With a fascination for ‘European’ design, strawberries and endless reels of photo-ops the Cameron Highlands Resort was no doubt a hotel pick from Fanfan. With unexpected fascination for sentiment and nostalgia the experience was quickly hijacked by myself as I fall for the quaint British charm of this beautiful, colonial heritage hotel. While in the past I’ve skipped past the Cameron Highlands as being ‘too familiar to excite me’ on first arrival I find the complete opposite. Asian things in Asia are familiar. A British colonial town in remote rainforests of Malaysia is no doubt unfamiliar. In the past I’ve followed maritime trade routes; from India and Sri Lanka to Malaysia and Singapore yet none have offered the same nostalgia as I find in the Cameron Highlands. For me it feels like a Little Britain in Asia, real and authentic with rolling hills, old English cottages, smoking chimneys and strawberry fields. You could easily write a poem about it.
From Georgetown (Penang) it takes roughly five hours by bus passing through Ipoh and landscapes of limestone karsts and dense rainforest. By private car the journey can be quicker (but more expensive). Arriving to the small town of Tanah Rata we quickly flag taxi to the Cameron Highlands Resort arriving just in time for high tea. As one of few non-tea-drinking Brits I wasn’t overly excited for this ‘tea’ experience but finding the local selection with flavourings of passion fruit, mango and lemon with mandarin it was hard not to be intrigued. On this rare occasion I love tea. We sip our picks as tiered trays arrive with scones, sandwiches, strawberries and other familiar bites. Each nibble comes with its own unique story “Can you taste the cress in the egg sandwich? In Primary School I grew cress out of potatoes…”. Yes, boring nostalgic anecdotes that Fanfan was surprisingly interested in. In many ways the experience gave her a glimpse into my upbringing which previous travels in the UK failed to do. No doubt traditions in the Cameron Highlands are better celebrated and preserved than in many modern British cities. I find a new appreciation for my home country.
While not quite fitting the previous ‘British’ theme; the Steamboat Dinner is equally traditional as the rest. Steamboats, or Hot Pots as maybe better known elsewhere, were introduced to the Cameron Highlands by Chinese traders in the colonial era. They quickly became the food of choice to keep warm in the cool evening hours. For those new to Steamboat Hot Pots they come as hands-on eating; choose your own meats, your veg, your noodles, throw into the soup pot and cook through. Serve in a small bowl with sides of hot, sour and tangy chilli dips. Having eaten my fair share of hot-pots through the years I find almost all to be new at the Cameron Highlands Resort. With a choice of two from six steamboat broths we find it hard to look past Tom Kha Kai; a Hot and Sour chicken coconut soup originating from neighbouring Thailand. The second, to keep the experience local, we order the Soto a Malay spiced chicken soup broth. In our mixed meat and seafood selection come giant prawns and beef so soft I can swish them like shabu.
With a sneak peak of the lunch menu the previous night I mull over the choices in my dreams. Fish and Chips? Farmhouse-Style Pie? Pot Roast? I’d happily go back just to finish the menu. For this visit I settle with the Cottage Pie which proved to be the best of my life (putting past microwave meals to shame). Crisp topped with cheddar cheese and matched with perfect mash. Fanfan’s lamb cutlets in mustard-jus so good she wouldn’t let me taste them. Eating at the Cameron Highland Resort is no doubt top notch but I do carelessly make one slight slip from my nostalgic trip. Waking to the smell of freshly baked scones on our guestroom balcony I somewhat forget we are in Malaysia, a country where pork comes few and far between (Halal). Ordering the English Breakfast I find chicken sausage and beef bacon a combination leaving me hankering for my much-loved pork equivalent. Delicious all the same but to do-over I’d likely go with the corned beef hash.
The cool climate of the Cameron Highlands is what makes this area unique and it is what first attracted the British as a retreat to somewhere more familiar. With them they bring not only tradition but agriculture and all sorts of unexpected flowers, fruits and veg for the region are found decorating the hillsides. The most noticeable however is the strawberry, somewhat iconic to the Cameron Highlands and popular with Fanfan and Asian visitors “It’s like strawberry heaven up here”. With strawberries growing in my back garden I fail to muster the same excitement. Pulling away from the ‘strawberry tourism’ it is the scenery I fall for, the tea plantations and quaint British charm throughout. To explore the region it is likely best to go independently with cheap local taxis (30RM per hour through the Cameron Highland Resort). The nearby towns or Tanah Rata and Brinchang are also unique in local life and can easily be reached by taxi (10RM each way). At the resort they also host the only “Jim Thompson Trail” which follows a quick jungle trek and the disappearance of the famous Thai Silk Tycoon nearby. This is a story I was unexpectedly engrossed in and there’s a full post to come. (For full details on the Cameron Highlands Resort)