It's a jumble out there

The tea country of the Cameron Highlands blends the cultures of British colonialism with the hybrid flavours of Malaysia's Chinese, Indian and Malay communities: a heady brew. Harriet O'Brien reports from Peninsular Malaysia (below), while in Malaysian Borneo (bottom), Charlie English takes tea with the headhunters of Sarawak
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The Independent Travel
We stopped for cream tea just beyond Tanah Rata. Would we like to sit out on the lawn, asked the Indian proprietess of the guest house improbably advertising this British snack. She ushered us with earnest formality to a bedraggled collection of white tables and chairs set on a clearing of jungly grass. It was, however, a mite chilly and there was a faint drizzle in the air so we sat, instead, in her restaurant alongside faded photographs of the Queen and Prince of Wales as a toothy schoolboy. Tea arrived in a comforting brown pot, with the full works: hot scones, strawberry jam and cream - a slightly tinny-tasting long-life variety.

You can't help doing a double-take in the Cameron Highlands of central Malaysia. Here Surrey-type golf club meets Malay jungle, Indian tea estate and Chinese nursery garden. Beyond the twisting roads you catch sight of large, mock-Tudor half-timbered houses, remnants from the days when the area was a hill resort of the governing British.

Liberally sprinkled between them are big, brash hotels: concrete intrusions that look as if they have popped up overnight to service the hordes of golfers trailing up here from the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and even from Singapore. The golf course itself sits in manicured contrast to the surrounding jungle, a brooding mass of dense green alive with strange insect sounds and the shrieks of unseen birds. And in the tamed hills beyond are tea plantations and nursery gardens (growing cabbages, asparagus, tomatoes, strawberries) that were first introduced in the 1920s.

You can understand why the colonial British loved it here. It's not just that at an altitude of more than 1,500m (5,000ft) you escape the tropical torpor of Malaysia's lowlands, nor the fact that this very fertile area has a profusion of wild flowers, orchids, roses and butterflies: there's a Celtic feel in the mistiness of these small mountains. Indeed, the Cameron Highlands were named after a Scotsman. William Cameron was a colonial surveyor who mapped out this part of the Pahang state in 1885. He was impressed. Roads, houses, plantations and guest houses were developed and by the 1930s the Cameron Highlands had become Malaysia's answer to the British resort of Simla in India.

The best preserved souvenir of British days is the Olde Smokehouse, a copy of an English country pub that is now an expensive hotel where you can dine on roast beef and Yorkshire pud. The half-timbered dovecote and mock stocks in the garden are clearly objects of baffling interest to Malaysian tourists, as is a red telephone box across the way - we watched an entire Chinese family cram themselves in to explore its contents.

But the area is far from a faded relic of British imperialism. It's still a cheerful, rather laid-back playground - largely for Malaysia's ethnic jumble of Chinese, Indians and Malays, although foreigners are also very welcome.

We had driven up from Kuala Lumpur, tailed on the three-hour journey by Malaysia's own-make cars, the ubiquitous Proton, which swooped on us like avenging furies. It's not clear where the Highlands proper begin, but you know you're there when you reach Ringlet, the first of the three little towns in the area.

We pressed on, winding our way past waterfalls and great fronds of overhanging vegetation, to Tanah Rata, an appealing place complete with turreted clock tower and orchid farm. The choice of guest houses and restaurants here (Malay, Indian, Chinese - take your pick) makes this the central spot for visitors. It's a quiet town - nightlife, for example, is limited to a cinema screening Hindu movies. For more hands-on activity the Chinese market at Brinchang, the third townlet a few miles further north, bustles until at least 10.30pm.

Such enticements were not enough to keep me up late. Besides, I wanted to set off early in the morning to go jungle trekking, which is now the thing to do in the Cameron Highlands. Promotional literature and guide books, however, carry a persistent warning: the forest tracks are poorly maintained and it is easy to get lost - and stay lost. The case of Jim Thompson, the American who largely founded today's Thai silk industry, is frequently cited: he disappeared on a jungle walk here in 1967 and was never seen again. Despite this (and Mr Cameron's earlier surveys), maps on offer at Tanah Rata's tourist office are inadequate, jokey little numbers.

Clutching one of these I set out to explore Gunung (or Mount) Jasaar. It was not a great success. After a two-hour scramble I had heard a great deal overhead in the canopy but had seen nothing. And I realised that unless you happen to have a horticulturalist on hand to identify the vegetation, the greenery simply becomes oppressive and enormous ferns lose their spectacular impact. Reaching the summit of a hill gives little sense of achievement: there is no view as you pause for breath, blinking in the foliage.

"Jungle trekking - forget it," I was told dismissively back in Tanah Rata. "It's an eco-adventure craze. You'll see far more of the Cameron Highlands if you just go walking in the tea estates."

Twisting along narrow roads past strawberry farms and flower gardens, it took a while to get into the heart of the tea country, but an afternoon spent ambling along the paths of a plantation was well worth the effort. The views were terrific, and the tea bushes clipped into the contours of the hills seemed to add an extra dimension to the landscape. Brightly coloured butterflies and huge atlas moths brushed over trails of Busy Lizzies, lizards sunbathed silkily on stones, and tiny crested birds darted between small trees. After a few hours exploring this Highland enterprise we headed back to sample the dried and rehydrated product: strong, no- nonsense tea - accompanied by scones, jam and cream.