High Road Across Malaysia – Part 2


In this post I continue my coast to coast journey across Malaysia via Cameron Highlands, Gua Musang & Lake Kenyir. See Part 1 for the map.

After a 6am breakfast at Kampar I set out for the Cameron Highlands via the old Tapah road (Route 59).

First stop was a quick look around the Kuala Woh Recreational Forest. It is tucked away in a hidden valley at the foot of the Titiwangsa mountain range. The early morning air was refreshingly cool but the camping, chalet and toilet facilities looked rather run down and there were too many mosquitos around. The river looked clean enough and the whole place smelt of tasty durians since August is the peak season for this pungent fruit.


Next stop was Lata Iskandar, one of Malaysia’s most accessible waterfalls being located right next the busy road. This place can get busy at weekends and holidays but since it was still early I had it to myself. I climbed the steps to get a good view of the upper cascade. Everywhere was clean with no litter so somebody had been doing a good job.


From here up until the Cameron Highlands there were numerous roadside stalls selling handicraft items, fresh fruit and vegetables. Most of the vendors appeared to be from the Orang Asli community.

Ringlet, Cameron Highlands

Where Perak borders Pahang the Cameron Highlands begins with the town of Ringlet, probably the least developed of the three Cameron Highlands settlements (Ringlet, Tanah Rata and Brinchang) at an altitude of around 1100 metres above sea level. My car thermometer displayed a very comfortable reading of 20°C, which is about the average daytime temperature for this high altitude district, cooling to a chilly 14°C at night.

The Lakehouse Cameron Highlands. Hotel, Restaurant, Bar & Spa

It has been a few years since I’ve been to the Cameron Highlands. The towns themselves have not changed much. For some years they have been rather ugly, sprawling places with too much traffic. Anyone expecting a quaint colonial hill station would be disappointed although there are still some nice parts such as The Lakehouse  Hotel and the manicured tea estates. What has changed in recent years however is the explosion of land clearance for agricultural purposes, some of it illegal, which has resulted in vast swathes of the Highlands being covered in polytunnels (see this close up satellite view as an example).

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The Cameron Highlands are covered with plastic greenhouses and shade netting to protect fruits and vegetables from the elements and insects.

While it is generally a good thing that Malaysia should grow more of its own flowers, vegetables and fruit, the forest clearing and hillside levelling has been done in an uncontrolled way resulting in serious flooding and landslide problems in recent years.

While in Brinchang I took the opportunity to visit the Time Tunnel, an interesting museum crammed with photographs, memorabilia collections and artefacts from days gone by.

Beware of the tapirs. An endangered species, the chances of meeting a tapir in the wild are close to zero.

At Blue Valley I turned onto the Gua Musang road (185) and soon found myself in Kelantan state. ‘Polytunnel-land’ continued for several more kilometres before finally turning into a more natural landscape as the road began its slow descent from the uplands. It was a good road, partly dual carriageway and elsewhere with frequent overtaking lanes, not that they were needed as there was hardly any traffic. A great road for trying out your new motorbike.

The town of Gua Musang is the administrative hub for the district of the same name which covers a large chunk of southern Kelantan. Until the Central Spine Road (Federal Route 8) was built, Gua Musang was a very isolated place and could only be reached via the Jungle Railway.

During the Emergency, its isolation made it a target for the Communist bandits who attacked the township with a 300 strong force and seized control on 17th July 1948, killing one policeman and capturing another 15. Their aim was to establish a liberated zone from which to extend their grip on the country. A relief force of army and police, supported by the RAF, successfully recaptured the town five days later.


Gua Musang means Cave of the Civet Cats (or foxes). The limestone hills here are honeycombed with holes and the main cave behind the old railway station was believed to be home to a pack of mysterious civet cats, spawning various ghostly legends such as that portrayed in the 1960s comedy thriller film Pontianak Gua Musang.

Being one of Malaysia’s more conservative states, alcohol is not so readily available in much of Kelantan. This traditional Chinese liquor shop in Gua Musang however had a surprisingly wide selection of spirits and potions.

I stayed overnight in Gua Musang at MyHome Hotel which was perfectly adequate apart from having no window. You can’t expect too much for RM 70 per night. On my receipt I noticed they had written my address as British Indian Ocean Territory. That should confuse Tourism Malaysia’s visitor statistics if they monitor such things.

I’ll continue Part 3 of my High Road Across Malaysia journey in the next blog post.

High Road Across Malaysia – Coast to Coast via Cameron Highlands, Gua Musang & Lake Kenyir


The usual way of crossing from the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia to the East Coast, at least for people in the Klang Valley area, is via the East Coast Expressway from KL to Kuantan. It’s an excellent road with some nice scenery and the 250 km journey can be completed in about 3.5 hours.

I wanted to try an alternative route, much longer and slower and hopefully even more scenic via the Cameron Highlands and Gua Musang and from there on minor roads though palm oil plantations as far as Lake Kenyir in Terengganu. Here is a map:

Google Maps calculates the distance as 502km and the travelling time as 8.5 hours though I would not recommend attempting it all in one day. I lingered 3 days on the trip.

I started my trans-Malaysia crossing at Kampung Pasir Panjang Laut, a small village near Sitiawan, Perak on the shores of the Straits of Malacca.

This was the western-most point of the route, a small patch of unhealthy mangrove forest in front of an interesting Chinese temple called Tua Pek Gong.

One of its main attractions of Tua Pek Gong temple was a bendy tunnel in the shape of a dragon which I entered through its mouth and emerged from its tail. The interior walls of dragon were lined with murals depicting the Ten Chambers of Hell and illustrated in gory detail the gruesome tortures which await those who do not live a moral and respectable life in this world. Enlarge the bottom right photo above for an example.

Having seen enough, I drove inland on Highway 5 through Sitiawan and Ayer Tawar.  My route road crossed the Perak River near Bota Kanan where I visited the Conservation Centre for River Terrapins.

There were some sizeable mature terrapins in a couple of the holding ponds but they were fairly shy and only popped their heads above water to take bites from floating cabbage leaves.

Continuing on Route A15, I passed a sign for Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge. I visited this place five years ago (and blogged about it) but decided to drop in again because I had read somewhere that it is now possible to go inside this giant relic from Malaysia’s tin-mining era. Sadly that was not the case. Renovation work was still ongoing and visitors were only allowed to view the exterior for the time being.

Weaver birds’ nests at Tanjung Tualang.

Next stop was the small town of Malim Nawar. A quirky tourist attraction here was a brick chimney built by the Japanese during WWII for the manufacture of carbide, which is presumably the black charcoal like stuff shown below.

Next stop, still in Perak, was the town of Kampar, once a centre of tin-mining as evidenced by the large number of lakes left over from mining activity which can be seen in this Google Maps image.

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Google Map showing the lakes and ponds near the town of Kampar which were the result of tin mining.

Nowadays Kampar is thriving as a university town with the campus of University Tunku Abdul Rahman located here with other universities nearby. Here are some photos of the Kampar, mostly the old part of town.

Military historians will know that Kampar was the site of a significant battle during WWII and one of the few Allied successes in the whole Malayan Campaign. Most of the fighting took place on a series of ridges on the edge of town near the Chinese Cemetery. I tried finding the Green Ridge where some shallow trenches are supposed to remain. I know I was in the right general vicinity but failed to find any battlefield remains. I should have tried to contact a knowledgeable local guide to show me around this area.

The Battle of Kampar was fought around here.

Considering the modest size of Kampar town, it has an enormous hotel, the Grand Kampar Hotel, with 155 rooms. Since they were offering the cheapest rates in town I opted to stay overnight. I asked the front desk manager if they ever managed to fill the hotel. Seldom it seems.


I’ll continue Part 2 of my High Road Across Malaysia trip in the next blog.

Fraser’s Hill or Cameron Highlands?

If you are touring Malaysia and would like to visit a hill resort but do not have time for both, which one should you visit, Fraser’s Hill or Cameron Highlands?

Fraser’s Hill is closer to Kuala Lumpur and therefore quicker to get to if time is an issue (2 hours compared to 4 hours for Cameron Highlands).

Both resorts are at a similar altitude (15oom) and enjoy a relatively cool climate (by simmering Malaysian standards).  Fraser’s Hill was the damper and colder of the two during  our visits but that may have been due to the time of year (August for Fraser’s compared to December for Cameron Highlands).

Both were named after Scots and were originally intended to be Raj-style hill stations with English style bungalows, rose gardens and so on. Fraser’s Hill retains more of that atmosphere due it being by far the sleepier of the two.

Both have golf courses (9 holes in Fraser’s) and both have hotels called Ye Olde Smokehouse. We stayed in that hotel in Fraser’s Hill. Nice if you are feeling nostalgic about England. They served traditional British fare, the rooms were spacious with 4 poster beds and there was a cozy bar (empty). A bit like an up-market Fawlty Towers in the tropics. No, that’s being a bit unfair. It is actually a smart hotel for a special occasion or a romantic getaway.

Manuel, get the Major his gin.

Both resorts have jungle trails. Leeches tried to attach themselves to our legs at Fraser’s whereas we didn’t encounter any at Cameron Highlands but that could have been due to the weather. Both resorts have waterfalls nearby.

Jeriau Waterfall, Fraser's Hill

Overall there was not a great deal to do at Fraser’s Hill. There was a definite off-season feel to the place with many establishments closed. Besides the hotel there were only one or two places to eat and just a couple of general stores were open. To be fair our visit was 16 months ago and I am aware there were plans to develop the place so perhaps things have changed since.

On the other hand there were plenty of attractions during our recent trip to Cameron Highlands and a much greater choice of restaurants, shops and accommodation. 

We had a nice time at Fraser’s Hill but I’m not in any great hurry to revisit. As they say, ‘Done that, been there and got the T-shirt’ (actually I didn’t get the T-shirt as there weren’t any on sale).

If I had to chose between the two I would suggest Cameron Highlands.

Ye Olde Smokehouse, Fraser's Hill

Cameron Highlands – The Jim Thompson Mystery

The Cameron Highlands shot to international prominence in 1967 when famous American businessman, Jim Thompson disappeared forever while holidaying in this Malaysian hill resort.

Jim Thompson lived a remarkable life.  He was born into a comfortably off family in Delaware in 1906. In World War Two he was enlisted in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, and he was involved in various secretive operations in Europe and North Africa. After Germany surrendered, Thompson was assigned to the team preparing for an invasion of Thailand.  Just as he was on the way to be parachuted into north-east Thailand, Japan surrendered and the invasion was called off. Nevertheless Thompson still got to go to Bangkok to help the Thais with the transition to peacetime.

He was discharged from the military in 1946 at age 40 and I suppose you could say that he had the ultimate mid-life crisis. Instead of buying a red sports car or growing a ponytail or any of the strange things that middle aged men usually do, he went out and almost single-handedly resuscitated the Thai silk industry. In the process he became even more comfortably off. He was worth over a million dollars by the time of his disappearance which was in the days when being a millionaire was still something special – like being a billionaire today. He spent some of his wealth on an exquisite traditional Thai house in Bangkok in which he displayed, with impeccable taste, his  fabulous collection of Asian antiquities and works of art. This house is a museum today and I visited it a few years ago. I bought this splendid coffee table book as a remembrance.

Jim Thompson The House On The Klong

The house was put together by dismantling old wooden buildings which Thompson found in various parts of Thailand and transporting them to his plot in Bangkok for reassembly. 

Over Easter in 1967, Jim Thompson and a lady companion were staying with a Singaporean couple in their holiday bungalow, The Moonlight Cottage, in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. One afternoon, while the others were having a siesta, Thompson seemingly went out for a walk and never returned.

During my recent visit to the Cameron Highlands we roamed around the vicinity of the bungalow. I briefly entertained the thought that it would be exciting to stumble upon some clue to solve the mystery of his disappearance but that would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is certainly thick jungle in this part of the world.

Even the trees have trees growing on them.

And anyway, hundreds of police and trackers searched for Thompson in the days after he failed to return to the cottage but they couldn’t find anything.

There are various theories about what might have happened. These include:

  • He got lost in the thick jungle, he met an accident or was attacked by a leopard, wild boar or tiger. Tigers were not quite as rare those days (but no evidence of any attack was found).
  • He was kidnapped for ransom (but there was no knowledge of any ransom demand).
  • He was killed or kidnapped by terrorists. There were still a few of them lurking in the jungle after the Malayan Emergency. There was also his CIA connection.
  • He fell into an illegal animal trap and was buried by those who set it for fear of consequences.
  • He committed suicide.

If you would like to read more on these theories I can recommend Jim Thompson The Unsolved Mystery by William Warren.

Even if he did meet his fate in the jungle, the chances of finding any scraps of clothing or bodily remains after all this time are remote.  A large tree can grow in 44 years in this part of the world.

So unless WikiLeaks can uncover a revealing diplomatic cable, or a CIA file is de-classified which can shed light on the affair, I guess Thompson’s disappearance will forever remain an unsolved mystery.

He's out there somewhere, or is he?

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

In an attempt to feel more Christmassy and experience some cool weather, I took the family off to Cameron Highlands for a few days just before Xmas.  From Kuala Lumpur it is about a 4 hour drive. At the request of my daughter, who is prone to car sickness, we took the more distant but faster Simpang Pulai route rather than the windy old Tapah road.  Although the newer highway has less hairpin bends it still has some deceivingly dangerous curves and a bus crashed on the same road the day before our journey and 27 Thai tourists tragically lost their lives.

The Cameron Highlands comprises 3 small towns – Tanah Rata, Brinchang and Ringlet – and the surrounding countryside. It lies around 1,500 – 1,800m above sea level and enjoys a relatively cool climate with a temperature range of between 10 – 25°C. We were able to wear some light winter clothing for a change.

On approaching the highlands you could be forgiven for thinking that they have covered the entire place with poly-tunnels. Horticulture is big business here and the area supplies much of Malaysia’s vegetables. The farmers drive around in ancient Land Rovers (perhaps army surplus?) which seem to be the most common vehicle here.

Land Rover Heaven  Strawberry Heaven

Strawberries are grown in abundance. The speckled red fruit has become the unofficial mascot of the area and its image appears on every imaginable kind of tourist tat sold by the stalls lining the streets.

We stayed in the Century Pines Resort which was offering good value for money. Lots of other people thought so too and the hotel was fully booked. This meant that the  breakfast buffet was one of the most crowded I have ever seen. Hordes of ravenous guests descended like a plague of locusts on the buffet table, picking it clean of anything edible. Even the cups and plates disappeared! The hotel was conveniently located off Tanah Rata’s main street which provided a choice or eating and shopping establishments. We ate dinner at Kumar’s curry house and it was pretty good. Next to the hotel was the start of one of the easier of Cameron Highlands’ many hiking trails.

Cameron Highlands Trail No.4 Cameron Highlands Trail No.4

The Cameron Highlands were originally developed during the colonial era as a hill station where British officials and rubber planters could escape from the sweltering heat below. A few old buildings remain but there has been a lot of development in recent years, not always tasteful, so if you are looking for a quaint corner of England you might be disappointed. However there is still plenty to attract tourists, both local and foreign, who come in their droves. Among the attractions are bee farms, rose, cactus and orchid gardens, temples, an aboriginal village, a golf course, waterfalls and pick-your-own strawberries (or self-plucking as is it is known locally).

Brinchang Town centre  Convent School Tanah Rata

I particularly liked the tea estates and we visited two of them, Boh and Cameron Bharat, and sampled their brews. It was like a wine tasting tour, only with tea. And fine cuppas they were too – strong, full flavoured and fresh.

Boh Tea Estate 

Cameron Valley Bharat Tea Estate

The highest point in the vicinity is Mount Brinchang, 6666 ft. (2031m) and you can drive all the way to the top (possibly the highest road in peninsula Malaysia). Alternatively you can hike up from Brinchang town. There is a boardwalk and tower at the summit which offers a splendid view of unspoilt Malaysian jungle stretching as far as the eye can see.

View From Gunung Brinchang

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