Rustic retreat in Cameron Highlands

Plastic vegetable keychains and monstrous plush toys designed to look like giant strawberries sit wistfully at a makeshift stall by a winding mountainside road in the Cameron Highlands in Pahang. A neighbouring stallholder enthusiastically fries a wok of noodles, anxious to outdo the idle roti prata man a few stalls down.

Along the way, there will be more reminders that you're in Malaysia, lest you forget.

And forget you will from time to time. The misty, mountainous terrain, pseudo Tudor architecture and towering pine trees can be a shock to the system, especially after visiting the tropical islands, steamy jungles and bustling markets.

With its kitschy throwback to colonial times and its laidback Malaysian sensibilities, the Cameron Highlands can seem like a strange fantasy world where nothing makes sense.

Tea for two

Just as it was to the Mad Hatter and his entourage, afternoon tea is a big deal in the Cameron Highlands. Originally designed to offer Malaysia's British settlers respite from the heat and humidity of the peninsula's tropical climate, the settlement on the slopes of the Titiwangsa Mountains now capitalises on its colonial roots, turning that famed English penchant for tea and scones into a huge tourist draw.

The Smokehouse Hotel, a cluster of Tudor-style cottages converted into a hotel and restaurant, remains a key draw of the Cameron Highlands. Famed for its English breakfast tea and freshly baked scones, the restaurant deftly sidesteps cutesiness to provide a genuinely tranquil experience.

The old English charm of the Smokehouse Hotel stands in stark contrast to the ramshackle kampung dwellings just further down the road, where children ride bareheaded on mopeds and adults take multiple siestas in flimsy zinc-roofed houses.

While the Western influences on architecture and cuisine seem to be the biggest draw for visitors to the Cameron Highlands these days, to the locals, it seems, these colonial trappings are just for show.

Strawberry fields

Bizarrely enough, the image of the strawberry will be seared into your retinas by the end of your trip to the Cameron Highlands.

The Cameron Highlands are well-known as a destination powered by agriculture, and thousands of tourists flock there each year in search of a rustic break from their hectic city lives. Various farms and plantations engage in the cultivation of produce as diverse as mushrooms, cacti and roses.

Based on the tourist junk on sale at the glut of souvenir shops, the best-loved of these is the strawberry.

The area between the towns Tanah Rata and Brinchang are littered with strawberry farms, several of which are open to visitors at no charge. Some farms allow visitors to pluck their own strawberries, and several have an in-house café where visitors can sample local adaptations of strawberry ice cream and more unconventional delicacies such as strawberry-flavoured beancurd. The sight of rows and rows of tiny strawberries on the road to maturity is admittedly quite charming.

Clearly, strawberries are big business here. Stalls hawking strawberry paraphernalia in every incarnation imaginable line the streets. Whether you'd like to cart home a beach ball emblazoned with tiny strawberries or a pair of strawberry toe socks, there's something for everyone.

A tale of two towns

Visitors staying overnight in the Cameron Highlands usually base themselves in one of two sleepy little towns, where budget and mid-market accommodation abounds. Both towns can be crossed on foot within minutes.

Tanah Rata is set against a mist-shrouded alpine backdrop and is home to a modest but vibrant dining scene. Western-style cafés serve up plates of pasta and coffee modified to suit the Malaysian palate. The most popular dining options are, however, the Malay and Indian stalls and restaurants hawking Malaysian favourites such as roti prata, kambing soup and piping hot mugs of Milo.

Separated from Tanah Rata by several kilometres of winding road, Brinchang, the larger of the two towns, is also the more subdued. It is home to a large open-air market where local delicacies such as nasi goreng are cheerfully prepared under makeshift tents.

While shuttling between the two towns by taxi can be accomplished within minutes, it is also possible, though challenging, to hike from one town to the other.

The crisp mountain air ensures the walk, though arduous, is a pleasant one, and the strawberry farms, quaint cottages and bucolic atmosphere might for a moment leave you convinced that you're no longer in Malaysia.

Then, a gang of young local Malaysian moped riders speeds past hollering at the tops of their lungs, and your thoughts turn once again to the piping hot nasi briyani that awaits you back in town.

Guidelines

Konsortium Express and Tours operates a coach service that departs from Golden Mile Tower and arrives in the Cameron Highlands in about 10 hours. Alternatively, you can fly to Ipoh via Firefly and drive up to Cameron Highlands.

Enjoy an afternoon of tea and strawberry scones, a Cameron Highlands specialty, at one of the many cafes and tearooms.

Bring home a box of Boh Tea, which is manufactured in the Cameron Highlands from tea leaves harvested at the Boh Tea plantation.

Pack warm clothing. It can get chilly in the Cameron Highlands, where temperatures can fall to 14 deg C.

Explore the natural environment of the Cameron Highlands by visiting the Parit Waterfalls, an easy hike from Century Pines Resort, or by taking a tour to Gunung Brinchang.

Visit some of the Cameron Highlands' quirky farms and gardens such as the Rose Centre, Cactus Point and Ee Feng Gu Honey Bee Farm.

Don't rush, or expect others to rush for you. Life in the Cameron Highlands runs at a relaxed pace.

This article was published on April 29 in The Straits Times.

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