Jungles & Tea
By 9 AM the heat was already suffocating. We came down from the cool elevation of Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands to find a trail leading into the jungle. To reach the trail, we went off-road in a Land Rover up the side of a large hill. Heavy rains the night before flooded parts of the trail, turning it into a flowing brown mess, but Ravi, our driver, expertly navigated the path shifting and downshifting with 5 white tourists bouncing like bobble-heads in the back.
All of us are here to see the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower. Every tour agency in the highlands offers a trip to see the flower, usually combined with a few other stops to make up a full day. The schedule is ambitious so our guide keeps us moving quickly over rocks, puddles, and strange insects.
When we arrive at the Rafflesia, we find a group of British tourists there with their own guide. So in the middle of the jungle we queue up for photographs. When it is our turn we crouch down to take photos from every conceivable angle. As we find out from Ravi, the Rafflesia is not a true flower, but a parasitic fungus feeding off jungle vines. It also had flies all around it and smelled like rotting meat. These “flowers” take 5 years to bloom, then only live for 6 days. Once the photo shoot ends, we’re off again back down the trail.
After the rafflesia, our tour has four more stops, ending at the Boh Tea Plantation. Nearly every Cameron Highlands tour will have a stop at a tea plantation. Striking, bright green bushes cover the rolling hills as far as you can see. The heads of migrant workers pop out amongst the bushes while they trim young leaves from the top. There’s only a few minutes to take it all in before we pile back in the Land Rover for a visit to the processing area, cafe, and of course, the gift shop.
Selling the Tour
Our tour including several of Cameron’s “Highlights”, but the fast-paced agenda didn’t allow much time for reflection. Full Day tours tempt you with their list of activities. And it is true, the tea plantations and Rafflesia are on every guidebook’s list of sights. Throw in a few more interesting stops and the lure is even greater.
Marketing brochures appeal to the increasingly common checklist mentality. You can “do” the Highlands by checking off A,B, and C. The problem is that all your left with is a superficial impression. Worse still, it perpetuates the lack of options offered by tour operators.
At its best, travel lets us work past our preconceived, media-fed, ideas and to see a place and people as they really are. But it only works if we slow down. You can’t understand someone’s life when you speed past them on a bus.