Tana Rata was not the sleepy highland town I was expecting. Most of the journey from KL was passed in deep slumber, until we reached the dense jungle of the lower mountains and excitement chased away the dreams for the rest of the journey. The bus lurched round sharp corners that dropped away vertically with not much more than a wire fence between us and a fairly uncomfortable landing. Passing first through Brinchang you are assaulted with oversized alpine style rip off hotels; gargantuan, towering, sprawling scars on the landscape. Tana Rata has the same knock off feel but at least most buildings are less than four storeys.
Tana Rata is tiny so it didn’t take us long to find our hostel Orchid Haven, despite being pointed in the wrong direction by the bus driver. Orchid haven is disorganised at best, and a little crowded but I’d definitely recommend a stay here, it feels much more like a home stay in its cosy, inclusive atmosphere. The owner (Yasim) is incredibly involved, speaking to everyone to decipher what they want to get out of their time in the highlands and whether they are more suited to a tour or just some advice on which hiking trails will be enjoyable for their fitness level. Yasim often makes lunch for any guests hanging around at lunch time, as I was one day when he came around knocking and invited me upstairs. He’d prepared a banquet of fried rice, stirfried vegetables, a fish head curry and some fresh but incredibly spicy vegetables too; all for free and absolutely delicious. Noticing that I was suffering a bit of a cold he boiled me up a sweet ginger tea and proceeded to rub my head, back and chest with some natural paste that he said would help, it certainly helped my sinuses but he was incredibly vigorous and got it all over my freshly pierced nose – pretty painful!
Within minutes of being checked in we had been rounded up into a party of 10 heading to an Indian for dinner, a testament to the social nature of the hostel. Boy were we glad that we joined in though, Restaurant Sri Brinchang was incredible, I ended up going back three times! Their banana leaf curries are a must, a huge banana leaf is laid in front of you and loaded with pickles, dahl, vegetables, rice and popadoms, then they bring out a steaming curry of your choice. I’ve got to recommend the dosa too, true to those I had in India, overflowing its stained steel tray with huge puddles of masala, coconut chutney and a green dip I can never remember the name of! We finished the meal off with a few drinks at the Jungle Bar just off the side of town, probably the most sociable bar and fairly cheap. It’s a little dingy and has a locals only feel when you first enter, but the guys there are really friendly and there’s sometimes a huge fire to sip your beers around outside.
Unfortunately I was in the midst of a chest infection so had to skip all but the easiest hiking, not ideal in a town whose main attraction is hiking. Trail 4 was my only attempt, a flat wander through a lush forest which opens out into a beautiful picnic spot that feels entirely isolated from the world.Trees hem in on every sides, swallowing all sound from the road which can’t be more than a few hundred meters away. The park was deserted when we arrived (it being low season for the highland hiking with the plentiful rain making many of the advanced hikes dangerous and prone to landslides) which heightened the eery feel that this man made intrusion had just been plonked at random inside some vast jungle and that you would become lost if you ventured into the foliage in any direction. The Parit falls are a short walk out along a path on the other side of the park, but my advice is to miss them, strewn with plastic and industrial garbage they’re a heartbreaking sight indicating how little the locals care for the nature around them.
Much more scenic was the Boh Tea Estate, just past Brinchang. You can easily hitch hike along the main road to where the estate road branches off then walk down through the plantation. Arrive early in the day, we left the hostel around 7am, to see the clouds hanging low over the bushes, drenching them in dew. You wouldn’t see much of a sunrise through the January haze but this ethereal landscape is a stunning alternative. The 45 minute walk from the road to the Boh information centre at the base of the valley allows you to watch the view change as the rising sun burns the mist away, revealing more and more of the valley ahead of you, mosaiced with stocky tea bushes. A lot of the plantation workers come from Indonesia and live with their families on the estate which has houses and a school for them. We tried to help a couple who were weeding the bushes on the side of a steep hill but couldn’t get past ‘hello, we are from England/Indonesia’ with the language barrier. The skinny paths between bushes are littered with branches and soaked in the mornings dew, even if they’d been able to explain to us what they were doing we had to concentrate so hard to slip over that we didn’t have the brain space for anything else.
It’s hard to believe the waxy little leaves make the delicate elixir that is tea, they feel too tough and hardy. If you’ve the patience, there’s an incredibly long winded video explaining how they go from bush to cup in the Boh information centre, or you can go on a free whirl wind tour of the factory to see first hand how they do it. Read up the posters in the centre before you do the tour though because the machinery is so loud you won’t be able to hear anything the guide says over it! A glass fronted cafe offers cups of tea overlooking the plantations and you can also buy it bagged or loose leaf in the gift shop fairly cheaply, 50g of loose leaf cost me 2,000 MYR.
Raju Hill strawberry farm is on your way back to Tana Rata from Boh, it’s pretty pricy at 30,000 MYR for two people to go in and pick half a kilo but so long as you’re a little sneaky you can stuff your face whilst you’re in there. Having grown and picked my own fruit and veg when I was little this really didn’t seem like fun to me, so I gorged on the 3,000 MYR strawberry tarts in the cafe instead, delicious!!
Unless you’re an avid hiker, a few days will do you fine in Tana Rata; one day for strawberries and tea, one for hiking and then one for a trip to the mossy forest (which I missed) and another hike. The climate is quite cold around January so make sure you have a jumper and some long pants to hand, the hostels have thick duvets and no aircon. A waterproof bag cover is also advisable, with its higher altitude rainfall is more common. For me Tana Rata was a short taste of home, finally some half decent tea and fresh strawberries, not to mention the much more English climate, I can see why the early colonials settled an outpost here to escape the sticky heat of Kuala Lumpur. Craving something to stay up past 9pm though for, I boarded the 6 hour bus to George Town, Penang.