Busing to the Highlands

Tanah Rata Travel Blog

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Thursday afternoon I finally made my way to the Highlands.  I made it to the bus station with plenty of time (déjà vu anyone?), and this time was told to go directly down into the garage, rather than waiting in the terminal.  To paint you a picture, the bus station at KL is big, loud, filthy, disorganized, and overrun with exhaust fumes.  It’s not ventilated, which means it’s a stifling sweat box that promotes dizziness.  The “gates” for the buses are all in a row, a series of steps you descend from the station down into the garage, and dump you next to your allotted bus.  So I go down the stairs, and of the two buses queued for my gate, neither is going to my destination.  So I wait.  And wait.  More people come down and do the same back and forth and asking questions as I did, and are told to stand and wait on the platform with me.

So we’re standing there, squashed between four buses (two for our gate and two for the one next door), sucking down exhaust fumes, sweat pouring down our bodies, fighting the urge to pass out.  There must be close to seventy-five buses down there at any given moment.  And they all sit with their engines running, idling like they’ve got nothing to do and nowhere to be.  Finally -- FINALLY -- just before 2pm our bus pulls up.  Mind you, it was scheduled to depart at 1pm.  I was there by 12:40, standing and inhaling diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke and who knows what else for well over an hour.  Can you say migraine?

The trip to the highlands takes a solid four hours, if not a bit longer, thanks to painfully slow buses and tiny winding roads through the mountains.  Our tardy departure meant we arrived shortly after 6pm.  (Talk about an entire day wasted going back and forth between the bus station.)  

About an hour and a half into the trip, the bus driver stops at a bathroom on the side of the highway.  It was pouring -- absolutely POURING -- and most of us sat there debating if we really wanted to get off or not.  You know that scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral where Andi MacDowell runs out into the rain and Hugh Grant runs after her and literally half a second later the camera pans to them and they’re so drenched their clothes are see-through?  I CAN’T STAND that scene.  It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.  For starters, they’re in Britain, where at best it drizzles.  Sure, it’s a wet climate.  But it’s not the tropics, there are no downpours.  Half a second later and you’re soaked to the bone?  I don’t think so.  Yeah well that’s what we looked like.  The bus was about thirty feet from the door to the bathroom, and we threw ourselves off the bus and sprinted into the disgustingness that is roadside bathrooms in southeast Asia, and were absolutely drenched in the three seconds it took us to plow through the massive puddles and come to a skidding halt inside.  Drenched.  The way back turned out to be worse, because there wasn’t a big forgiving doorway to plunge through, and the puddle directly in front of the bus caused me to skid sideways into the muddy grass, like a cartoon character.  So the return sprint was what, four and a half seconds?  I was so wet every piece of clothing was plastered to my body and my hair was dripping like I had just jumped into a lake.  SOAKED.  Leave it to me to wear white.

Aside from the suffocating diesel fumes and the interminable delay and the drenching bathroom stop, the ride was actually pretty enjoyable.  From the bathroom stop we didn’t get back on the highway, but rather pulled onto a small two lane road that wound its way through the mountains.  And these aren’t mountains like you and I think of them; they aren’t particularly tall.  But they are COVERED in lush tropical rain forest, and it is absolutely stunning scenery the whole way through.  We passed more waterfalls than I could count.  Just gorgeous.  We plowed along at a snails pace, back and forth and back and forth and back and forth around the never-ending bends, winding so close to the side of the mountain I thought we’d hit it on more than one occasion.  (No shoulder to speak of.  Seriously.  Literally inches between the side of the road and the trees and rocks that jutted out of the mountain.  At least we were on the inside; the outside lane dropped off into nothingness.)  Things got interesting when the bus driver attempted to pass an even slower truck, just as we were starting to curve around a blind turn, and thank god his reflexes are in working order, that’s all I have to say.  (I had the front seat and an unobstructed view, which was a good thing for all the natural beauty we were passing, and a bad thing because it kept me in a constant state of worrying and involuntary flinching.)

By the time we pulled into Tanah Rata, the small township in the Cameron Highlands, I was both glad to be alive and thrilled with my surrounds.  The Cameron Highlands is every bit as beautiful as they claim.  Well-groomed tea plantations for as far as the eye can see, and lush tropical rain forest draping the mountainous backdrop.  Fresh, clean air, and green everywhere you look.  The perfect antidote to Kuala Lumpur.
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