The south Indian province of Kerala is known as God’s Own Country and after spending two weeks travelling around, I can say, it is definitely paradise! It is famous for its beaches and backwaters but my favourite part of Kerala is the hill country with its lush green hills and many tea plantations.
From Dubai we flew into Kochi (also known as Cochin) for only €90 per person with Air Arabia, so we got a great deal on the flights. Kochi is the second largest city in Kerala after the capital Thiruvananthapuram (most people call it Trivandrum) and has a population of around 600,000 people. We stayed in the part of the city that is known as Fort Kochi. A lovely and leafy part of the city full of colonial buildings from the times the Portuguese, Dutch and British ruled here.
We landed in the evening and took a pre-paid taxi from the airport to Fort Kochi. The pre-paid taxi was easy to book as there was an official taxi booth inside the arrivals hall and you could pay by card so no need to find an ATM first. Very handy and we knew for sure that we wouldn’t be overcharged. The ride from the airport to our accommodation was chaotic and there was just so much traffic! Welcome to India where traffic rules don’t exists and honking is the only way to get anywhere it seems.
Our accommodation was very basic, but very cheap and we only paid 500 rupees a night (around €7). The location was great, right next to the best restaurant (my opinion) in Fort Kochi and walking distance from all the sights.
After our first night in the sticky and humid heat, we spent the next day exploring Fort Kochi. We walked along the beach to see the giant Chinese fishing nets, enormous wooden constructions with a fishing attached to it. We watched a few of the nets in operation and it looked like not an easy task and very heavy work.
Chinese fishing net
The next stop on our walk around Fort Kochi was the St. Francis Church. It is the oldest European church in India and originally built in 1503 by the Portuguese. When Vasco de Gama died in Kochi in 1524 he was buried in this church, but after 14 years they moved his remains to Lisbon. In the church I also found quite a few Dutch graves. Very weird to suddenly see old-Dutch written on stones in a Portuguese church in India.
St. Francis Church
In the afternoon we also visited the small but interesting Indo-Portuguese Museum, the pretty Santa Cruz Basilica and the Dutch Cemetery (visitors not allowed in).
The Santa Cruz Basilica
We finished the day with a traditional Kathakali performance at the Kerala Kathakali Centre. Kathakali is an art form that is a dramatized presentation of a play and drummers and singers accompany the actors. The story is told by very precise (eye) movements, hand gestures and facial expressions and they all mean very specific things. Before the performance we got to see how they put on their make-up and they explained what all the movements, gestures and expressions mean and they gave us a summary of the story that we were going to watch. A full traditional Kathakali performance goes on for many hours, but for tourists, they cut it down to a manageable 1 to 1,5 hours. Having seen a lot of these touristy shows of traditional dances and music over the years, this one was definitely one of the better ones.
Scene from the Kathakali performance
The next morning we took an auto rickshaw to the nearby Mattancherry Palace. It’s a very short ride and you could walk it but not used yet to not having sidewalks and just walking on the road trying not to get hit by cars, motorbikes, cyclists and rickshaws, we took the rickshaw. First he asked 50 rupees, (€0.70), which is a relatively high considering the short distance. When we tried to haggle, the driver didn’t want to go down, but then suddenly said, I can do 20 rupees (€0.25) but you have to look in a shop. We said fine, we look in the shop but we won’t buy anything. The driver said that wouldn’t be any problem and off we went for 20 rupees. On the way back another driver asked 50 rupees as well, but of course we said straight away, let’s do 20 rupees with a shop. This driver explained that they get 50 rupees for any group of tourists they bring to a shop along the way, even if they don’t buy anything. So a good deal for all parties involved.
Back to the story of the palace, which was a gift to the King of Kochi in 1555 as a gesture of goodwill. The palace is also known as the Dutch Palace, but that is only because the Dutch renovated the palace in 1663. It was very busy with mainly locals and very hot inside so we didn’t hang around too long. The rest of the day we just chilled and tried to acclimatize to the heat and humidity.
Two days in Fort Kochi was enough to see all the main attractions so we took a bus to Munnar, a town about 130 km east from Kochi. Although the distance to Munnar is not that far, it took 5 hours by bus. The public buses in India are very cheap and they are very basic, but I love them if it is for daytime travel. There are no windows, just window frames with iron bars and no seats, just slightly padded benches for 2 or 3 passengers or how many you can fit on them.
On the ride from Kochi to Munnar, busy cities and towns slowly changed into lush, green hills with tea plantations as far as you can see. Munnar is also a lot higher than Kochi at an elevation of 1524m above sea level. So the last bit of the bus journey we climbed a lot and the road got narrower and windier and the cliffs on the side of the road very steep. But we made it in one piece and found a lovely guesthouse (Green View).
The best part of the next day we spent hiking in the hills surrounding Munnar. The hike was organized by our guesthouse and was brilliant! We started at 6:45am and walked along a river towards the tea plantations. The sun was just rising and the light was beautiful. We entered one of the tea plantations and walked along fields and fields of tea up the hill. The last bit to the top of the hill where we would have breakfast was in high grass and full of leeches. And of course a leech managed to get into my shoe, through my sock and sucked itself so full with my blood that it had fallen off and I noticed it because I felt something slimy under my foot… Breakfast was at an amazing spot, around 2100m on top of a mountain. The view was great whenever there was a gap in the clouds. After breakfast we slowly made our way down through the high grass again and rainforest combined with cardamom plantations. By 12pm the group split in half with some continuing for the full day of hiking. But we were happy with just the half day and around 1:30pm we got back to Munnar.
Sunrise over the tea plantations in Munnar
Walking trail through the tea plantation
For lunch we ate at a great restaurant where we had unlimited rice with all sorts of curries on the side on a banana leaf, which is typical for South India. It was very spicy so not the best meal for me as I can’t handle spicy food, but Harry loved it. And so cheap, just €1 per person
Banana leaf rice
The rest of the afternoon and in the evening we were too tired to do anything really and just relaxed at the guesthouse.
From Munnar we took the four-hour bus to Kumily. This time we managed to get seats right in the front of the bus where there is some sort of legroom and great views. However, it’s also the spot where you get to see all the oncoming traffic and all the near misses when taking over in corners where the driver really can’t see if there is a car/bus/truck coming. And as we stayed in the hills, the drive was very scenic but the cliffs even deeper. Thankfully the driver was great and considering all the other drivers we’ve had on our travels so far, he has been the most responsible driver.
In the bus to Kumily
Kumily is only really a place you stay at if you want to visit the nearby Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. This was originally our plan as well but reading more about the park, hearing experiences from other travellers (not very good) and then as we got to Kumily finding out the high prices they ask for any activity (safari, trekking) within the park, we decided not to bother with the park and see wildlife somewhere else on our trip with still a lot of countries and months of travelling ahead.
So we used our time in Kumily to just relax. We stayed in a great homestay, Claus Garden, recommended by Harry’s aunt and it was a bit above our budget but worth it as we didn’t spend money on any activities. We did do a cooking class one evening at a restaurant called Bar-B-Que and it was a great experience and the food we cooked was delicious. We made a fish curry, chicken curry, pineapple curry, paratha (a flat kind of bread), green bean curry and okra (a vegetable).The cooking class was also super cheap compared to cooking classes I have done elsewhere in Asia. It was easy to organise as we just asked our homestay to call the restaurant and ask about the cooking class. Later that evening we got picked up by the owner of the restaurant at our homestay and after the cooking class he took us back as well.
Cooking class in Kumily
Backwaters of Kerala
After relaxing in Kumily, we were ready for a full-on travel day. From Kumily we took a bus to Kottayam, 3 hours to the west and from Kottayam we wanted to take a public ferry to Alappuzha (Alleppey). However, when we got to Kottayam, a guy from a ‘travel agency’ and a rickshaw driver said there are no boats from Kottayam (that’s a lie I know now) and we had to go to a dock nearby, 10km from Kottayam. The rickshaw driver would take us, just 200 rupees! Triple the price that we had just paid for the bus from Kumily to Kottayam, but there was nothing we could do really as we couldn’t find anyone that spoke English. When we got to the dock we had just missed a ferry and the rickshaw driver tried to catch up with it but the dirt path along the river ran out and there was just water in front of us and the ferry about 50 meters away. So we had to wait for the next ferry in an hour and a half at the dock, which was in the middle of nowhere. There was a small school near the dock and the kids all just had their lunch break and we were their main attraction. They practiced their English with us and said a lot of things we couldn’t understand but they found very funny.
The ferry was docked already all this time and the kids made clear with sign language that it was ok for us to sit in the boat and wait there. The ferry was just a long wooden boat with benches on each side. Normally I would never go on one of these ferries with my fear of boats, but the backwaters of Kerala are very calm and no very wide rivers or big lakes so I wasn’t scared.
The backwater ferry
The school kids
When it finally was time to depart, we were still the only people on the ferry. Soon though we picked up lots of locals and it was very interesting to see daily life in the backwaters from a totally different perspective than you would on a touristy canoe tour or on one of the houseboats. As after about an hour, we got closer to Alleppey and the backwaters were full of houseboats and motorized canoes with tourists, who funnily started taking pictures of the ferry and the locals (plus us, the white ones) on it as it was probably the first real local thing they saw on their overrated tours
Transporting a tractor in the backwaters
One of the quiet backwater canals
In total the ferry took almost 3 hours and I think it is one of the best ways to see the real backwater life and by far the cheapest way. We paid 15 rupees (€0.20) per person, that’s what I call value for money!
When we got to Alleppey we couldn’t figure out what is so special about it and why everybody, including guidebooks, recommend you to go there. It’s one of the starting points for backwater tours, but other than that, there isn’t much to see or to do. They are constructing a bypass highway right next to the beach and all the beach front restaurants there once were, are now cut off from the beach by a massive construction site and in a few months a busy and ugly highway. All guesthouses and hotels are very overpriced and you can’t find value for money. So after one night in the worst place we stayed at so far, we left Alleppey first thing in the morning.
South from Alleppey is where you can find some of Kerala’s nicest beaches. We chose to take the bus to Varkala, which took us about 4 hours. There are other beach towns south of Alleppey as well, but we had heard that Varkala is one of the more relaxed places and not (yet) as commercialized as some of the other beach towns in Kerala.
Varkala Beach is about 10 minutes by rickshaw away from Varkala town and it’s paradise! All the homestays, guesthouses, hotels, restaurants and shops are on a cliff-top stretch and the beach is at the bottom of the cliffs. We got lucky with our homestay, which was absolutely amazing and the best place we’ve stayed at in India so far. So it happened that we spent 4 nights in Varkala. We didn’t really do anything, just relax, read, Harry did some yoga, I had massages, eat, tan, etc. It is a great place and we are already thinking of going back there at some point.
View from the cliff-top to Varkala Beach
As there is no ATM in Varkala Beach and you can’t pay anything by card we thought it was time to move one when we had almost ran out of cash. As going to the ATM in Varkala town and get more cash would have most definitely meant that we would spend a lot more days just doing nothing. Which of course is great, but there is so much to see and we are still early on in our travels.
The morning of our departure from Varkala, we had exactly enough cash left for a simple breakfast and a rickshaw to the train station where there is an ATM and we could take out money to buy a train ticket and some snacks and water. Turned out that overnight, Modi (India’s prime minister) had announced that all 500 and 1000 rupee notes are no longer valid and you can no longer pay with them. Only train stations, hospitals, gas stations, airports and some other state owned places would still accept the notes. And ATMs and banks would be shut all day that day and banks would re-open the next day but ATMs would still be closed for a few days. So… we had a small problem. The owners of the homestay were amazingly friendly and let us have two breakfasts for the price of one so we at least had money to buy a train ticket to our next destination, Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum).
A sign that you would see on the door of almost every restaurant, hotel and shop
With our last cash money we bought tickets for the train to Trivandrum. As it is just a short train ride you can’t reserve any seats and there is only second-class. The train was full so we didn’t get a seat but there are very big areas where you can stand so it was fine. The doors are open the entire time the train is driving so there is a lot of fresh air coming in and you have great views. You just need to be careful you don’t fall out.
On the train from Varkala to Trivandrum
When we got to Trivandrum we could walk to our hotel and luckily we could pay the hotel by card. But we still needed to have lunch… We had about 100 rupees left and we managed to find lunch that was this cheap. Then we decided to change some euros that I keep as ‘emergency money’ (in case none of our cards work or we get robbed) into rupees. However, due to the whole situation, they gave us a very bad rate and they still gave us 500 and 1000 rupee notes and only 500 rupees in 100 rupee notes. The 500 and 1000 rupee notes we could hopefully change to 100 rupee notes at the bank the next day. At night we ate at KFC as there we could pay by card and I wanted to save the 100 rupee notes for things like water and to get through the next day if the banks didn’t want to change money or didn’t open. Harry did manage to buy a yoga mat and they accepted the 500 rupees note as they said it would be easy enough for them to change it at the bank at some point.
The next morning we got up early to go to the bank to change the 500 and 1000 rupee notes that I got after changing euros the day before to 100 rupee notes. We were told not to go to the State Bank of India, as that is where most people have an account and it would be a lot busier there. The rule for changing money is, is that you can change up to 4000 rupees and you can deposit as much cash as you want into your bank account. But we obviously don’t have an Indian bank account so we just had the option of changing money. We had to give the bank a copy of our passport and Indian visa and fill out a form, this had to be stamped and verified by a bank worker and only after that could we queue to get money changed. In the end it took about 45 minutes, which was a lot quicker than I anticipated.
After we had some cash that was accepted, we went to the Zoological Gardens. It is pretty much like a zoo, but the animals do have a bit more freedom and are more in ‘nature’. The main reason why the Zoological Gardens of Trivandrum are famous with tourists is because the animals in the book ‘Life of Pi’ were based on those in the Zoological Garden. Quite funny that inside the Zoological Gardens, we were the only westerners and we probably got photographed as much as the animals.
Hippo in the zoo
People wanting their picture taking with us in the zoo
In the late afternoon we took the train to Madurai and we left Kerala behind, ready for some temples in Tamil Nadu.