When we first drove past the road sign that said ‘In God’s Own Country’, I did a double take, and then laughed, ‘Seriously?’ I didn’t know at that point in time it was the state slogan. I would come to know that even that would be an understatement.
God aside, some people dubbed this place the Switzerland of India, but I find that moniker rather patronizing. My friend and I both agreed that while Munnar evokes Swiss images of rolling hills, overall the atmosphere is very different. If you look closely, the colours here are deeper, especially the shade of green of the tea plantations – it just cannot be compared.
Leaving the city behind, we head for the spellbinding hill station of Munnar in the Western Ghats. Before doing my research on Kerala, I haven’t even heard of the place. This popular honeymoon and weekend getaway destination is only all too familiar to the locals here.
It’s a four-hour drive from Kochi to get to the centre of Munnar. Add at least a few hours of driving to explore the various smaller sub-areas – Eravikulam and Chinnar to see wildlife, or the winding incredibly scenic drive up to Top Station, or past Chinnakanal and Suryanelli to explore the beautiful yet rugged trail in more slope-hugging tea plantations.
You can easily spend a whole week in Munnar, taking time to discover all the places. Since we only have two days here, we opted for the scenic drive to Top Station with its many photo stops along the way, and a bone-rattling Jeep safari the next day.
Day Four: Kochi to Munnar, then Munnar to Top Station
Day Five: Munnar to Kolukkumalai (Jeep safari from Chinnakkanal to Kolukkumalai)
Kochi to Munnar
We passed by many ‘Toddy Shops’ – toddy being a local alcoholic beverage derived from the fermented sap of coconut palm. The taste is mostly sour with a hint of sweetness, plus a strong pungent fermented sort of aftertaste. You could tell which these shops are by a long line of local men in dhotis snaking out of dodgy looking hole-in-the-wall establishments. We didn’t stop even though I was very curious and my other well-acquainted travel buddies were hankering for a drop of it.
Even before arriving in Munnar proper, as you start to ascend, keep your eyes peeled – you’ll miss a lot if you doze off in the car. The coconut tree dominated landscape gradually gave way to a more deciduous type of forest. Soon we could see huge granite rock faces rising to great heights before us.
The Kallar Waterfalls, Karadipara View Point, and Attukad Waterfalls are the main stops for pictures. Even without knowing their names, we’d instinctively pull over when we approached these stunning view points. Take a moment to savour the fresh cold air; I swear the air here tasted sweet!
Going through the hairpin bends was part of the fun and adventure. There were a couple hair-raising moments as we rounded some blind curves and scraped past buses thundering toward us from the opposite direction on the narrow roads. Upon reaching Munnar, we have climbed up to an altitude of 1,652 metres.
We checked in to Sea Grace Cottage, a lovely, cozy family-run hotel. It was located in a quiet side street next to a few other similar hotels and homestays, but within walking distance (5 minutes) to the town centre.
There are restaurants, small sundry shops, banks with ATMs, a post office and a petrol kiosk in the town, so we were well taken care of. It would be a very good idea to top up your tank here.
Munnar to Top Station
Driving time: 4 hours round trip with no stops, at least 6 hours with stops
Our first stop was Mattupetty Dam (1700m), with a scenic lake known for its boat rides. It cost us 600 rupees for a 15-minute ride per boat. The water was reflecting off diamonds in the afternoon sun. Thanks to the altitude and cool temperatures, we barely felt the heat, but it’d be wise to lather up the sunscreen. The ride was thrilling and the view was like balm to the eyes – lush green forests, blue skies and turquoise waters. I felt like I was one with nature here.
Going on our way, we passed this crazy tree with black menacing-looking bumps clinging to the trunks. They are nests of honey bees! It’s a somewhat must-see around these parts.
Tons of cars just pulled up when this family of wild elephants was spotted crossing the meadow. This is near the area marked under the ‘Indo-Swiss project’, a specialised cattle farm that used to be open for tourists, but at the time we were there it was no longer available for visits.
Moving up we passed Echo Point, where echoes of voices can be heard if one were to yell at a particular spot. Unfortunately someone had decided to commercialise this place and charge people a fee to enter the area, and we found that very daft. It’s no more scenic than Mattupetty Dam so we kept on going.
Kundala Dam is another popular stop, where there is lawn and some picnic tables to sit and enjoy some snacks. However, it was the end of dry season and the dam was showing an icky brown goop. Not very appetising, though it didn’t stop many families from setting up camp next to the water edge. If you were to go at the end of the wet season, you might have better luck.
Powering up the slopes, we hit Top Station just before sunset. Here at 2,200m, this high point commands sweeping views of the valley. Again, someone blocked up the view point and decided to charge foreigners twice the price a local would pay to enjoy these ‘God-given’ views in ‘God’s country’ so we voted with our feet and enjoyed the views at another spot instead. The tranquillity of Top Station was rather ruined by dilapidated shacks selling cheap-looking souvenirs and bottled water.
We ate some rotis at a dodgy restaurant near Top Station. Even my local travel buddies winced at the dearth of hygiene levels here. My advice – bring your own snacks and attempt food at these dhabas at your own risk.
Munnar to Kolukkumalai via Chinnakkanal
Driving time: 2 hours to Chinnakkanal, then a 1 hour trip (32km one way) on a Jeep to Kolukkumalai
We had breakfast in Munnar town, at Saravana Bhavan, a renowned, long-running restaurant chain that serves south Indian dishes like dosas. Branches can be found in many parts of India – and note that here people call restaurants ‘hotels’ – so if you are looking for this place you’d ask where ‘Hotel Saravana Bhavan’ is. Service is friendly and brisk, food quality is fantastic and prices are cheap. We washed hearty portions of masala dosas down with saccharine sweet hot chai and were ready to take on the Jeep safari adventure!
One stop you won’t miss is the Lochart Gap. Sweeping panorama, 270-degree views of the valley below. I shall let the picture do the talking.
The reason we have to abandon our car at Chinnakkanal and go further with a Jeep is because it would be an off-road trail from Chinnakkanal onwards into the tea plantation. There is not really a need to book the Jeep in advance because when we arrived at Chinnakkanal, there were many Jeeps waiting for customers to show up. Do some haggling to get the price down.
This 32-km (one way) rocky road journey is not suitable for anyone with neck or back problems, and I wouldn’t recommend pregnant or elderly people to go as well. We did see other Jeeps bringing entire families with grandmas and babies as well. As usual, exercise your own judgement and do this at your own risk.
The road was rough as hell. And that’s me – who has seen pretty messed up trails up in the Himalayas – saying. But this was all part of the adventure. If you’re not into this sort of thing, better capitulate before it’s too late. Heh! We were happily bouncing around like a bag of skeletons in the Jeep, even the driver was laughing at us.
All along the – bump-crank-bah-dum-boom-baam – road, we saw neat, emerald green tufts of tea bushes and the colourful head scarves of tea-picking ladies bobbing up and down as they harvested the leaves. They have to harvest at least 40 kilograms of leaves every day, and making only 220 rupees (less than US$4) in a hard day’s work. Cutting only the brightest green leaves at the top of the bushes deftly with the shears, they then pop them into the baskets on their backs, moving steadily up and down the slopes. We paused to try our hand at it – it’s very difficult. But for a couple seconds, I fantasize being a tea picker amidst this beautiful landscape.
Time for the ‘Cloud Nine Experience‘!!!
Thick white plumes of fast-moving fog rolled past us from the valley floor below. An exhilarating and vertigo-inducing experience to look all the way down. We were now walking on the state border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala at an altitude of around 2,160 metres.
Now for the World’s Highest Orthodox Tea Plantation – tea produced here is processed manually using the old-fashioned seven-step method of withering, rolling, sieving, fermenting, drying, extracting fibres and grading. Supposedly, the tea produced like that is of better quality with stronger taste and deeper aroma, as compared to the modern Crush-Tear-Curl method.
The factory was built by the British in the 1930s and till today it has retained its original wooden panelling and rafters, as well as the old-school machinery. Entry was said to be 100 rupees per person but our driver managed to let us enter without paying (??) . A sharp acrid smell filled the air as we watched the workers laboured to fire up the stoves – the heat is channelled to the opposite side to dry the tea leaves. My friend Jojin couldn’t resist the urge to try his hand at it – it doesn’t look easy at all, and it’s very warm next to the oven!
To wrap up the visit, we each bought a huge packet of BOP – stands for broken orange pekoe – to make our own tea at home, but not forgetting to take a hot cuppa chai (10 rupees) for the road. A ton of sugar and milk in the chai – yummm, sugar quota exceeded.
My trip in Kerala has exceeded my expectations. I discovered that the landscape here is really varied – I went from the seaside at Cherai Beach and Fort Kochi to the crowded city area in Ernakulam, to the backwaters in Kumarakom, to the scenic tea plantations in the clouds. I felt like I’ve been to so many places in just a week. (See Part One of my Kerala trip here!)
As a tea lover, I enjoyed learning where tea comes from and how it’s produced. I definitely have a greater appreciation during chai time now. Hope that you’ll also be inspired to come enjoy some tea in the clouds as well! ♥
Where We Stayed:
Sea Grace Cottage
Munnar, Kerala 685612
Name: V. Josyboy
Phone: +94 94472 11973 or 04865 231972
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/seagracecottagemunnar