The Kerala tourism department calls the southern state of Kerala “God’s Own Country” with good reason. The backwaters and beaches of Kerala stood out as highlights for us but there are inland mountains and tea plantations as well as stunning coastline.
It is a land of diverse religions where you will see Hindu temples, mosques and churches all in the same place. Kerala is also India’s most advanced society with a very high level of literacy, a higher standard of living compared to other states, and good education and health care.
We flew down to Kochi (previously called Cochin) from Delhi with Spicejet. Our first stop was the Fort Kochi area.
In Fort Kochi we booked a homestay in an older couple’s house, who used their spare rooms as a bed and breakfast. We booked homestays for each of the places we visited in Kerala.
We spent the next few days exploring, seeing the giant fishing nets from China and generally wandering around the town. The Chinese fishing nets were in use for over 500 years but are now mainly just a tourist attraction in Kerala as high costs and poor catches push the fishermen to use other methods. These nets are fixed and are operated from the shore. According to legend, the Chinese explorer Zheng He introduced these fishing nets in Fort Cochin.
We also spent a relaxing day on a small boat with wicker chairs being punted around the backwaters of Kerala—a perfect way to take in the local scenery with a few stops along the way. We saw shells made into calcium and rope made out of straw from the outer part of the coconut. Lunch that day was yum; it was served on a banana leaf instead of a plate and consisted of rice, mango chutney, and vegetables in curry sauce with shredded coconut.
Other places to visit in Kerala (and easy to access from Fort Kochi) include Vypeen Island. We ferried there and then took the bus to Cherai Junction. Travelling on the local bus was certainly an experience; wide open windows while speeding along the bumpy roads. You wouldn’t want to get in the way of one of these buses! Cherai beach is famous for dolphin sightings.
In all the places we ate at in Kerala, we agreed that the food was good, but not as good as in the north; there was not a single garlic naan in sight!
On the up side, there was fresh fish and seafood. One evening we went to a restaurant called Fusion Bay and had a yummy fish dinner. If you go, try the traditional Keralan dish called coriander fish pollichathu—fish cooked with masala and wrapped in a banana leaf. We also had meen molly, a creamy fish curry with coconut milk, in addition to roasted squid and spicy prawns.
But on the down side – there was no beer. So after dinner we headed down the road to find a lovely ice cold Kingfisher beer.
Where’s the beer?
Beer was hard to find in all the backwaters and beaches of Kerala. Hence this part of our Indian trip became the “Great Cold Beer Hunt”. Not all restaurants served alcohol, so we spent many evenings hunting for a restaurant where we could eat and have a beer. Otherwise we’d have dinner and then head to a hotel that served beer.
While beer wouldn’t appear on lots of menus, sometimes they’d serve it. But then if someone asked you about it, you had to say you brought it in with you. In one restaurant, the beer came wrapped in a brown paper bag, which you hid under the table.
Liquor is no longer easily available in Kerala since the government cancelled the bar licenses for most of the bars in the state. At one time, Kerala had India’s highest per capita alcohol consumption. Now, alcohol is available in five-star hotels and at premium beverage outlets which only sell expensive alcohol. The alternative is the Kerala Government Beverage Corporation Outlets, which are generally always very crowded with locals, so expect to queue for a long time.
Varkala – beach life
From Fort Kochi we took a four-hour train journey to Varkala. This town on the coast is popular for its chilled beach vibe, yoga, and surfing. Even though the town is well known for its backpackers, it is essentially a temple town. The main Papanasham beach is a holy place where Hindus make offerings for deceased loved ones. The town is partly set up on 15-metre-high red laterite cliffs.
There is a stunning footpath along the cliff top, with amazing views in each direction.
In Varkala, I did an hour of yoga class; it was perfect listening to the ocean waves in the background. I also went for an Ayurvedic-style full-body oil massage. Using a combination of herbal oils, this type of massage is good for healing and detoxifying the body and mind.
Thekkady – nature
Thekkady, on the edge of Periyar National Park, was the last of our destinations; and a bumpy 5 1/2-hour road journey from the backwaters and beaches of Kerala. We were all glad to finally get there, but at least the scenery was good, with views of the tea fields and rows of rubber trees.
In Thekkady we visited a spice garden, which had a variety of plants growing: coffee, peppercorns, figs, mangoes, passion fruit, and various herbs and spices, including cinnamon and allspice. After the spice garden, we wandered around some tea fields and then a coffee plantation. At the end of this trip, the guide gave us tea with ginger and cinnamon, and coffee with ginger and fenugreek. Both actually tasted good. Served together with roasted jack fruit, it was yum.
We also spent a day in Periyar National Park. With an early start at 5.30am, we hopped in jeeps and drove to the Gavi area and into the park. On the way in, we saw three elephants in the distance and a wild buffalo.
The only downside to this day was the weather—very cold and wet. Whilst waiting for breakfast someone lit a fire, and we all huddled around it. After breakfast, we hiked for two-hours with covers over our legs to keep out the leeches. We saw black squirrels, monkeys, huge spiders and various birds. Leaving the national park, our jeep got a flat tyre, but luckily it was changed very quickly as we were all a little chilly by now.
Back to Fort Kochi
Then came another very Indian experience: the local bus from Thekkady back to Fort Kochi. This was a six-hour journey in a very cramped seat; I was definitely too tall for these seats!
The bus drivers are mad; they own the road, and it was full speed the whole journey. We also had full volume Bhangra music for the whole trip. On the plus side, the ride only cost the equivalent of 15 RMB. Needless to say, by the time I got off the bus, it was a while before I could walk properly.
We then spent one last night in Fort Kochi before flying back up to Delhi for our flights back home.
Having spent time in both Rajasthan and the backwaters and beaches of Kerala, I can’t say which I prefer. At times, Kerala almost felt like a different country. It was clean and tidy; people were politer than up north, and it had the overall feeling of being more welcoming and safer.
Both areas have their pros and cons, but for me, nothing can beat the food – especially the garlic naan – in Rajasthan. But of all the places to visit in Kerala, we can definitely recommend Fort Kochi, Varkala and Thekkady for a good taste of what life is like in India’s “God’s own country.”
Trip taken July 2016