Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957, but quirky imperial fads and flavours still thrive.

In Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, temples stand among towns rich in colonial history, while spice forests give way to endless green tea fields. 

We’re in a thunderous tropical downpour, 150 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur, when our Malay driver, Sham, turns off the expressway that spans Peninsular Malaysia, virtually all the way from the Thai to Singaporean borders.

We steadily approach the looming grey silhouettes of the brooding, densely jungled hills. It’s just after sunset and Sham grips the wheel with his right hand and weaves his left inside and out. “This road,” he says with a friendly grin, “is like a snake.”

For the next hour, we climb slowly but surely into the green heart of the Cameron Highlands, which rise more than two kilometres above sea level. One of South-East Asia’s most beguiling, and yet unheralded, retreats for concerted R&R, this lushly mountainous area of central Malaysia is named after British surveyor William Cameron, who mapped the region on an 1885 expedition. Roughly the size of Singapore, the highlands blossomed as a hill station in the 1930s — a chill-out zone for expats left hot and bothered by the steamier lowlands of British Malaya. 

Like India’s colonial outpost of Shimla, the Camerons developed into a kind of Little Britain — a playground of English schools, mock-Tudor cottages, countryside trails and rose gardens. Despite Malaysia officially gaining independence from Britain in 1957, quirky imperial fads and flavours still thrive in these lofty parts.

It’s pitch-black when Sham drops us off, but I already sense I’m going to like it up here. The loudest noise comes from a gang of trilling cicadas, and the air is refreshingly crisp; a delightful contrast to KL, which, for all its dizzying cultural, culinary and retail-therapy draws, can wear you out with its punishing humidity and frenzied traffic.

I’d initially toyed with the idea of jetting off to one of Malaysia’s tropical islands, but next morning when I wander out onto my room’s sun-kissed balcony, I’m happy with my inland diversion. Our hotel — the dapper Cameron Highlands Resort, part of the YTL corporation which recently reopened the Majestic Hotel in KL — faces the area’s sole 18-hole golf course, which is perched regally before a row of mist-cloaked jade-green forested peaks.

Unveiled initially as a colonial-run six-holer in 1935, these days it’s an endearingly inexpensive, picturesque public course with immaculately trimmed, pine-edged fairways and (in the mornings) dew-layered putting greens. You can play a round for 26 Malaysian Ringgit ($8) — even less if you’re classed as a ‘silver hair’ (over 56 years old). 

“When I was 18, I remember seeing tigers prowling on the golf course,” recalls S Madi, the resort’s resident naturalist and trekking guide. A genteel, silver-haired, non-golf-playing 58-year-old of Indian heritage, he was born and raised in the Cameron Highlands. “But you don’t see many tigers anymore,” he says. “Or elephants. They all live much deeper in the forests. You’re more likely to spot monkeys (long-tailed macaques), gibbons and black panthers.” 

Wild nature permeates the 14 numbered hiking trails that criss-cross the highlands. Some are fairly straightforward; others are more taxing, notably the mossy, peaty ascent to Gunung Irau, the area’s highest mountain at 2110 metres. Self-guided trail maps are available at hotels, guesthouses and tour agencies, but there are occasional reports of hikers getting lost in the jungle. Madi tells me about a surveyor who went missing but was later found alive, having survived on a diet of herbs and plants.

As we stroll along a shady track hedged by vibrant local flora — wild banana trees and orchids, creeper vines, rhododendrons, cobra lilies, and pink and yellow busy lizzies — Madi regales us with the sordid story of the Cameron Highlands’s most famous disappearance. On 26 March 1967, a sunny Easter Sunday, 61-year-old Jim Thompson, an American millionaire known as the ‘Silk King’ for his key role in reviving Thailand’s long-dormant silk industry, went for a quiet stroll in the forest after luncheon. Officially, he was never seen or heard from again. Pointing out the abundant local varieties of flora, fungi and birdlife (butterflies and white-throated fantails regularly flutter by), we retrace Thompson’s fateful route. It began at Moonlight Bungalow — a quaint English-style hilltop abode where the businessman, vacationing from his home in Bangkok, was staying with friends (these days, the cottage is available to rent and is expanding to accommodate more visitors).

Apparently, Thompson was later spotted by the caretaker at a bungalow owned by a Lutheran mission group. It is there that we pause and stare back up at Moonlight while Madi runs through the various conspiracy theories that ballooned after Thompson’s disappearance sparked the most elaborate manhunt in modern Malaysian history.

“Some say he was eaten by a python or a tiger,” explains Madi. “Others claim he fell into an animal trap laid by the indigenous people (known as the Orang Asli) or that he fell down a ravine. Others believe he was taken away by the Orang Bunian (invisible supernatural mountain spirits that are said to stalk the highlands). Some think he was kidnapped by communist insurgents who were hiding in the highlands in the 1960s.”

Madi suggests an intriguing alternative: Thompson faked his disappearance. A wartime officer with the US OSS — the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor to the CIA — Thompson was, some allege, still on the payroll of the US intelligence agencies in 1967. Rumours abounded that he was whisked away from the highlands in a limousine or helicopter, before acquiring a new identity elsewhere. 

The mystery that engulfs the Thompson case is heightened by the very dramatic and often eerie beauty of the highlands. Although the deforestation, landslides and scrappy ill-thought-out developments have certainly taken their toll, there’s still a feast of luxuriant, green, unspoilt scenery. 

A perfect climate and fertile soils have made agriculture the highlands’ dominant industry, earning it the moniker ‘the salad bowl of Malaysia’. Fruit and vegetable plots cluster hills and valleys, and some farms let you pick and eat your own strawberries. Strawberry-packed milkshakes, ice-cream and chocolates are local favourites.

Another highlands staple is tea. A narrow road, buzzing with scooters (some carrying mum, dad and child), leads me out of Brinchang, one of the highlands’ largest towns, and into the quiet hamlet of Sungai Palas and its sweeping, cascading canvas of sculptured tea bushes that fan out from a tea estate founded by a Brit in 1929. The son of a colonial government official, John Archibald Russell noticed that the Great Depression had little effect on demand for tea, and established Boh Tea Garden. Now BOH Plantations, it reigns as Malaysia’s leading tea producer, yielding about four million kilograms annually (roughly the equivalent of 5.5 million cups a day).

Informative estate tours explain the process from tea bush to cup. Strewn with antique yet functioning machinery, the main factory is humming with workers, and exudes a heady, tea-scented aroma. On a high, cantilevered terrace overlooking the fields is where you can sample BOH’s teas. Try fruity infusions like mango tea and Earl Grey with tangerine, and herbal blends like jasmine green tea — but BOH’s signature is undeniably the Cameronian Gold blend. “It’s created using only the tender shoots of the Manipuri and Rajghur jats (tea plants) picked at the highest peak of Sungai Palas,” says BOH Plantations CEO and John Russell’s granddaughter Caroline Russell. Distinguished for its smooth flavour and light golden colour, Cameronian Gold is, adds Russell, “best taken hot without milk.”

A private champagne picnic — delivered by a butler — among the BOH tea bushes is a great deluxe lunch option. But there are also many more down-to-earth alternatives to be found in Brinchang and neighbouring township Tanah Rata: local Malay, Chinese and Indian restaurants; lively weekend and night markets stocking organic honeycomb among a buffet of fresh local produce; and vendors hawking traditional Malay street favourites such as fried hati ayam (chicken heart) and peanut-doused satay sticks.

More refined meals are served in some of the area’s plushest hotels, such as The Smokehouse. With its floral garden and old red telephone box, the place looks like it was plucked from a country lane in Kent. 

British staples such as cottage pie, fish and chips, and apple crumble feature on the lunch menu at Jim Thompson Tea Room. With its lovely rattan chairs, gramophone and other vintage objects, it’s one of three eateries at Cameron Highlands Resort — the best of which is Japanese restaurant and sake bar Gonbei. A sibling of Gonbei San in KL’s glamorous Starhill Gallery shopping mall, it dishes up delicious sashimi and teppanyaki.

On top of the varied hiking and gorging opportunities, the highlands have a clutch of cultural sights to take in — including the Chinese temple Sam Poh, overlooking Brinchang and festooned with colourful dragons, lanterns and giant gold Buddhas. You can also visit Pos Rantau, an Orang Asli village of thatched wooden huts where the residents still partake in age-old customs like crafting bamboo blowpipes for hunting (artefacts are found on sale in shops and stalls right across the highlands).

If you’re feeling either idle or exhausted but still want to experience the traditional aspects of the ancient indigenous cultures, the wellness treatments offered at Cameron Highlands Resort’s Spa Village incorporate tried-and-trusted Orang Asli methods, such as the use of healing plants and root, and bark extracts. I enjoy a triple whammy of minted pampering: a warm mint tea bath; followed by a mint-and-thyme body scrub; then a full-body massage using mint oils. It’s so relaxing I can’t help dozing off.

Then I head for a sunset amble around the golf course — keeping my eyes peeled for tigers, just in case — before retiring to the hotel’s elegant library lounge where the wooden ceiling fans have stopped whirring and the fireplace has crackled to life. 

Wallowing in this colonial-tinged idyll, I lounge on a leather sofa, sip another cup of Cameronian Gold and think I could get used to life in the Cameron Highlands.