Malaysia: In search of... The perfect cup of tea

Tea bags? Don't even mention them. Catherine Jarvie goes to the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, a land where different cultures blend and the tea leaf is king

In 1885 the surveyor William Cameron mapped his eponymous Highlands and established what has become the most extensive of Malaysia's hill stations. With a near-idyllic temperate climate – rarely dropping below 10C or rising above 25C – the Cameron Highlands offered the perfect conditions in which to grow flowers, vegetables and, in particular, tea and it is now the country's main region for tea production. But there is more to this area than a good brew; spectacular scenery and a showcase of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures aside, there are also the fine golf course, pretty flower and butterfly farms, and excellent hiking routes. But the tea leaf is king and all paths lead eventually to one of the producing estates. The region's colonial flavour makes it a perfect to enjoy that most British of obsessions: a cup of tea.

In 1885 the surveyor William Cameron mapped his eponymous Highlands and established what has become the most extensive of Malaysia's hill stations. With a near-idyllic temperate climate – rarely dropping below 10C or rising above 25C – the Cameron Highlands offered the perfect conditions in which to grow flowers, vegetables and, in particular, tea and it is now the country's main region for tea production. But there is more to this area than a good brew; spectacular scenery and a showcase of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures aside, there are also the fine golf course, pretty flower and butterfly farms, and excellent hiking routes. But the tea leaf is king and all paths lead eventually to one of the producing estates. The region's colonial flavour makes it a perfect to enjoy that most British of obsessions: a cup of tea.

 

Gently heat the pot ...

It is only four hours by bus to the Cameron Highlands from Kuala Lumpur but it might as well be another continent. The overheated frenzy of Malaysia's capital has so turned up my internal temperature that it's most definitely time to sit back and inhale some cool, clean mountain air. The Highlands are a verdant draw for well-heeled holidaymakers, budget backpackers and swooning honeymooners alike. Tanha Rata, the main town, caters to them all, offering a lively but laid-back mix of Chinese and Indian cultures with a quaint olde English twist. We settle into some cheap lodgings (our choice – there are plenty more upmarket options available) before hitting one of the Chinese restaurants on Jalan Besar for steamboat, a Highlands speciality and the Oriental equivalent of Swiss fondue. Relaxation at last. My own internal pot rather happily eases off the boil.

Add the leaves and fill with water ...

The most famous attraction around here is, of course, the tea and there are plantations aplenty to visit. Even bigger in scale, however, are the acres of jungle trails, all conveniently staked out, ready for keen hikers. The trails (there are 14) range in difficulty from a gentle amble to all-out physical exertion. We take heed of the story that it was here that Jim Thompson, the American credited with founding the Thai silk industry after the Second World War, disappeared after popping out for a pre-dinner stroll and opt for trail nine, one of the easiest.

The walk is spectacular; all rich, tropical plant-life, delicate butterflies and an interesting interlude navigating our slippery way around an endless trail of giant ants moving house en masse. We are eventually dispatched on to a main road, far from our hotel, as the heavens open. Not normally inclined to accept rides from strangers, we happily leap upon the kindness of two who offer us a lift; a honeymooning couple who deliver us back to town.

Gentle agitation helps the leaves to infuse ...

High in the hills north of Brinchang town, about a one-hour, winding bus ride from Tanah Rata, is the Sungai Palas Tea Estate, owned by Boh, the area's largest producer. The slightly bitter scent of tea fills the air of the factory which offers free tours. Boh produces the equivalent of 5 million cups a day, and we are taken through the seven stages of production; from the "withering" of the green leaf to the final point at which it is "fired" black, ready to be graded and allowed to mature. Nothing here goes to waste. Any stray leaves and dust which fall on to the factory floor are swept up and used for tea bags: I make a mental note to purchase only the finest leaves from this point on.

The tour finishes with a cup of the producer's own in the teashop to the rear of the factory, overlooking the plantation. The sweeping vista is superb, dotted with brightly dressed workers deftly shearing leaves and collecting them in the large, woven baskets strapped to their backs. It is here, too, that we are reunited with the young couple we met the day before and thank them again, for rescuing us from the rain. In contrast to their top-of-the-range hire car we make our way back to board the ancient bus, a bone-shaker which lurches along the twisted roads to Tanah Rata.

Serve with a selection of sweet treats

One of the strangest, yet most appealing, aspects of the Cameron Highlands is its odd colonial air and this is never quite so apparent as when confronted with the charms of Ye Olde Smokehouse, a Tudor-replica hotel and restaurant. Complete with exposed beams, open fireplaces, chintz and mountains of colonial clutter, this really is like stepping into a little piece of a fictional bygone England. There is even an original red telephone box standing proudly outside.

The afternoon teas are a legend around here with lashings of cream on fresh scones to accompany more of the tea. Sitting in the ever-so-pretty conservatory cum garden, complete with rambling roses and an unhealthy number of summer wasps, we can almost imagine ourselves in an English country garden. Quite why we'd wish to do so in the midst of one of Malaysia's most picturesque regions isn't clear. Nevertheless, there appear to be plenty of homesick Brits taking this opportunity to enjoy a nostalgic reverie.

Shall I be Mother?

Well, it's certainly easy enough to organise your own excursion to the Highlands. Malaysia Airlines flies direct to Kuala Lumpur from London Heathrow daily. Fares start from £598 return. Transnasional Express buses leave Kuala Lumpur's Puduraya bus station a couple of times daily and cost less than £5. Alternatively, a long-distance taxi can be hired for around £30, or for true independence there are the usual car-hire companies to choose from, including Avis and Hertz, both with offices centrally located on Jalan Sultan Ismail.

For further information and accommodation lists visit www.cameronhighlands.com.

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