The famous and historic tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands
I can’t say I get over excited about tea. I’m more of a coffee person. But, for views alone the Cameron Highland tea plantations are worth a visit. Moreover, if you have the time, I would recommend at least half a day trekking through them.
My plan was not to sweat here in the mountainous highlands, and it still is. But, with my constant movement over the past few weeks I can’t stay still for long. Even if I am feeling tired.
With a night of rain, the morning mist signaled a chance at a hike through some of the best scenery in Malaysia.
A brief history of the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands
There are several tea plantations located throughout the Cameron Highlands. Bharat and BOH being the most famous. The highly fertile ground about 5,000ft mean several rotations of tea leaves throughout the year.
The BOH plantation was started in 1929 when after several successful colonial businesses, J.A. Russell steamrolled a huge area of land to create a tea legacy. He died a few years later, but the family continued to develop their plantations into one of the largest and best known exports of Malaysia today.
Hitchhiking through the tea plantations
I’d visited the BOH tea plantation on a half day tour previously. And, quite honestly this was the highlight. So much so, I wanted to return without the restrictions of a tour.
While you can drive, or rent a bicycle I choose to hike. The hardest part in all this is getting close to the tea plantations to enjoy their scenic beauty, and to avoid any rain.
A bus does take you close by, but on this day as I set off I tried something I’ve not done in a very long time. I stuck my thumb out. It took 30 minutes, and many tour buses passing by, but soon a silver car pulled over and a Malaysian couple peered hesitantly out of the window.
“You need a lift?”
I did my best at a nice non aggressive smile and nodded.
Now I was stuck, “A tea plantation?”
I shrugged. And, within a few minutes was sitting in an air-conditioned car driving up some windy roads.
Pro’s and con’s of hitchhiking when traveling
While many, people would think it’s great to get a free lift. I was soon being barraged with the history of the region for the tenth time, the usual personal questions, and above all else many smart comments as to why I was crazy to walk when I could drive?
Yes, I was being driven by a rich young Malaysian couple who were more interested in telling me about their wealth, car, and great education than anything else.
Still it served a purpose, within thirty minutes we were surrounded by bright green rolling hills of tea plants. I raised my hand up and asked if the couple would leave me out.
Another barrage of questions and much confusion followed. Apparently I was insane for wanting to get out in the middle of nowhere and walk. But, so be it. I thanked them, waved their confused looks goodbye and waited for them to drive away.
Then I had what I wanted; blissful silence surrounded by the visual impact of historic tea plantations and nature
Walking through the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands
Rather than staying on the road, I couldn’t resist to simply walk out into what looked like rivers of green tea plants that rolled over lush mountains for as far as the eye could see.
The air was cool, but the morning sun was warm making the walk very pleasant. Moreover I really was impressed with the great mix of greens that flowed all around me.
Depending on the tea-plant, the last time the leaves were collected, and the angle of the hill, it all seemed to give the impression one was walking through a surreal green sea.
Modern day tea leaf pickers in Malaysia
A distant drone from an engine reverberated through the air. Too light to be a vehicle, it sounded more like an electric lawnmower. I followed the sound down through the river of tea bushels and soon I found myself staring up at a large wave of darker leaves.
Around another swell of green and the source of the noise revealed itself. Two young men were pulling a strange-looking hedge-cutter like machine with a cloth bag trailing behind over tea plants. These were the modern-day tea leaf pickers.
Today most of the tea leaf workers are not Malaysian. They are immigrants on work visas from Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Each one comes for a minimum of 2 years to live on the plantations working 6 days a week.
They are paid by the kilo of tea leaves they collect. One kilo is valued at 20 cents. They average 300 kilos a day by machine. If picking tea leaves by hand, they could only manage 60 kilos a day. Meaning, it’s no longer possible to earn a living by picking tea by hand.
How to pick tea leaves in Malaysia
Two men run a modified hedge-cutter over the tea plants. It’s been modified with a large metal plate to prevent leaves from escaping and to funnel the cargo into a large sack. Interestingly this device can only harvest leaves from the top of plants, and not from the sides.
To pick leaves from the side of the tea plants they use a manual shears with a metal tray that funnels the leaves into another sack.
Meeting the tea leaf pickers
The men collecting tea leaves pause every ten minutes or so as they make their way downhill. I waved once, and got several huge arm length waves back, along with big smiles.
They were from Indonesia, somewhere in the south. Communication was at a minimum here. But friendliness was at a maximum. There were no calls for money when I asked if I could take their photos, just big smiles.
To me this was worth the four-hour hike back to town. In actual fact, is was worth the whole trip to the Cameron Highlands.
Real people, in a new country; working a simple life just to get by.
Keep your giant tour buses. Stain your old town houses with tourist agency signs. Just give me a field of tea and some immigrant tea workers and I’m leaving the Cameron Highlands with a memory of smiles I won’t forget in a lifetime.
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Heading due north to a new world of old colonial rights