As seen in Travel Ideas Magazine May/June 2016.
A cramped two hour ferry ride later and I’ve already plummeted snorkel and goggles first into Tioman Island’s 28 degree turquoise abyss. Just a few awkward flipper steps off Salang beach and I’m met with lime, mauve and sepia reef unfolding beside the jetty and towards Soyak Island. Psychedelic-hued parrot fish peck at the coral in schools, ducking beneath me as my shadow floats above them.
A family of elusive clown fish peek from swaying anemone careful not to veer too far from its protective stinging tentacles. Slightly deeper and I spot my first grey and yellow stingray skimming the sandy seabed. I silently scream for joy as a turtle glides beneath me making no effort at all to solidify itself as the coolest dude in the ocean. In this magical underwater world there is only blue silence and for the longest time I am enveloped in its quiet bustle while marine life go about their day. I hold my breath for a second as a graceful black-tipped shark swims past and I smile knowing that nothing urgent awaits my attention on land.
Just yesterday I was fighting off rabid mosquitoes in Mr Leong’s pottery studio in the blistering humidity of Malacca, one of Malaysia’s UNESCO World Heritage cities. Queues of Chinese families snaked around corners in anticipation of Malacca’s famous chicken rice balls, the afternoon call to prayer sounded from the Kampung Kling mosque across the road and right next door an Indian worshipper relaxed in front of the Hindu temple, a gentle smile on his face.
Like most refurbished shop fronts in and around Jonker Street, Mr Leong’s was a home and shop front over a 100 years old. In true Malaysian-style architecture, buildings were designed to resemble corridors. The narrower the building, the lower the taxes. Locals lived above their businesses and when night fell, they packed up shop and retired upstairs.
So far my wobbly pottery creations looked more like bumpy pencil holders than the delicate sipping cups I had hoped for. Mr. Leong pushed his spectacles higher up his nose and insisted that on my first lesson, the wheel would prove too challenging. Instead he repeated his demonstration of kneading a hunk of clay before slicing just the right amount off with a piece of string. He looked on as I made a concerted effort to roll the clay slice into a smooth layer and mould it into a cup. With practise he told me that all my cups would all appear the same size. Judging from each cups varying thickness, I had a long way to go.
As the sun dipped behind the minaret, vendors set up their stalls ahead of the frantic Jonker night market attracting hordes of tourists and locals alike. Just before closing time I ducked into Razkashmir’s and allowed my eyes the luxury of roaming over turquoise, coral and shell jewellery hanging on the walls and my hands to disappear into layers of silky purple, pink and jade pashminas from Kashmir, Nepal and India.
I had one more stop to make before sunset at an antique treasure trove across the street. Rice pots, Chinese porcelain tea sets, a grandiose gramophone and vintage radio greet me in the doorway and my eyes darted back and forth over sepia postcards and weathered jewellery boxes housed on various shelves. I finally selected a delicate mirror with a jade handle and a porcelain portrait of a Chinese maiden before paying and scrambling back into the last sunshine of the day.
My husband, Vaughan, and I raced up the stairs towards St. Paul’s ruins where salmon and tangerine sun strokes sweep across the sky. Everyone else has the same idea and the rush is on for couples and families to huddle close to St. Francis Xavier’s statue and take selfies facing outward towards the Malacca Straits.
Children climbed in and around the remaining skeleton of what was once St. Paul’s Church. Malay women in bright tudungs posed beside giant tombstones lining the inner walls. Built in 1521, this Portuguese chapel has morphed into a mausoleum, a school, a Dutch Reformed Church and a British powder magazine over centuries as various colonial powers took occupation of Malacca.
Today we’re following the tracks of the British to the single place in Malaysia where you can escape the stifling heat. Suffering through the treachery of more potholes than roads, the long road trip takes us through endless palm oil plantations. 60 % of the nation is said to be covered with lucrative palm trees and acres of lush rainforest have been sacrificed over the years making Malaysia one of the world’s largest palm oil producers.
For an hour we ascend along winding roads up into the Cameron Highlands curving further towards the cool air of higher ground. Passing hillsides of plastic-shielded strawberry and flower farms, we can finally turn off the air-conditioner in favour of the crisp fresh air flowing in through the window.
Turns out that if you drive far and high enough (around 1300 m above sea level), you will arrive in Little Britain. Our serving of colonial charm came in the form of the tudor-style Lakehouse Hotel perched on the mountainside set with cosy bar, two fireplaces and squeaky wooden floors. The claw-foot bath on a black and white bathroom floor along with high tea served from 3pm seemed like the holy grail in Asia and I almost forgot we were still in Malaysia.
First thing in the morning, our elegant, smiling guide Satya whisked us away in an old Land Rover towards the tea plantations even higher in the hills. “It’s never over in a Rover,” says Satya, laughing to himself as I am jolted vigorously on the back seat. After spotting endless Land Rovers on the roadside it’s not surprising to know that there are more Landies here per square metre than anywhere else in the world.
Aside from being a guide in the Cameron Highlands since he was eighteen, the charismatic Satya has a long lineage of ties to tea through his grandfather who first came to Malaysia from Darjeeling, bringing a wealth of expertise to this BOH tea plantation. He points to his grandfather’s house on the hill where he now lives with his parents and awakens daily to cascading valleys of green each morning.
He jokes at the fact that the British introduced tea to India and Malaysia even though the origin of tea truly lies in Burma where locals first picked leaves, ground it into a paste and infused it for use as medicine. Once the Chinese emperor of the Hung Dynasty discovered this secret, he sent soldiers to bring the tea plant to home soil. He speaks of how the British first added milk to tea in China to prevent the porcelain from cracking. A Dutchman was said to steal tea from China and take it to India to plant on behalf of the British. It was his Indian ancestors that first added spice to their tea along with cow’s milk to give us the nutty flavours of Chai. Even though the British introduced tea to Malaysia, it was the Scottish Russell family who planted the first Boh tea plantation and brought a Sri Lankan tea ‘guru’ to advise them.
Satya parks the Land Rover on a cliff overlooking a sea of forest green strips of tea which look soft enough to run my fingers through. Workers from Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia work only with a small snipping machine to harvest the top shoots of the plants transforming dark emerald hedges to a bright lime green signalling their harvest. It will take five to six workers around eight hours to harvest two acres of tea. A lot has changed since BOH first brought skilled workers from Southern India where serious handpicking was the order of the day and no more than two leaves and one shoot was permitted for quality reasons. If you picked more than four to five leaves, you were sent home.
Morning mist lingers in the furthest valleys of the Sungei Palas plantation and a gentle ream of smoke escapes the cigarette of a resting worker. Amidst the 85 year old tea plants, Satya picks two leaves with a top shoot and explains that all tea comes from these same plants but each have slight variations in their preparation. Black tea just needs rolling, two to three hours in the air for oxidation to begin until coppery brown before drying while green tea requires steaming of the leaves to stop oxidation before soft rolling and drying it. Chinese Oolong tea is made from airing it for 15 minutes, placing it in hot water and stir-frying it before smoking it.
While clambering through the enchanted mossy forest, Satya’s mystical office, he tells us of his long struggle along with the NGO REACH to preserve this forest as a national park and protect it from further agriculture uses and holiday house development for neighbouring Singaporeans. Supported by the Finnish government, local children are brought into this rich ecosystem weekly to learn about nature, recycling, water and preserving forests such as these for future generations. Our day with him regrettably comes to end and we bid farewell to the majestic valleys of green before diving into a high tea of scones brimming with fresh cream and strawberry jam and sipping the fruits of those tea plants in a delicate tea cup.
Descending back in the haze of Kuala Lumpur is like unwillingly opening the door of a steam room and suffocating while trying to gasp breaths of fresh air. Beside the boiling resin and wax in the Jadi Batek Gallery’s work room, it is no cooler. Unwelcome beads of sweat rolls down my nose as Jeff shows us how to use the chantin (pen) to form the outline of wax on the cotton cloth. Intimidated by the expert batik artwork hanging all around me, I attempt to stain my underwater scene with various colour paints while Jeff tells us that Batik originates from India, the middle East, Egypt and Indonesia and now forms a huge part of Malaysia’s identity in the form of art, national dress and fabric.
As the cherry paint stains the fins of my cotton fish, suddenly I’m back beneath Tioman’s aqua bliss, scanning the underwater wonderland with only my snorkel connecting me to the world above.
Guide: Satya Murthy from Eco Cameron Tours SDN BHD
NGO REACH ( Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands)
Jadi Batek Gallery
30 Jalan Inai, Off Jalan Imbi, Kuala Lumpur
To listen to my interview with Karen Key on SAfm’s Time to Travel, click here.