In the early days of the internet and Google, all it took was few random searches in the browser to know the reality of a touristy place. But not anymore! The Internet is no longer a neutral place unlike seven to ten years ago. Search after search, you get only the promotional and paid information and articles. More you search, more you get confused. Unless you experience the place by reaching there, you hardly get to know the hidden downsides, and by then it’s too late. You get fleeced, cheated, bored, and have a less than expected experience. I don’t know whether it’ll be helpful or not, but I am going to write a series about the places I have visited across India in last twelve years or so. I’ll try to keep my own prejudices away while writing this series. But, you never know; the preferences often seep in. My experiences are from the perspective of a young couple, a small family with kids, and from a secular, cosmopolitan and culturally tolerant middle-class outlook. The first part is about Kochi and Munnar.
After twice visiting the plantation hills of Munnar, in two different months ( March and November), in 2010 and 2017 respectively, I am in a position to write some meaningful words for the first time visitors to this Kerala hill station, along with some experience sharing about the city of Kochi.
- The place is very green, full of tea plantation in higher slopes and coffee and spice plantations on lower slopes where the temperature is little higher. But remember that the tea leaves are bushes and won’t smell like boiled tea. Moreover, they won’t look different than any other garden hedge when you go closer. The beauty lies in the collectivity. Hills after hills of neatly lined and trimmed tea bushes give a garden look to Munnar.
- Most of the Munnar is owned by the Tata group which owns most of the tea gardens there and because of this, the resorts and the hotels are far away from each other and are spread around for kilometers from the main small town which is congested, full of fumes and noisy like any other Indian hill town. If you don’t have your own vehicle, getting out of these resorts can be a tricky and pricey problem. I’ll come to it later.
- Resorts are generally small but have good views of the hills, valleys and even fountains ( those with fountain views will highlight it on the website). As the land is at a premium, resorts are costly for the services they offer. I have no idea about five-star properties, but even other properties with a good view and decent rooms are not cheap. Expect at least Rs 6000 a day in the season.
- Taxis are costly, unionized, and downright fleecing. Taxi union will not let you hire a taxi for a day or on a per kilometer basis. They ask you to choose, half day or full day tours, on one of the three roads ( towards Coimbatore, towards Kochi and towards some other town I don’t recall now), and you’ll get to see the places as per the driver’s wishes. So in short, the taxi union dictates rates, time and even the spots for you ( yeah, you thought right, the commission element is there). And naturally, they avoid going far even on the chosen road to save on the fuel. There are good places to visit but most of them are far away from the town. The taxi driver will show you stupid places like a big beehive, or a crowded elephant ride area full of elephant dung. For going to town, tuk-tuks are cheap but riding in them is slow, noisy and quiet adventures on steep roads.
- Few resorts have very bad and steep access roads and need experts drivers and powerful vehicles.
- If it rains, the mist spreads in the valley which looks enchanting and beautiful. But, at the same time, it may cause melancholy when the darkness descends in the valley. If you are not a teetotaler, keep a bottle of liquor with you. It will help. Very few resorts have their own bars.
- Munnar is all about hills, valleys, greenery, tea and spice gardens, some distant but good tracks. This place doesn’t have any distinct cultural or culinary experience. Surprisingly, in most of the hotels, you’ll get only regular ( or even worse) tea and coffee which is a shame in this tea town.
- For families and young couples- Munnar, like most of Kerala, has fewer rowdy characters going around, but you never know.
- A rickety auditorium runs decent shows of katthakkali and kaleripayattu. The show is worth the money and time spent.
- For medical needs, there is a Tata run hospital which is clean and even has few specialists.
- There are various other spots like a dam for motor boat riding, and picture postcard type outdoors. The highest point of Munnar ( where our taxi driver refused to go), some gardens, the coffee and spice plantations etc.
- The town as such has nothing much to offer. But, you can buy some touristy stuff and eatables.
- The stay options are many, but I preferred two locations- hotels with a clear view of harbour, one KTDC hotel on a small island near the harbour. You can stay near the airport and take taxis to go around. Ola and Uber are allowed in Kochi and this provides big relief.
- Fort Kochi beach is not really a beach but just a small crowded piece of land with sand.
- The Jewish street has no Jews. All the pale skinned people running shops there are Kashmiris. There is a decent cafe there which shows on the list of tourist brochures. But I have seen in from the outside only.
- The synagogue has historical importance, but it is just a big room with old ( perhaps handmade) tiles. There is a museum located in a Travancore kingdom house ( I am not using the word ‘palace’ deliberately).
- Cherai beach is wonderful and just 25 km from Kochi. A French gentleman by the name of Andy runs the Chill Out cafe further down the beach where the environment is peaceful, the beach is clean and uncrowded. He doesn’t serve liquor but very good Mediterranean style food.
- You can take a boat ride in the harbour and see huge freighters going out of the harbour mouth and sailing in the sunset. Big boats with two decks ply in the harbour. These boats generally have loud music playing in it and may have some not very civil co-passengers. I preferred small boats which can accommodate a small family.
- The marine drive Kochi is a walkway with lots of hawkers.
- Backwater starts from Kochi and even boat rides are available for the city tour. I hadn’t availed them so can’t really comment.
- Backwater tours at Aleppy, for the half day, start at 11 am and the boats return by 5pm. In the humid Kochi weather, it can give a headache in a non-ac boat so try not to get exposed to the afternoon sun.
I hope this information will prove handy. But, every traveller is different. For queries, leave a question in the comments section.
My Two Cents –
Munnar is green, beautiful, clean and looks exotic when the mist surrounds it. But, it is commercialized and overpriced, at least in the season. But you’ll be disappointed if you are looking for things like a distinct cuisine, distinct culture or architecture. Kochi, on the other hand, is huge, clean, and commercial and has some places to visit which are hardly two hours’ drive from the city. I did not get time to explore few of the famous eating-places there. I hope someone will add his experience about this. To really explore the city, drive on the narrow country roads around the city, and you’ll see backwater, river, paddy fields, Chinese nets, and some not so famous but equally good beaches. The people are generally friendly, polite and educated.