The only place I’ve travelled where a fruit stall doubles as a bus stop, is just outside the mountain town of Tanah Rata in Malaysia’s north. We were due to disembark at the stall for a day hike. What was the purpose of our trek? Like most Brits abroad, we were hoping to find the perfect brew.
As the tiny bus grumbled up the gentle inclines, locals peered in at the strange collection of visitors and excess baggage crammed inside. Verdant hills were dotted with the occasional unseemly scaffold of a new hotel construction, but closer to the window, flora of every variety hung at the roadside.
We rattled to a halt about thirty minutes east from our base and realised immediately that our hostel receptionist hadn’t been pulling our very touristy legs. A beaming smile emerged shyly from the shadows of a rafted canopy. In front of the elderly lady, a hoard of exotic fruits cascaded over wooden baskets. Foodstuff and what appeared to be random household accessories hung from the beams above her head, leaving only one solitary space for the very proud local woman to hover.
There was something about beginning our adventure at such an unusual landmark that instilled a great sense of excitement for our onward journey. Covering over 8km of rolling highland, the walk would eventually deliver us to the famous BOH tea plantation.
The hiking itself was easy and peaceful. As our boots ate up the road ahead, we turned corners that each held a slightly different view. Meandering inclines gradually took us above the dense morning mist that was yet to pluck itself from the greenery below. Old tractors and other miscellaneous machinery peppered the roadside – abandoned like the Marie Celeste in a state of eternal readiness.
Any breathlessness on steep sections was easily forgotten as our senses were once again distracted by the rising temperatures, the distant echo of bird calls and the occasional glimpse of ladies picking at the myriad bushes lining the slopes. We stopped for several minutes to pretend that this was our life, our routine. Striding amid the waist-high shrubbery laughing and taking photos, the air was fresh and still heavy with dew. The lives we had left behind seemed more than just a long-haul flight away.
Founded in 1929, by a fellow Brit, no less, the BOH Tea Estate is today one of the most renowned in Malaysia and owns three separate sites. Facts and figures aside, in reality the first thing we noticed after an incredibly silent ascent was the noise of other humans. The place was a hive of activity. Here, the machinery moved and whirred and was still very much alive, hopefully making my tea for me as I listened!
I hate to admit this, but I had been yearning for a decent cup of tea since the day I’d arrived in Bangkok almost eight weeks before, and what a momentous way to break my drought! We rested our boot-clad feet on a sweeping wooden veranda overlooking the very leaves we were about to sample. Clasping my hot cup with both hands, I blew away the steam and took my first sip -heaven. As we slurped the sun finally broke through the morning haze and the vivid blue sky became punctuated with colossal, fluffy white clouds.
Having been fully revived by our medicinal cup of cha, we decided to pay the old factory a visit, learning all about one of the most underrated processes in the world. It turns out that it takes quite a while to brew the perfect cup of tea. A far cry from my daily dipping of a teabag in some hot water, I developed a new-found respect for the humble tea leaf. As we began trudging slowly back to the now infamous fruit-stall-bus-stop, the day’s temperatures peaked and the sun smothered the hard working pickers in the pastures.
Just as my mind began to wander, as it often does in situations like this, about what it would be like to live out my days in a tea plantation, our hike bottomed out at the main road and we returned to our favourite and by now, infamous pick-up point. We even decided to purchase some of its bright, juicy produce while we waited for our ailing bus to return.
Well, when in Rome!