Thanks to the antics of S. Sreesanth over the last few years, Kerala might have become a bit of a laughing stock; but let that not cloud your judgement!
India’s most south-western state is a glorious combination of amazing weather, incredible greenery, friendly people and tasty food. It’s also fairly cheap, if you’re willing to foot it rather than opt for a guided holiday. So it’s perfect as a weekend getaway for stressed professionals, as a hideout for college-bunking youth of nearby states, and a romantic destination for newlyweds (and oldly-weds too, why not!). Let’s not forget overseas travel. Why leave the NRIs out?
But first, a bit of history- In mythology, Kerala came into being when Parasurama, one of Lord Vishnu’s innumerable avatars, recovered the land from the sea. In facts that are more verifiable, three millennia ago, explorers from various parts of the world were attracted to Kerala, thanks to its spices. Close to 500 years ago, Vasco da Gama (the explorer, not the Goan city!) established Portuguese trade in Calicut.
Kerala’s unique geography – that gives it a breathtaking landscape, a full coast with beaches and backwaters, pleasant weather in non-monsoon months, and of course, it’s colourful culture – has made it an extremely popular tourist destination, frequently ranking among the top in ‘to-do’ lists, globally and domestically. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this stat– between 2001 and 2011, revenue from tourism to Kerala quintupled to 190 billion!
So, what does one do in Kerala?
You can do the standard things that tourism websites tell you to, really (and there’s no harm in that!). Kerala is very tourist-friendly and has facilities like spas, guided tours of tea plantations in Munnar, and forts such as Bekal. There are palaces as well – the most famous being Padmanabhapuram Palace. You’re unlikely to be able to loot treasures though! One thing you should definitely try out – especially if you’re with that special someone – is a houseboat. It’s a unique experience, and you’re sure to love it!
If you’re the religious sort, there are plenty of churches (especially in Kochi), a synagogue (again in Kochi), and many temples (Guruvayoor, Sabarimala, Chottanikkara being some prominent ones). You could try visiting Kerala’s so-called cultural capital, Thrissur, during the annual Pooram festival (avoid, however, if you don’t like crowds and have a proclivity to lose your wallet in public!)
Recently, of course, Ayurveda tourism has become quite popular. All sorts of gooks are created from natural elements that promise to solve everything from stress to… other problems of life (if you’re going in for a spa or Ayurvedic treatment, however, be sure you go to reputed places. Tripadvisor reviews are usually quite reliable, depending on which part of Kerala you’re going to).
Yes, yes… but what about the offbeat stuff?
Now you’re talking! While Kerala offers a lot to the ‘regular’ tourist, it can get very rewarding for the explorer! How do you feel about staying in a Tea Bungalow? If you want to make your honeymoon really special, how about a private island? If you’re the sort who likes to mix with the locals, why don’t you try some spice mixing at Marari Beach? If you’re a bookworm, head over to Eloor Library in Kochi (it’s a wee bit expensive, but it’s a cult joint – any kid growing up in the 2000s in Kochi would tell you that!).
If you have an appetite for it, try a Mallu comedy movie. If you’re not from Kerala, you won’t get a lot of it (even through subtitles), because the comedy is very language-centric and translation will kill it. Still, the visual gags, background effects, etc will have you in splits. I personally recommend Meesa Madhavan and Kalyanaraman. They’re masterpieces!
And yes, I know you’re dying to ask – go for an elephant ride. You’ll absolutely love it. A good place to do it is the Periyar Tiger reserve, or in Thekkady.
What about the food?
Now you’re really talking! Kerala has a mix of cuisines. Vegetarian thanks to the presence of Hindus, great Tamil cuisine thanks to the presence of Palakkad Iyers (basically people who have their roots in Tamil Nadu), excellent non-vegetarian because of Muslims and Christians, plenty of fish because (duh) it’s next to the sea. You’ll be spoilt for choice, really.
The things you should definitely try are:
- Appam and stew: Light, hot, sensuous and healthy, even!
- Porotta and beef: Porotta is sinful, being nothing but maida, but tastes oh-so-good (Doesn’t everything unhealthy taste good?). Recommended with vegetable curry, chicken masala or the streetside favourite, beef.
- Puttu-kadala: Puttu is one of those things that can get Keralites removed from the state look back in total fondness. It’s basically a big steamed stick of rice and coconut.
- Idiyappam: A variation of the first thing on this list, but noodly.
- Any chicken curry with coconut in it: Let’s just say – these guys know how to make it the best!
- Any fish dish: Start with simple fish fry and work your way up!
I wouldn’t recommend going to a restaurant in Kerala and ordering typical north Indian cuisine (like Paneer Palak) or Indian-Chinese (like Gobi Manchurian). Not that they don’t do a good job of it, it’s just that they do a better job of the others!
Two other things you should try are:
- Shawarma: Thanks to The Avengers, you all know what it is, so I’m not going to bother explaining!
- Sharjah Shake: It’s basically a banana shake! No one knows why it’s called Sharjah, really. There are many other variants – including a Dubai Shake and Saudi shake, whose constituents vary from where you buy it. But a nice thick Sharjah, which should set you back by no more than 50 rupees, will totally hit the spot.
A caveat – if you’re having non-vegetarian, please ensure you go to a quality restaurant. There have been some scares over the last few years (leading to the closure of even a KFC outlet!).Not all roadside eateries offering you porotta-beef at 40 rupees a plate need to be avoided, provided you have a good medical insurance plan.
So if I were to make an itinerary…
First off, there’s way too much about Kerala to compress into one article. Hopefully this would have given you some direction. Go online to the official website, see what people say on Tripadvisor, and of course, research on Wikipedia. There’s no ‘best time’ to visit Kerala, really. Even the monsoon season has its own charm (‘wet charms’, as they call it). But for most people, September to March would be the best time to travel to Kerala. Munnar, Thekkady, Kochi and Alleppey are the golden quadrilateral of Kerala tourism, but there are plenty of others too, from Kasargod in the north to Trivandrum in the South. Hopefully you’ll find your plan and put it together! If you’re going to Kerala, don’t forget your camera. Put on a thick Mallu accent, smile, drink lots of coconut water and say “Simbly!”.
See you in God’s own Country!
What are the quirks of Kerala?
We love football more than cricket, being one of the very few states (possibly after our communist cousin West Bengal and our drinking buddies Goa) to stake that claim.
Mallus like to drink. A lot. So you’re likely to see a few animated sights late at night outside toddy shops (but even inebriated Mallus are a friendly lot).
There are MANY Mallus aboard, especially in the Arabian Gulf (heck, I myself stayed in Bahrain for 15 years). This has led to quite a few jokes about the state and its people – that ‘Duffai’ is a sort of Alaska for Kerala. But the remittances are no joke – Keralites send back more money to the state than any other!
Mallus have a thick, instantly recognizable accent that is either repulsive or adorable depending on your point of view (My girlfriend thankfully falls in the latter category, so all’s good).