High tea

Steve and I now know how the tea gets into our teabags (on those occasions when we drink tea instead coffee, i.e. rarely.) We learned all about it Friday in Cameron Highlands. This region of Malaysia is an archetypal former British “hill station,” shockingly cool, high, and misty — in all ways perfect for growing Camellia sinensis. I’d been on a tea plantations in Uganda and Rwanda, but had forgotten how glorious they can be. Few agricultural crops are more beautiful. In Cameron Highlands the sculpted bushes blanket the steep slopes and rolling valleys in a quilt of greens so bright and intense they make the Irish countryside look insipid.

We had arrived in the town of Tanah Rata late Thursday afternoon, after a trying almost-7-hour journey from the jungle, so we didn’t feel like doing more than checking into our charming B&B (the comically named Do Chic In), dropping off our dirty laundry in town, having a few drinks, and eating a good Indian dinner. Also, after consulting with one of our hostesses at the guesthouse, we had her book us into a half-day tour of some of Cameron Highlands’ most popular activities. 
Visiting the Boh tea factory (founded in the 1920s by a Scottish family that still owns it) is near the top of the list, though as it turns out, tea-processing isn’t anywhere near as complicated as wine-making; we blew through the factory pretty quickly. Basically you dry the freshly picked leaves overnight, then crumble them, let them “ferment” for an hour or two, toast them, and screen them into different particle sizes. All this was being done on the original machinery installed in the factory almost 90 years ago.

Dried tea leaves being loaded into the toasting machine.

I popped briefly into the gift shop, and Steve and I tasted two varieties of the Boh in the tea room, but the hour allotted to our stay at the plantation felt more than adequate. In contrast, I wished we had more time in the Mossy Forest that lies further up the mountain. Less than a week before, we’d been dazzled by the magnificent artificial Cloud Forest biome in Singapore, where we’d learned about the wonders of these rare and fragile ecospheres. Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, we were in an actual example of one!

It was magical. A penetrating fog pressed in around us, but there was enough light to take in the spectacle of moss covering almost every surface. The sole exception was underfoot, where the layers of compressed compost had built up over the ages to a depth of 12-15 feet. It gave a bouncy quality to walking on the flat stretches, though mostly the path wound upward for the short distance it extended.

Our guide Francis was 40, born and raised in Cameron Highlands. His grandparents immigrated here from south India.

It may look a bit creepy, but it felt like the setting for a fairytale with a happy ending.

The massive rhododendrum trees were dripping with huge and fantastically colored (carnivorous) pitcher plants.

After the forest, everything else we did in the highlands was an anticlimax, if pleasant. The whole area is all so British; we got the most intense dose of that when we had tea and tea sandwiches and scones and clotted cream in a dead-perfect clone of an English country pub. 

We tried to burn off some of the calories by taking a long walk back to the guesthouse, detouring through a state park with a beautiful waterfall. Then I got my head and neck massaged (less than $10 for 30 minutes with a master), while Steve did email in a nearby coffee shop. In the evening, we ate a Chinese feast cooked by the guesthouse owners (for about $6.50 per person) and discussed politics with the two Dutch couples also staying there.

Now we’ve moved on to our final stop in Malaysia, the city of George Town on the island of Penang. Once again, we’re sweating profusely and eating some of the best food in Asia.

One thought on “High tea

  1. Wes Mudge October 15, 2016 / 1:23 pm

    Now this sounds like fun!

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