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Tuesday 1 January 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Malaysia - Cameron Highlands

The biggest and most famous of Malaysia's hill stations, Cameron Highlands is situated 200km north of KL, at 1500m above sea level on a high plateau, with a British-style climate.  First recorded by British surveyor William Cameron on a mapping expedition in 1885, in colonial times it was a welcome retreat for merchants and administrators from the sultry tropical heat.  They were followed by tea planters and vegetable farmers, and before long the forested hillsides were cleared to make way for tea bushes, vegetable crops, English-style cottages and a golf course.

Cameron Highlands' most famous visitor was the US-born Thai silk merchant, art collector and military secret agent Jim Thompson, who went for a walk in the jungle in 1967, and was never seen again.  His fate remains a mystery until today.   Happily this seems to have been a one-off event, and for today's visitor, there are a number of attractive forest walks in the area, and sturdy boots are an advantage.

Cameron Highlands represents a different aspect of Malaysia to the popular sea-side towns and islands, and is a great destination for the traveller looking to experience the variety that makes up today's Malaysia.  Cooler, it is a good place for walking, the remaining jungle is thick and lush, and it's an ideal spot to relax and take stock.

The villages are small, and visitors tend to do outdoor activities during the day, and relax in the spas, and eat in their hotels in the evening.

Where to Stay

Cameron Highlands Resort

The YTL Group's five-star Cameron Highlands Resort is one of the most elegant hotels in the region, and it was here that I spent a couple of nights.  A 56 room boutique hotel, it was rebuilt in 1976 in the style of an English colonial home, and recreates life when the empire was at the height of its pomp. Named among the "Five Best Tea Plantation Hotels in the World" by The Independent (UK) in 2007, it has dark wood panelling, plain white walls, green-coloured lighting, and impressive log fireplaces along with a games room, cocktail bar and afternoon tearooms. It is situated in front of a massive golf course which is open to residents, and has two restaurants and a spa village.

I enjoyed the restrained elegance and refinement of my room.  It was decorated in white, cream and dark brown tones, with a wood latticed ceiling, a rotating ceiling fan, and furnished with a king-size four poster bed. It was a tastefully simple evocation of a bygone age and place, and for me as interesting an experience as some of the most luxurious hotels I have visited.

The main foyer, where the tea room was also located, had a grand piano, oriental rugs on polished wood floors, rattan chairs, pot plants and antiques like a wind-up gramophone befitting the hotel's colonial style.

This is a fitting place to soak up the hotel's atmosphere, and for the afternoon tea we enjoyed after a long jungle walk, or the wagyu beef burger I had with chunky fries on my last day there (see where to eat below).

The library has free Wifi for guests, extensive dark wood panelling and crackling log fires as the evening chill sets in.

Breakfast is served in The Dining Room, the hotel's main restaurant, and was in my opinion one of the best meals we had at the resort. On our first day, I went for a large portion of fried noodles, while Dr G opted for the house waffles - filled with banana butterscotch, topped with strawberry compote and cream and a cinnamon battered, deep-fried mango, it was delicious.

It is hard to think of a more European setting in Malaysia than this, and judging by the number of Malaysian visitors, it is clear that it has become a favourite place for those seeking a refuge from the heat and humidity of the rest of the country.

Where to Eat

Since there is little else to do when the sun goes down in Cameron Highlands, eating is the order of the day and most restaurants come to life at night with visitors and locals. Most restaurants are located on Tanah Rata and Brinchang, there are however some good options on Tringkap and Kampung Raja where the locals usually dine.

There is no food which is unique to Cameron Highlands however steam boat seems to be what many restaurants offer, and  given the cool climate I can see why this is such a popular choice.

The Dining Room

The Cameron Highlands Resort's main restaurant, Jim Thompson's Tea Room, serves primarily French dishes with one or two Malaysian options. There is also a Japanese style and steamboat restaurant on the first floor - Gonbei.

Unsurprisingly in such a European corner of south east Asia, the French restaurant was by far the more popular option and this was where I had dinner as I arrived late in the evening at the hotel on my first night.

The décor of the restaurant followed the elegant style of the rest of the hotel, with waiters decked out in crisp white Nehru-style jackets, the tables with white linen, fine crockery and crystal glasses giving a real sense of occasion. 

I never thought I would be eating seafood pithivier in Malaysia, but was pleasantly surprised to tuck into a perfectly baked puff pastry pie filled with tiger prawns, scallops and sea bass in a fine crayfish butter bisque. The pastry was crisp, the fish well cooked, but in my opinion it was the intense seafood bisque which was the winning element of the dish (£10).

Our second starter, braised beef cheeks, was slow-cooked, soft and flavoursome, and served on risotto scented with truffles and a chanterelle mushroom ragout (£10).

Dr G was so taken by my beef cheek starter that he opted for the wagyu beef cheeks and lamb rump for his main course. It was served on braised Savoy cabbage, roasted red onions and a rich red wine sauce (£24). Although I enjoyed sampling this dish, I must admit I could not tell the difference between wagyu and any other good beef cheek.

Talking of repetition, it was now my turn to order the second pastry-encased dish of the meal, and I was glad I did. The lamb loin en croute was baked in a pastry crust with a mushroom stuffing rather like a beef Wellington, and served with braised lentils and a piquant mustard sauce. The meat was nicely medium rare, tender and well flavoured (£27).

We were rather full of pastry and beef cheek by this stage, and so opted to share a rice pudding brûlée for dessert. This was thankfully small, creamy and refreshing, and served with raspberries and vanilla cream (£7).

The wine list was limited and not very good value for money with basic supermarket level wines from £40 upwards - we had water. Despite having a good meal at the restaurant, I thought the prices were a tad steep even by London standards, and it would have been good to have more than one Malaysian option on the menu.

At Gonbei Restaurant, the hotel's more casual restaurant option, we tried the local steamboat - an impressive selection of different greens, vegetables and meats including fish and seafood, noodles and fish cakes were laid out for diners to take their pick. These were cooked at the table in a well flavoured chicken broth.

Jim Thompson Tea Room 

Another legacy of the British in Cameron Highlands is the tradition of afternoon tea. I can think of few more appropriate spots for this in Malaysia, given the enormous tea plantations in the area.

Following a visit to Boh's tea plantation (see 'What to Do' section below), we headed back to the resort for our 5pm afternoon tea, which included a selection of yummy finger sandwiches and delicate cakes, with local teas.

Having trekked high and low in the nearby forest, we were looking forward to lunch. Cameron Highlands Resorts' cocktail bar serves a selection of European bar snacks, including some British favourites like fish and chips, and club sandwiches.

Wagyu beef was too much of a temptation so I ordered a classic American burger with a 250g patty of wagyu beef in a double decker stack served with cheesy fries, homemade coleslaw, pineapple fritters and highland chutney (£12), which I enjoyed.

What to Do

Jungle trails

There are many jungle trails around Cameron Highlands. You can hire a guide, join a group tour or get a map from the tourist office or the hotel and do it yourself. We did the "Jim Thompson Mystery Trail" (organised by Cameron Highlands Resort and headed by Madi, the resident naturalist) which took about 2 hours, and was a fascinating hike through the forest seeing waterfalls, various exotic birds, and lush tropical vegetation.

Returning to the town, we could see that in some areas, deforestation has had an unfortunate effect on the visual appearance of the Highlands particularly where the forest has been cleared to make way for strawberry and rose plantations which require extensive plastic sheeting to protect them from the rain.

Visit the Boh Tea Plantation

Visiting the local tea plantations is one of the most interesting activities when in Cameron Highlands. In 1929, John A. Russell, the son of a British administrative officer, started the BOH Tea Plantation and it is still run by members of his family today. The estate is beautifully manicured and visitors are welcome to view the factory, learn about the production processes and enjoy some tea at the shop, part of a new visitors' centre which provides spectacular views of the plantation.

Cafe at Boh Tea Plantation

Tea-Pickers Village
Spa Village

The Cameron Highlands Resort's Spa Village offers a range of different treatments which make use of a variety of local products, primarily tea, but also including flowers and herbs. There are indoor and outdoor treatment rooms, tea bath rooms and a fully-equipped gymnasium.

Spa Village at Cameron Highlands Resort

I had the three hour Jungle Secrets experience, which started with a soak in a warm tea bath with lemon grass and lemon, followed by a relaxing Malay massage, and a tea-based exfoliating scrub. It was an utterly relaxing experience, and a great thing to do after a day of jungle trekking.

Night Market

'Pasar Malam' or the Night Market takes place in Brinchang and Tanah Rata every Friday and Saturday. Vendors gather at 4.00 p.m. to set up their stalls and sell a variety of souvenirs, vegetables and fruits, plants, cactus, indigenous people's handicrafts and weapons, food and bric-a-brac.

Play Golf

In front of Cameron Highlands Resort, there is an 18-hole golf course located between Tanah Rata and Brinchang. The course is opened to the general public, more details in Travel Essentials below.

Travel Essentials

Direct flights from London to Kuala Lumpur are available with British Airways and Malaysian Airlines.  Middle Eastern airlines provide indirect flights at lower cost, with a 60-120 minute stopover.  For example Etihad (changing at Abu Dhabi), or Qatar Airlines (changing at Doha).

Cameron Highlands can be reached from Kuala Lumpur by taking an express bus from KL's Puduraya Terminal (takes 5 hours). We came by bus from Penang, the journey took around 6 hours.

Cameron Highlands Resort
By the Golf Course Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, Pahang Darul Makmur , 39000
Reservations: +60 3 2783 1000

Cameron Highland Resort's rates start from around £110 per night.

Sultan Ahmad Shah Golf Course (SAS)
Jalan Tanah Rata - Brinchang
39000 Tanah Rata,
Cameron Highlands

BOH Tea Garden
39200 Ringlet
Cameron Highlands
Tel: +605 493 1324


  1. This brought back some memories! We used to visit the Highlands (and Frasers Hill) back in the late 70s and early 80s when I was a kid - exactly for the reason that it was cold. I was entranced by early morning mists and English food such as mint and new potatoes!

    Your trip looks divine.

  2. Coincidentally, yesterday I was watching a documentary about the foreigner heritage in Malaysia: Portuguese, British, Chinese, Indian... The food does reflect all that rich History, and nature-wise you couldn't ask for more diversity. The place looks stunning, Luiz! Will add this destination to my (very long) wishlist. ;)

  3. Dear Luiz,

    Cameron Highlands brings back so many fond memories of my childhood growing up in Malaysia. Thanks for a wonderful recap and Cameron Highlands Resort never looked that good when I was a kid. Here is our wonderful trip back memory lane a couple of years ago.


  4. Beautiful place! I will be taking an organised tour group there in January 2014, with amazing off-the-tourist-trail field-to-fork adventures elsewhere in Malaysia. Check: http://www.ningcatering.com/culinary-tours.php


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