In a corner of Malaysia surrounded by rainforest lies a hill station that would like to think it is forever England. Here you can play a round of golf, enjoy high tea and sip a double scotch before dining on roast leg of lamb, capping off a tip-top, spiffing day with a cup of cocoa by a roaring log fire. The Cameron Highlands are Malaysia's answer to Darjeeling, an outpost of the British Empire that has been forgotten by time, but not by Malaysians of a certain age and background. Although Malaya gained independence from Britain in 1957, there remains a great deal of affection for the Old Country, and many privately educated Malaysians hanker after a semblance of times past. Come the weekend, come the exodus from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. Men load golf clubs into the back of the Proton and hang a dinner jacket above
In a corner of Malaysia surrounded by rainforest lies a hill station that would like to think it is forever England. Here you can play a round of golf, enjoy high tea and sip a double scotch before dining on roast leg of lamb, capping off a tip-top, spiffing day with a cup of cocoa by a roaring log fire. The Cameron Highlands are Malaysia's answer to Darjeeling, an outpost of the British Empire that has been forgotten by time, but not by Malaysians of a certain age and background. Although Malaya gained independence from Britain in 1957, there remains a great deal of affection for the Old Country, and many privately educated Malaysians hanker after a semblance of times past. Come the weekend, come the exodus from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. Men load golf clubs into the back of the Proton and hang a dinner jacket above the back seat. Women make a last-minute check of jewellery and evening dress. Fun is take seriously in the Cameron Highlands.
Named after William Cameron, a surveyor who chartered the region in the 1880s, the Highlands lie 200km north-west of Kuala Lumpur. They sprawl over an immense ridge some 1,500m above sea level – too low for altitude sickness but high enough to escape the wearying heat of the tropics.
The adventure begins as soon as you turn off the motorway – "like your M4 except with rubber trees", Tony, our Anglophile taxi driver, informed us – and start winding up into the mountainous interior. According to the guidebooks there are more than 650 bends. Tony said that we were doing well to escape with only three head-on encounters with cars overtaking on blind corners. The vegetation was soon dense and lushly green. Across gorges we would see immense swathes of jungle, the trees so closely packed together it looked impossible to even put a fingernail's width between them.
By the side of the road we passed bamboo houses on stilts, home to the Orang Asli, Aboriginal tribes who have inhabited this area for 40,000 years. Wearing little more than loin cloths, they were washing clothes in the streams, or running scratchy roadside stalls, gazing unblinkingly back at us from a different world.
Soon we were above Ringlet, the lowest of the hill towns in the Cameron Highlands. Deftly evading a pick-up truck overtaking a motorbike on a hairpin bend, we passed a lake and came to our accommodation, the Lake House. As far as mock Tudor goes, it was closer to the genuine article than the average footballer's home. A vast slanted roof ran down to black-and-white beams, wisteria and latticed windows. An umbrella-lined veranda led to a huge reception hall, complete with mounted moose heads and sepia pictures of yester-year's flannelled toffs. The staff were dressed in tartan waistcoats, and the rooms were cosy, with four-poster beds, modesty curtains and rocking chairs.
You'd be well advised to pack an appetite with your formal dress. After lunch (asparagus soup and square-cut salmon sandwiches) we explored the billiards room and ambled around the lawns until high tea (Devonshire cream, strawberry preserve and tea cakes) before adjourning to the bar for a pre-dinner glass of Tiger beer. Dinner, where that jacket and tie will come in handy, offered a wide range of steaks and world-class, startlingly expensive wines brought on a tray covered with mock grapes.
After breakfast the following morning (porridge, inevitably) we explored the tea plantations of the Blue Valley Estate. The big player here is the Boh estate, formed by John Archibald Russell, who gained a concession to grow tea in the Highlands in 1927. Boh is now the standard household brand in any self-respecting Malaysian household. The original tea stocks came from Darjeeling and among the bonsai-like shrubs were plantation workers in full swing. They are paid 20 sen (4p) a kilo, though a swift tea plucker can collect up to 200 kilos in a shift, giving them a daily salary of £8. The British used to watch the Malaysians do this back-breaking work. Today, the bottom of this particular food chain is occupied by the Burmese or Nepali migrant worker. Staff are housed in living quarters painted in sky blue and their children are provided with a basic education.
We then drove up to the highest point in the Highlands at Gunung Brinchang, 2,030m high. To the west through a transparent haze lay the steamy plains; eastwards, the mist slowly rose above the softly visible forest canopy. The tourist industry markets the Highlands as the "valley of eternal springs", and with its hibiscus, macaque monkeys and rare birds, such as the white-tailed Robin and the yellow-breasted warbler, it is easy to fall in love with the natural beauty of the place.
One man who fell for these charms was Jim Thompson, the American responsible for the post-war re-discovery of the silk industry in Thailand. He disappeared in 1967 while on a visit to the Cameron Highlands and the affair remains a complete mystery. Some reckon he was eaten by one of the few remaining tigers. In truth, it came to light that Thompson was a former operative for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, and conspiracy theorists believe that he met a messy end after being caught up in a bodged Cold War kidnapping. Or perhaps he faked his disappearance to set up a new life elsewhere.
If Thompson's body is out there, then thanks to the enthusiastic loggers beavering around the Highlands, it will not be long before his remains are exposed. The Cameron Highlands are on the verge of becoming the ultimate example of over-development. The lake that lent its name to our hotel today runs a muddy brown; this discolouration is caused by the soil washed down the hillsides where the forest is being logged in the stampede to build new hotels – from which to admire the view of the lake. It is a case of nature biting back.
Huge, ugly condominiums now leave scars upon the forest. Ironically, this may be the saving of the landscape. The removal of all things bright and beautiful would result in a dramatic drop in the number of visitors. In turn, the tourist industry would shrink and the Cameron Highlands would return to nature, leaving the land neither to the Malaysian, nor to the British officer class, but to the original tenants, the Orang Asli. It's a fanciful thought.
A taxi from Kuala Lumpur to the Cameron Highlands costs about £60 and takes 3-4 hours. A bus costs £10. The Lake House hotel is at 30th Mile, Ringlet; www.lakehouse-cameron.com; 00 60 5 495 6152. A two-night package costs £126 for two people, and includes accommodation, a jungle tour, breakfast and one afternoon teaReuse content