Having already spent time exploring the beautiful hill country of Sri Lanka, I was expecting to be a bit underwhelmed by Kerala’s equivalent, Munnar. How much more tea farming did I need to see? In fact, Munnar was one of my favourite places in southern India. I suppose all your best travel experiences are made memorable because of the people you’re with. Munnar is one of those places for me.
I arrived via bus and was dumped unceremoniously at the side of the road. I rang the bell to signal my stop and was impatiently prodded off the bus, my bag turfed off behind me. If there’s one thing bus drivers in India hate, it’s being slowed down by a confused backpacker who is busy riffling through her belongings in search of that invaluable travel bible – the Lonely Planet.
LP accommodation suggestions were all fully booked so I headed via tuk tuk to a newish place I’d seen on Hostel Bookers. India hasn’t got many options when it comes to hostels but Vedante! Wake up! are beginning to exploit this gap in the market, with hostels of varying standards in Kochi, Allepey and Munnar.
First impressions where good – a pristine reception and smiling staff greeted me. There was space in the large, mixed, dorm with an ensuite bathroom. Before I’d even had change to put my bag down, the guy from reception, Nivas, jumped in with an invitation to take me on a tea plantation sunset walk. ‘We go in half an hour!’ he commanded. ‘Ok. How much?’, I wearily asked, ready to haggle or tell him I’d organise it myself tomorrow. ‘Free! Free!’, he insisted. There must be a catch… But remarkably, there wasn’t.
Nivas seemed quite content regailing us with his colourful life story and practicing his English whilst taking photos on our SLRs. He’s a comical character and our time in his company remains one of my highlights in India. He insisted we ran up the steep tea fields, told ridiculous jokes (which I’m still not sure were even meant to be funny) and barked orders at us about how to photograph the sunset. If we dared look away he would yell at us, ‘you’re going to MISS it!’ whilst jumping up and down like an excitable child.
Finally satisfied we had concentrated hard enough on the sunset, our over-zealous guide lead us to the highlight of his tour – a visit to his relatives’ family home. There home is modest and there hospitality completely overwhelming. At first we felt like intruders but our hesitance was quickly squashed by Nivas who ushered us inside and was adamant we were now ‘family’. We were promptly given seats and warmly greeted by the entire family – 16 of them no less, all living together under one roof.
The children seem to love the constantly flow of visitors dropping by each evening courtesy of Nivas, the hostel’s self-appointed tour guide. They seemed amused and entertained by our presence – firing questions at us and enthusiastically answering ours. Our short visit left a lasting impression on me though. I’ve never experienced home so full of love and laughter either – the children constantly hugging one another, carefully carrying their younger siblings and squealing with delight at each other’s jokes whilst the parents busied themselves with preparing dinner for 16.
But there’s more to Munnar than meeting Nivas’ adorable family and partaking on his free evening tour. We spent the next two days on a tuk tuk tearing through the winding roads, stopping off at various sights and points of interest along the way. If you don’t have a private driver, this is the best way to get around. Find a tuk tuk guy you like and negotiate a good price (we got ours for about 800 rupees for the day) then agree the route you want to do. Our itinerary went as follows:
Start with a traditional Indian breakfast of cheese paratha at Sukh Sagar in town, it’s right by the water just opposite the tourist information centre.
Head East towards the Muttupatty Dam, this is definitely worth a gawp at. We skipped the flower garden but stopped off at a couple of view points along the way. Next we went to Echo point. It’s just that, an area so mountainous that if you scream you can hear it echo through the valley. You can do other activities here like rent a boat or even go paint balling but we just strolled around the food stalls (our day mostly involved taking photos and buying snacks) – stocking up on cashew nuts and sticks of kulfi ice-cream to keep us going.
After Echo point we saw the Kundala Lake and continued to the area’s most popular attraction – Top Station. The view is lovely but be prepared to be stopped every 5 metres by Indian tourists wanting you in on their selfies!
We had a light lunch here of masala papads and vegetable pakodas before heading back to watch sunset at a view point near our hostel. In the evening, we made our own fun, stopping by at Munnar’s only wine and beer ‘parlour’ for supplies and spending the evening drinking, listening to music and star gazing on the hostel’s cozy roof terrace.
Our first stop was the Lakkam waterfall which is picturesque and worth a quick stop. It gets pretty mobbed by Indian tourists with selfie sticks but it’s a refreshing place for a quick paddle if you can brave the icey water.
Outside you’ll see a chai shop laden up with quails eggs – ask them to make you an ‘omelette’ (not an omelette at all but a delicious concoction of diced up quails eggs in spices), it made a filling late breakfast with a fresh chapatti and I’ve not seen this dish made anywhere else in India.
After brunch, you can visit the tea factory but we skipped this and headed up North towards the Chinnar Wildlife sanctuary, stopping at the Sandalwood forest on route. After a 90 kilometre drive, we discovered the entrance fee for Chinnar had jumped up to a step 650 rupees and there didn’t appear to be much wildlife to be seen. We loitered around long enough to get the low down off some other tourists who had paint the entrance fee – they told us it was pretty underwhelming and the only animal they saw on their 2 hour trek was a giant squirrel. We piled back in the tuk tuk and continued our road trip…
The highlight of the day was a random stop off at the side of the road where we rambled through tea plantations towards a small village, stumbling across a field of women picking team who kindly invited us to try it out. My best experiences in India so far have been spontaneous ones, mostly involving memorable encounters with hospitable locals.
Our trip to the wildlife sanctuary may have been a wasted journey but winding through Munnar’s lush landscape alone is a pleasant way to spend a day. Plus we managed to persuade our tuk tuk driver to let us have a go at driving, which if you get the chance, is ridiculously good fun!
Overall, Munnar is a memorable place to spend a couple of days. Hire a tuk tuk, explore the plantations, get lost, meet locals and if you’re brave enough, try your hand at riding a rickshaw around the winding hills. But don’t go home without experiencing the magic of Nivas’ evening plantation tour.