TRAVEL: "Let’s have Christmas somewhere cool,” said someone in the family. “Where?” was the next logical question.
“How about the Cameron Highlands?” said I, reviving pleasant memories of a few cool and picturesque days spent on that elevated valley in the Malaysian mountains many years ago.
The late-evening Air Asia flight lifted off from Phuket airport, taking us on a two-hour flight on this rather crazy rushed long-weekend trip to Kuala Lumpur.
Even the long walk from our aircraft to Air Asia’s own bustling terminal, which is separate from the KL international one, did not dampen our enthusiasm for this short break in a different country.
Nor was the fact that the airport was some 60 kilometres from the city, meaning
we still had an hour and a half of late-night bus travel in front of us to reach the business district of the city where we had booked our little hotel for the night.
For late Thursday night, KL was alive with diners eating in the many bright street restaurants that wafted delightful aromas into the warm night.
We were surprised to come across one cosy street as liberally supplied with ladyboys as Bangla Rd.
Our view of the green and pleasant capital the next day was mostly from the windows of the monorail and a suburban train, as we headed for our weekend rental car. But the pace of the city was definitely slower and more relaxed. If only Bangkok were like this.
On the pleasant three-hour drive to the highlands, the comfortable black Malaysian-made Proton Saga cruised easily on the freeway north and climbed the mountain on the narrow winding road that was quite a historical engineering feat, cutting through tall dense tropical jungle.
As the traffic thickened we began to realise that many, many Malaysian families had also said to themselves that, for the long-weekend holiday, they too would spend Christmas in the Cameron Highlands. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the narrow roads.
But the little village of Tanah Rata was as I remember it.
The row of old colonial-style shops on its main street always reminded of old photos of Darjeeling or Simla where the British colonial rulers and plains people escaped up to cool air and mountain views.
One memorable meal was relived at the Mutiara Indian street restaurant that I had visited before: fresh-made roti, mutton and vegetable curries of all sorts and friendly staff warmly welcomed us.
The oddly-named multi-storey Hotel de la Ferns, with its faux Tudor facade, gave us a fantastic room, high up. Mist blew across the balcony, which looked along the lush valley of this veritable Eden.
A green golf course nestled among trees.
Pine trees in the little village park bordered a clear mountain stream, and cosy houses with their white plaster and black timber imitation Tudor architecture hid away in the misty jungle at vantage points on hill tops.
England is far away but a valley of it has been lovingly duplicated here.
Christmas Eve saw well-to-do Indian, Chinese and Malay families enjoying traditional Christmas dinners offered at all the guesthouses and hotels, complete with turkey and plum pudding, if not much ham – this is, after all a Muslim country.
A bright-green valley, patterned by low tea bushes as far as the eye could see provided a picturesque backdrop to the steaming cups of the best that the old Boh Tea Plantation could offer.
Tea pickers were “plucking” away in the distance.
Strawberries were overflowing from the tunnels of plastic greenhouses in nearby plantations, in this mountain land of plenty.
Walking among hills rising to the mist, we were very grateful for our very cool Cameron Christmas.
GETTING THERE: Air Asia flies from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur for less than B2,000 one way. Car rental is B1,500 a day, and petrol in Malaysia is cheaper.
WHERE TO STAY: A double room at the Hotel De La Ferns (hoteldelaferns.com.my) cost about B5,000 a night.