In April 2023, I vacationed with my family in Kerala. We first went to Ernakulam to visit my dad’s place and mom’s heirloom house, followed by a two-day trip to Munnar with my dad’s extended family. That includes his siblings and their partners, my cousins and their partners, and infant nephews and nieces. This was a big deal because we haven’t had a reunion since some of those cousins passed high school. Yes, that’s a long time, which made the trip special.
After Munnar, we were scheduled to spend a day in the pilgrimage town of Guruvayur in Thrissur. This was on my mom’s insistence and the fact that my sister’s family was also with us. Everyone except me in my family are devotional. This was more of a pit stop as we would be renting an SUV on our way from Ernakulam to Wayanad, the potential highlight of our Kerala trip. We were to spend two nights in the hill station district located near Kozhikode which is roughly 200 kilometres from our place in Ernakulam. This was also a big deal for us as it’s one of the few arguably worthy places in Kerala that we hadn’t visited yet. I have been to most other tourist places, which is partly why I have an unfavourable opinion of the state.
That opinion will be more evident in the notes that will follow. The whole 10-day affair was a bit of a dampener for me for various reasons. This article is for catharsis.
- If you’ve seen manmade lakes built around a dam, wide expanse of forested valleys or cliffs, widespread tea estates, exorbitant prices for and blatant disregard for safety around boating activities in those lakes, makeshift amusement parks with exorbitant prices for kids in the vicinity of activities (such as boating) largely meant for adults, and overcrowded marketplaces, you’ve seen Munnar.
- In most tourist places (not limited to Kerala), there are now fees to even enter a particular area. For example, the lake built around Mattupetty Dam is a tourist attraction that has a parking fee, entry fee (just to enter the lake’s promenade), different fee levels for boating, more fees for sub-attractions, and finally a fee (that was not advertised) your kin has to pay in cash to have you cremated somewhere or buried in the lake because you are sure to die of debt after paying all those fees. Even if you are a person who has the wherewithal to pay and enjoy these attractions, all these fees are still capable of making you uncomfortable. We eventually did end up getting into a boat that sped across the lake for half an hour.
- In Kerala, most shopkeepers and people doing business feel and behave like people are doing them a favour (and sometimes disfavour) by being their customers. I’ve noticed this frequently during my visits, also recently in Trivandrum when I was there for the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). This is more common in and around tourist places. For example, during our time in Munnar, we struggled to find a decent fine-dining restaurant. Understandably, it was peak time, and most places – rickety diners painted with unhygienic characteristics – had long queues. As I have noted before, the people standing in such queues have no qualms. And when we finally found a place to eat and entered, its head waiter and team frowned. As if we had made a mistake doing so. Their service that followed showed that we were not really welcome. Such or similar is the attitude in most places, even more pointed if you do not speak their tongue or have an unKerala slang. I’m generalizing but don’t cite me on it if you don’t have to. Reluctance to give back change after bill payment, unacceptance of cards as a payment method, cribbing over unusual requests – it’s all plastered across Munnar’s service industry, stuck like morsels of a beleaguered past now pregnant due to power and income inequality. Finding the odd ones out then is an achievement and also the secret to planning the best Munnar itinerary.
- The resort that we stayed in – Spice Jungle – gave total bang for our buck. I have a theory that if the food on your trip is delightful, the trip will mostly be joyous. And if a resort or hotel can cook up dishes with local flavours without being violated by outside or guest influence, it’s worth every praise. Thankfully, Spice Jungle half salvaged our trip with its good food, in-the-jungle location, and ordinary service. Nothing to write home about, but the resort made our trip more memorable.
- Always buy branded tea powder as loose alternative is likely to be adulterated, courtesy Aravinda Anantharaman. If you’re planning to pay by card, ask if it’ll carry a fee.
- Keep some food handy if you ever plan a visit Bhoothathankettu dam near Kothamangalam. The restaurants (thattukadas) near the spot are gross and unstocked, and are often run by uptight locals.
- There’s something relaxing yet reverberating about staying in the vicinity of the town’s famed temple. This was my second visit this year and some in my family are surprised why I haven’t yet turned pious. It’s not the worshipping or the religious aura of the place that I’m attracted to. Perhaps it’s because I’m one of the very few who do not frantically line up outside the temple to seek blessings.
- Everything in the town is directly or indirectly attached to the temple. Go to a restaurant to have sadhya? Oh yes, its table cloth shows you how far you are from the sanctum sanctorum. Check into a hotel? Instead of a food menu you have a list of temple timings on the bedside table. Bargain at a shop? Why would you in the name of god?
- The shops lined on either side of the four entryways are good to only look at. Items have a fixed price and the sellers a tight lip with eyes that accuse you of blasphemy for even thinking about bargaining.
- Near the east side gate is a hall that often organizes plays and dance performances. It’s great to sit there and silently enjoy the shows, as I did in January 2023, when different groups of Bharatanatyam dancers showcased their skill.
- It’s better to buy the famed Guruvayur pappadams from Thrissur than from Guruvayur. In Thrissur, you can haggle when buying in bulk and return if the slices turn out to be stale. In Guruvayur, why would you in the name of god?
- If you’ve seen Munnar, you’ve seen Wayanad. There are tea estates (not many), coffee estates (many), Pookode Lake (not manmade), boating activities with exorbitant prices (of course), and a sheer lack of vegetarian-only restaurants. In Wayanad’s defense, it’s warmer than Munnar, which is why I will always question people when they show a desire to go to Wayanad. I didn’t do my research well, so let this be a lesson.
- We went to what seemed like an upscale resort but it was a big disappointment. It’s almost like Taj Wayanad or Mountain Shadows had an illegitimate son with each other who has shallow pockets. But thankfully they had hired the locals as its staff, so I could experience the uptight behaviour here too. That’s three places in a row, if you’re counting. And I’ve not included Perumbavoor, Muvattupuzha, Angamaly, Edapally, Kodungallur, and Thattekad – all of where I made pit stops and had the opportunity to interact with members of the service industry. That statement almost feels like I’m making a class divide but based on anecdotal evidence I can assure you that direct-to-consumer business owners in Kerala are uptight towards everyone. They seem to be angry for some reason, either at the government or you, or both.
- In Kerala, if you ask around for a rented car so that you can drive around the state, you risk being placed on a list that also includes terrorists. It’s that difficult to get a decent car for self-drive in the state. And when you get one – like we did – it’s certain to have hidden issues that will only show themselves in the middle of your journey. It’s not like you can get an auto mechanic to test out the vehicle before you get it. You’re not buying it (unless you are me who did buy a used car without getting expert advice and sold it for a loss.) Or you need to be knowledgeable and skilled enough to evaluate it in minutes or through a short drive. I’m not even talking about the costs involved.
- If you eat only vegetarian, you are doomed when in Wayanad. The handful of restaurants that line either side of NH 766 all seem to have a common feature. The food is both on the table and ground no matter what time you enter one of those and how crowded the place is. There’s an aversion to cleanliness in some parts of the state, and you’ll be surprised how that is not a problem for most people. I guess when you’re hungry, who cares if you have to stomp on bone legs to reach your table?
- The “fee bouquet” you get when you visit a decently popular tourist attraction in a place anywhere in the world and about which I remarked in the Munnar section above just upgraded itself in Wayanad. There’s an attraction called 900 Kandi in Wayanad which will set you back by a few thousand rupees just to enter and explore. I’m assuming one has to pledge a few of their organs to partake in some activities arranged inside the attraction.
- If you wish to enjoy ziplining here or in Munnar, a good price for a roundabout trip above a valley that could break most of your bones if you fall is INR 500. I’d pay double for a valley that could potentially break all my bones. Adjust it for inflation whenever you go.
- On our way back from Wayanad, we boarded the train from Kozhikode. Naturally, we decided to dine at a popular restaurant to understand the fuss about its food. Paragon and Sagar were out of question because both are known to be crowded with long queues. We chose Topform, waited for less than two minutes, and were served bottom-drawer food. Chicken biryani was 7 parts rice, 2 parts chicken, and 0 part masala. It was as bad as the biryani I had in a Wayanad thattukada.
- The generic biryani in most places in Kerala is bland.
I believe this is my most controversial article here after my take on Siddhivinayak Temple. If I can just hide this from people living in Kerala, I should be fine.