Before I left for India many people asked me what my route through the country was going to be; all I’d planned really was to head south from Mumbai, then swing my way back round the east coast and up to the north western stat of Rajasthan, before heading east again and finally going up to Nepal. There was no timeline to this plan (other than the length of my visa), and I really only had half a dozen things in mind that I definitely wanted to see; two of these being tea fields, and backwaters. Luckily, I could see both in Kerala and after my great stay in Fort Kochi I decided that Munnar would be ideal for the tea fields (it was also one of the places I’d heard of before entering the country) and Alleppey ideal for the backwaters. So, the plan was obvious: head east inland to the hill station of Munnar, then head back south west towards the coast to Alleppey…this proved to be one of the best weeks I’ve had in India so far.
Munnar itself is a small, yet surprisingly busy town surrounded by steep hills, a moat like river, and dusty, winding roads. If you are heading here I’d suggest actually staying outside of town; though it’s only small, the noise and traffic as bad as any city in the country and you don’t come to Munnar for that kind of atmosphere. I stayed in a little place called Devikulam, which is slightly higher up and about 7km away from town; it’s a lot cooler in temperature than in Munnar, which proves to be more than comfortable (I actually needed a blanket one night it was that cold). It’s also, as I mentioned above, a lot quieter and a lot cheaper than in town itself, (rickshaw costs 100r per journey so if there are a few people you won’t spend much at all).
So, the tea fields; these are what I came to Munnar to see and, if I’m honest, I thought I’d barely see any and the ones I did see would be full of other tourists; this was not the case. Tea fields are everywhere; they surround the entire district for possibly 50kmsq or more, and any trip made outside of Munnar town will lead you through snaking passes with fields on both sides.
These fields climb up 1800m mountains, perch on cliff edges, border lakes, and even sweep down into the lowest valleys, naturally flowing into local farms and villages; the place is dream-like and, along with the low temperature, is as near to perfect as you’re going to get. Just watching locals work on their farms, ladies picking tea leaves, and people lounging around town watching the world go by, really does entice you in (it’d be the perfect place to retire to).
Of course, seeing the tea fields is one thing, but seeing how tea is made is another. A few of us took a tour of a local tea factory which, though only lasting an hour or so, is more than interesting., Seeing how tea is made from picking to packing was truly fascinating and unbelievably simple. What was more amusing was the fact that the tea made in the particular factory I visited is exported to England as ‘Twinings Tea’ which I used to drink at work while slaving over a computer. Yes, I’d definitely encourage anyone heading to Munnar to visit a tea factory (there are many) and taste a few samples of tea in it’s various strengths and types (there are far more varieties of tea than I had imagined).
Also, if you’re wanting to see more of the area around Munnar, there are many guides and treks available in varying lengths. I took a 14km hike which, though not far, was a great way to explore the local peaks and forests off the beaten path. This was the first ‘proper’ walking I’d done in quite a while (though I do walk a lot, and I did a fair trek in Coorg, this is the first ‘off-road’ hike I’d done here). We set off with day packs full of water and a strange yet heavy bundle of newspaper which we were told was our lunch (our guide couldn’t quite describe what it was).
Peak after peak, field after field, the trek was amazing; the views weren’t possible to see from road level, and some of the forests were completely without means of transport (we found a ‘resort’ of treehouses which you could rent for 7000r per night). After several hours we were halted by the guide in a clearing within some of the most beautiful greenery I’ve ever seen; ‘Sit, sit…lunch’ our guide repeated. We got out our bundles (we had one each) and gave them to our guide, he quickly opened them up and dished them out evenly between us; it turns out that we were all carrying a single part of a greater meal, one had gravy, the had roti etc.
Now, I’ve eaten some great food in India (which I still need to write a post on) and I’ve eaten in some great restaurants but, this food, combined with the company and the surroundings, was simply unique and unforgettable. The food was ‘parcel’ street food and probably cost around 150r for the lot, but damn it was good; this was definitely one of my more memorable meals in India…so far.
As I mentioned earlier, Munnar and its surrounding villages are very cool; this lack of high temperature and humidity provided me with something I’d almost forgotten about: rain. It sounds very strange but I was actually thankful for it; I’d not seen or felt the rain in 2 months and I honestly love it- rather than panic and scramble for cover like I would back home, I found myself strolling around for a while getting slowly drenched (though, of course, I didn’t let myself get too wet, I’m not an idiot). This happened twice in 4 days during my stay and, surprisingly, was a welcome change.
Well, after a not too emotional goodbye to the people I met in Munnar (we didn’t all get along too well) I headed to Alleppey (Alapuzha). Normally, when travelling through India, the scenery completely changed from place to place, but between these places it seemed to progressively alter and kind of blend in as one. One change being that Munnar is a hill station and Alleppey is completely level, the other being that Alleppey seems to be covered in a far darker shade of green. Anyway, as with Munnar, there is only one thing you come to Alleppey to see: the backwaters. These are miles upon miles of narrow to very open bodies of water that lie between many villages and settlements. The green, murky water seemingly blends into the mixture of plant and tree growth on its banks.
Here you can either hire a full houseboat for a number of nights (though the price is steep) or you can take a day tour of the waters, including food, for a very modest price; of course this all depends on your budget and how much time you have. I opted for the day tour on a small, 4 man, roofed canoe (though I’d say it was more like a Gondola than a canoe). Aided by guide who rowed us about the waters, this was as calming as it could be (even more than in Coorg).
The larger waters are filled with houseboats and working boats going about their business, creating waves that feel as though they could capsize you at any minute, whereas the smaller waters, with their tiny, rickety wooden bridges, are used by the locals to fish, wash, and to travel about on.
No, there are no roads here, not around the waters; there are paths that connect houses and the odd shop, but the only way of getting around is by using the water. The landscape, apart from the colours, couldn’t really be much more different than that of Munnar yet the atmosphere was very similar; there is no rushing about here, people go about their lives at their own pace in a strange kind of isolation; I mean, how could you rush about when roads are scarce and you’re miles from anywhere? Life just, well, goes on in this place.
So, though I didn’t really have any adventures in Munnar or Alleppey, I truly enjoyed my time in these place and, after one more stop in a place called Varkala, I’ll finally be at the southern tip of India. This will be a major milestone for me, both in time and in mind; I think I’ve had the south in my mind since landing in this country and to finally reach it will close one chapter so to speak and be the beginning of another; after all, the east coast will be completely different to the west, and after then north will be completely different to the south…I’m kind of excited already!
After having experienced two things that I wanted to do in India in such a short space of time and loved, I felt a little lost; like things couldn’t get much better but, due to this post being about 3 weeks behind (as most of my posts are) I can assure you that things do get a lot better.