#40 Having Chai In The Clouds in Munnar – Kerala, India

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.

Switzerland of India

Itinerary

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)
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#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
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#38 Register Your Alien Guest Online Now, in India

Sir, there's an alien in my home!

Sir, there’s an alien in my home!

If I end up learning something from an experience, then the time is not wasted. That’s what I told myself after this registration ordeal. Especially since every moment is precious the moment you get off the plane!

When my Indian friend Jojin was preparing to host me in his home, he was worried because he learnt that he needed to register me as a ‘foreigner living at a local private residence’. We ended up spending a few hours, visiting both the town and local police station and finally the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) near the airport before realizing that, hey, it can be done online!

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#37 Getting An Indian Visa (in Singapore)

Going to India is always an adventure. And it starts with getting the tourist visa.

Where’s my passport?

This was early May 2015 – I was bracing myself for a long-drawn fight at the visa centre at The Verge.  After all, I received an email from VFS Global (where I applied last time) saying that they will stop processing visa after 8 May 2015. I figured everyone will flood to BLS International (the only other visa processing centre) in no time.

The Verge is a shopping mall near Little India MRT Station – take Exit C and go past Tekka Market, keep going straight, then cross the road to reach it.

The last time I applied for my visa was at VFS, so this might as well be the first time for me. So here we go…

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#13 At Lhalung Village in Spiti Valley, India

An off-white pickup truck trudged up the winding mountain road, spewing tiny spurts of black exhaust fumes as it approached me. Upon closer examination, the truck was beat-up, its sides splattered with mud and covered in a film of sand and dust. I ran up to the driver, pleading desperately for a ride back into the main town Kaza where I interned at.

Alexandra, a fellow intern, and I had just arrived in Lhalung after a long and exhausting field survey, having hiked from another village for nearly four hours on foot. From here to the main town was a 45-minute drive on the treacherous mountain roads, but to walk back, would take almost eternity. Any vehicle that goes that way would be seen indeed as a godsend…

A cacophony of pure laughter, shrill screams and the occasional yelp from the one hapless boy being bullied by an older boy, swivelled my attention to a gaggle of children, bundled up in thick sweaters and scarves, cheeks flushed from the blistering winds. I sat on a pile of rocks, catching my breath as I waited for the truck driver, who coincidentally happened to the father of one of the gaggling children, to return so we could hitch a ride back. I took out my camera gingerly, worried that it would be ruining a pristine moment by taking a photograph.

What I didn’t expect was that the moment I removed my camera from its pouch, the children began to pounce on me like little cubs, curious yet knowing at the same time, some ready to pose for pictures. That’s when I knew that even in a remote village like this one, where children’s toys were made of twigs, sticks and little rocks, people were not spared from the influence of tourists and the outside world. I happily obliged, snapping pictures and showing them how my camera works. I wasn’t sure if they understood me much. But one of the older boys told me in broken English that he is ten and he gets English lessons in school.

Soon, it was time to go.

The children ran along the road, their tiny feet kicking up tuffs of sand and dust as the truck coughed up dark plumes of smoke.

I turned my head, craning my neck, and watched wistfully through the grimy back window of the truck, as their mottled little figures disappeared round the bend… ♥