Travel & Adventure

Solving the Mysteries of Malaysia's Cameron Highlands

As we rose so did the mist over the undulating valley below. The narrow, twisting road clung to the mountainside, thick in unruly tropical vegetation. It was just the kind of road I could imagine James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 maneuvring at top speed, a crew of fierce villains in hot pursuit. As a matter of fact, this is not all that far from the truth as the agent who may have inspired Ian Fleming’s fictional MI6 spy, supposed CIA operatives and Communist insurgents once cruised the now peaceful Cameron Highlands, a Malaysian tourist destination shrouded in mysteries, murder and intrigue.

Located 125 miles northeast of Kuala Lumpur and 4,700 feet above sea level, the Cameron Highlands is a plateau in the Titiwangsa Mountains named after Sir William Cameron, the British surveyor who first mapped the area in 1885. Its altitude offers the ideal climate for some respite from the hot, humid weather in the lowlands. So in the 1920s, a hill resort--with a golf course and a line of Tudor-style hotels--was established and grew popular with the well-heeled British colonials rulers of the land. It also proved perfect for growing tea, an industry which began to flourish here in the 1930s, and which suited the British very well indeed.

However, this dreamland of golfing and high tea soon morphed into a nightmare with the arrival of the Japanese during WWII, a troubled time that lingered far past the war's end. Driving into the sleepy town of Tanah Rata, with its graceful tea plantations, strawberry farms and flower nurseries you can hardly fathom gunshots echoing through the valley, Gurkha patrols or sandbags protecting homes. Nor could Derek Emerson-Elliott, who, at the young age of seven, came to the town with his family at the very beginning of the insurrection.

Derek's father, Denis Emerson-Elliott, was allegedly looking into establishing a secondary school in town, though his true mission was of a very different nature. An early recruit of the British Intelligence MI6, Denis was to liaise with, and keep an eye on, Chin Peng, the leader of the CPM. Hidden away in dense forest above the town, and accessible only by a small lane, are two large bungalows which Denis rented out, at the time called Bungalows one and two, today known as Sunlight and Moonlight. The Emerson-Elliott family lived in Sunlight and it’s widely thought that Moonlight served as the headquarters for the CPM. “If anything at all puzzled me about the occupants of Moonlight,” the son hypothesizes. “It was that hardly any of them spoke English, which seemed strange as they were supposed to be employees of my father's firm, Emerson-Elliott & Co.”

Now a barrister living in Canberra, Australia, the truth behind their time in the Cameron Highlands, and that of his father’s true profession, came out when historian and author Lynette Silver was referred to the M16 recruit for her research on Naval Intelligence. As the details unravelled, they realized there was a hair-raising story to be told, which became In the Mouth of the Tiger. “I had once helped them rig a field telephone from Moonlight to Starlight,” Derek explains. “One of them hoisted me up a small jungle hillock that stood between the bungalows, and I trundled the coil across the ten yards or so before passing it down to one of them. The phone was in my father's study and we children were banned from touching it.”

“I’ve been through all the people who have been put forward as possible ‘models’ for Bond and no one comes near Denis,” Silver asserts. While the world’s most famous fictional spy may not have been based solely on one person, dapper Denis, with his taste for fine drinks, beautiful ladies and fast cars, was a friend of Fleming’s since their work together at MI6. Derek even remembers Fleming coming to their country house in Dorset, after the Emerson-Elliotts had returned to England. Denis also had an uncanny resemblance to Fleming’s original sketch of his espionage hero.

Although, the insurgence was eventually stifled, military presence remained in the seemingly serene hills of the Cameron Highlands. While in town, you can better visualize this puzzling and turbulent history at the Time Tunnel. Opened in 2007 and considered Malaysia’s first nostalgia museum, the quirky venue has thematic displays on the various eras of the area, including a large section on the early days of the resort, the Communist insurrection and State of Emergency, the area’s British military history and the disappearance of the Highland’s most famous enigma: the 1967 disappearance of Jim Thompson.

Nicknamed the “Silk King,” Thompson was an American silk trader who is credited for saving the Thai silk industry. This may have been his official occupation, however, it’s purported that Thompson was also a CIA operative. Vacationing at the Moonlight Bungalow over Easter, Thompson went out for a walk in the woods and never returned. An unprecedented search ensued involving helicopters and local aboriginal trackers and virtually the whole town who were encouraged by vast reward. Psychics were enlisted to predict his whereabouts. Massive efforts which uncovered no concrete clues whatsoever.

Many theories have been put forth to explain his disappearance from Thompson having fallen into a ravine to him being ravaged by a tiger, though the most prevalent pertains to his supposed links to secret intelligence. The riddle still fascinates to this day and was just recently the topic of the documentary, Who Killed Jim Thompson. Released in 2017 and produced by Adventure Film Productions, it presents new evidence that Thompson was trying to set up a meeting aforementioned Chin Peng, then Malaysia’s most wanted man, still on the run since the days of the insurgence.

Perhaps the best way to reflect on these puzzles is by venturing into the jungle yourself. Weather permitting, you can amble deep into the forest on a number of trails, the ones the insurgents previously patrolled. Eco-tourism operation Cameron Secrets can help guide you through some of the best, lesser traveled ones, or for a less physical jaunt around the area, CS Travel does group excursions or private ones in Land Rovers to better set the tone.

If you really want to surround yourself with the captivating region, you can actually rent out the Moonlight Bungalow or stay in a room in the neighboring building. Then again, you might be more comfortable in one of the historic Tudor hotels--like the attractive and atmospheric Lakehouse, equipped with stone fireplaces, a martini--shaken,not stirred--and a copy of Fleming's In the Mouth of the Tiger.

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