I had planned a trip to Kerala a couple of times before, but for some reason those visits did not work out. So when my Kashmir trip had to be cancelled at the last minute due to the disturbance in the state, Kerala came up again as the alternate destination. The pleasant sight of thick green vegetation as we landed at Kochi airport marked a good beginning of our journey through what is known as god’s own country.
Coming from the scorching Delhi heat, we started our Kerala sojourn from Munnar. It took us about 3 hours to drive from Kochi to Munnar. On the way, a lot of “tembles” were pointed out to us as big tourist spots by our taxi driver who thought of himself more as a tour guide than a driver. We could see how adept he was at converting local temples to great tourist spots and cracks on the walls to scenic water falls. Honestly, other than the soothing greenery all around, there was nothing scenic on the way from Kochi to Munnar till the tea plantations of Munnar loomed ahead.
Tired of our long journey, we started with what Kerala is most known for, Ayurvedic massage. In comparison to the other massages where the massage experience is relaxing, the ayurvedic massage is not as soothing. You feel the relaxation a couple of hours after the massage. The huge amount of oil, the hard oily massage bed, the absolute lack of privacy provided by the therapist and the feeling of being a specimen that needs to be treated of illness, makes the ayurvedic massage anything by a wow experience. But for your tired muscles and bones, the effect after a couple of hours is amazing. I could barely keep my eyes open in the evening and the first night at Munnar was spent in a peaceful deep slumber.
The second day gave us ample time to look around the city. Munnar does not boast of scenic beauty as much as Ooty. It’s a small hill station with only the tea museum as a worthy experience. One can actually experience the process of tea manufacturing at the tea museum. Most of the tea plantations at Munnar are owned by Tata. Don’t waste your time at the Matupetty dam and the echo point which are the other claimed great spots to visit. They can absolutely be missed. Matupetty dam is a very small dam and Echo point greets you with foul smells and hoards of shopping stalls with highly disinterested owners. It is more pleasant to enjoy the valley view from your hotel. There a couple of small institutions that have Kathakali and Kalaripayattu performances in the evening. The ticket for each performance is for INR 200 per head and the shows happen from 5 to 7 p.m. These performances were quite enjoyable and they also shared a lot of details about these arts.
The drive from Munnar to Thekkady is again for about 3 hours. Thekkady is a very small town with the Periyar wild life sanctuary being the main attraction apart from a huge amount of dense green vegetation and peace. We stayed at Green Woods resort which was a very pleasant experience. The staff was extremely courteous and efficient which we found rare in hotels in the rest of Kerala. The resort was serene with mornings and evenings greeted with the chirping of birds. A cup of coffee on the tree top was the icing on the cake.
We did visit the Periyar Wild life Sanctuary which is also a Tiger Reserve now. Tigers are hardly seen here though we were lucky to spot a few barking deer. The sanctuary offers trekking, jeep safaris and boat rides. Most of these are focused on showing the spice plantation as it is very rare to spot any wildlife there as we were told.
Our resort arranged a Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi dance performance which was a treat to see. They also showed us pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and other spice plants . A candle light dinner in the wilderness completed the ambience.
We started from Thekkady the next morning towards Alleppey. We were really looking forward to our stay in the houseboat. We were lucky to find the roads empty due to it being a holiday and reached Alleppey in 3 hours. The houseboat manager called us on the way to ask us what we would prefer to have for lunch and dinner.
The houseboat experience is luxurious. It’s an exclusive experience where the entire houseboat is for you with a cook, navigator and an attendant. The houseboat is equipped with air conditioners, well-furnished bed rooms, fully functional wash rooms as well as a dining area with LCD and DVD player.
The houseboat ride was for 5 hours along the backwaters of Kerala. The scenic greenery, the paddy fields, the simple village life were a much wanted respite from the hustle and bustle of city. We were served a sumptuous lunch of authentic Kerala cuisine on the way. Sitting at the dining table in the houseboat lounge, enjoying your meal amidst the lush greenery and calm water on all sides is a charming experience.
The boat ride ended at about 5:30 p.m after which the houseboat was parked next to one of the village houses. We enjoyed the rest of the evening playing cards, chatting, watching TV and enjoying the calm of the serene back waters. The boat crew was available at our beck and call and was very helpful and courteous.
There were very few mosquitoes and the AC worked well leading to a very peaceful sleep. In the morning we could see the villagers proceed to their daily chores on their canoes. Fish sellers going from door to door on their canoe selling fish was also interesting sight. Alleppey is rightly called the Venice of the East. After breakfast, which was served while cruising through the backwaters, our houseboat dropped us at the dock.
Unlike Alleppey, Kovalam turned out to be a disappointment. An ordinary and dirty beach coupled with extremely sultry weather made us wonder why Kovalam was so overhyped. The swimming pool in the hotel was more inviting than the beach. The only respite were the small restaurants that served food under a candle light on a ledge next to the lapping waters. Munching fish pakodas next to the sound of the tides was a different experience.
In the morning we went to the recently much talked about Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum which is 15 kms away from Kovalam. The temple epitomized the character of Mithun Chakrabory in the movie OMG! Oh My God. Men were made to strip and wear dhotis provided at the temple to enter it. And do note that the dhoti is provided at a charge. Women could only wear sarees or had to wrap a dhoti over their clothes to go in. I wish the temple had spent this amount of effort providing clothing to the needy instead of making it an entry criterion to visit a place of God. Everything in the bag is pulled out and checked and for every article that you submit as not allowed (mobiles, chargers, ear phones, torch, camera etc.) there is an individual charge. It’s seemingly a full-fledged and flourishing business created under the garb of rituals by the temple with such huge amounts of gold deposits. After a long walk inside the temple premises, we saw people folding their hands in front of a small dark room. Like other temples of South India, I could not figure out any form of the deity inside. We also did one imaginary darshan and escaped from the most disappointing experience in the state with the highest literacy rate.
We spent most of our remaining time in Kovalam relaxing at the hotel by the pool or by the beach. Our return flight was from Trivandrum airport. It is a really small airport with very few flights.
The one thing that stays with you about Kerala is the natural vegetation and greenery that you experience all over. Thankfully it has been maintained by the inhabitants as it is the primary attraction for tourism in the state.
- Nilgiri Tahr (Mountain Goat) can be seen in Rajmala near Munnar. But the area is closed in the months of March and April which is the breeding season for the mountain goat. Much to our chagrin, our cab guy told us in very literal Hindi – “bakri ka baccha hoga isliye dekhne ko nahin sakta hai”.
- If you are interested in trekking and camping, then Thekkady is good destination and you can plan a couple of days here.
- Thekkady is a good place to buy spices.
- There are a few places in Thekkady as well which have Kathakali and Kalaripayattu performances.
- In the houseboat at Alleppey, while fans and lights work during the boat rides as well, the TV and AC work only once the boat has been parked. The electricity and cable connection is taken from the house next to which the boat is parked.
- There is a huge jewelry mall very near to the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum. After spices, gold jewelry was the other thing that people bought in bulk from Trivandrum due to the huge variety of designs available.
- Every second shop in Kerala offers ayurvedic massages. Most of them are not authorized to do so and are also pretty unhygienic. The prices are also not any significantly lower. Most hotel spas offer fairly competitive prices and it is better to pay a couple of hundred rupees more and enjoy the piece and hygiene in your hotel than the shady places along the road.