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Cooling Out in the Cameron Highlands (Malaysia) | We're Not There Yet

We weren’t sure what to expect of the Cameron Highlands. We knew that it is a backpacker destination and that it boasts a cooler climate and good hiking, but we had no image in our heads what this place would look like. When we woke up on our first morning in town (we had arrived in the dark the night before), we went for a stroll to get our bearings and find some breakfast. The town is tiny: there are two ‘townlets’ that exists purely to house and feed tourists. The first is Brinchang, featuring higher end hotels and Western chains like KFC; it is where most vacationing professionals from Kuala Lumpur go. We stayed in the more budget-oriented Tanah Rata, where we managed to find a hotel room for less than $8 per night and rent a motorbike for less than $5 for a day. The towns reminded me a little bit of a cheapie mountain resort, particularly Brinchang. There was a lot of Alpine-style architecture and the whole place was buzzing with hotels, restaurants, and t-shirt shops, but not much else. The towns themselves are small because all of the activities in the area lie outside of them.

Drinks with our dinner: there is a line of ‘strong beers’ with names like Buffalo, Seahorse, Camel, and Panda. We bought them because they were cheap, only to realize that they are just local malt liquor a là Colt 45.

The Cameron Highlands are home to an old British hill station- one of many spread throughout peninsular Malaysia in the cool climates of the hillsides. This one remains the most popular for tourists today and I’m not sure if it is because it is the most beautiful or just the most developed. Hill stations were basically getaways set up by British colonists as an escape from the hot weather and fast pace of the bigger cities and port towns. Some hill stations, such as the Cameron Highlands, are known for such British staples as rose gardens, strawberries, and tea services- an oddity that lingers today but feels very much out of place. All around these hill stations are networks of walking trails, some in better repair than others.

We decided to tackle one of the ‘hikes’, choosing a more moderate one as R doesn’t have proper hiking boots and we were not super motivated to go tramping around in the jungle: it’s just green. We picked #5, which was reasonably well-marked, although there were more than a few moments of confusion. We set out into the green hillsides to find out what all the fuss was about. We are relatively experienced hikers and will go out of our way to tackle a particularly beautiful or physically rewarding trail, but these sounded more like a pleasant way to pass an afternoon if you were a harried British administrator stuck in the tropics before the invent of AC. As we walked along, the fist thing that struck us was how muddy the trail was and, later, how surprisingly demanding it was. Certainly nothing that we couldn’t handle, but we were mentally prepared for a stroll in the jungle and we got winding, gnarled paths that climbed straight up a hillside and then right back down again to infinity. I guess it was more unpleasant than challenging, especially given R’s poor choice of footwear.

We passed the time by talking about our trip and what we wanted to do next. It was not unexpected when R leveled with me that he was ready to go home and end this trip immediately. Not that he hadn’t enjoyed it and not that he was unwilling to continue, if I insisted, but just that he had other things on his mind, life real life and what comes next for us. It could have turned into a fight- I am committed to seeing our year of travel through short of death or dismemberment- but it was something that couldn’t come down to my or his point of view; it had to be a compromise, since we are a couple and our futures are now inexorably linked by this little ring I have on my finger. We had a lot of time to talk it out as we scrambled up steep, rocky inclines and slip-slided down the other end. He would continue if I insisted, but if he had his choice, he’d be heading home and making plans for the next steps in our lives: jobs, a house, and a wedding. I am looking forward to all of this, too, but I have scheduled that for after this trip. Meaning that I have committed myself to seeing our year of travel through, not because I am stubborn and inflexible, but because I have gifted myself the time not to worry about what comes next. The reason I wanted to travel in the first place was to get some wanderlust out of my system, stretch my legs a little, and have a good time. I am really, really excited to go home and figure out what we are going to do with our lives; not worried: excited. I want to put our going home off not because I want to run away from it, but because I want to savor this time, traveling, knowing that I have something equally awesome to look forward to when we get back. We get to construct a life of our own liking when we go home, but we are able to see places and do things now, away from home, that we probably won’t be able to ever again- not like this. It could have bee a fight, but it turned out alright. R is willing to see out this year with me, if that’s what I really want, but now we are going to be a bit more purposeful in the rest of our itinerary. We are going to start traveling like we are running out of time- which we are, according to our initial budget and timeline. We are going to buy out tickets to Indonesia, our next stop, and then keep moving in an accelerated manner. We’ll still stop for the highlights, but the focus will be on moving towards home.

When we finished our hike, I can’t say it was a great activity in and of itself. It was a little bit messy and uncomfortable and went on a bit longer than we had thought. Oh, but what a fitting metaphor for our own haphazard and improvised year of travel! We came out on the other end of the trail feeling good that we got up off our asses and did something and also glad that we had come to some kind of compromise about some bigger issues that we hadn’t really given full voice to before today. We had to catch a bus back to our village, where we showered and got dinner and felt a lot more purposeful about pretty much everything. Maybe these Brits were on to something.

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