Christmas at the Highlands

“Anyone can find their long lost Christmas spirit up in the Highlands.”

HERE’S something about the highland air that improves my disposition almost immediately. Far from the bustle of Kuala Lumpur, sprawling tea plantations dotted with delightful Tudor-styled country inns roll into view. The cool eucalyptus-scented breeze that floods the van I am travelling in hints of a delightful weekend ahead.

Of course the promise of scones slathered in clotted cream with a cuppa of steaming tea further puts me in a perennial chirpy mood.

It’s hard to imagine that hours before, I was a Christmas-hating Grinch wondering if I would be able to endure a weekend of Christmas delights at the Cameron Highlands Resort. With the highlight being the traditional Christmas tree lighting showcase, I wondered if my anti-holiday spirit might be quenched by the twinkling fairy lights. Perhaps it’s time to recapture the Christmas magic of my childhood. After all, it’s no fun being a Grinch at Christmas.

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The van stops at the entrance of the luxurious boutique hotel and rows of Christmas poinsettias heralding the season greet us at the main staircase. The hotel is brimming with decorations, from frosted windowpanes, towering Christmas trees overflowing with beautiful decorations to Santa Clauses and other Christmassy effigies.

There’s an undeniable joie de vivre in the air.  The resort clearly loves the holiday season and there’s this strange feeling that I’ve taken a step back into colonial times when Christmas was celebrated with much aplomb and elegance.

TALES OVER TEA

At 1,500 metres above sea level, Cameron Highlands is often known as Malaysia’s “Little England” with roots steeped in colonial history. There’s a tale of how British surveyor William Cameron stood on the summit of Mount Pondok Challi during a mapping expedition of the Titiwangsa Range in 1885, and espied “a sort of vortex on the mountains, while for a (reasonably) wide area we have gentle slopes and plateau land” in a distance.

Soon after, Cameron died and the maps were lost. Subsequent expeditions eventually located the area that Cameron described, which bore his name as a tribute to its first explorer who never got to step into this legendary plateau in his lifetime. The former hill station still retains much of its colonial charm and history. With Tudor-styled fittings on building exteriors that make up much of the landscape, the Cameron Highlands Resort fits right into the pretty scenery with its beautiful heritage structure.

The afternoon tea, the most quintessential of English customs is a stalwart tradition which graces many a menu up in the highlands. The resort pays homage to Jim Thompson, an American businessman and architect who mysteriously disappeared during a stroll in Cameron Highlands on Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967.

Many conspiracy theories surround Thompson’s disappearance but the most interesting far-etched theory can be read and enjoyed when you check into the Resort. A nondescript looking book, Tales Of The Highland, is packed with stories, myths and tales about two of the highlands’ most interesting characters, William Cameron and Jim Thompson. It is a riveting read on a cold night, with a cup of the ubiquitous Boh tea in hand.

The Jim Thompson tea room is resplendent of old world charm. The tinkling of the piano in the background of evergreen tunes by top lounge pianist Stephen Ooi sets the ambiance for a perfect tea party.

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Piping hot tea is served in fine china cups with a three-tiered silver cake stand filled with a variety of finger sandwiches, cakes, scones with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam on the side. I must have been hungry from my adventure up the Jim Thompson trail earlier because everything on the tray disappears rapidly before my third cup of tea.

TALES OF THE TRAILS

_mg_5930Between strawberry farms and the rolling tea plantations are patches of rainforests with interesting hiking trails. While tourism and rampant development have forged their indelible imprints on the landscape, there are still enough attractions in the wild to draw nature-lovers and bird-watching enthusiasts.

Resident naturalist and guide, S. Madi. The resort offers several trekking trails but the most fascinating is the Jim Thompson Mystery Trail which follows Thompson’s last-known whereabouts right up to the time he vanished. S. Madi, resident naturalist, guide, and de facto Jim Thompson conspiracy theorist, journeys us through the chronology of the army captain turned silk trader (and rumoured double-spy)’s final moments before his disappearance, and couples this with some interesting nature lessons.

He is an avid storyteller, weaving in tales of conspiracy, nature facts and a little of the highland’s history. A local resident, born and bred in Cameron Highlands, Madi paints a picture of Cameron Highlands in a time long before the tourist boom when pristine rainforests covered most of its landscape. We are fascinated and there are so many questions asked in breathless curiosity about plants, insects and of course, Jim Thompson himself.

There is a slight drizzle but no one notices as we are glued to his stories. He points out the place where Thompson was last seen getting into a car, and there is a brief silence as we imagine the scene.

Tales of spies, unresolved disappearances combined with a rambling trek where we experience the unique ecosystem that is resplendent of the highlands, make it a memorable sojourn into nature.

TALES OF TRADITION

It was just one trail but I’ve eaten enough to accommodate several treks. The tinsel, Christmas decorations and readily-available indulgences at the resort are slowly turning me into a prime candidate for playing the jolly bearded man in red himself.

The Christmas spread at night featuring Yuletide favourites is served up in a beautiful Christmas setting with a digital fireplace lit in the background.

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Carved roasted turkey, leg of lamb, brussel sprouts, and spiced red cabbage are some of the delectable dishes passed around in communal fashion across the table, inviting laughter and conversation. There are conversation starters thoughtfully placed on the table for those (like me) who struggle to make small talk.

With the generous pouring of wine, the mood is lightened and I find myself warming up to Yuletide cheer. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had my fifth glass.

It’s time for the annual lighting of the Christmas trees. A tradition upheld for more than a decade, the twinkling fairy lights sparkles and glitters on the Norwegian pine trees flanking the resort, eliciting gasps of wonder from the guests milling outside. At a flip of a switch, the entire area is turned into a whimsical Christmas wonderland.

The pop-up Christmas bazaar, offering guests mulled wine, strawberries, jams and a host of trinkets and plants that would make lovely gifts has me pulling out my wallet and purchasing a whole load of gifts for the family. It’s getting obvious my inner Grinch has given up on me. The pull of the yuletide festivities has won me over.

There are carollers singing and I join in. Forgotten lyrics of carols long past come to mind. I remember that the Grinch did finally understand the meaning of Christmas: “ Maybe Christmas means a little bit more.” I finally understand his change of heart and smile. Merry Christmas everyone.

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Published in the New Straits Times, 25th December, 2016

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