Saturday, August 19, 2006

Kerala : Thekkady & Munnar

Ever since I remember, I have always hated the phrase 'God's Own Country', to describe Kerala. After a very happy and a refreshing trip to various parts of Kerala and after drinking my fill of its natural bounty and beauty, I still hate that phrase !

No doubt Kerala is bountiful, lush, green all over and fresh. But to keep seeing that phrase at every corner can irritate you to no end.Well, having said that let me take you through my excellent holiday to places like Thekkady, Munnar, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Cochin, Aluva and more.

My wife and I travelled mostly by public transport system. Having travelled quite a bit in various parts of the Far East and the Middle East, I can vouch for the fact that travelling by public transport in India is not a difficult task at all. Like they say, it's all in the mind. And quoting John Milton, "Mind in its own place can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven". Coming back to the trains and buses from Madras, to Kerala one need not fear the journey at all. While it might not be as comfortable as travelling by an air-conditioned private limousine, it is nonetheless quite pleasant. The best part of public transport is you get to experience the real and true flavour of the countryside, the people of the soil and the nooks and corners of the places that one might miss if on a highway. I would summarise that there is no better way to absorb and relish the authentic feel of the place by any other means.

Fortunately or unfortunately, rains, rains and more rains, accompanied the whole trip that we took ! It rained throughout, almost non-stop for a stretch of 6 days !! That was quite a dampener, since I was not able to do some of the things that I was looking forward to doing - such as trekking in the jungles of Thekkady. When I enquired about it, I was informed categorically by the Kerala Forest Conservation Department guide that no treks are permitted when it's raining, since the forest beds would be swarming with leeches and a variety of centipedes and numerous other creepy-crawlies ! When I bravely opted to still go ahead with the trek, I was politely, but firmly told to find my way back to safer grounds.

Much has been written about the rains in Kerala. I know what they all mean, now. It does pour heavily at time, then calms down to mild drizzle most of the time, only to start all over again. One key observation of mine is that at no point does the rains stop completely. At the least there is a fine drizzle.

Thekkady is a far cry from some of the other jungle reserves that I've seen. But for a huge, man-made lake, there's nothing else in Thekkady. I was told that on the other side of the lake lies the real jungle, teeming with a huge variety of birds, reptiles, insects, animals and more ! Sometimes, when the jungle gets dry (mostly during peak summer in May / June), the animals out of their natural abode to the lake to quench their thirst. But when we visited the place, there was water, water everywhere and all the drops to drink !! So we were quite unfortunate in not being able to spot any wild animal worth mentioning except the odd herd of sambhar, some wild pigs, a small herd of bison and some waterfowls. Surprisingly we didn't even manage to spot even an elephant, which is perhaps the most common wildlife to be spotted in and around Thekkady's famous lakeside !The boating on the lake, I'm sure, would have been a much more pleasant and a worthwhile affair but for the rains ! We got in for the first trip (at 7 a.m.), which is highly recommended, since it's one of the best times of the day to approach the watering holes. The next best time is at dusk. There are about 5 large motorised barges that take the tourists for a full round of the lake. One way takes an hour. So the full ride take 2 hours. On a good day, I'm sure the lucky tourists would be able to spot many animals around the lake.

We stayed at the modest Periyar Guest House, which is inside the forest reserve. The property has no false ideas or notions about its status as a single-star forest lodge. However, the property is very neat, clean and spacious. The rooms are well furnished and very nice. To imagine that the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation is able to maintain such a nice and neat place for such a long time (I was told that it's over a decade old), is indeed creditable. The second best part of Periyar Guest house is its location. Forests surround all around you. Early in the morning and late in the evenings the songs of birds and the multitude of insect sounds are mesmerising ! It's almost like an orchestra that unfolds upon you ! Quite rightly each window has a caution sticker pasted alerting the visitors for uninvited monkeys, which have gone, so used to seeing humans that they hardly have any fear for them ! They roam around the property in huge groups (I counted one numbering 20 !!). Another group of scavengers that I noticed in plenty are pigs. Not the wild pigs, but their country cousins. They too were seen rummaging all around the property for leftovers.

Periyar Guest house has a nice little dining room where they serve some tasty local delicacies. The buffet spread is modest and the food quality is more than acceptable. It might not necessarily compare with some of the swanky 5-star fares, but nevertheless it is more than mere good. When one has come with some specific objective, apart from just eating, then Periyar's food compares well.Apart from the lake in Thekkady, which is the single biggest attraction, there are some minor tourist attractions like the Plantations Tour (which we took). It's not much. You are taken in an auto rickshaw to a farm house, where a guide takes you around the place and shows you the various trees, plants, creepers and tubers that produce Chili, Cardamom, Clove, Ginger, Garlic, Coffee seeds, Jackfruit and a host of other fruits and flowers. The guide gives you the usual spiel about how they are cultivated, harvested and sent to the markets (usually after a government auction).The tea gardens are another minor attraction in Thekkady. Unlike Munnar, Thekkady is not all of tea gardens, but there are quite a substantial are where tea is grown. For tourists, shopping for spices is another outing. There are a wide variety of spices that are neatly packaged (to suit the pockets of the spectrum of tourists who come from different social strata) and sold.

In all, Thekkady is a very small place. Just about enough to handle a small crowd of tourists. The Forest Reserve is also pretty much basic. There's nothing much to really do there when it rains. But I was told by some locals that during peak summer season, there are many more activities that are arranged - stuff like river rating; jungle treks; the famous (and expensive) tiger-trail, rappelling, et al.

I shall write more about Thekkady in the days to come. But before I get back about Thekkady, I want to share my views and experiences of my next stop, which was Munnar.

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