Tea Plantations and another trip into the Green Hell

Cameron Highlnds_Taman Negara-9Apart from KL not being my favorite place on this earth, I can generally take big cities for only a limited time before the desire of getting back to the outdoors takes over again. So after a few days in the big city it was about time for me to head back out there to find the next adventure. The plan was to first hit the Cameron Highlands, famous for its vast tea plantations and cool climate which should be a relief after humid Kuala Lumpur. After a few days in the highlands I wanted to go into Taman Negara National Park, home to the world’s oldest jungle being about 130 million years of age. As these brief descriptions already implicate, the experiences there would be two completely different ones with one being a test of my boundaries.

Colonial flair and mystic nature in the Highlands
I got a regular bus to the town of Tanah Ratah, the main gateway into the Highlands. I arrived late at about 10:30 and hence wasn’t able to make any arrangements for the following day. I set the alarm early to have some time for a first orientation. But as things go when traveling, I met two sisters from Germany who had signed up for a day tour taking in a tea plantation and some other attractions in the area. Usually skeptical of organized tours, it seemed like a good alternative to get a first impression of the Cameron Highlands. I was able to join the group on a short notice and off we were into the famous Highlands. Our first stop was an animal and butterfly farm. It was a total letdown with reptiles and other animals not being kept and taken care of like they should be. I won’t even bother posting pictures here – just make not to go there and not support places like that.The next stop was one of the big tea plantations the Cameron Highlands are so famous for – the Boh Tea Estate in the North. And the stop was actually very nice. We had stopped on the side of a hilly road which was overlooking the vast tea plantation. It was all lush green and the hilly landscape made it look surreal. The tea planted there is black tea only, no green tea. A lot of it is still plucked by hand which is backbreaking hard work. We pulled into the tea factory and witnessed the production of the regions finest tea. After getting a little lecture on history and processes we wanted to try it and got ourselves a cup of their premium blend. I am not the big expert but the taste was very good and smooth.

Chilling in the planatation.

Chilling in the plantation.

Sampling that premium tea of the Cameron Highlands. Good stuff...

Sampling that premium tea of the Cameron Highlands. Good stuff…

We then headed higher into the mountains to the so called mossy forest. The forest is high up at level with the clouds and mist which gives it a very cool and moist climate. This climate is ideal for moss to grow and hence the name “mossy forest”. It is a strange and mystical place. Rather cold, very quiet because all that moss absorbs sound almost completely, covered in a blanket of clouds and mist. Strange and fascinating. The hike through this surreal environment was very enjoyable.

After a couple of not so special stops we got dropped off in the town of Brinchang. Me and a guy from Belgium wanted to take one of the trails that cut through the Highlands back to our base in Tanah Ratah. After some difficulties finding the start of the trail, we were alone in the forest or should I call it jungle. It seemed like it but the climate was much nicer. It took us about three hours along the sometimes rough trail to get back and we didn’t get lost once. Getting lost on these trails can actually become a problem as we were told. Actually a British couple which I met during my bus trip out of the Highlands told me their story of getting lost and being rescued in the middle of the night. No fun I guess. Our hike was fine though and we exited the forest in bright daylight.

Hiking through the Highlands. Trail from Brinchang to Tanah Ratah.

Hiking through the Highlands. Trail from Brinchang to Tanah Ratah.

Tea, tea and more tea
At the end of the day I thought that I hadn’t seen enough of those tea plantations and decided to hire a motorbike the next day to go exploring on my own. Once again this proved to be a great idea. Can’t ever go wrong with renting a motorbike. I took off at around midday and made it to the first big plantation after about 6 km. The weather still wasn’t great but the scenery was already more spectacular than on the day before. I snapped a few pictures, had a drink and continued down the curvy road. My final destination was the second Boh Tea Plantation in the South East. On the way I passed a lot of fruit and vegetable farms. The cool and moist climate is ideal for farming and the Highlands are hence Malaysia’s number one producer of fruit and vegetables. After a few roadside stops and a 6 km drive through the huge plantation I had finally arrived at the highest point. The view was amazing and the sky had finally cleared. The plantation was bigger, greener, more picturesque and better maintained than the two I had seen before. Cutting into the green were small farm and storage houses as well as trees and colorful bushes. The air was filled with this subtle but ever present scent of freshly cut tea. It was pretty and with the wind in my face I stayed for at least an hour just taking in the views and serene atmosphere. I finished off the day with some more tea and British lemon cake. The colonial past is still very present in the Highlands.

Bharat Tea Plantation ... one of the bigger ones.

Bharat Tea Plantation … one of the bigger ones.

On the way to the Boh Te Plantation down South.

On the way to the Boh Te Plantation down South.

Impressions from the Cameron Highlands

Impressions from the Cameron Highlands

The view from the top of the Boh Tea Estate

The view from the top of the Boh Tea Estate

Too much tea

Too much tea

On the way back I came across a big market with a lot of food stalls. It was a nice surprise and I didn’t hesitate to sample some of the local specialties. Some good and some…. maybe not so good. But always worth trying. All of a sudden I heard loud drums and singing. I tried to find the source of this noise and discovered a Hindu procession heading for the local temple. I think it was Hare Krishna because that’s what the worshipers were singing. From a big decorated wagon the clergymen were handing out fruit and other giveaways to not only worshipers but also bystanders like me. The atmosphere with all the singing and intense dancing was very energetic and positive. Great to watch and a great and unforeseen way to call it a day.

Enter the green hell of Taman Negara
After those two days in the Cameron Highlands my plan was to take a bus to Taman Negara, Malaysia’s largest National Park. It covers a huge area of primary, lowland rain forest, it encompasses three states and covers an area of about 4350 square kilometers. My bus or minivan arrived in the sleepy town of Kuala Tembeling. From there we had to take a 3 hour boat ride in a small wooden boat to the gateway into the Jungle. A small village named Kuala Tahan nestled right along the Tembeling river. Checked into my guesthouse, I started arranging things for my next adventure. I planned hiking into the jungle alone and sleeping somewhere with my hammock. I then wanted to return in a loop like hike the next day. So I stocked up on water and supplies, got some info from the park rangers and packed my small backpack. I was ready to go and just hoped for good weather meaning no rain which can happen without notice at any time there.
The next day I took a boat across the river and started the hike at the ranger station. The first part was easy, taking me to a popular tourist spot which was the “Canopy Walk”. This major attraction of Taman Negara is the longest suspension bridge in the world. It is about 530 meters long and strung up to 40 meters high above the forest floor. This canopy walkway consists of 9 bridges and 10 platforms. Originally developed for research purposes, the canopy walkway is now mainly used by nature enthusiasts to see the rainforest from a unique perspective. It was an experience and I just thought that this must be the way monkeys and gibbons see the world.

Canopy Walk . high up in the trees.

Canopy Walk. High up in the trees.

But I wanted to get away from the tourists and penetrate the thick jungle deeper. I passed the sign warning to not go without guide with a smile and started the adventure. What was fun at first started to become very exhausting quickly. The climate was insanely humid. Water was just running down my body and after an hour or so my clothes were completely soaked as if I had taken a swim in them. The trail also proved to be very challenging with a lot of ascends and descends, often only with the help of loosely installed ropes. I still decided to take the detour up Mount Indah. It was actually nice because up there a cool breeze was blowing and I could recover a bit from the merciless heat and humidity down in the jungle. I was hesitant to continue but I had to still make about 8 km of the 12 km trek. Things didn’t get easier but rather worse with leeches trying to get at me being successful a few times. Nasty creatures. When I grew most impatient and was most exhausted I finally reached the jungle bridge leading to a junction which I had identified on the map. The thing looked like taken straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. I knew I only had about an hour more to go. Arrived at the junction, I decided to go the river first to take a bath. It was just so hot. When I made it to the river banks, I was greeted by a surprise. I discovered a long abandoned bungalow resort right on a hill overlooking the river. The wooden bungalows were mostly collapsed or just about to do so. It had an enchanted and a little bit spooky atmosphere. I liked it and decided to stay and set camp right there. After a dip in the river (which was all but refreshing) I got out my provisions and enjoyed the last light on top of the hill overlooking the beautiful scenery. I was exhausted but happy I had made it. Lying in my hammock by the small campfire I had made, I called it a day.

My campsite with a view (and a chair). Exhausted but happy - although I don't look like it I guess.

My campsite with a view (and a chair). Exhausted but happy – although I don’t look like it I guess.

During the night I decided that I really didn’t want to do such a kamikaze hike again. I needed a way to get back without walking. My idea was to hitchhike on the river. What works on the road can just as well work there, right. So the next morning I got up early and waited patiently for a boat to pass by. It was still covered and misty and I was hoping for a quick pick up. And I was lucky. A boat full of local villagers heading to Kuala Tahan, exactly where I needed to go, passed by and I managed to get their attention. They boat man steered his wooden vessel over and agreed to take me on board. That worked great and the boat ride back was very scenic. Unfortunately I still had to pay the captain upon our arrival. Oh well, nothing is for free and the experience was definitely worth it.

Hitchhiking by boat back to Kuala Tahan.

Hitchhiking by boat back to Kuala Tahan.

Last thoughts…
It was nice to get out into nature again after having spend too much time in Kuala Lumpur. At the same time I was a bit surprised how touristy these two places already are. Both destinations are also frequented by the regular holiday makers, traveling for three weeks or less. I guess this is because the places are easily accessible without wasting much time. At the same time however, I could dodge the crowds fairly easy. Once again it was proven that tours are not really my kind of thing whereas motorbike tours definitely are.
My jungle experience was a memorable one but I came to the conclusion that I don’t want to do a several day trek in an environment like that. The climate is crazy and I had a pretty hard time in there I have to admit. Funnily I found out later that there are two trails to where I was going. I took the tougher one. The trail back, the one I was supposed to take the second day, would have been way easier. Wish the park rangers would have given me that info. Next time….

Categories: Culture, Malaysia, Trekking | Tags: , , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “Tea Plantations and another trip into the Green Hell

  1. brooklynbrentton

    looks amazing

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Thanks a lot. It was cool but generally the places were a bit too touristy for my taste. Still good fun though 🙂

  2. kirstysnest

    I absolutely love your photography! You capture such beauty in the simplest of images, I can almost smell the food and hear the sounds!

  3. Great post as usual, but my favorite part has to be the photography. Phil, you really bring a lot of life to every post. Loving it!

    • Hi Travefy, thanks so much for your feedback. I really appreciate that. Always takes a bit of time to pick the right pictures to go with the stories. And editing them of course also takes some time. Getting positive comments like yours makes it worthwhile though. Thanks again, mate!

  4. Nice. I bet that was an awesome hike. Great shots as always 😉

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hey, long time no see. The hike was cool but also damn strenous. I was swearing out loud at one point… but it made up for a great memory hehe

  5. Well, that’s what you get for laughing at a sign that tells you it’s dangerous to go on alone 😉 It’s bad luck! Seriously, haven’t you seen on TV how any time someone laughs and goes past a “Don’t Go Here It’s Not Safe I Mean It” sign, they have wild and dangerous adventures?

    I’m just teasing. But that’s pretty gutsy to keep going alone through wild jungle areas, even when it gets so exhausting. Those bungalows look really neat, though! I love secret, abandoned places like that, and the way the light’s shining on the path in front of one bungalow (Cameron Highlnds_Taman Negara-29) really does give it an enchanted look.

    Meanwhile, those views of the plantation hills really are surreal and beautiful. Some of the tea fields are so steep! I do hope the Estates follow fair trade standards in terms of how workers are treated.

    • Hi Nerija, how are you doing? I guess I was provoking it. But hey, it was an experience which I would not wanna miss. I just had to go exploring by myself because everything else, the tours and all that, were just not my kind. And all of that was quiet pricey as well. Doing my own thing seemed like a good alternative and it usually is just that. I am glad I saved the money and had that original experience. Thanks a lot for your compliments on the pictures. I personally find none of them really, really special. I always try my best but sometimes the object is not right or you as a photographer are just having a bad day. I can say that after this trip my photography just made a huge leap. I am giving my best to post those pictures very soon. It will be all about Myanmar – a country so magical that I sometimes still cant believe it … Greetings from Saigon, Phil

      • I do understand the feeling — I once went for what turned into a much longer hike than I’d planned around the hills where some of my family live in San Diego, California. There are lots of actual trails, but after a while I got curious about some of the wilder areas and, ignoring the definitely-not-domesticated cat-like paw prints I’d seen earlier (besides cougars, I think I’d heard there were coyotes in the area), started exploring until I got myself good and lost.

        At one point I was literally crawling through brush and trees up one of the hills just because I wanted to know how much I could see from the top — I knew there were farms all around, and there was the sea not too far away, though there was no guarantee the hill would be high enough to see that far.

        After a while, though, the brush and trees got too dense and I was getting scratched up like crazy, so I turned back around. By this time, I didn’t know where I was in relation to my aunt and uncle’s house anymore, and couldn’t remember which paths I’d taken to get here. So I decided at least to find one of the main roads…which also proved to take longer than I wanted.

        I got to an area with some houses along a dirt road. It may have been here that I called my uncle (or maybe it was when I was on the main road), to ask if he could pick me up, but I wasn’t able to tell him where I was, so I said I’d call again in a bit.

        Outside one of the houses, there was a woman with a few children. She spoke only Spanish, and exhausted as I was, I suddenly couldn’t remember the word for “road.” I just managed something like, “I’m lost. Looking for…like this [I pointed at the driveway] but black.” Luckily she understood what I meant and I finally got to a main road, where my uncle picked me up and drove me back home, all scratched-up and sunburned. At least I got a great workout!

      • Wow, what a story. Good thing you made it back. I would bet that you were pretty scared at one point. But yeah, getting lost is part of the adventure and most of the time it is a present “getting lost”. Sometimes it can turn out to be a rather unpleasant experience like yours or in parts as mine. But then you still have a crazy and entertaining story to tell. Getting lost is always good, no matter what. Thanks for sharing your story here. It actually just gave me the idea to write an article about the topic of “Getting Lost” in the future. I think it will be after I have completed my trip. Thanks for the inspiration. Maybe, if you like, you can contribute a little to that article once I start writing it…. Greetings, Philipp

      • I’d be honored! Thanks!

  6. I remember my first trek in Mt. Pinatubo on your pic – My campsite with the view and the chair and a red plastic – i also have that “kodak moment “/ gasping for air that you want to look good in the pic but your expression cant because youre so exhausted hahahah. Its a Mautak (or wise) thing to do when you hitchhike in the river, of course, nice pictures. Galing!

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