Found, then lost

    Cameron Highlands are named after the man who lost the pulchritudinous place, oddly enough.

    Surely, the same man found it as well. But immediately afterwards he lost it. The losing part has, in all likelihood, made the guy more famous than the finding part.

British quest for hill stations

    The place itself, the Cameron Highlands, is a beautiful, lush highland plateau at an average elevation of 1800 m in north / central peninsular Malaysia. It has a pleasant climate to match, reminiscent of European spring and summer. But yes, the British surveyor William Cameron, who discovered it in 1885, promptly lost track of it. It wasn’t rediscovered until the 1920’s, some 40 years after Cameron lost sight of the site.

    When Malaya (present-day Malaysia) was a British colony, back in the pre-air-conditioning days, many of its British administrators and civil servants found it difficult to endure the sweltering tropical climate. Yearly vacations to Europe were rather an impossibility. So local recreational solutions were very much in demand. What the British administrator’s were looking for were “hill stations”, places in the tropics with high enough elevation to lower the average temperature to a level endurable for cold-blooded Britons.

Found again, belatedly

    One of the tasks for surveyors like William Cameron was to find possible sites for such cool “hill stations”. This he did, but for some inexplicable reason he failed to mark his discovery on his map. Fortunately but belatedly, similar surveying expeditions in the 1920’s rediscovered the site. Soon afterward it was thoroughly colonised and converted into a British “hill station”, a cool colonial resort in the equatorial tropics.

    The only road leading to Cameron Highlands starts from the lowland town of Tapah. In spite of being frightfully narrow, it carries two-way traffic. But in a different sense it’s a “one-way street”, because you’ll have to return the same way, there is no other way out. The trip up to the highlands, along this steep winding road, is a worthwhile undertaking by itself. Among many spectacular locations, it carries you through the territory of the Orang Asli (= “first people” in Malay), the primitive original inhabitants of peninsular Malaysia, and affords plenty of scenic views.

Tea and vegetables

    Once up in the Highlands, you will meet a string of miniature towns, only a few kilometres apart -- Ringlet, Habu, Tanah Rata, Brinchang. Without question, Cameron Highlands is still an important resort site, with Tanah Rata (= “Even land” in Malay) as its main tourist centre.

    But nowadays plantations for growing tea and various vegetable products like strawberries, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, green peppers and lettuce are equally important for the local economy. Britons who stayed on after the colonial epoch, or moved in later, run many of these plantations.

Switzerland in the tropics

    It is hence said by many that Cameron Highlands has a British atmosphere. This may be true. Yes, some of the houses are built in Tudor style. But my impression –- I happened to visit Cameron Highlands at Christmastime –- was more of an oddly dislocated Switzerland. The design of the hotel where I was staying –- the Strawberry Park Resort in Tanah Rata -– rather reminded me of Swiss rural architecture, and so did many of the nearby houses. At the Christmas Eve dinner we were treated to English Christmas carols, sung by a well-rehearsed choir of local Britons, how wonderfully British! But my mind was still set on Appenzell, or some such alpine location in central Europe.

    When in South-East Asia, do visit the Cameron Highlands! It’s a delightful contradiction in terms. It makes you understand that life itself is a contradiction. And most of all, it’s rather delightful.


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