A breath of fresh air: Malaysia’s colonial hill stations

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It’s been said that the success of the British Empire was down to an indifference to extreme temperatures, foreign food, and long periods of going without sex. No wonder Italians were so rubbish at the colonial game. Of course, the ability to endure something is not the same as enjoying it, and there was a limit to the “stiff upper lip”, particularly when it came to the weather.

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Starting in British India, and spreading to other Asian (and African) dominions, the solution to uncomfortably hot temperatures, was to build so called hill stations. These places, normally located between 1,000 and 1,500 metres above sea level, offered not just cooler climes, but a chance to recreate idealised versions of rural England.

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Malaya, as befitted one of Britain’s steamiest outposts, had several hill stations, which offered colonials some respite from the tropical heat of the lowlands. They included Maxwell Hill (Bukit Larut), Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera), Fraser’s Hill (Bukit Fraser), and last but not least, the Cameron Highlands.

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It might have been expected that such a colonial institution as the hill station would not survive the end of British rule in 1957. Far from independence spelling an and to their popularity though, it opened up a whole new market of potential visitors: Malaysians.

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There is more to this enduring popularity than cooler climes; hill stations also have an attractive otherness, a colonial aura, without all the unpleasant realities of the genuine article. So, if you want to avoid the crowds, it is best to visit outside school holidays, public holidays and weekends.

Maxwell Hill

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As well as been the least developed of the stations, Maxwell Hill also claims to be the oldest, having been founded in 1884. It is named after William Edward Maxwell, the British colonial administrator, who first recognised its potential. Located at 1,250 metres, it is a delightful, albeit often rainy, escape from the modern world.

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A crucial factor in both Maxwell Hill’s lack of crowds and overall calm atmosphere, is a ban on private cars. The choice for visitors is between a three to five hour walk (depending on direction and fitness levels), or a hair-raising ride in a government jeep.

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We recommend taking the jeep on the way up, and walking back down. Even downhill its quite a slog, so take plenty of water, and wear comfortable walking shoes. If you choose to stay overnight, it’s advisable to bring your own supplies, as refreshment options are limited to say the least.

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The hill station is on the outskirts of Taiping, a lovely little town, which is well worth a visit in its own right. Best known for its lake gardens, Taiping offers a wide range of affordable accommodation and eating options.

Penang Hill

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Another station with a good claim to being Malaysia’s oldest is Penang Hill, which was first opened up with a pack-horse track in 1788. During the 19th century, rich colonials built private houses in the area, a practice which spread to Chinese merchants in the early 20th century.

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What really opened up Penang Hill to tourism though, was a funicular railway, which started operations in 1923. Even though it is barely 800 metres above sea level, on a clear day the views are wonderful. It is possible to walk up the hill (two to three hours), starting by the entrance to the Botanical Gardens. Only residents are allowed to drive up to the station.

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Most visitors take the newly refurbished funicular railway at least one way. Somewhat controversially, foreigners are charged a much higher rate than Malaysians. Regular buses link George Town to both the railway station and the gardens.

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A visit to Penang Hill can be combined fairly easily with a visit to Suffolk House and/or Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple. That’s assuming you can tear yourself away from the many charms of George Town itself.

Fraser’s Hill

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Just one year before the funicular service started, Fraser’s Hill officially welcomed its first visitors. The area was opened up to tin mining in 1890s by a somewhat shady business man called Louis James Fraser. But its potential as a cool weather retreat was not realised for another three decades.

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The area, made up of seven hills of between 1,200 to 1,500 metres above sea level, was never intended to attract hordes of visitors. And despite some ill-considered development over recent decades, the place affectionately known as Little England still has a relaxed atmosphere, and plenty of charm.

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Apart from its cool climate, Fraser’s can boast several well-marked walking trails, abundant bird-life, a golf course, beautiful views and a sprinkling of quaint places to eat and sleep. There’s even an edible garden, where you pick your own organic strawberries.

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Fraser’s biggest drawback is that cannot be reached by public transport. A shuttle bus from Kuala Kubu Baru’s new railway station would be great not just for visitors, but for residents too. For now however, the only way to get to the hill station is on your own steam.

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Whether you approach from Kuala Kubu Baru (which is well worth a stop), or Raub, the last eight kilometres of the journey are up the same winding narrow road. On the way out, traffic leaves by another single lane road.

Cameron Highlands

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At 700 square kilometres, this is by far the largest of Malaysia’s colonial hill stations, and also the most popular. Although first mapped by British surveyor William Cameron in 1885, it was not until 1925 that the area was first developed for agriculture and recreation.

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Nearly a century on, agriculture and tourism remain the highlands’ two largest industries. The relatively cool climate is appreciated by both plants and tourists. Unfortunately, too much farming, rampant deforestation and over-development, have combined to put the local environment under considerable strain.

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Once you escape the crowds – and the environmental damage which seems to go with them – Cameron has much to recommend it, from well-marked walking trails, to a wide choice of eating and accommodation options.

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Tourist facilities are clustered in three main townships, Ringlet, Tanah Rata, and Brinchang. Regular bus services link the highlands to other parts of West Malaysia, principally Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh.

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