He set off for an early evening pre-dinner stroll, but it was an act that was to spark off one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of all time. When Jim Thompson left his guesthouse in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands on March 26 1967 to walk Jungle Trek number 4, surely no one could have imagined he would never be seen again. But the American-born silk manufacturer, who moved to Thailand in the 1940s, vanished without a trace on that fateful day.
Local guides with extensive knowledge of the area searched for the 61-year-old but to no avail. His body has never been found. It wasn’t long before the conspiracy theories began to circulate – among the most popular that he was eaten by a tiger or, being a former OSS agent, was part of some elaborate kidnap plot.
The 30-year-old mystery surrounding Jim Thompson’s disappearance has not dampened people’s enthusiasm for the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s premier hill station. The area, about three hours north of Kuala Lumpur, is a cool retreat from the excessive heat at lower levels. Thanks to the presence of the British during Malaysia’s colonial days, it still retains an “olde-English” feel – cream teas are widespread and it rains constantly. During a recent visit to the region, I decided to follow in the footsteps of Jim Thompson – hopefully with not quite as disastrous results.
Trail number 4 starts close to Tanah Rata, the main town of the Cameron Highlands. It is paved and takes about 40 minutes to reach the watchtower lookout point. On the way, I passed Parit Falls – not the biggest waterfall you will ever see and certainly not the cleanest. The muddy brown stream is, sadly, littered with rubbish. The walk is fairly easy, although you should be prepared to walk a little uphill towards the end.
Monkeys can often be seen hanging in the trees – I didn’t see any on my visit but friends who did the walk the day after spotted the creatures swinging through the branches. A short climb to the top of the watchtower will allow you sweeping views over the town and into the hills beyond. On my descent, it started to rain so it’s definitely a good idea to takes waterproofs with you. Perhaps because of Jim Thompson’s experience, locals recommend never setting off on this or any walk in the late afternoon.
Guesthouses and tourist information offices in Tanah Rata can provide plenty of details and maps about this and all the other walks in the Highlands. It’s not just walks that are popular with visitors. The area is famed for its tea plantations and it is possible to visit them – and enjoy a sip of the local brew. Without your own transport it’s not that easy to get around so if you want to visit a plantation, your best bet is to do a half-day tour. For just 20 ringgit (187 baht), not only do you get to see the Sungai Palas Tea Plantation, you also get to see a Chinese temple, rose centre, strawberry farm, butterfly sanctuary, honey farm and local produce market. Yes, plenty of getting on and off the bus, but if you like eating, this could just be the trip for you. Maybe I was feeling homesick, but I couldn’t come to the Cameron Highlands without having a proper cream tea. There’s nowhere better to do this than the atmospheric Ye Olde Smokehouse Hotel, which is like something out of deepest Devon. The English-style pub even has its own red telephone box outside – something you can’t even find in England anymore. The pub is a popular tourist draw. As I sat in the peaceful gardens, I lost count of the number of Malay families taking photos. The cream tea itself is to die for. The scones are fresh and warm. But you must expect to pay for them – a cream tea will set you back 30 ringgit (281 baht). With prices like those, I really did feel like I was back in England!
For all the lowdown on the Cameron Highlands – including how to get there, accommodation, walks and other activities, go to www.cameronhighlands.com