Photo: Tea as far as you can see.

Introduction

Our rating:

The Cameron Highlands promises a natural setting, rolling tea plantations and a cooler climate. It doesn’t really deliver.



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Why should you go to the Cameron Highlands

The Highlands are all about tea, so if tea is your thing, you’ll find some of the best leafy stuff Malaysia offers. The plantations are vast and indeed photogenic (weather permitting). Plantations offer an opportunity to try before you buy and the cool weather is ideal for a steaming cup. Do enjoy the respite from the sweaty lowlands of central Peninsular Malaysia.

Fancy a cuppa with a view? Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Fancy a cuppa with a view? Photo: Stuart McDonald

Set just inside the western border of Pahang State, Tanah Rata and Brinchang are the centre of things. Unfortunately they are both armpits of towns and are the main reason to skip the destination. If you are heading here with images of quaint hilltop villages, reset your expectations. Brinchang is particular is awful. With vast development, dust and trash everywhere, we couldn’t get out fast enough. High density towers rise by the road and nearby forest is bulldozed for more “projects”. The traffic can be appalling. Our guide recounted it once taking him six hours to drive between the two, a distance of under 6km!

On the upside, there is still plenty of forest cover and trails exist for self-guided treks. Though we’d say if forest walking is your primary motivation, Taman Negara is a far better option. The plantations are pretty and lend themselves to a half-day organised or self-guided tour. If you like strawberries, there are plenty of fresh ones to eat. Yes, we’re running out of suggestions here.

Downtown Tanah Rata. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Downtown Tanah Rata. Photo: Stuart McDonald

There are a couple of waterfalls you can walk to, but both had a real trash problem on the day we visited. There are also a bunch of contrived “new attractions” but these are skippable. A new market was under construction when we visited—a large tract of jungle bulldozed for it. Our guide rolled his eyeballs just about out of his skull as he bemoaned the stupidity of it.

Perhaps we’re being harsh and the greater surrounds hold some secret appeal we missed. Weather is cool, and out of season, a few days exploring the tea plantations and walking the trails could be ok. We do think though, for many travellers, one night will suffice.

When to go to the Cameron Highlands

If at all possible, avoid weekends when the two towns are deluged with weekenders. Absolutely avoid holiday long weekends—take our word for it, we learned the hard way. School holidays can also be hectic.

Good weather helps. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Good weather helps. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Weather wise, the wet season is theoretically from November to February. That said, rain is frequent throughout the year. Temperatures float between ten and twenty degrees throughout the year. December and January are the coolest and evenings can be cold—bring a jacket. Much of the accommodation available does not offer air-con.

Orientation

The two towns are set roughly six kilometres apart on the same road. Brinchang to the north and Tanah Rata to the south. We strong recommend staying in Tanah Rata rather than Brinchang.

Travelling on the edge. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Travelling on the edge. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Tanah Rata is home to the post office, a small police station and the bus station. There are ATMs (including HKSB) in the town. 3G internet works fine and most accommodation we looked at offered it for free. There is a small medical clinic at the northern end of Tanah Rata.


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Where to stay in Cameron Highlands

The Cameron Highlands accommodation scene is primarily split across Brinchang and Tanah Rata. Neither town lends itself to descriptions like “charming” or even “nice”. Tanah Rata is just ordinary and Brinchang plain awful, so opt for the less bad, and go with Tanah Rata. There are bucketloads of private apartments for rent online, try AirBnb and other online rental sites for that type of fare. Many hotels, especially at the cheaper end of the stick, are walk-in only.


5-2 Marigold Square, Jl Besar, Tanah Rata.
Under 60 ringgit

Sleepbox Hotel
# 5-2 Marigold Square, Jl Besar, Tanah Rata. T: (010) 666 3362 sleepboxhotel@yahoo.com https://www.facebook.com/sleepboxhotelcameronhighlands/

Set at the eastern end of Tanah Rata, Sleepbox Hotel is our pick of the crop for those looking for a dorm bed in the Cameron Highlands.

Sleepbox has a bit of an unusual layout. Rather than individual bunk-stacked rooms, just about the whole place is one large dorm. Pods run off to the left and right along the corridors weaving through the place.

Easy to find. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Easy to find. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Stacked two high, pods come in single (32 ringgit) and double (68 ringgit) configurations. These are all intermingled and it feels a bit unusual if you are used to dorms in separate rooms. Each has a privacy curtain and charging points, with the upper pod reached by a metal ladder. Bedding is clean and well kept—we slept well.

Shared bathrooms were clean, with enough cubicles to remove much in the way of morning queues. There is also a laundry set-up if you need to get your clothes done. The service is not free, but the price reasonable. Free WiFi is standard throughout the property and worked well.

Pods everywhere. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Pods everywhere. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Also on site is a cafe and common area where the included breakfast is served. This area also has a veranda with seating overlooking the carpark. Unless your bunk is right next to the washing machine you’ll sleep fine. Note though there is a gym on the floor above, so expect some noise from there when class is in.

Downstairs there is a good local restaurant—ideal for a late breakfast or lunch. If you’re after a pub and cold beer, you’re better off to walk into Tanah Rata proper.

Overall Sleepbox ticks a lot of boxes. Staff were friendly, helpful and informative and we’d stay here again. If you prefer a dorm right in Tanah Rata, try Traveller Bunker for similar fare (without the veranda). Shop around online for a discounted rate.


No 1 Lorong Perdah, Tanah Rata.
120 to 250 ringgit

The Beautiful Marigold Hotel
# No 1 Lorong Perdah, Tanah Rata. T: (05) 485 1400 thebeautifulmarigold@gmail.com https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Hotel-Resort/The-Beautiful-Marigold-Hotel-285613742162969/

You’ll find The Beautiful Marigold Hotel slightly up the rise behind Planters. Like the location, the rooms are a slight rise on a streetside joint.

Rooms here are not quite as spacious as Planters, but it all just feels newer and better kept. Standards go for 130 ringgit, superiors 170 ringgit and family rooms for 230 ringgit. This is one of the taller mini hotels in the area, so some of the rooms do offer views of some description over town. A slight win. You’re also that little bit further back from the road, so rooms can be quieter.

Rooms are clean and simple, but work. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Rooms are clean and simple, but work. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Facilities are typical mini-hotel fare. Rooms enjoy bright feature walls and are well lit with plenty of windows. The room we were shown had a flat screen TV, WiFi, coffee and tea making gear and a tiny desk and plastic chair. The bathroom was clean.

The ground floor includes the spacious lobby area. Outside is a comfortable deck which we’d imagine is a decent spot for relaxing after a day exploring around the highlands.

Beautiful Marigold will appeal to those after a newish hotel at a not unreasonable price. The location is just a minute away from many of Tanah Rata’s restaurants and agencies. Note we were told the hotel has no lift, so bear that in mind if booking a higher floor room.


44-A Jalan Besar, Tanah Rata
120 to 250 ringgit

Planters Hotel
# 44-A Jalan Besar, Tanah Rata T: (05) 490 1001 plantershotelcameron@gmail.com http://www.plantershotel.com.my/

A bit tired, but with spacious and well located rooms, Planters Hotel is a reliable if dated option in the centre of Tanah Rata.

Smack bang in the centre of things in Tanah Rata, the location is just about the best thing Planters has going for it. Restaurants and travel agents run out to the left and right from the lobby, with a pub and more just across the road.

Rooms are dated but spacious. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Rooms are dated but spacious. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Rooms are dated and staid, but are of a decent size. Standards (95 ringgit) are the cheapest fare, but the deluxe (127 ringgit) are worth the extra. The triple rooms (190 ringgit) in particular are of a good size and have plenty of windows to let the light in. Note that with all that light comes traffic noise, so if you are a light sleeper, pack earplugs. The bathroom in the room we were shown was clean, with, we were told, very hot water. Rates jump roughly 50% on weekends.

Facilities include flat screen TV and WiFi throughout the property. On weekends, making a booking in advance would be prudent. If you want a hotel that is a bit newer and quieter, consider the Beautiful Marigold set behind here. Plenty of other mini-hotels are along this same strip of the main road, though many seem to be walk-in only. Both Ar Rakyan Boutique (an OYO property) and Zermatt Hotel are also decent options if you can grab a discounted rate online—they are just to the east of here. Shop around online for a discounted rate.


Map of where to stay in Cameron Highlands

Map of where to stay in Cameron Highlands

Map legend

Click on the hotel name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.



Where to eat

Much like the accommodation, the culinary scene in the Highlands is anything but memorable.


The most common recommendation we received, over and over, was to have a seafood hotpot. Given the cold evenings, it is easy to see the appeal of a bowl of steam and food, but these are best enjoyed with friends. For the solo traveller, especially those on a budget, other fare also works well.

Breakfast of champions. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Breakfast of champions. Photo: Stuart McDonald

We started each of our day with roti canai and a coffee, and on this front there are a few to choose from. First, for a simple cheap hit try the roti canai stall which sets up roughly opposite the Planter Hotel. For something more comfortable, in the food centre on Jl Mentigi, try Man Cameron.

Cafes (even Starbucks) dish up breakfasts along the strip, but often don’t open till 8am. So, if you’re working on an early start, we say all the way with roti canai.

You can always find chicken rice. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

You can always find chicken rice. Photo: Stuart McDonald

For lunch and dinner there are a few restaurants along the strip that the regular crowd pleasers. Most do everything from banana leaf combos to chicken rice and mutton curries. While the prices are not unreasonable, servings can be very large, so consider sharing! Restoran Sri Brinchang and Restoran Kumar are both stalwarts and just about side by side. Convenient.

For late night grazing, Highlanders Restaurant is open 24 hours. It is at the rear of the large Camellia block which dominates Tanah Rata. The food is ok, but the competition is slim in the middle of the night. This is a popular spot to stop by after the nearby Traveller’s Pub closes for the evening.

Comfort food. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Comfort food. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Out of left field, Jasmine Coffee House does a couple of pretty amazing grilled duck dishes. Price wise perhaps a splurge, but if you are in need of comfort food, this is the place. There’s also a full bar and plenty of other fare. This a good option for families with picky eaters turning their nose up at dishes elsewhere.

For a cold beer at the end of the day, Travellers Bistro And Pub is a proper pub and sports bar. There is a full bar and plenty of tap beers and the happy hour takes a bit of the sting out of their prices. Popular and very pleasant on a Sunday late afternoon.

Map of where to eat in Cameron Highlands

Map of where to eat in Cameron Highlands

Map legend

Click on the restaurant name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.


Restaurant contact details and addresses

Highlanders Restaurant Rear of Camellia Block, Tanah Rata.
Jasmine Coffee House Jl Besar, Tanah Rata.
Man Cameron Jl Mentigi, Tanah Rata.
Restoran Kumar Jl Besar, Tanah Rata
Restoran Sri Brinchang 25 Jl Besar, Tanah Rata. T: (05) 491 4982
Roti Canai stall Opposite Planters Hotel, Jalan Besar, Tanah Rata.
Travellers Bistro And Pub Camellia Block, Tanah Rata.

Highlanders Restaurant
Rear of Camellia Block, Tanah Rata. Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia
Under 5 ringgit
Jasmine Coffee House
Jl Besar, Tanah Rata. Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia
Under 5 ringgit
Man Cameron
Jl Mentigi, Tanah Rata. Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia
Under 5 ringgit
Restoran Kumar
Jl Besar, Tanah Rata Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia
Under 5 ringgit
Restoran Sri Brinchang
25 Jl Besar, Tanah Rata. Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia
T: (05) 491 4982 Under 5 ringgit
Roti Canai stall
Opposite Planters Hotel, Jalan Besar, Tanah Rata. Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia
Under 5 ringgit
Travellers Bistro And Pub
Camellia Block, Tanah Rata. Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia
Under 5 ringgit

What to see and do

Exploring the Cameron Highlands

As you may have gathered, we’re not fans of the Highlands’ two main towns, Brinchang and Tanah Rata. Don’t fret though, as it isn’t all bad news. There is some wonderful scenery outside the towns and some good forest walking too. Here’s what to do.

The Highlands primary attraction is rolling hills covered in tea plantations. These can be extremely photogenic (unlike the two towns). Alongside plantations, there’s a “mossy forest”, a few waterfalls and some walking trails. Most of these highlights can be seen in one rather full day, or for those with more time, spread across two days.

There is no shortage of tea. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

There is no shortage of tea. Photo: Stuart McDonald

These points of interest are a bit far flung from the two towns and can be time consuming to reach. You can visit these under your own steam by hired car or scooter, but doing a tour can make sense—and save you money. A typical tour will take in the Mossy Forest, a tea plantation (most likely Boh) and a few viewpoints.

Both half day and full day tours are available, but the full day tours will appeal most to those with kids. These often feature attractions like the butterfly farm, strawberry farm and Time Tunnel Museum. A half day tour seems a better bet to us. We used Discover Camerons and both the tour and the guide were excellent.

At the Glasshouse. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

At the Glasshouse. Photo: Stuart McDonald

If you are planning on doing it yourself, scooters are for hire at a kiosk beside Planters Hotel. They cost 30 ringgit for a half day and 50 ringgit for a full day. If you are not licensed, please read up on how this may affect your travel insurance if you have an accident. Also watch out for the police, who will fine you. Please wear a helmet. The Cameron Highlands Discovery Map is decent and is available for sale at chemists.

Our first stop was at a photogenic spot within Boh Tea Estate. There the guide gave us a comprehensive talk about the history of tea and we took plenty of pics. From there, we pushed onto the Boh tea factory, shop and restaurant. The glass walled restaurant is once of the most photographed aspects of the Cameron Highlands and it is a cracker. You can also buy tea to take away or to drink (though be prepared to queue). We loitered here for perhaps an hour.

The view is more impressive than the moss at the official mossy forest. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

The view is more impressive than the moss at the official mossy forest. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Onwards to the “Mossy Forest”. This is a section of forest that is, well, very mossy. One area has wooden walkways along with an observation tour, but it costs 30 ringgit to enter. Guides will suggest it isn’t worth the money (we largely agree though the view from the tower is good). Instead they’ll point you to an “unofficial trail” which you can wander for free. Your call.

After the moss, the tour took us to another couple of tea plantation viewpoints, then it was back to town. Rather than return to town, we had the guide drop us in Brinchang, then we walked back to Tanah Rata via a forest trail.

Take a wander in the woods. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Take a wander in the woods. Photo: Stuart McDonald

According to our map there are twelve trails in all. We took trail two then three then five, which led us through some pleasant stands of forest. The walk took us about three hours at a slow pace and we only saw three other people on it. It was no Taman Negara, but it was still very pleasant. The trail was in decent condition and not too much work. It also beats sitting in the traffic between Brinchang and Tanah Rata for hours.

It was on one of these very trails that American spy-turned-silk-king Jim Thompson disappeared on Sunday, 26 March 1967. He was never found, so do keep your eyes peeled.

Other trails will take longer and the quality of the lesser travelled trails can be patchy. When we asked about trail ten to twelve, we were told it would take all day and the condition of the trail was “bad”. Ask around and be sensible about your fitness. Always take sufficient water and a hat. It is not advisable to walk alone, although we did.

Yuck. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Yuck. Photo: Stuart McDonald

If forest walks are not your thing, there are two accessible waterfalls from Tanah Rata. Robinson Waterfall is about a twenty minute walk to the southeast of Tanah Rata. Parit Waterfall is a five minute walk to the north. Both are pretty, but were badly littered with plastic and other rubbish when we visited. We would not even consider swimming at either, so consider these fairly minor distractions.

You could do a tour (or DIY) in the morning, then walk a trail in the afternoon and will have covered the main bases. Unless you have a strong interest in tea, or like walking, it is difficult to justify a longer stay in the Cameron Highlands.

Don’t forget to look up. Photo taken in or around Cameron Highlands, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Don’t forget to look up. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Those with an interest in the forest will be far better served at Taman Negara. The towns, especially Brinchang, are just not particularly conducive to lingering. We suggest pushing on the next day—we wish we had.

If you want to do a tour, we have no hesitation in recommending Discover Camerons. Another operation who we found impressive was Eco Cameron Travel & Tours. If you are looking for a freelance guide, we met Jalis Ardi on trail three and he seemed to really know his stuff.

Discover Camerons: 67B Persiaran Camellia, 3, Tanah Rata. https://www.discovercamerons.com/
Eco Cameron Travel & Tours: 72-A Persiaran Camellia 4, Tanah Rata. T: (05) 491 5388 http://www.ecocameron.com/
Jalis Ardi: T: (013) 938 2810 https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100011906584123

Map of Exploring the Cameron Highlands

Map of Exploring the Cameron Highlands

Map legend

Click on the point of interest name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.



Getting there and away

Bus

The main bus station is in Tanah Rata, right in the centre of things. It is within easy walking distance of most of the hotels and restaurants. If you are staying in Brinchang, let the bus driver know so they can drop you off.

Consider buying your ticket a day before, especially if travelling on weekends. The buses do fill up. Guesthouses and hotels may offer to arrange ticketing for you, but they may not be able to sell tickets for all bus companies.

Sample destinations and fares include:

Georgetown: Departs 09:00, 14:30 costing 32 ringgit
Gua Masang: Departs 10:00 costing 45 ringgit
Ipoh: Departs 08:00, 14:30 costing 20 ringgit
Johor Bharu: Departs 09:30 costing 90 ringgit
Kuala Lipis: Departs 08:00 costing 45 ringgit
Kuala Lumpur (Sentral and TBS): Departs 08:00, 09:30, 10:45, 13:45, 16:00 and 17:30 costing 35 ringgit
Melaka: Departs 09:30 costing 65 ringgit
Perhentian Islands: Departs 10:00 costing 130 ringgit
Taman Negara: Departs 08:00 costing 75 ringgit

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Getting around

There are no Grab services in the Cameron Highlands. Local drivers can be found at a kiosk beside the bus station. Fares between Brinchang and Tanah Rata are fixed (no meter). Otherwise drivers charge 25 ringgit per hour with a minimum charter of three hours. They will charge more again if you want to go to the Mossy Forest—just do a tour.

Scooters can be hired from a kiosk beside the Planter Hotel. They cost 30 ringgit for a half day (five hours) and 50 ringgit for a full day (ten hours). Please wear a helmet. You’ll be asked to leave a photocopy of your passport and you are not permitted to ride further afield than the Cameron Highlands area.



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