-perched monkeys.
The Cameron Highlands' villages have become towns lined with a rash of pseudo-farms selling lavender and honey, and topped by ugly concrete apartment blocks that pay no homage to heritage. Untrammelled development oozes up hillsides once cloaked in verdant rainforest.
Some things are still the same though. Bungalows and villas still hide along winding forest roads. The British-era golf club, Tanglin Boarding School (turned holiday chalets) and Olde Smokehouse are still there. The smokehouse, which once smoked trout from the Highlands' streams, looks as if it has been teleported from a Shakespearean village. Its English-style gardens are a riot of hollyhocks and roses in odd embrace with hibiscus and bougainvillea.
Cameron Highlands Resort is still there. I'd eyed it in envy as a backpacker, and now I'm staying there. Why bother with anything less? This area was first mapped by Sir William Cameron in 1885 and developed as a hill station in the 1930s. Cameron Highlands Resort was one of its first hotels and remains its most authentically British. If you're coming to a colonial hill station you might as well give in to your sahib fantasies, even if they aren't politically correct.
There are no British staying here now. Rather agreeably, most guests are Malays or Indians, happily ensconced in their former rulers' armchairs as they devour scones in the Tea Room. The windows are wide open, letting cool air flood in and stirring the white gauze curtains like the ghosts of times past. In one corner is a snooker table, in another a grand piano. Planter furniture is clustered around scattered rugs. Shelves of rose-painted crockery add a homey feel. Occasional Chinese flowerpots and lamps are the only oriental touch. You feel as though you should break out a rubber of bridge or a Somerset Maugham novel.
Cameron Highlands Resort is an unabashed celebration of what the Cameron Highlands once was and, when you're ensconced inside, you can ignore the development that surges around it. Views from rooms are almost unsullied, giving out across the golf course to verdant hills on which you can spy old-time villas, pale against dark foliage. The hotel provides insight into the Cameron Highlands' actual heritage, which is more than you can say for most other tourist attractions here.
"I hate those so-called butterfly and honey farms," says the resort's tour guide and naturalist, Madi. "Bees aren't native here, and there are hardly any wild butterflies left thanks to over-use of pesticides. Only strawberries are an original crop, introduced by Robertson's, the famous British jam company."
Picking strawberries is a great weekend pastime for locals, and doubtless strawberries are as exotic to them as jackfruit is to me. But the soul of the Cameron Highlands isn't here in roadside greenhouses and souvenir shops selling lavender sachets. These days, you have to hunt down what I found so easily 30 years ago. But it is still here.
Madi provides the key. He takes guests to authentic places, such as the Highlands' oldest Buddhist temple, or for encounters with the Semai ethnic tribe, or to the summit of Mount Irau along a sinuous jungle walk that rewards with emerald valley views.
Madi has lived here forever. He was born in the British Military Hospital in Tanah Rata, a lovely red-brick building with rather ecclesiastical-looking arched windows, now abandoned. He remembers the old days, when there was only one access road, often closed by landslides, which meant going without deliveries of newspapers and fish for days.
Beyond the immediate day-tripper chaos of the roadside, he knows where to find jungle trails and gorgeous scenery. He takes me on a waterfall walk and a rainforest hike ("the British military cut these trails in the 1950s") and to Boh tea plantation where, because of the winding, unsealed road, most tourists fall away. We haul up past watercress and eggplant farms. Then the potholed road is lined with African tulip trees that dangle long trumpet-shaped flowers like Christmas decorations.
Soon, tea bushes are carpeting the hillsides in splendid undulating rows of emerald green. The views of the tea plantation's seemingly endless contours, wrapped around plunging hillsides, is magnificent. Tea workers in pink saris cling ant-like to the scenery.
Boh is Malaysia's largest tea producer, founded in the 1920s, and the processing factory in the middle of the plantations is Dickensian. Here, tea leaves are dried, rolled and fermented, then fired to turn them black. The machines groan and clank and fill the sheds with dust and rich smells.
"There was a theatre here in the old days, we came to see films," says Madi as we sip tea and gaze out over the plantation. "When the curtains opened we saw Queen Elizabeth on her horse and the national anthem played. We kids didn't know what was going on but we thought it was fun."
As the sun sinks, we sink back down into the valley, our car lurching over potholes. With elevations above 1300 metres, the weather here is deliciously cool after Malaysia's lowland humidity, and verges on the nippy in the evenings. Back at Cameron Highlands Resort, the fire has been lit in the lounge. Some guests are still finishing off their finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream that have been an afternoon tradition at the hotel for 90 years. Perhaps for me it's time for a whisky and a game of snooker, as I renew my love affair with the Cameron Highlands.
Malaysia Airlines flies direct to Kuala Lumpur from Melbourne and Sydney. It is three hours by road from KL to Tanah Rata. See malaysiaairlines.com
Cameron Highlands Resort, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, overlooks the golf course in Tanah Rata and has a main dining room, an Asian restaurant, a bar and tearoom, as well as a wellness centre. Rooms from $170 a night. Various tours take you on jungle and temple trails or to surrounding tea plantations. The Tea Appreciation Experience costs $68 a person. See cameronhighlandsresort.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of YTL Hotels.