#39 In God’s Own Country – Kerala, India

Kerala

I was looking for something… different. Something that ups the ante in the cultural realm. Preferably throwing a little spice into the mix. The opportunity came when a good friend of mine decided to take a month off to go home to India. I really treasure the chance to catch up with an old friend, plus it’s always fun to to see a new place with a local.

If you have a week to spare, Kerala is a good place to visit from Singapore, with a flight time of 4 hours 30 minutes on a direct flight, and around 9 hours for me since I had a 2.5-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur.

Kerala may be on a lot of people’s wishlists, but it does not seem to be a popular traveller’s choice. On my trip, I noticed there are not that many tourists or foreigners around. On the bright side, the prices are low – few places have the ridiculous ‘tourist price’ as opposed to a ‘local price’, and I get to explore territory that is untainted by the merciless bulldozing of culture by mass tourism.

Itinerary

I was in Kerala for a week – starting in Kochi. One week is a very short time in Kerala, so by the advice of my friend, we concentrated on the regions close to Kochi, choosing a variety of landscapes to give some justice to Kerala’s beauty and charm. In this Part One, we explored the historical district of Mattancherry, hit up the museum in Thrippunithura and checked out fishing nets at Fort Kochi, then made separate day trips to Cherai Beach and the iconic backwaters of Kumarakom. This will take three days. (Part Two will see us heading for the rolling highlands in the Western Ghats.)

Day One: Fort Kochi, Mattancherry & Jew Town, Thrippunithura Hill Palace
Day Two: Cherai Beach
Day Three: Kumarakom (2.5 to 3 hour drive from Kochi)

Fort Kochi, Cherai Beach, Mattancherry, Thrippunithura Hill Palace, Kumarakom

It may not look like a lot, but we covered a lot of ground since we went around by car. There’s a reason why most travellers reserve India for long-term travel because it’s very slow and time consuming to take public transport and get from one place to another… though of course slow travel allows you to immerse yourself in the culture and see more of the people and everyday life. Beware the insane traffic which can turn short map distances into gruelling drives.

The Places

– Fort Kochi
– Mattancherry & Jew Town
– Thrippunithura Hill Palace
– Cherai Beach
– Kumarakom

Fort Kochi

Not Such A Good Catch Afterall

Facing the Arabian Sea is Fort Kochi, where we saw the Chinese fishing nets that have become the distinctive feature of Kerala. Some fishermen beckoned us to go onto their nets to see how they worked. It’s really fascinating to watch but our experience was marred upon realizing that they had planned to ask us for money all along. This is the most touristy place we went to on the whole trip. They were quite aggressive so we ‘donated’ some money to them. Many guidebooks say that this method of fishing allows fishermen to get big catches easily, but their demonstration only pulled up some seaweed. I don’t doubt they managed to get fish some days but if they had to resort to touting, their bounties must not be as good as the books claim.

This beach front promenade is messy, full of peddlers selling candies and balloons, and it was difficult to find a spot to relax. To me it’s the kind of place you’d take some pictures and move on quickly. Later I discovered that there are also plenty of spots where you can photograph some Chinese fishing nets when we visited Kumarakom.

Street art from the recently past Biennale

At Mattancherry/Jew Town

Mattancherry/Jew Town

A quaint district perfect for an easy walkabout with restaurants, shops and art galleries all within ten minutes’ walk. I loved the street art in the side alleys and the architecture of the shop houses in the area. I was tempted to shop for trinkets here but the stores are not very welcoming – it gave me a sense that I would bargain till the cow comes home and still not get a good price. An eyes-only type of place. Unfortunately the Synagogue was closed due to a Jewish holiday so we headed off to the Mattancherry Palace instead.

A wall art showing where some art galleries are located.

Built by the Portuguese in 1555AD (wow!), it is now very run down, and contained wordy displays retelling the history of Kerala – I am sorry to say that this is not the best way to make history interesting. It is a good place to see a building constructed according to the traditional Nallukettu – four-winged courtyard – architectural style, although it’s hard to notice this while I was inside the place. The thing worth seeing here is the beautiful Kerala five-colour wall murals featuring the Ramayana and parts of the Mahabharata from the 16th and 17th century. I could appreciate how intricate the murals are but since I am not versed in the Ramayana at all, I barely made any head or tail of it.  Fifteen minutes is all you need here, more if you want to take time to admire the murals.

Caza Maria restaurant

Grabbed a late lunch at Caza Maria – a hotel/restaurant in the main street of Jew Town. The restaurant side has a royal blue facade – you can’t miss it. We chanced upon it and were attracted by the brightly coloured exterior. Portions are HUGE – order to share, and the quality is good. The owner is very friendly and answered my friend’s questions in Malayalam – I don’t know if he speaks English. Read the guestbook, the comments inside are highly entertaining. Look at that European-inspired decor. So, expect European prices. They have rooms too, but looked expensive for what it’s worth.

Thrippunithura Hill Palace

This is the museum to see in Kerala. Come here on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, to access the specially guarded gallery where the most treasured artefact of this museum is housed. Here I saw the Royal Crown, a gift to the rajahs from the Dutch, a solid gold headpiece with dozens of rubies and diamonds encrusted on it. None of the other stuff in this museum is guarded by a couple of armed uniformed men, so you know this is THE business. No cameras are allowed inside. There are free lockers here to store your bags.

For a palace that was built in 1865, you could say it was in fairly OK shape, apart from the side buildings that were crumbling into disrepair. The main building was converted to a museum in the 1980s, but there looks to be a lot of room for improvement in terms of quality and preservation techniques. It was a bit shocking to see some ancient artefacts placed in wooden cabinets with no proper storage, but at the same time I could tell that the Archaeological Department is trying their best to showcase these things to the public, which will hopefully increase people’s interest and attract funding for refurbishment.

I don't know what this dinosaur is doing here, actually.

I don’t know what this dinosaur is doing here, actually.

There are a lot of other interesting nuggets to see as well, such as the British-imported chariots and the sedans for the royal family, and figurines from the Mohenjo Daro period. For the history and antique buffs, these are really cool things to see. The closet archaeologist inside me was drooling. For those of you who can’t stomach any more historical stuff, there is a deer park outside to run around, and you can take selfies with this T-Rex sculpture.

Cherai Beach

The westward facing coastline meant beaches perfect for sunset views.

From the famous Varkala much further south to the hidden gem Marari to little-known secluded nooks stretching to Kanyakumari, there are indeed countless gorgeous beaches in Kerala, thanks to its coastline hugging geography. We went to Cherai Beach to avoid spending too much time on the road since every second not in the car is one more lounging on the beach. Initially I was a bit disappointed that Varkala is a mind-boggling five hours’ drive away, but when I arrive at Cherai I was pleasantly surprised by how chill and peaceful it was.

Well, a beach is a beach, and this one is a straight up, no-frills seaside with lovely whiteish fine sand and a family-oriented crowd that makes for great people-watching. Just the way I like it. No drinking alcohol or suntanning in bikinis on the beach though – everyone here is fully clothed. If you need your lounge chairs and ice cold beer in hand while nursing your tan, you’re better off heading to a more Western-tourist oriented private beach resort. Made a mental note to explore the other beaches on my next trip to Kerala.

Kumarakom

 Haven't seen so many coconut trees all at once until now...

Located to the eastern side of Kerala’s biggest freshwater lake Vembanad, Kumarakom is well-known for its bird sanctuary, and like its sibling Alappuzha (Alleppey) it’s a great place to admire the backwaters. Paradise for those who enjoy a slow pace of life and bird watching. We took a houseboat ride lasting five hours, taking us on a tour round Vembanad Lake. The lake is so huge that as we approached the middle, I thought we were out at sea! The only thing that hinted otherwise was the stillness of the water and lack of breeze.

Yum! Karimeen fish

Apart from spying on egrets and cormorants, another fun thing to do is to spot other houseboats and wave at other day trippers. You’d notice that every houseboat is slightly different – from modest one-roomers to triple-room vessels with fancy rooftops to double-decker ferries. We enjoyed lunch prepared fresh by an onboard crew – featuring the native karimeen fish cooked in spices and decked with fragrant raw onion slices.

Bring a book and your own music for a relaxing time, while watching the coconut trees go by. If your boat driver is in the mood, he might let you command the wheel of the houseboat for a bit. Just ask! It’s fun I guarantee you.

That's the houseboat we took...

Stay tuned for Part Two where we went up in the clouds… which was truly a breath of fresh mountain air after going to the beach and the museum! ♥

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