Off the beaten path

Tho Xin Yi

CAMERON HIGHLANDS (CNA) – The route leading to A’moss Farmstay is not for the faint-hearted.

After navigating the winding dual carriageway off the main street of Brinchang town, Ruban Segaran turned the steering wheel of his pickup to the right and charged forward on a path that is only wide enough for one car.

What would he do if there is an oncoming vehicle? “I usually reverse,” he said casually as he pulled his truck to a stop in front of three geodesic domes.

Pretty flowers accentuated the domes’ white exterior, while tidy rows of spring onions trembled in the afternoon rain. Started in September last year, A’moss Farmstay is a short-term lodging in a 1.6-hectare family-owned farm in Cameron Highlands, which is part of the mountainous spine of Peninsular Malaysia.

The place overlooks lush greenery and cultivated hills, a welcome respite for urbanites who are drawn to the highlands’ cool crisp mountain air, terraced tea plantations and locally grown strawberries.

Ruban realised from the very beginning that he had to work on something different to attract eyeballs in the crowded hospitality market. “To be famous, we need something unique,” the 27-year-old said.

In this day and age, travellers are wooed not just by international hotel chains and local establishments, but also an overwhelming number of individually run vacation rentals listed on lodging sites like Airbnb and Booking.com.

ABOVE & BELOW: A’moss Farmstay features three geodesic domes in a family-owned vegetable farm; and Ruban Segaran’s A’moss Farmstay overlooks lush greenery and cultivated hills. PHOTOS: CNA

The treehouse of Kekunang Tering Chalet in Pahang stands facing the South China Sea
A decommissioned bus has been converted into an Airbnb

The coronavirus pandemic has made competition even stiffer when the country’s doors are closed to inbound travellers. To attract Malaysians to take a vacation within the country after a near three-month ban on interstate travel, the government has rolled out an income tax relief of MYR1,000 (USD235) for domestic tourism expenses.

This, on top of the service tax exemption for lodging and accommodation, has restarted the tourism engine in parts of Malaysia, even as COVID-19 still lurks.

Crowded tourist spots in recent weekends and reservation data provided by Airbnb spelled good news for the initial reboot. It said in a statement that bookings made by Malaysians surged by 190 per cent month-on-month in June, and 93 per cent of which were for domestic destinations.

Ruban said the Booking.com and email apps in his mobile phone crashed shortly after Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin gave the green light for domestic travel in the new recovery movement control order (MCO) phase in his June 7 televised speech.

“Only the next day, I found out that 300 bookings were made within an hour. The notifications made the apps hang,” he recounted. His three domes – operated as a glamping setup of sorts – have been booked until October.

Edde Firdaus Abdul Aziz, a lodging operator in Kampung Tering, Pahang, also saw an encouraging take-up rate. “People have been confined to their homes, so as soon as after MCO (restrictions were eased) everyone wanted to go to local attractions.”

Malaysia’s luxuriant forests and scenic seascapes provide the backdrop for the tourism industry, which thrives in hill stations, islands and coastal towns.

The natural backdrops have served as a blank canvas for tourism operators like Ruban and Edde Firdaus to build niche lodgings.

Edde Firdaus’ Kekunang Tering Chalet treehouse stands on the beach on the east coast of the peninsula, facing the vast South China Sea.

The wooden hut constructed among the branches of an acacia tree was a project to fulfil a childhood dream of his. There are also four tube cabins fashioned out of giant concrete pipes in the compound where he started the business five years ago.

“I originally intended it as a place for me to relax while keeping an eye on my guests swimming in the sea, but by the time it was done, everyone kept asking me if I wanted to rent it out as well,” the 40-year-old said.

The treehouse was built with pine wood pallets purchased from a nearby automotive assembly plant in Pekan. The chalet has welcomed mostly local travellers, cyclists and bikers, as well as lovers of a rustic, adventurous lifestyle.

“When you are inside the treehouse, you feel really close to the waters. Listening to the waves is the best thing ever.

“Another attraction is the unparalleled sunrise view. If weather permits, you will see the sunrise when you draw the curtains open between 6am and 6.30am,” Edde Firdaus said.

At night, a starry sky appears, and fortunate guests will be able to see the elusive Milky Way.

In an era when travellers refer to Facebook, Instagram and online reviews before making any decision, a viral post is often a dream come true for those in the industry.

A’moss Forest, for instance, has been featured in social media posts that drew thousands of likes and shares. Every time the dreamy photos went viral, enquiries flooded in and the domes were fully booked, Ruban shared.

In early July, photos depicting the transformation of a decommissioned Universiti Malaya (UM) bus into an Airbnb in Kuala Lumpur caught the attention of many Facebook users.

A joint effort by UM sustainability advocacy groups Water Warriors and Rimba Project, the newly ready bus is now placed in a bungalow that is part of the campus grounds. Rental is around MYR100 a night, and guests will be sharing the garden with chickens Crispy and Tender and rabbits Apam and Arang.

The bus, which was retired in 2013 and disposed of in 2016, was offered to them by then UM deputy vice-chancellor Faisal Rafiq Mahamad Adikan. Working together with lecturers and UM’s Development and Estate Maintenance Department, the team bounced ideas off each other and eventually settled on converting the old vehicle into a vacation rental.

The exterior bearing the university’s coat of arms was kept as it is, while the seats were removed to make way for a pantry, window counter and bedroom in contemporary style.

The novelty of the project helped the Facebook post gain more than 2,000 shares, which came unexpected for the team. It also evoked nostalgia among UM alumni, with one of them sharing an old photo of the bus in the comments.

“Back in those days, when students saw the bus approaching the bus stops, they were like, ‘No, we don’t want to ride this bus’ because it didn’t have air-con,” recalled Siti Norasiah Abd Kadir, project officer of Water Warriors and a master of science student at UM.

“Compared to the newer bus, its seats were not comfortable as well. Students would often say, ‘Can we wait for the next one?’”

The team behind the bus envisioned the project to be more than just an Airbnb.

When the university is re-opened, they might offer a tour package for guests to explore the UM grounds, in particular the 80-hectare in-situ botanical garden Rimba Ilmu and iconic buildings like Tunku Chancellor Hall.

“Within the campus, there are a lot of things to look at and appreciate. You will be surprised that some UM students do not even know that Rimba Ilmu exists,” Nurul Fitrah Marican, a former project officer of the Rimba Project said.

Siti Norasiah added: “UM has always been community-centric. We want to engage the community, and to invite people to come in.”

Meanwhile, Edde Firdaus and Ruban also hope that travellers can see and experience the beauty of their hometowns.

“There are many places in Malaysia that I can describe as hidden treasures,” Edde Firdaus of Kekunang Tering Chalet said. “Tourist spots that usually get highlighted are Maldives and Thailand, while in fact many local destinations are low-profile.”

For Ruban, he was particularly proud of Cameron Highland’s Mossy Forest, an enchanted moss-covered landscape believed to be 200 million years old and just a few kilometres away from his farmstay.

“We always thought Europe is better than local destinations… it’s just that we haven’t discovered our own. We still have lots of special gems in Malaysia,” he said.

“Local travellers have been supportive of me. If it wasn’t for the Malay guest whose social media post on A’moss went viral for the very first time, my place wouldn’t be as famous as it is today.”