Cameron Highlands Redux
Tanah Rata, Malaysia
Out of the heat and into the tea.
I was up late on my final night in Singapore, and decided it best to not bother going to sleep. I'll typically do this if I've got to get up less than three or four hours before an alarm would rip my out of sleep—it's much less stressful on my morning, and easier to just doze on the transport.
As a full-time traveler, I recognize the importance of an early rise, though it is never welcomed. In Central America, where much of the bus travel is done in dilapidated American school buses that have been tossed across the border into Mexico and found their usefulness further south, overnight transport isn't an option. You need to get where you're going during the day, and sometimes just a few dozen kilometers can take eight hours or more. The only option is getting up before the sun, possibly taking a cold shower, and getting yourself to the bus.
One of the things I'm struggling with while traveling with Tatiana is getting her up on the mornings we need to get moving. I've learned the hard way to allow for at least an hour and a half to wake her up and get her out the hotel door; at least two hours if she isn't already 99% packed; and two and a half hours if I haven't secured some type of food for her before departure (she always wakes up hungry, with or without the baby bakin' in her belly).
Sadly, Tatiana would probably just sleep through an alarm, so if she needs two and a half hours in the morning, that means I'm waking up two hours before I need to, just to get the process moving.
When's the Next Bus?
So, with a relatively early and rainy start in Singapore—I started waking Tatiana up at 05:30 and we arrived at the bus station, a few blocks from our hotel, at 08:00—we bused to the border, glided through customs and immigration, and started clawing our way north through Malaysia.
It was a Saturday morning, and buses departing from the border to Kuala Lumpur were oversold and in short supply. I didn't stress to Tatiana just how important it was for her to get on the departing bus to secure seats while I made sure I wasn't getting screwed for the price of our tickets, and as a result, the legion of Indian men I saw out of the corner of my eye crushed onto the bus just after she'd stowed her backpack under the vehicle. The delay cost us our seats, and a vital hour and a half of time (which was when the next bus was scheduled to depart).
We were on a time crunch. I had absolutely zero desire to stay in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur again, and there was the possibility that we'd be stuck there if we couldn't get to KL and onward fast enough. Bus schedules and tickets can be absolute chaos in KL, and being a Saturday, I was focusing on getting the first bus out of town.
With my sights firmly locked on getting a bus to Ipoh, so we could transfer to the Cameron Highlands, I neglected to explore direct transport options. Waiting for more passengers, and getting more and more irritated with the excessive (near two-hour) delay, I left Tatiana and the exhaust-filled basement of the terminal for a few minutes to confirm we had no direct alternative (which we didn't).
Apparently my idea of "frequent departures" differs substantially from that of my guidebook writer, as it turns out buses leave, at best, three times daily from Ipoh to Tanah Rata. We had missed the last departure of the day by about an hour—stuck there for the night.
I was less than thrilled to be stuck in Ipoh. The town is major transit hub for the western coast of peninsular Malaysia, and is about as close as you can get to a border town feel without the border. The same guidebook that reinforced my (incorrect) notion that there were many buses traveling to the Cameron Highlands, also warned the town had a prostitution problem, and that most budget accommodations charged by the hour. It urged mid-range options.
We ended up crashing hard in a pleasant enough room at the Hotel Sakura, for US$15/night. After having paid US$22.50/night in Singapore for bunk beds in a sweatbox, we took pleasure in place.
I Heart The Highlands
As mentioned last June, the Cameron Highlands are one of my favorite places in SE Asia, and sharing this place with Tatiana has been wonderful.
The husband and wife managing Father's Guest House remembered me, and greeted Tatiana, now five-months pregnant, just as warmly. I knew the place well, and snapped up the best of the free rooms while the other travelers who took advantage of the free minibus from the nearby bus terminal had a tour of the place (and their options).
Just a few short hours travel above sea level brings relief from heat and pollution. Now, I'm certainly one who prefers beach over mountains, but there's no escaping how wonderful it is to feel the crispness of the air in this place. After dusk, it gets quite cold in the Highlands—enough so that I routinely have to break out the pants and fleece pullover. Tatiana picked up a heavy winter jacket at the weekly Sunday market, a few hours after we arrived.
Sadly, the clothing search to accommodate Tatiana's ever-expanding belly has still resulted in little to no new items for her to wear. As a result, I've had to do some modifications to a pair of her pants. The elastic band I fashioned for her has two notches: Tighter for standing, looser for sitting. Poor girl…
Tatiana has shared with me that she really likes small-town atmosphere of Tanah Rata, and the Germanesque styling of the buildings (though the hanging of clothing out the windows breaks the illusion for her). I took her to the Boh Tea Estate, where she, like I, took pleasure in the vast fields of tea bushes, and watching how tea was actually made in their factory.
She absolutely loves the amount of strawberries available—one of the most popular crops in the Highlands. She tells me she's been craving berries during her pregnancy, and has been indulging in fresh strawberry juice no less than once or twice a day.
I pointed out to her the first carnivorous plant she's ever seen, strange purple veggies, and the seasonal mooncakes that I've heard so much about, but never seen myself. The Chinese pastry is traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival, and are filled with a sweet lotus seed paste, surrounded by a thin crust.
The mooncakes are quite heavy, and Tatiana has nicknamed the tasty pastries "tranca-culo cakes." Tranca means "to block" in Spanish, while culo is a rather crude way to say "butt." She smiles and says that this is what people call things in her country that, when eaten, would cure the most severe of diarrhea. Very cute.
On a recent Skype phone call with her family, she was yelled at because there was just a sizable earthquake in Indonesia, and news coverage of the event apparently made it all the Peru. She got an ear-full from her mom because they all thought she was still in the country. Up here in the Highlands of Malaysia, we felt nothing.
For Tatiana and me, the sunsets, friendly guest house, food, and easygoing attitude of the area more than make up for the shiver-inducing temperature of the air (which is especially felt when taking an outdoor shower), and the mutated mosquitoes and other miscellaneous insects that seem to be able to fly through walls, and into our room.
I honestly think that I could burn the majority of a 90-day passport stamp in this place—just relaxing, reading, writing, and walking among the tea… but certainly not mailing letters, as the postcard and letter mailed from the Post Office in town last June never arrived at their intended destinations. Damn, Malay Post Office.