Sunday, March 27, 2011

Trip to Kerala

Since one of my friends, Rajashree announced Kerala as her wedding venue, me and my husband, Parth started planning for the trip. This wedding was on 31st Jan 2011. Another friend of mine was getting married on 30th Jan in Pune and I wanted to attend both the weddings since both are my very close friends. So after quite some discussions and change in plans, me and Parth decided to take a flight on 30th Jan afternoon, so that we could attend both the weddings.

30th January
We packed our bags and left home at 8am to meet and give best wishes to Ninad & Swaroop on their wedding day. Unfortunately while going to the wedding place, which was around 15 mins from our home, we realised that the petrol tank was almost empty and the bike could not go ahead at all. We took the bike to nearest petrol pump, that was at 10 mins walking distance from where we had stuck. We had a reservation of 9 20 am bus to Mumbai and futher flight reservation to Kochi. It was 8:30am by the time we got petrol and werent sure if we should go to visit Ninad or not. But we decided to go to say hi and come back. After meeting Ninad and Swaroop, we managed to come back home by 8:50am or so. We rushed to the bus stop and found out that the bus was scheduled to reach there in 20 minutes. After having breakfast in nearby tapari, around 9:15 am we were all ready to catch the bus.

Around 1 pm we reached Parle, and went on to airport. we took a Spice Jet flight at 2:55 pm to Kochi, and reached Kochi by 4:30pm. Few more friends were going to come at the same time from Hyderabad for the wedding. Rajashree had arranged a vehicle to take us to the wedding place, Guruvayoor, around 2 hrs from Kochi. I was very excited to see all these friends after quite some time. In few minutes all of us met and started journey to Guruvayoor.


31st January

The Guruvayoor is very famous for its temple and the traditional rituals carried out there. People start lining up at the temple entrance from around 2 30 am to see all the rituals. Lots of weddings take place in primises of the temple, everyday. The actual ceremony performed here is to exchange Tulsimala and take phere, and then bride and groom come out after they take darshan of the lord. This takes around 30 mins at max.

After the ceremony at the temple, few more rituals take place at the wedding hall, which takes another hour or so. Before these ritual starts, Bride's mother and 9 girls are supposed to go at entrance to welcome groom and take him to the mandap. Then they take the bride to the mandap. It was nice being one of the 9 girls. It was something very different and interesting to be a part of such different wedding.

After the wedding we had a fantastic Kerala lunch, with many pickles, vegetables, and my favourite rice - sambhar and rice - rassam. By 1 pm we had finished our lunch, congratulated Rajashree and Anant and went to our hotel room to pack our bags. We were supposed to reach at Kochi by evening.

After taking some rest we went to the local bus stop to catch a bus to Kochi. Now it was the challenging part to get a correct bus since none of the signnboards were in English or any other language we understood ! Plus not  everyone understood English, or even if they could, we hadn't yet got used to the accent yet so it was difficult everything they said. Somehow around 2:30 pm we managed to get a bus and in sometime found out that this bus was not going to Kochi but could drop us in half way. So we climbed down at Thrissur, which is around 1 hour from Guruvayoor, and took another bus only to find out that it was going in different direction than our destination. Again we climbed down and took a rikshaw back to the bus stand. Finally we got a right bus and reached Kochi by 7:30 pm. We stayed at the Hotel Excellency near M.G. road.

Hotel Excellency is a cheap and yet an elegant hotel one can find. This has the best location if shopping interests you. We had booked a non ac room for Rs. 980 only.

1st February
We woke up around 7:30 in the morning and went down for breakfast. We were going to take a Boat ride for sightseeing. There is a 3 hours tour arranged twice a day. We got the tickets for this boat ride at our hotel. By rickshaw, the boat jetty is around 10 mins from hotel.

We visited Fort Kochi, to see Chinese fishing nets, the church where Vasco Da Gama was buried. The Chinese fishing nets were huge and I had not seen any such big nets before. It's mechanism was great and took atleast 3-4 people to pull it up or push it in the sea, even with the whole setup.

Then we went to Mattancherry palace, also known as Dutch palace. The Dutch palace now has a museum in it, which one can visit by paying a small entry fee. The museum has many objects like wooden Doli / Palkhi, costumes, vessels used for cooking, armary, coins and stamps etc used in the different eras of Hindu kings. A room of the museum has paintings depicts scenes in Ramayana and Mahabharata. The museum also has a lot of information panels giving historical, geographical information about Kochi. It also has old drawings made by British / dutch people, showing Kochi with it's borders, residential areas, farming areas etc. This palace was built as a gift to the local King & the architecture though distinctly European has some sculptures that are of India origin..

We came back to hotel around 1:30 pm & had Lunch. We were tired due to the humidity and bearing sun over our heads for last 3-4 hours. For last 2-3 days Parth was not feeling well, so we decided to take a taxi to kothamangalam, our next destination. After some shopping on the way we started for Kothamangalam and reached there by 5:30pm. Here we had booking at Hotel Maria International. The hotel has a nice ambiance and staff is very helpful. They provided us with all the information we wanted to know about the bird santuary at Thattekad, 15 km from Kothamangalam.

2nd February
We left hotel around 6:45 to go to Thattekad. We reached at sanctuary around 7:15am. There we got to know that the usual bird watching area was closed this year due to danger of wild elephants. Also one of the tour operators, Mr. Vinod told us that there is another better place for bird watching, around 10km from this place, and it was too late to see birds.. We were very disappointed by this information and thought we have already wasted the day. We decided to stay and watch birds in the area anyway. The forest charges fee of Rs. 10 per person plus Rs. 25 per still camera. After we took the tickets, Vinod, who also works for forest's bird watching tours in the area, took us to another place for bird watching. There we saw around 15 species and could click some photos.. We were very excited to see so many birds even though it was late.

After coming back to the forest entrance gate, we visited a refuge camp for injured animals and an interpretation centre. After that Vinod introduced us to Dr. Sugathan. He is an ornithologist who has founded this bird sanctuary as per instructions from Dr. Salim Ali. He has worked with Dr. Salim Ali for 17 years and was with him till his death. I found Dr. Sugathan down to earth and eager to help and enhance your knowledge in any way. he told us about his hiking days in jungles and mountains in south India, when there were no defined routes and how it was interesting to see the wildlife.

The forest department provides accommodation at Rs. 1000 per room, near the entrance of the sanctuary, which is an ideal and peaceful place for bird watching.

After meeting Dr. Sugathan, we took a bus back to Kothamangalam. We had a booking at Kothamangalam at 2nd and were scheduled to leave Munnar in the 3rd morning.


3rd February

It was my birthday! :) Parth got a cake and chocolates for me from somewhere, we ate some of the cake at night and kept remaining for further journey. In the morning I woke up around 7 am because of a birthday call from my sister. After that the mobiles were ringing for quite some time. We packed our bags, had breakfast and took a bus to Munnar around 10 am. Unfortunately, my mobile battery got discharge due to Parth playing games on it for quite some time, and I could not receive calls from few dear ones. Whoever knew Parth's number, called to wish anyway. :)

We reached Munnar around 1:30 pm. We found out that there was a full day programme arranged by KTDC, but since we did not know this before hand, we had made bookings at later destinations. We kept our luggage at Sisiram homestay. This was a small bunglow near a water source. Here we got a non ac room for Rs. 1200. The place is about 10 mins by vehicle, from Munnar city.

Around Munnar there 2-3 wildlife sanctuaries. One is Rajamalai sanctuary, also known as Eravikulam national park, which is around 15 km from munnar and famous for Nilgiri Tahrs seen in it. This sanctuary was closed from 1st Feb for 45 days, since it's a breeding season for Tahrs. Another sanctuary is Chinnar wildlife sanctuary, which is located around 60 km from Munnar. There are many other tourist place around Munnar.

We decided to take a short tour after lunch. We hired a rikshaw and went to see the flower garden, Mattupetty dam, view point etc. The chilly winds started moving as we were on the way back to out homestay. We came back to our homestay around 7 pm.


We had not planned to stay in Munnar for more than 1 day, hence could not visit Chinnar sanctaury,  so we decided to go for bird watching early in the morning, around the homestay and then leave for Kumily, Thekkady.


Since it was my birthday, we decided to celebrate it in a fancy restaurant nearby. I had always been celebrating my birthday with lot of friends and family, and it was the first time in 27 years that I celebrated it so far from the home. Still it was nice to celebrate a birthday on a trip with Parth, and he started my day with a nice cake.. :)


4th February

We went for bird watching in the morning and came back by 8am. Since we had to cover around 4.5 hours distance by bus, we decided to leave Munnar as soon as we could. While checking for the right bus, we found that there were no direct buses to Kumily before 11 am. We had to reach at Periyar House, a forest guesthouse, before the gates of Periyar jungle close at 6 pm,  so we decided to take a bus to Poopara at 9 am. It took us 1 hour to reach Poopara. It seemed a small village, with lot of shops near bus stand. We found a place to have brunch of idli ,wada, since we had not got time for breakfast in the morning. The shop owner told us that there were no direct bus from here to Kumily, and we would need to go to Pedunendum. We got a bus around 11 am and reached to the place in another hour or so. For Kumily bus we had to wait for 20 mins, in which we decided to drink some fruit juice, without realising that the we were drinking the costliest juice we had ever heard of as compared to the size and ambiance of the shop.. After that heavy drink, in every way, we took a bus to Kumily and reached there by 3:30pm, which was waaay before our expectations.

The Periyar House is around 5 km from the bus stand and around 4 km from the Periyar gates and to enter this jungle one has to take a ticket of Rs. 25 per person. We took an auto from the bus stand, and were settled in a room of Periyar House by 4pm. It's a best place you can get in a jungle. It's located near lake, near boat jetty, provides you with all the amenities, a standard hotel would, plus the surroundings are great. We paid around Rs. 2000 for a room for 1 day, which included dinner and breakfast, I must say the cost was worth the food and stay. We decided to do some bird watching around the place and to our amazement in few minutes we could see around 10 species of birds without moving an inch. You can wander around the hotel or take the tar road and explore the area around boat jetty till 6 pm. Everyone stars rapping up their work and go home and in 5 mins you can only hear some distant noises of birds returning to nests or noises by monkeys sitting on top most points of some trees. It starts getting dark almost immediately and it can get really scary standing on a road between the jungle, where there was a traffic of returning vehicles few minutes ago.

The best part of living in a jungle is that, you can see the wild animals, birds etc during the day and can observe the silence in the night, which I think develops a better sense of what we have in such jungles and what we will miss if we keep encroaching all the areas we find just to have a life, which we think is better. Even you may know it's dangerous to roam around in jungles at the time when wild animals are likely to come out, you always linger at the end of the road just to feel that peacefulness.

So after gathering all the smells of the jungle, we went into the hotel to get some good night's sleep. We had booked for a full day Bamboo Rafting programme the next day and had to wake up early to renew the entry ticket we had bought earlier. The entry ticket is only valid from 6am to 6pm, so needs to be renewed even if you are staying in the jungle.

5th February
As the sun started rising, birds started chirping and our alarms went off, we woke up to go to the rafting programme, I had been waiting to go for last 2 years. 2 years back I was there in Periyar with my family but sadly we could not get the bookings for rafting then. All the guides with whom we went for nature walk, jungle patrol had told us that whoever went for the rafting saw few dozens of elephants. And at the time we had only seen few elephants which were walking on the village roads and were trained for elephant rides. So this time I was very excited because we finally got the tickets.

They say that the programme is from 8 am to 5pm, but we actually started at 8:30am after everyone registered, came. Generally lot of foreigners opt for this programme, and only 8 people are allowed for the programme. We had a family of 2 from Belgium and a family of 4 from UK with us. Rafting programme actually includes around 2 hrs of rafting, 4 hours of trekking and 2 hours are spent in having snacks, lunch and watching animals nearby. With 8 people there are 4 people from forest staff who are experts on wildlife, who have gun to protect you and animals in case we crossed paths... So 12 of us started a trek from the jungle, saw wild boars roaming around, at far distances, heard chirping of birds from distance, and saw few birds like Jungle Hen, Herons, Cormorants etc eating or resting by the water. After 2 hours of trek we reached a point from where we would be going further inside the jungle, by raft.

Before starting the rafting, we had a short snacks break in a shadowed area. While we were sitting there chatting and getting aquainted with others, our guide called us to see Elephants. We were very happy about the first sightings of the elephants and there were 5 of them including a baby elephant. After we had the coffee and snacks, our guide called us again and took us back the way we had come, to see wild dogs eating there prey, a deer. The guide had heard the noises of the deer or dogs and had realised that the dog were hunting. When we reached the spot in 5 mins, we saw 2 dogs with the dead deer and a Sambhar standing in water, at some distance from the dogs but in the area that was not visible to dogs. We were thrilled to see the hunt, even though we did not see the actual hunt.

We then started rafting into the jungle ahead. The raft was quite big. It was made of around 14 bamboos, each having diameter around 4.5 inches. It had bamboo seats kept on top of the raft. We took the seats and started for further wonderful experience. After about 45 mins, we saw 4 elephants at some distance and our guides decided to take use there. We landed at some distance from the elephants and walked for 5 more minutes to get a good view of them. There were 2 big elephants, each with a baby elephant. 1 pair was probably finding something to eat or was playing in the soil, the other pair was playing in the water. It was quite hot and they seemed to have no plans of getting in the jungle at this hour whatsoever. So we watched them, took photographs for more than half an hour and started for the other side of water, infront of these elephants. We were off the raft again in 15-20 mins. It was already past 1 o'clock and it was time for lunch.

We took halt in another shadowy jungle patch, and had a fantastic meal of pulav, pickle, and salad. After we had food, our guides went to the raft to have their lunch. In the mean time, we start exploring around the spot and saw an elephant at far distance. We called everyone who was not there and till others joined us, few more elephants were joing the first elephant we had seen. Finally when we counted there were around 14 elephants in the herd.


After watching them for a while, one of the elephants gave a big call and all of them started to move towards jungle.

On the way back, we enjoyed the raft ride, doing nothing but getting tanned. After the 2 hrs trek, we reached the boat jetty. Took a group photograph with all the teammates and guides and went to Hotel Ambadi for the night.

Hotel Ambadi is around 1 km, outside the Pariyar reserve. The hotel had nice ambience but no facilities like TV, any recreational activities etc. The food in their restaurant was good but the service is poor. Unfortunately the room we got was on the ground floor and few people with kids were staying above us, and we were bugged till late at night and early in the morning due the whatever furniture moving or games they were playing. We could hear all the loud noises from the roof and had to get out of the room at earliest. We had paid Rs. 1800, only for the room and I did not think the hotel was worth the cost, especially after staying at the Periyar house. But if someone just wants to relax, it's a nice place to live and it's near the reserve. But there are some homestays nearby, which are as cheap as for Rs. 500 per night, and are close to the Periyas gates.

After some rest, we decided to go out to get some food, chocolates and spices. Kerala is famous for spice plantations and Ayurvedic plants, and plenty of such plantations can be found around Kumily, Thekkady.

6th February
We got up in the morning by the loud noises made by people living in the room above us. Parth went to finish some office work and get coffee. I slept for few more minutes and in another hour we packed everything and left to see spice plantation. We hired a rikshaw to go to the plantation, the rikshaw wala takes Rs. 50 one way. It's kind of standard rate in Kumily and anywhere you want to go within 10-15 minutes distance, they charge Rs. 50. After taking a half hour tour of the plantation and seeing the shop of Ayurvedic items, we started back for hotel.

Today we were going to go to Kumarkom, Kottayam. Kumarkom has a bird sanctuary. The sanctuary is near the Wembnad lake, and lot of water birds are seen here. From Mr. Vinod, we had got a reference of Mr. Sabu, living in Kumarkom. Mr. Sabu sent his cousin at bus stop, to receive us and take us to his father's homestay Santhi Theeram.
This homestay was an very homely. The owner Mr. Rajappan has a house of around 4-5 rooms once you enter the gate. Past house there is 1 room like out house, past that there are 2 rooms, which seem to be built specifically for renting them to tourists. The rooms are very small, but have attached bathroom, a small sit out looking towards water canal. Climb down 3 steps from this place and you will find yourself in the canal water. We could see few birds flying around, Cormorants fishing infront of us, houseboats and motorboats going and coming from rides.. Apart from the boat noises, this place is very quiet.

Mr. Rajappan asked us if we would want to eat food made at his house, and we instantly agreed since we were hoping to get some good homely food rather than going to some restaurant outside. Parth asked them for fish fry and I asked for vegetarian food.

In some time after we settled there, Mr. Sabu came back from a boat ride. He is an expert bird watcher, and goes as an expert with the tourists staying at the resorts and homestays around. We decided to go for bird watching in Wembnad lake in the morning around 6:30. He also asked us if we would like to get any Ayurvedic massage, since it would be cheaper here than any other place. We went for massage in the nearby Ayurvedic center and came back by the dinner time.

Mr. Rajappan and his wife were waiting for us to come. Immediately they setup a table for us at the sit-out, and served us with very delicious food we had had in past week. We were happy to come here instead of going somewhere else.

7th February
We woke up early in the morning and went with Mr. Sabu for bird watching in his boat. There are many boat options available like rowing boat, motor boat, houseboat. But it's a good to take a rowing boat for birdwatching, so you can see more birds. So we went to the lake, passing through canals. From a canal we passed, Sabu showed us a tree which had a whole colony of darters. There are many canals flowing through the village which ultimately meet the lake. When we enter the lake there are many resorts and homestays situated by the side of the lake. The lake is huge, and we could see birds flying all around the place and sitting on the bamboo sticks in the lake. We were excited to see many new birds since Sabu was telling us about some migratory birds which are rare and were seen in the lake. We could see Purple swamphen, Terner, Cormorent, Darter, Jakhanas, Ducks, Kites, Kingfishers etc.

After a ride of 3.5 hours we came back to the homestay. We had fantastic breakfast of idli, dosa, chatni and sambhar. We rested till lunch. After lunch we were scheduled to go to Alleppy. Someone told us that it would be better if we took a bus to Chertala from Kumarkom and then another bus to Alleppy, since frequency of direct buses is not good. Chertala is at around 1 hour from Kumarkom and Alleppy is at another 45 minutes. We had left Kumarkom around 2 o'clock and reached Alleppy around 3:45pm.

Parth had done some search about homestays in Alleppy and had found a homestay called Snehadhara. This homestay is near the Udupi Temple, located at around 10 mins distance by vehicle, from the bus stand. We had called to ask the room availability and found that they had a/c and nona/c rooms available there. The host told Parth over the phone that we can come, see the room and then decide which one we wanted. We reached the place around 4 pm and chose a nice and cozy non a/c room, which cost us Rs. 500 only. Snehadhara is actually a bunglow having few rooms converted for tourists to stay. It had a warm, homely feel and hosts were very kind and helpful.

In the evening, we went to a beach nearby. We had to grab a rikshaw to go to beach and reached there in 15 mins. The beach was quite clean but quite crowdy. By the time reached there the sea had already started to come out. Like many people, Parth went into the water and like few others, I walked on the beach clicking some photos. After a while, we left the beach to go to the market by rikshaw. In another 15 mins we were walking on the market road in search of souvenir to get back for friends and family. We could only find a good shop to buy some Kerala dress materials. Most of the shops on this particular street are big jewelry shops. After walking up and down the street, we went to a restaurant, Kream and Korner on the same road. The restaurant had a good ambience, food was fine. After dinner we came back to our room and went to sleep almost immediately.

8th February
In the morning, we woke up rather late since we had not planned much for the day. The day before, we were thinking, if we should stay in Alleppy or go to Cochin and stay there, since we had to catch a 11:20 am flight from Cochin on 9th February. But this morning we decided that it was better to stay in Cochin, and made an online booking in Hotel Excellency again.

We had asked the hostess, if it was possible to give us breakfast there, and she had agreed. So around 10am I got ready and came out of the room, while Parth was already sitting with a daughter of the host, giving some tips to improve their website. In half an hour, the hostess served us a great breakfast and we left to do some shopping and sightseeing in the town.

Alleppy is famous for backwater canals and houseboats. We were not sure if we should go for a boat ride in and around Alleppy, thinking that we just had gone to a ride in Kumarkom and what difference there would be. But since we had some time before leaving for Cochin, Parth decided that we would go for a 2 hours boat ride. We hired a motorboat from government jetty, paid Rs 550 for 2 hours. The hourly ride cost can vary from Rs. 300 to 600 depending on the place of hiring a boat. Once you start coming near to the goverment jetty, which is hardly 3 mins distance from the bus stand, the prices start nearing to Rs. 300 per hour.

The backwaters ride was a nice experience. We could see a row of big houseboats landed around the 'finishing point'. In Alleppy, a grand rowing boat race takes place every year on second saturday of August. This race finishes at this point and hence it is known as finishing point. Here in Alleppy, there are 3 lakes joint together to form the backwaters and canals. The canals are quite big. We saw few people practicing on a rowing boat. The guide with us told us that it was kind of a test, from which final team members are chosen for the race. The houses and resorts on the banks of the water were beautifully built and I kept thinking how each of the house would be great to live in. All the houses had a small garden around, which was the only thing between house and canal water. In a while guide took us to a small restaurant cum shop kind of place in a village, by the side of the lake. This was the  only village having a school. No other village we saw on the way, had a school. So everyone around come to this school only. 

When we came near the shop, our guide pointed in the direction of the shops and told us to take a look at the eagles sitting there. We were excited to hear about eagles sitting so near, and finally when we located them it was bit of disappointment. The disappointment was not due to the eagles, they were beautiful, sitting on a bench, in the perfect light, but they were trained to sit there.. Still we got some pictures and went ahead to see 2 more eagle sitting on trees around. After taking some photos, we drank the cool coconut water and headed back for the jetty. We were wondering how 2 hours finished so quickly, but going through those canals, watching paddy fields and houses around, feeling the fresh, cold air, you really lose the track of time.

We climbed down from the boat exactly after 2 hours, since we started. The evening before, we had not been able to find any souvenir shop, and in morning we found some shops near the finishing point but many souvenirs in our budget, so we decided to check shops around the bus stop. We finally found a good shop with many interesting souvenirs costing from Rs. 15 to couple of thousands. This was the best shop we could find in Alleppy. Even if you dont want to buy anything, it is worth to visit this shop, just to see what all items they make. There were show pieces, useful crafts such as penstands, bowls, tables etc. We had not imagined to see these many beautifully made and well finished items, in such a low cost in any handy crafts shop. Kerala is quite famous for its banana wafers fried in coconut oil. Since many of my family members had asked me to get some wafers for them, we went for wafers shopping and to our surprise got out of the shop after 15 minutes with handful of wafer bags and a wallet less couple of hundred Rs.

After the souvenir and wafers shopping, we went to pack our bags and move to Cochin. We took a bus to Cochin around 4 pm, this time it was nice to finally get a direct bus to our destination. We reached Cochin around 6 pm and went to the hotel to take some rest. After a while we went out for a walk on the M.G. Road, grabbed something to eat and came back to hotel in an hour or more.

9th February
After a nice rest in night we had to wake up at 7am in the morning to go to the airport. We went to Vyttilla junction, by rikshaw to catch a bus to airport but unfortunately missed it by few seconds due to lot of crowd. We had to wait till 8:30 am to get a bus to Athanni, which is around 5 km from the airport, but rikshaws and taxis are available near Athanni bus stop. We got a cab to airport. The rikshaws or cabs generally charge Rs. 60 -70 to the airport.

After some time killing we finally boarded the 11:20 am flight to Mumbai. I was happy when we first saw Mumbai from above. Wherever you go for the holidays and however great the place was, it always feels great to be back near your home. I was happy thinking that we would be home in couple of hours. We took a lunch near airport and got a taxi to Pune, which cost Rs. 300 each. But it took us to Pune in exactly 3 hours and we were home before 6pm :)

Photo Credits: Madhu, Parth Lawate, Himangi CL