Glimpses of India

Munnar

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MUNNAR: I have been planning to visit up Munnar from a long time. It was natural to do so as I was a Mallu for one, and my friends from Hyderabad used to rave about the place. So I decided this time, I would make it there with my family during our Summer vacation in God's own country.

Before starting from Hyderabad I did do up some essential reading on what was rated as one of the best tourist destinations down south. A visit to the Kerala Tourism website indicated that Tea County run by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation was a good place to stay. A couple of calls and I realised that it was going to cost me a neat packet for a two day stay. It was then a friend who runs a travel agency in Kerala recommended another hotel which was far more reasonable and located just before one enters Munnar town. 

We decided to drive down from Kochi, 130 kms away. The drive via Muvvatupuzha and Admali was uneventful, with views typical of rural Kerala.  For someone driving down from Hyderabad, there were a couple of revelations. Connectivity in rural Kerala is very good and roads though narrow are great to drive. If one can handle the 'private bus devils', then drive can be good. The road till Admilai is pretty horizontal, but that changes once Admali town comes into view. The ghat section does not have too many hairpins, but the road keeps getting narrow. The traffic is smooth, save for places like waterfalls and view points where people park their cars and buses they way they like. We decided to give the stopovers a skip and decided to keep driving. The scenery is pleasing and quaint old churches and shops selling spices dot the roads. The 130 km drive from Kochi to Munnar takes about two and half hours and that is good considering the climb up the mountains. Drive carefully and lookout for suicidal mallus who drive like the world is about to end. Step aside if you see any of the KSRTC or private buses. Failure to do so will mean that you might end up with a slight nudge and at the bottom of the valley. If you need to cover Munnar in totality, a three day stop over is called for and a shorter version, a two day stay will do fine. 
 
We checked into Westwood Riverside, the hotel recommended by my friend, Devdas Pallath who runs a travel agency. Westwood was a quaint hotel made entirely of wood. It seems to a relic of the Raj and has well appointed rooms and a small river (if one can call it that) meanders along nearby. It has a single restaurant, even though the brochure talks about three of them. Since we arrived around lunch time, we decided to have lunch at the hotel itself. We then decided to move on to see the Tata Tea Museum which was located at the outer fringe of Munnar, which in itself is a one-horse town.

The Tea Museum which is maintained and run by the Tata Tea is worth a visit for anyone foraying into Munnar. It houses relics of the past which reminds one of the strong British influence on Munnar and the hills surrounding it. A tour of the museum starts with a good cup of Tea (what else?) followed by a demonstration of the process of making Tea, from freshly plucked tea leaves to the final product in a number of grades. The Museum has a number of bric a brac including old typewriters, calculators, and even a burial urn :)

There is also an audio visual show that traces the journey over two centuries ago from the arrival of the British  at the Kannan Devan hills. Knowing Tatas, they can spruce up the AV room and have a better projection system. The best part of the place is the outlet selling various types of Tea. Make sure you don't miss it. There was not much to do as dusk had set in and we got back to the hotel. 

Having had lunch at the Westwood Riverside hotel, we decided to give other places in the town a try. And that was a mistake. For one, it was a weekend and Munnar was crowded like hell. There was little we knew about the town and searching for a good place to eat was like searching for a needle in a haystack. Munnar has a number of restaurants that serve Jain and Marwari food and very few offering Kerala cuisine. That itself will give you an idea of the tourist traffic in the town. Parking is a nightmare in Munnar and you better be forewarned. The roads are narrow and traffic crawls at many places. We drove around in circles and finally settled for a hotel that talked of South Indian Thali meals. And sure enough there was nothing South Indian about it and the dinner was a disaster. The buffet at Westwood would definitely have been a far better deal. So, check out the restaurants beforehand.Despite all this, one of the major plus points of Munnar is its awesome weather. 

We arrived from a balmy, sultry Kochi and sure enough Munnar was refreshing. We made another cardinal mistake of not carrying along any warm clothes. Who would think of warm clothes in summer, you would say. Munnar is crowded during holidays, as you expect any Indian hill station to be. From huge Volvo buses to two wheelers everything goes in Munnar. Haphazard parking is the norm and there seems to be little that the limited police force can do. Make sure you park your vehicle (if self driving) in a place from where you can take it out with much of a collateral damage.

Munnar as you would expect has a number of popular tourist spots all of which are withing a 50 km driving distance. These include among others the Eravikulam National Park home to the endangered Nilgiri Thar. We had a bad experience at Eravilkulam. Despite an early start which is located about 14 kms (an hour's drive) from Munnar town. The holiday season had its share of the tourist traffic and there was a traffic jam which ran for about a couple of kilometers. Around 9.30 am we reached the booking office of the National Park, only to be told that the earliest ticket we could get for a guided tour by a mini bus of the forest department was a good five hours away. We decided that it was not worth the wait and drove back. We missed the Top Station which was close to the park as no one told us that it was close to the Eravikulam National Park. Like the rest of Kerala, the lack of proper sign boards is one major let down in a place like Munnar.

The crowds at Mattupetty dam made things even worse. Vehicles were parked everywhere and it was tough to drive to Matupetty and back. Moral of the story: Don't plan a visit to Munnar during holiday season. There are some speed boat rides at Matupetty, but the safety measures for those using the boats is minimal. After the tragedy in Thekkady last year in which dozens lost their lives, I am scared of lakes and backwaters of Kerala. 

The drive back from Munnar to Kochi is breezy as one is going downhill. Check your brakes, specially the handbrakes and avoid sharp turns. We did some shopping at a spice village, buying up cloves and cardamom. The factory outlet of Eastern  has a lot you can buy, specially spice powders, pickles and other Kerala condiments. 

Don't enter Kochi if you are planning to go to northern Kerala (read that as Trichur and be yond) or Southern Kerala (Kottayam and below). There is a junction at Muvvatupuzha from where you can branch off in either directions. This way you can save time and avoid getting entangled in the horrendous traffic jams of Kochi city.

If you wish to avoid the hassles of driving on your own to the tourist spots in and around Munnar, try out the sight seeing tours organized by the District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) Ph: 04865-231516. There are three tours all of which start from the DTPC office which is located just before one enters Munnar town proper:                                                                                        Tea Valley Tour (10 am to 5 pm) covering Mattupetty, Echo Point, Kundala Dam, Top Station, Rajamala.                  Sandal Valley Tour (9 am to 6 pm) which will take you to Nayamakadu View Point, Lakkom View Point, Coffee Plantation, Sandalwood forest, Pious Nagar Village, Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary.  
Jeep Safari Tour (8.30 am to 6 pm): Mattupetty, Echo Point, Kundala Dam, Anaimudi, Shola National Park, Kanthalloor, Chinnar and Marayoor. 

DTPC council can also be contacted on their email: info@dtpcidukki.com or check their website: www.dtpcidukki.com


by Suresh Kochattil