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Tea in Malaysia’s Clouds

I thought the British knew tea.  At least my roommate from Liverpool, England made a mean spot of it.  I’d always experimented with tea, trying every kind I could and brewing it just a little differently every time in search of the perfect cup.  But I never thought I’d travel 3 hours by train, 7 hours by plane, over a few large bodies of water, 4 hours by car and about 200 steps to savor the best tea I’ve ever savored.   And it’s a good thing I brought a fleece sweater with me.

View of the Tea Plantations

My roomy and I left Japan to travel to Malaysia on vacation.  Not for the tea, but discovering it was a plus.  The Cameron Highlands in Pahang, Malaysia is where a tea enthusiast, like myself, can get a caffeine fix not to be forgotten.  However, the trip to get there also leaves you with a high.  

The Cameron Highlands are nestled in the clouds, 1,829 meters above sea level in the northwestern part of the state of Pahang.  My Chinese-Malaysian friend who we met up with took us “where no tourists have gone before:” the training and research station of the MNS (Malaysian Nature Society).   Five kilometers up off the main road and not commonly known to the public, only members of the MNS and friends of members are permitted to use the facility.  With no public transportation…you can only drive or walk at your own risk.  They never advertise or promote the area, either.  Excellent! I thought.  A truly original experience. 

We arrived in a terrified state of mind.  The gravel slipped out from under our car’s tires as we inched higher into pitch-blackness on sloping roads that seemed for years to be un-traveled.   Narrowly escaping a killer rainstorm and dodging toppled-over palm trees on the trip up to Cameron caused even more nervousness.  But remembering what my friend had told me about the surroundings, I couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning to see this place in the early sunlight. 

Layers upon layers of lush, green shrubbery, shadowed in some areas by the sloping hillsides, and the fresh aroma of newly, plucked tea leaves was what I awakened to.  The morning sun warmed my face, but the crisp air made it hard to believe that it was over 30 degrees Celsius at the bottom.   Not up here.  Fleece sweater, please.

The short daylight hours and the cool, damp nights make this plateau perfect for tea growing, we learned at the Boh Tea Estate factory.  There, we had a guided tour of the process of tea production.  I could see my roommate salivating at the sight of so much tea, but hey, so was I.

Locals say one thousand out of every hundred thousand cups of British brew come straight from these hills.  Enjoying tea and scones atop the country’s largest and most famous hill resort felt more like being on vacation in the English countryside, not near the jungles of Malaysia. 

Tasting Fine Tea

The best cup I had came that first morning we woke up at the MNS.  It was a red tea, known as Boh Tea, named after the tea plantation.  Our cook at breakfast made the best cup I’ve ever tasted.  Hah, Mom, for telling me never to put milk and sugar in my tea.  This woman put in just the right amount of both that I felt lost in the flavor the first mouthful I sipped.  Then I found out she had used cream, not milk.  Even better. 

It’s known as “Teh Tarik.”  “Teh” is “tea” in Bahasa Malaysia; “Tarik” means, “pull.”  Teh Tarik is the typical way of preparing tea in Southern India.  The Tamil brought this method to Malaysia.   Malaysia was a British territory during the imperial and colonial era. The British brought Chinese to Malaysia to work in the ports, mining and construction fields. Then the British brought Indians to Malaysia to work in rubber estates and tea plantations. That’s why you will see there are still only Indian workers in tea plantations after almost close to one century.

Teh Tarik is made by pouring milk (or cream) and tea together between two containers. The trick to making it with cream is the way you TARIK the tea.  What you will see is one container in each hand; one hand raised as high as possible and the other as low as possible.  The tea maker starts pouring closely then gradually moves their hands apart while the tea is still pouring.  The action is a great skill, practiced with excellent coordination.  They do this motion back and forth many times.  The smoothness of the tea depends on how high the tea was TARIK, or pulled.

Thinking back to that cup of tea makes me tingle.  As Kakuzo Okakura said in his classic, The Book of Tea, “Tea is a work of art and needs a master hand to bring out its noblest qualities.”  I tried this method in my own kitchen, but to no avail.  It was just not the same as the tea I had in the clouds. 

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