In conjunction with International Mountain Day that falls on Dec 11, David Bowden highlights 10 upland locations in the country IN 2003, the United Nations General Assembly declared from then on, Dec 11 would be recognised as International Mountain Day.With the world celebrating so many 'days', like World Toothache Day, World Ice Cream for Breakfast Day and World Flight Procrastination Day, International Mountain Day (IMD) could easily have come and gone before anyone sat up and paid attention.
However, the UN backing of IMD ensured its prolonged existence, especially with its focus not just on the physical structures of mountains, but also on sustainable development, inclusion of minority groups and alleviating poverty for those who are dependent on mountains. Mountains are important as some 15 per cent of the world's population live in such terrain. People choose to live in mountainous regions for many reasons, including the availability of fertile volcanic soil, clean water and cool weather, but most importantly, because they often have no choice as they are born there. Those who live in mountains have to endure volcanic eruptions, landslides, avalanches, mudslides and adverse weather. Mountains are also important for tourism and the challenge of ascending these lofty heights is regularly taken up by many. While Malaysia is not overly mountainous, there are some mountains and hills that attract climbers and general sightseers.
While thinking of these and developing a list, I ponder the difference between a mountain (gunung) and a hill (bukit). The first reference I unearth suggests that a mountain is an elevated upland covered in snow and had I adopted this as a definition, my Malaysian IMD would be a very short list indeed (snow and ice are rarely recorded at the summit of Gunung Kinabalu). Then there is a reference that stated mountains are steep and hills are rounded. That, too, is unacceptable due to the difficulty in defining "steep" and "rounded". Another stated that mountains are taller than hills and while this gains acceptance, but by how much?
The most appropriate definition I come across is that mountains are elevated uplands exceeding 610m and hills are below this. Here are 10 upland locations to consider for a cool change.
GENTING HIGHLANDS, PAHANG
In complete contrast to Fraser's Hill, the Resorts World Genting development on Gunung Ulu Kali at 1,800m above sea level is a mountain summit devoted to entertainment, recreation and tourism. Many more people are prepared to take the long and winding road to the summit or ride the cable car that departs from Awana SkyWay at Genting Highlands Premium Outlets. Visitors are attracted to Resorts World Genting for its numerous dining, shopping and thrilling entertainment options. Accommodation ranges from the prestigious Crockfords Hotel to the First World Hotel, which is not only the world's largest hotel but also friendly on the wallet.
GUNUNG BATU BRINCHANG, PAHANG
At 2,032m, it is the highest mountain in Cameron Highlands that is accessible by road. However, it's worth noting that the road isn't in good condition so this deters many from making the attempt. Those who persevere are rewarded with expansive views over tea estates and a short walk through a mossy forest at the summit (alternatively, join an organised 4x4 vehicle excursion to the summit on the Pahang-Perak border).
Mossy forest is limited in extent in Malaysia and is such a fragile ecosystem that an elevated boardwalk passing over the spongy moss forest floor has been installed at Gunung Batu Brinchang and an entry fee is charged. The forest is permanently damp due to low-lying cloud, which makes its alternative name of cloud forest easy to understand. Because these forests occur at high altitude, they are also called montane forests. Pitcher plants, orchids, conifers and gnarly dwarf trees are common and along with the misty fog that often lingers, these forests fascinate photographers for their eerie and mysterious ambiance.
FRASER'S HILL, PAHANG
Interestingly, Fraser's Hill is technically not a 'hill' because this old colonial outpost actually extends over several rolling hills. At an altitude of about 1,450m, Fraser's Hill was recognised in the 1920s as a suitably cool location for soldiers who had returned from World War I to recuperate. Once the plan gained traction, its development was reasonably rapid as several small hospitals were established (Ye Olde Smokehouse began as a hospital), and then public facilities as well as private and government holiday bungalows were erected. This all happened when travelling in Malaya was quite an adventure in an era when few holiday destinations were available. Now holidaymakers have many more options and as a result, Fraser's Hill is locked in a time warp. However, for those who enjoy a cool holiday in forested surroundings where very little happens, Fraser's Hill is a perfect location.
GUNUNG JERAI, KEDAH
The 1,175m peak of Gunung Jerai on the Kedah coast overlooking the Straits of Malacca has been a beacon for navigation for centuries. For over 1,300 years, Kedah has been closely linked to trade routes as it was the first land contact for ships that sailed from India, powered by the trade winds. No doubt, Gunung Jerai was the landmark mariners headed for as it was the most obvious landform looming ominously on the horizon. The mountain is visible on a clear day from many kilometres away, including Penang. There is a road to the summit and from here, Langkawi and Penang are clearly visible rising above extensive padi fields that surround the mountain. Jerai Hill Resort offers chalet accommodation, a pool, restaurant and cool weather.
GUNUNG MACHINCHANG, LANGKAWI
Langkawi's second highest mountain at 713m is more developed than Gunung Raya. Access is via what is considered one of the steepest cable cars in the world with spectacular views of lowland rainforest over which it passes. The mountain is part of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Geopark and recognised for its 550-million-year-old sandstone rocks. While most visitors travel up and back on the cable car, the adventurous may want to walk with the trek down being the preferred direction. Getting an experienced nature guide is recommended. The journey to the summit commences at Oriental Village with a range of shops, restaurants and activities and once at the peak, there are more outlets for refuelling and shopping. From the top station, visitors can walk across a skybridge over a deep rocky and forested gorge and also admire the view, including peering into the islands of southern Thailand.
GUNUNG KINABALU, SABAH
Malaysia's highest peak at 4,095m is a hotbed of biodiversity with some 5,000 plant species identified within this 750sq km park in Sabah. While the challenge of a two-day climb to the summit attracts adventurous travellers, the cooler weather appeals to many who are content to relax in the facilities at Park Headquarters. Tourism authorities once claimed Kinabalu to be Southeast Asia's highest peak, but the mountain is a dwarf when compared with the snow-capped Mount Hkakako Razi in northern Myanmar at 5,881m. Regardless of the claim, Kinabalu is still a prominent mountain and conquering it has long been on the travel itineraries of many. This volcanic remnant comprising mostly granite is exposed at the summit where it is too cold for plants to survive. The summit climb requires no special abilities apart from good health and endurance. The mountain has special significance to the local Dusun people, many of whom work in the park (the name Kinabalu is supposedly derived from Dusun for 'big boulder'). Guides who lead groups of adventurers to the summit are mostly local Dusun. Visitors can stay in park accommodation, private chalets near the park entrance or in nearby Kundasang.
GUNUNG RAYA, LANGKAWI
This is the highest peak on the island of Langkawi. Many parts of this resort island were granted Unesco Geopark status in recognition of its ancient geological formations. Gunung Raya is geologically very different from Langkawi's second highest mountain — Machinchang. Gunung Raya comprises granite, an igneous rock that formed 230 million years ago deep within the Earth's surface in what is called a batholith. Later, plate tectonics forced the rocks to the surface. Visitors can drive or walk (a steep 3km with 4,287 steps and best led by a guide) to the summit at 881m above sea level. Birdwatchers especially enjoy this part of Langkawi as the road enables good views over the island, where eagles soar and into the rainforest canopy where hornbills often feed.
GUNUNG SANTUBONG, SARAWAK
Mount Santubong, at 810m, is clearly visible from many parts around the Sarawak capital of Kuching. In the 1850s, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace collected samples of the flora and fauna, and worked here on what became known as the 'Sarawak Law'. Concurrently but independently, Charles Darwin was developing concepts he published as: 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life'. Darwin's work became better known as the Theory of Evolution, one of natural science's most important theories. The research papers of both men were presented simultaneously at London's Linnaean Society on July 1, 1858. Darwin's concepts became better known, but those climbing to the summit of Gunung Santubong can reflect upon the significant place that it plays in natural science. While its height appears modest, the ascent isn't easy with near-vertical ladder climbs close to the summit. Climbers need to be fit, well-prepared, well-equipped and to start early as return walks take most of the day. Views over the Damai Peninsula and the South China Sea are the reward at the end of a strenuous climb.
BUKIT BENDERA, PENANG
Often regarded as the world's first hill station, Penang Hill (833m), as it's officially known, became increasingly popular in the early 19th century as a cool destination to escape to for the colonialists working in George Town. Initially, employees of the East India Company rode horses or were carried by coolies bearing sedan-chairs up the steep slopes of Penang Hill. Now, a funicular railway ensures a quick ascent to the summit. In the early days, bungalows were erected across the upper reaches of the hill and small hotels like Bellevue followed (the hotel is still there). It was only natural that the governor would build his own bungalow, and with the Union Jack flying, Penang Hill became known as Bukit Bendera.
GUNUNG TAHAN, PAHANG
At 2,197m, Gunung Tahan is the highest peak on the peninsula. Located on the Pahang and Kelantan border, the climb to the summit and back from Taman Negara Park Headquarters is a hard and long slog. Experienced and well-equipped climbers head off for the seven-day return trek with a guide while other trekkers enter the park from Merapoh on the park's western border. The staging point for this shorter, but still multi-day walk is via the Sungai Relau Park Headquarters, which is accessible by road or for the adventurous, by trains on the East Coast Line from Gemas to Tumpat.