24 January 2020.
Draped across the Titiwangsa Mountains, the Cameron Highlands are a beautiful, undulating ribbon of striking green tea fields and virgin jungle wrapped in low slung cloud.
As someone who believes that curling up with a steaming hot cuppa is one of life’s true simple pleasures, something that brings an instant sense of comfort and calm to wherever I am in the world, this area quickly became the place I was most eager to visit in Malaysia.
You see, on paper the Cameron Highlands has all the ingredients for an idyllic mountain retreat – a cooler climate, lush wilderness, the promise of forest trails and an abundance of premium farm-fresh tea. In photos, this post included, the tea cloaked hillsides paint a similar picture of highland tranquillity.
But sadly, these corners of utter beauty are just a tiny facet of the overall story that belie the grim reality.
The Cameron Highlands are rapidly falling victim to their own popularity, suffering under the weight of overtourism, uncontrolled development and increasing environmental instability.
Today, the villages that dot the landscape have become a charmless hodgepodge of enormous resorts and rundown hilltop hotels. Piles of trash line the roads and flow through the waterways. The narrow mountain road is choked with a ceaseless thread of traffic, replacing the crisp and quiet mountain air with an inescapable haze of pollution and roaring engines. Muddy gashes carve up the landscapes where entire hillsides have been ripped away, the wounds of erosion revealing the desperately sad side effects of rampant development and agriculture.
Even the tea plantations, which still hold plenty of beauty, are marred by traffic jams and overwhelming crowds.
As a place that was once known as a sanctuary, a place to rejuvenate away from the city, this perfect storm has robbed the area of much of the magic that ever existed here.
And it’s an awful shame.
Sure, some beautiful viewpoints and the odd hiking trail still remain in the area, but overall, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by my time here. From the sheer number of visitors to the complete lack of respect for nature at every turn, unfortunately, the negatives overshadowed any positives for me.
Of course, this is not to say that you shouldn’t visit, but if do I would suggest that you temper your expectations, consider visiting in the low tourist season and be very conscious about your footprint when you arrive.
These are my recommendations of things to do in the Cameron Highlands, including which tea plantations to visit and jungle trails to hike.
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Visit The Cameron Highlands Tea Plantations
Nestled in the mountains, the Cameron Highlands provide an ideal climate for tea production.
The vast plantations sprawl across the hillsides, carved into a manicured mosaic of verdant green like the neatly arranged cells of one single organism. Spending a morning lost between the shrubbery is one of the most enjoyable things to do in the Cameron Highlands where you can learn about all things tea and watch the workers go about their day amongst the fields.
BOH Tea Plantation
Easily recognisable by its bright red box and bold white lettering, BOH is Malaysia’s largest tea producer with two highland plantations that offer up spectacular vantage points over the fields.
BOH Sungai Palas Tea Centre is a 30-minute drive north of Tanah Rata and has a simply gorgeous location draped across in the valley with mountain peaks looming in the distance.
Visitors can join a free factory tour which illustrates the procedure for processing the tea leaves. It’s only a brief encounter – no more than 10 minutes – but it’s interesting to see how we get from lush green leaves to the flavourful stuff in our mugs, all while using machinery that has been in operation since the 1930s.
Inside, you’ll also find a tea tasting station and a large cafe which was unfortunately closed on the day of my visit but is reportedly a lovely place for tea and cake accompanied by the beautiful valley views.
Unsurprisingly given the location, this place is one of the most popular stops in the Cameron Highlands and becomes swamped with visitors as the day wears on so be sure to arrive early, around opening if you can.
BOH Tea Garden is the second plantation which lies south of Tanah Rata near Habu. Visitors can take the 10-minute walk to Boh Viewpoint, join a brief factory tour and enjoy a cup of tea at the cafe. The views here are less impressive than Sungai Palace though still beautiful and the area receives far fewer visitors.
Both BOH plantations are open between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday. Things shut down on Monday though you can still access some of the tea fields that lie along the roadside.
Bharat Cameron Valley Tea
Bharat is the other major tea producer in the region with two tea houses set side-by-side along the main road south of Tanah Rata with superb views across the valley.
There’s a nominal entrance fee which allows you to explore the short network of trails that crisscross the plantation before enjoying a refreshing cuppa at the cafe. Visits are 3RM/€0.60 to wander on foot or 12RM/€2.50 to be taken by minivan.
Their easy access means both tea houses are extremely popular and are frequently packed with visitors so be sure to arrive early. Tea house 1 is reportedly the better of the two.
Hiking The Cameron Highlands
Aside from the tea, hiking the jungle trails was the other reason I was keen to visit Malaysia’s green bowl.
Yet, despite being one of the key Cameron Highlands attractions, hiking here isn’t actually all that simple. Many of the trails are poorly marked and maintained, few have decent transport options forcing you to either walk along the busy main road or find a taxi and some are only accessible with a guide.
What’s more, encroaching development has meant many of these tracks are sorely neglected, have been bulldozed altogether or now run alongside expansive construction zones. So much for that mountain serenity, hey!
I struggled a lot when it came to finding where it was actually feasible to hike in the area, so hopefully this information can help you in planning your hiking adventures.
This much-loved boardwalk takes you along an atmospheric jungle path that is made all the more enchanting when the mist rolls in, though this does mean you won’t be able to enjoy the views.
However, since a steep entrance fee was added in early 2019 (30RM / €7), there are simply other places that will offer you far more bang for your buck and instead I’d recommend choosing from any of the jungle trails below. The trail itself is only 600m in case you were wondering if the length somehow justified the cost…
Previously, the area was also well-known for its rare pitcher plants which you’ll see decorating every tour poster in town, but I heard from one guide that these curious plants are sadly now absent from this part of the jungle having been disturbed by one too many visitors.
The Mossy Forest Trail is set 4km behind the BOH Sungai Palas Tea Centre up a heavily damaged road that can only be reached with a 4WD taxi, a tour or on foot.
To arrive on foot, you’ll need to either take a taxi to the driveway of BOH Sungai Palas and walk from there or the public bus and jump off along the main road from where it’s a 6km walk to the trailhead.
This top-rated half-day tour begins with the Mossy Forest walk and includes stops at the BOH Tea Plantation and a handful of other attractions, while this sunrise tour allows you to watch day break across the tea fields before heading into the jungle.
There are 14 official jungle trails in the Cameron Highlands with many able to be combined to create a fun, adventurous day of hiking. Trails 1, 5, 8 and 9 were closed at the time of writing.
Mount Brinchang | The highest peak in the area at just over 2,000m, Mount Brinchang is a steep and arduous jungle trek and a guide is definitely recommended. At the time of writing, the access road near BOH Sungai Palas was closed due to a landslide so be sure to check whether the trail is still open on arrival. The suggested walking time is around 4 hours.
Jungle Trail #4 | This easy half-hour walk skirts around the edge of Tanah Rata towards tiny Parit Falls. It’s paved and makes a decent option for anyone wanting a quick stroll near town or a family-friendly walk.
Sadly, trash is strewn about everywhere, including in the river and waterfall, which detracts hugely from any natural beauty here.
Jungle Trails 2 – 3 – 6 – 4 | Starting from the Sam Poh Temple, this combination of trails will take you deep into the jungle with steep muddy tracks, hanging vines and snaking tree roots in full supply.
Before joining Trail #6, there’s a pleasant lookout across the treetops where the trail widens slightly as you begin the descent. It’s a fun and challenging hike that requires plenty of scrambling and you may just have the place all to yourself.
As an alternative, it’s also possible to hike the combination of 4 – 3 – 7 which leads you up a tough final ascent to the summit of Gunung Berumbun and allows for a circular walk from Tanah Rata. Depending on which route you take, this circuit can take 2 to 5 hours.
Jungle Trails 10 – 6 | Confusingly there are two #6 trails marked on maps.me, however, this one refers to the track on the west side of Tanah Rata that leads to the Bharat Cameron Valley Tea House (the Trail #6 mentioned above lies on the east of town).
The start of Trail #10 can be a little tricky to find and begins on the outskirts of Tanah Rata near Tan’s Camellia Garden (marked on both Google Maps and Maps.Me). You’ll be led along an atmospheric jungle trail up Gunung Jesar for excellent views across the town and valley. Here, you’ll join Trail #6 which will eventually bring you to the Bharat Tea Plantation for the final leg of the hike.
The entire route takes around 4 to 5 hours and to return to Tanah Rata you’ll either need to walk the 5km back along the main road, get a taxi or hitchhike.
Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to do this trail during my visit but have since seen a few people recommend it and would suggest it as the best option for adventurous hikers.
Tips For Cameron Highlands Hiking
Take A Map | Definitely download the regional map on Maps.Me before setting off on your hike. All the trails are marked and labelled here, though some only appear when you zoom in very close. As most trails are wildly overgrown or poorly sign-posted, a map is essential to ensure you can actually find the trailhead and stick to the correct path.
Hiking Times Are Innacurate | The recommended walking times that appear on signs in the area are very inaccurate, often suggesting several hours for a short, if challenging, 1km stretch. Of course, the steep muddy trails will slow you down, but if you’re of a reasonable level of fitness, you should be able to complete the hikes in far less time than the signs would have you believe.
Prepare For The Weather | Despite reading that the Cameron Highlands provide a refreshingly cool climate, I arrived to find conditions only slightly less muggy than Kuala Lumpur. In winter, the mountains can certainly be chilly, but if you’re hiking at other times of the year, prepare to get awfully hot and sweaty. Also, remember to bring plenty of water to keep you hydrated while hiking.
Wear Proper Footwear | This is absolutely not a place to assume flipflops or hiking sandals will be good enough. Trails are often steep, muddy and slippery and involve plenty of scrambling over roots and tree trunks that make for a great adventure, but proper hiking boots with good grip are essential.
Transport | Limited transport in the Cameron Highlands means getting to and from the trails that lie outside of Tanah Rata isn’t always easy. Sometimes it will require you to walk along the main road which is rather unpleasant given the heavy traffic, wait for the very infrequent bus or flag down a taxi. You could also stick out your thumb and attempt to hitch a ride.
A Note On Safety | As a solo female in the highlands, I was strongly recommended by my hostel not to go hiking alone for safety reasons. Though I often hike solo, the combination of challenging terrain, overgrown trails and very few other hikers make it slightly more of a risk. It’s also worth noting that there have been several recent reports of aggressive dogs on some trails that have bitten hikers, mostly around Trail #9. If you are travelling solo, consider finding a buddy to join you for your hike.
Beware The Monsoon | The Cameron Highlands are relatively rainy all year round but receive a heavy monsoon between September and November which can cause some trails to close. April and May can also recieve heavy rainfall.
The Cameron Highlands are served by one winding mountain road that connects a handful of small towns.
Tanah Rata is the main one where you’ll find the bus station, most guesthouses and a number of tour operators, so if you’re arriving or exploring by public transport, this will make an ideal base.
Father’s Guesthouse | The best budget option in town, Father’s offers clean, spacious dorms and private rooms at exceptionally good prices. The hostel is made up of two large buildings, one newly built, just a short walk from the bus station and with facilities to make coffee and tea (naturally) along with plenty of chill out space.
The staff are friendly and helpful and can provide plenty of information on hiking trails, attractions and tours which are popular among guests. Check rates and availability here.
Gerard’s Place | Surrounded by greenery a short way from the town centre, Gerards is a decent budget option for those not seeking the hostel vibe. Rooms are simple but comfortable with a communal lounge and kitchen space. Check rates and availability here.
Cameron Highlands Resort | A taste of luxury in the mountains, this 5-star resort offers bright and beautifully designed suites, a collection of gourmet restaurants, a tea room and a lavish spa. They also offer bespoke experiences, like a luxury picnic in the tea fields, perfect for anyone wanting to make their highland getaway that little bit special. Check rates and availability here.
Long-time readers of The Sandy Feet will know that I almost always prefer to travel independantly, but given the occasional difficulty in getting around in the Cameron Highlands, paying slightly more for a tour or taxi here may not be a bad idea, especially if you’re short on time.
Getting to the Cameron Highlands by bus is easy with frequent connections between Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh. Where the destination is listed as the ‘Cameron Highlands’, this generally refers to the bus station in Tanah Rata as the final stop. Check timetables and tickets here.
The road into the mountains is incredibly windy and slow going with tight bends and constant traffic. If you’re prone to motion sickness, consider taking something before boarding or wearing Sea-Bands for the journey.
Now, while getting to the Cameron Highlands is simple, getting around them is less so.
Currently, there’s just one bus service that plies the route between Tanah Rata and Kampung, departing every 2 hours from Tanah Rata bus station from 6:30 a.m. Apparently, this early morning service operates as a school bus and so passes along the main road, while the rest will originate in the terminal.
It’s a big yellow bus so impossible to miss and tickets as far at the turnoff for BOH Sungai Palas cost 4RM (€0.90) for the 20-minute ride. There’s a list of key stops marked in the window, but if you tell the driver where you’d like to get off, he’ll happily let you out.
Timing the return journey correctly can be a challenge as you’ll need to flag the bus down from the road.
Taxi fares in the Cameron Highlands are set and listed on the notice board at the bus terminal.
At the time of visiting, prices were 30RM (€6.40) for Tanah Rata to Sungai Palas, 120RM (€25.50) for Mount Brinchang and Mossy Forest or 25RM (€5.30) per hour for a multi-stop trip. If you’re travelling as a group, this can work as a reasonably affordable option and is certainly the most efficient way to get around.
Be sure to check and agree on the correct fare before setting off.
Cameron Highlands Tours
There are a huge number of tours on offer around town and while they’re not usually my style, they are undeniably good value and make exploring the area far more convenient than relying on public transport.
Perhaps best of all, there are also sunrise tours available which, along with catching the gorgeous morning mountain light, allow you to visit the area’s most popular spots before the crowds emerge.
Most half and full-day tours include a visit to the BOH Sungai Palas Tea Plantation and one of the short jungle trails, along with various other attractions with prices starting from around 50RM (€11). See tour options here.
If you’re short on time, it’s also possible to visit the Cameron Highlands on a jam-packed full-day tour from Kuala Lumpur that will bring you to all the main attractions. See tour options here and here.