How to Find a Tea Plantation – Happiness in Malaysia

We are so pleased to announce that we recommend Malaysia. If you are thinking of going through Asia – START in Kuala Lumpur (hereafter KL)! Much less crowded/ noisy/ polluted/ overwhelming than Bangkok, easier to get around than Hong Kong, less scary police-state than Singapore. No teeming slums, gorgeous huge old trees lining most streets, great malls (hello shopping!) and easy to walk around (men don’t stare!). No spitting and people less sullen than Bali. Cafes everywhere and you can get a beer in Ramadan in the middle of the day, i.e. the mellow kind of Islam. Really liked it a lot – more proof of my motto: “never know before you go.”

I decided to go to KL b/c of the extensive research? But of course not. I opened up an airline website and looked at the non-stop flights, sent travel agent an e-mail and 3 days later had tickets. Short trip but I wanted to get out and see something new. And I was looking for sun. Once upon a time there was a big yellow thing up in the sky and it was nice, then the clouds rolled in so was hoping for sun in KL but when I gave in and checked the weather before I left – there wasn’t just the grey cloud symbol for rain, but a huge cartoon black cloud with lightning bolts and skull and crossbones. Oh well.

The other reason I went was I had enough frequent flier miles to up-grade to business class for the over-night (7 hour) flight there. Of course the nicest three words in English are: I love you. But the next best three words are: room service menu, turn-down service, business class lounge, free spa massage (in the business class lounge), complimentary French champagne, smoked salmon appetizer, fresh berry torte, artisan cheese selection, and airport transfer included.

Got to KL airport (not as modern as Hong Kong) and discovered international terminal is a big circle with the gates radiating off in 4 spikes – in the middle of the circle: mini rain forest that you can walk through. Good idea. And I learned my first to Malay words: ketupat and kurma, two flavors of doughnuts. Ahhh Dunkin Doughnuts coffee and a doughnut at 9am (local time) which waiting for car to take me to hotel – get in car and am really in bliss, driving by acre after acre of palm trees and enjoying my coffee and isn’t it nice to drink iced coffee in the morning, especially in a Muslim country when it’s – OH NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO it’s Ramadan and I’m drinking and eating in a car. ACK. I slide doughnut into bag and apologize profusely to driver who laughs and says, “I’m Hindu.” Then I notice various little tea shacks along with road, which are open and full of customers. Deep breath. I guess it’s a little more relaxed than Gulf Arab countries (true – lots of cafes/ restaurants open, even in mall).

Hotel is nice – I power nap (5 minutes) and go chat with concierge about what to do. Take taxi to nice mall and go to Jim Thompson silk shop. Ahhh. Heaven. Wander around (Ami, Euro, Japanese, Chinese stores – fab shopping!) for 3 hours and then go to nice old hotel for afternoon tea overlooking the garden / park. Heaven. Back to hotel for power nap and then walk around neighborhood by hotel – gorgeous old trees, 3 or 4 stories high.

Breakfast the next day is not great buffet but they have a whole section of Indonesian/ Malay/ Chinese/ Japanese dishes so I ate that with coconut rice! (Always have slices of pineapple and pile of sprouts on your side plate so if something tastes awful, you can clear your mouth with pineapple or alfalfa. If something is too spicy hot – dip coffee spoon in coffee, then sprinkle brown sugar on the reverse side, stick in mouth and let sugar crystals melt on your tongue. Effective.)

Did the hop-on-hop-off city tour for 2 hours, Hindu temples under trees in Little India (with apartment blocks painted purple), mosques with tiles domes, Buddhist temples with monks wandering around, churches from the English colonial period – may all the world cope with a mix of religions this well. Then went to world’s largest walk-in bird park – totally cool. Flamingos and parrots flying all over the place, peacocks, egrets, storks, hornbills, etc. Owls and hawks in huge cages – very marvelous. It had a 3-story teak wood café, where the egrets come and stand at the table and look at you. They were like cats, would saunter by on the railing as if they didn’t care about your coconut rice but if you turned your head, they were 2 inches from your ear, peering intently at your plate. The waiter brought out a little spray bottle of water to shoo them off. Then back on the bus to see more sights.

Western tourists all tricked out like they were sherpas going up Everest – canteens, cameras, fanny packs, backpacks. Sigh! People! we are in large, safe urban area; you don’t need anything more than small camera, wallet, sun hat, Kleenex, mini notebook, and pen.

Hotel – power nap – walked down the street to the Petronius towers (huge twin towers, oh and look, they happen to be attached to a six-story mall!). Didn’t go up the towers, I don’t think going UP things is that interesting, not fear of heights, just don’t think it’s worth the bother, instead I sat in a mall café overlooking the park – they have parks all over the town, some as small as 50 by 50 feet – and people watched, great mix of people, women in loose long dresses and headscarves and women in mini-skirts and tank tops, all kinds of blends of people, not many westies. Very funny in the malls when I saw a western woman, she would do small fake smile and look at me to assess if they knew me, just like I do at home, because I look more ex-pat than tourist (no visible camera, and wearing make-up, jewelry, and modest clothes). Then back to hotel (I don’t like wandering around new cities at night alone) and had pedicure and dyed my hair – traveling is all about upkeep!

Next morning up early and got in taxi (arranged by concierge) to go to the Cameron Highlands, about 3 hours away. Cultural Pause: concierge gave me list of possible day trips, I chose this one and he called later to say it wasn’t possible because there had to be two people going. I went down to talk to him and he repeated about six times that the tour was only for two people. I had enough of that. So I looked at him and said, “My mom (always invoke your mother when arguing in Middle East or Asia!) would be happy if I got married in the next 12 hours but I do not think it is going to happen and I want to go to the highlands.” He laughed and then explained that “Any taxi could take me.” (Rhetorical move which means: “Go away and deal with this problem yourself.”) I looked affronted and went into Victorian Miss mode, “What? I just take a taxi from the street? And I don’t know the driver? How can I just take a taxi when I do not know the driver?” Concierge had the good grace to know he was beaten and said he would make some calls, so I added, “No shabab (Arab word for young guy), I want a nice quiet, older gentleman and I want to see tea plantations please!”

This usually works – as it did this time. He called half an hour later to say Mr. Zam (!!!) would be awaiting me at 9am the next morning. Mr. Zam was charming and off we went, kind of boring (palm tree plantations, not coconut-palms but palm-oil palm-trees) for 1 1/2 hours and I was starting to think this was a bad idea when I saw the mountains. Ahh mountains – came up very abruptly from the level plain – green and jungle (funny how I really do not like forests at all but love jungles). UP we went, curving road for an hour, no straightaways at all (good thing I don’t get car sick!). I had said I wanted to see tea plantations and rose gardens, so imagine my feeling when we get to the top and find the upper plateau is covered with strawberry and vegetable gardens covered with plastic draping – UGLY. And the ‘tea house’ was an orange cement block shack overlooking the plastic draped valley. Me not happy. I was so bummed, then I realized that Mr. Zam’s gushing, “This best place for tea, number one place, very nice” meant that he actually had no idea where the tea plantations were. I knew there had to be a real tea plantation with teak buildings someplace and said, “Let’s find another place.” He argued, then gave in. We drove along winding roads past many strawberry farms (and lots of old land rovers! be still my beating heart!), after ten miles he tells me to tell him when I wanted to stop. Another ten miles and he says, “What is your plan?” Another ten miles and he asks, “Do you have a map.” Sigh.

I give my stare of doom and he pulls into gas station to ask for directions, we backtrack a few miles, he pulls off a tiny road and we go further up the mountain, five miles later… oh look. The most gorgeous green rolling landscape of tea plants and oh look, a teak café overlooking a beautiful valley (no plastic greenhouses.) Lovely. Walked around, had tea and a fresh strawberry tart. Then we went to another planation and saw some roses.

He went back to KL by a different road which was the best part of the whole trip – Jungle. Pure old growth jungle on either side of the road, not a store or house for over an hour, you could hear the insects and birds calling, enormous trees and that wonderful jungle smell of hot air, panther breath, rotting leaves, parrot poop, humidity, monkey fur and lizard stink. I saw one tree and thought, I know what this is…. took me a minute. It was bamboo, but so big the fronds were wider than my hand, about 60 feet tall! Next morning I tipped concierge, took another walk around neighborhood and then left – short trip but very very nice!

short stories:

Little hints of central control as part of the culture coming through, not as much as Singapore, but for example most of the postcards had lines on the left side to show you where to write, the fruit juice stands had set menus (you can’t get the raspberries and blueberries added to juice – only raspberry and strawberry or blueberry and strawberry, etc.), very very clean city – the highway bathrooms were a little down at heel but spotless, much better then in USA – fair amount of road construction (money into infrastructure), smart city design (huge central station for trains with hotels, shops and rapid transit to airport), only one city tour company

Diva Tip – I avoided, as I always do, anything with ‘culture,’ ‘heritage’ or ‘traditional’ in the title (traditional craft village, heritage craft center, traditional dances…). Just go see what you want to see – birds and tea plants is what I wanted so that’s what I saw. Don’t let other people’s expectations decide your vacation. Ever.