In October 2015, a state called Kerala stole my heart. The lush tea plantations surrounded the winding roads, the drop in temperature, the cool breeze hitting your face, the authentic fish curries – there is a reason it’s called God’s own country.
I’ve put together a list of experiences that I would describe as a must-do for those traveling to Kerala.
1. Bathe with an Elephant in Thekkady
I am not an animal person. I don’t like cats. Or dogs or guinea pigs or rabbits or horses – you get my drift? In saying that, the only animal I have been intrigued by is an elephant. They are just so adorable! ( I suppose this is how normal people feel about pets?)
I arranged to bathe with an elephant in Thekkady on my golden birthday. I was a given a brush and told to scrub the elephant while water was hosed on us. I didn’t expect the elephant to have such rough, leathery skin with small brittle hairs growing on it. After cleaning the elephant, it was playtime! The elephant took some water from the pond and sprayed it all over me. It felt so surreal. I was lying on top of the elephant and looking at him so close up. His eyes really spoke to him and I just lay there for a few minutes taking the moment in.
What I hadn’t realized – naively so – was that elephants are wild animals. In their natural habitats they are not these tamed and calm beings that I saw before me at the elephant farm. This fact was made clear to me during one of our hikes at the Periyar National Park later that day.
Whilst walking through the forest, I heard a trumpet and some trees falling. On our right was a parade of wild elephants walking around 30 metres parallel to us. Our guide informed us that this was a rare sight. My heart was in my throat.
At this moment, I started laughing. While others feared for their lives, I started laughing – possibly out of fear that my 24th birthday will mark my last day.After I had calmed myself down, our guide ever so quietly made us change paths and go deeper into the forest away from the parade of elephants.
I can vividly remember the majestic wild beings. Their eyes looked completely different to the elephant I had bathed with earlier today. It was at this point that I realized – elephants aren’t meant to be tamed.
2. Stay in a Houseboat in Allepey Backwaters
We boarded our houseboat in the morning and were instantly fascinated by spending a night in this moving home. The rooms were regal and the lounge was open to the views of the backwaters.
As we floated the backwaters there was nothing else to do but just stare at the surrounds. Floating past, you could see children returning from school in the boat taxi, the lady washing her clothes in the waters, the coconut trees adorning the surrounds, and the kingfishers precariously sitting on the trees observing the view. There were no sounds of traffic – no chatter. It was just you and nature (and probably 20 other houseboats that went past you).
We had a team of three looking after us, which felt excessive given there were only three of us. My dad really wanted to try some toddy and we hadn’t been able to locate it anywhere in Southern India. Toddy is essentially a home brew, a palm wine made from tapping sap from coconut trees. The staff made some phone calls and were able to get some fresh toddy from their family home! Following this, the dinner served was just as exquisite – Keralite food galore! The hospitality we received was so authentic that it almost felt like we were at a family member’s home.
As we waved goodbye to the sun, the mosquito nets came down and we anchored for the night. In the morning we were woken by the sounds of nature and we didn’t want to return back to reality.
3. Cycle the Tea Plantations of Munnar
I had thought it would be a great idea to cycle around the plantations while we were in Munnar and so searched the www in hopes of finding some local companies. I found one US company offering day tours valued at $200 per person. I did not book.
I made efforts to find a cycle hire place upon our arrival in Munnar. However, Indians aren’t known for their sense of adventure and as a result I couldn’t find one local company that could help us.
On our first day in Munnar we visited a local national park. My dad being his charismatic self made friends with a local guide who was with another family. It turned out that this person (Charles) worked for the online company offering the tours to foreigners. Charles was also a freelancer and offered to give my dad and myself a full day cycle tour of Munnar the very next day.
Charles arrived with two mountain bikes complete with helmets (rare!) for us in the morning. We must have cycled over 40kms that day, stopping to explore the surrounds. As the day went along, we stopped to find hidden waterfalls and cross them to get to bigger ones. We had chai at a local stall and learnt more about the history of tea.
A beautiful day with Charles (who had an american accent!) getting a local tour of his hometown. How much did we pay you ask? Less than $60!
4. Get an Ayurvedic Massage
A month doesn’t go by where I don’t go for a deep tissue massage. Ayurvedic massages are very popular in Kerala, and so it only made sense that we booked ourselves in for one.
Upon arrival we were lathered in oil and given a normal massage for a few minutes. A bag filled with ingredients (spices, herbs etc) and dipped in very hot oil was then pressed on various parts of your body. At times, I wanted to scream because it was that hot, but my muscles instantly relaxed with the heat soon after. A strong head oil massage finished the treatment.
At the end, we were made to sit in a chair which was then closed with only our heads sticking out. I could see a pipe attached to a pressure cooker. What a great invention! The pressure cooker had water in it and the steam released from it was used to fill the enclosed chair. This was their way of opening your pours so the ayurvedic oil could seep into your skin.
As we left, we were given instructions not to shower for the next few hours and a red powder was placed in our hair for protection from colds and flus.
A very interesting experience!
4. Watch Kathakali Performers Get Ready
The audience was given the opportunity to come in before the Kathakali show and see the performers get ready.
The amount of effort and work that goes into one performance is absolutely incredible to witness. The make up was the most impressive part of the whole show. I assumed it was just face paint that was used to achieve the faces. I was shocked to learn that these ‘paints’ were actually made from natural ingredients – different types of rocks were rubbed together to create the different colours.
The most interesting concept for me to digest was that the dancers placed a special seed in their eye lids which turned the white of their eyes red! After the performance, they remove the seed and their eyes go back to normal.
It was beautiful and rare to see such art unfolding in front of our eyes. As we saw the make up artist cut pieces of paper, we weren’t sure what was happening. To our surprise, he had managed to shape the paper into flowers and beards for the characters.
Following this was the actual Kathakali show, which although impressive was not as intriguing as the before show.