Cameron Highlands: The Beginning of a Tea Journey

My earliest memory of drinking tea is in Cameron Highlands, a hillside town in Malaysia where tea plantations are grown 1,500 meters above sea level. Formerly a British colony until 1957, homesick English troops based here used to head up to this cool, mountainous area to escape the tropical humidity, and of course sip tea and have scones.

My family had spent a few years in England when I was young, so coming here during school vacations was the perfect way to relive English countryside moments.  I still remember my chubby seven-year-old hands trembling while trying to drink tea from a dainty white porcelain cup and saucer, and my mother yelling, “Hold still, hold still!” in the background (I eventually dropped everything). What’s more interesting about this encounter though was that it was probably the first malty notes of loose-leaf black tea fresh from the tea factory that made me fall in love with this drink.

A few months ago, I decided to make my way back to this childhood holiday destination and visited the tea factory where I drank and spilt my first “terroir” tea all those years ago. BOH (Best of Highlands) is Malaysia’s leading tea company since 1929, and is run by the Russells, a Scottish family. While most of its tea products are for the mass market, in its plantations, tea drinking is a celebrated affair and having afternoon tea at their Sungai Palas Tea Plantation is one of the main tourist attractions in Cameron Highlands.

Our driver, Satya, is a bit of a tea expert and we have a fascinating time wandering around the plantation with him while he pointed out the different types of Camellia sinensis plants at BOH. His father was a tea picker from India who was sent by the British to maintain these tea plantations, and most of Satya’s childhood involved running through tea bushes with friends.

“At one time, the British tried to grow coffee plantations here but those plans just didn’t work out because we love our tea too much,” he said with a hint of amusement. In Malaysia, tea is a popular drink for breakfast and supper but there isn’t much of a gourmet tea culture happening as yet. This is why he was particularly perturbed when he had to bring a tea researcher from New Zealand around one time and got a huge shelling from her when she saw him putting in sugar and condensed milk into his tea.

“She told me that I needed to have tea with absolutely nothing in order to get the true taste of the brew. She also insisted that I had to ‘sit up straight’ while drinking tea to truly absorb the experience. I mean, if you need to follow all these rules, drinking tea won’t be fun anymore, right?” Satya said with a shrug.

There’s something so relaxingly charming about tea plantation holidays and being greeted with a sweeping landscape of Camellia sinensis plants on gentle, rolling hills. Even better, it’s one of the few travel luxuries in the world that isn’t exorbitant. For me, this little tea pilgrimage was a lot about revisiting the roots of my love for this drink. As a tea hobbyist, I’d become quite bogged down with the “procedures” on how to prepare and appreciate tea. However, observing the crowds at BOH leisurely enjoying their afternoon tea without obsessing over whether they should use cold or hot milk, or if their tea is of a SFGTBOP grade made me come to a conclusion I needed to “loosen up” with the whole tea appreciation thing.  In fact, I brought home a box of their highly inexpensive Lychee Rose tea and it is simply divine.

This article was also published in Tea & Travel, one of my favourite tea blogs 🙂

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