Munnar – Elephants and tea plantations (video)

Munnar

Munnar is a small town way up in the hills about a hundred miles east of Kochi. It has a relatively cool climate which was ideal for the colonial British to escape to during the heat in the lowlands. A hill station was built along with vast tea plantations spanning as far as the eye can see.

From Kochi private tours can be booked to the tea plantations of Munnar which often also involves visiting various other locations and sights on the way. We decided to go for a tour that was 2 days with a night homestay amongst the tea plantations in the hills. What persuaded us to take this tour was that on the way to Munnar we were to visit an elephant sanctuary where young elephants are looked after and trained.

Our driver arrived early the next morning to collect us for the tour. I was surprised that he had a normal, modern saloon style car and not some huge clunking bus that he could squeeze twenty people into. The car was comfortable, air conditioned and just for Anna and me. For once we would be travelling in comfort and style. Our driver was one of the nicest people; very polite informative and hospitable.

Elephant bath

Getting a good scrub

Our first stop was the aforementioned elephant sanctuary where the young elephants were having their morning bathing session.  A wide shallow section of the river provides a perfect location for the elephants to be bathed. I didn’t quite know what to make of the experience. It was great seeing the elephants but I’m not sure if they were being properly treated by the trainers. They were chained, hit with sticks and constantly shouted at. Is this really necessary treatment for young elephants to be trained or is it simply abusive and cruel, a way to control the elephants simply for tourists. I don’t think the sticks hurt them and it would be ignorant of me just to state that its wrong and cruel as I don’t know the first thing about training elephants but the whole experience seemed a little aggressive and unnecessary.

As we moved on, the road became steeper and higher, I could feel the air getting cleaner and fresher. Our driver had a collection of western CD’s he was playing: Ricky Martin, Ronan Keating, Brian Adams, Britney Spears… to name but a few. I asked him about his choice of music but he had no idea who these “artists” were. This music was purely for the benefit of his western passengers. It’s a nice thought but I don’t think he realises that not all westerners listen to chart music, I didn’t really mind it playing in the background for a while but when the playlist started all over again with ‘La Vida Loca’ I asked him to put the radio on.

Monkeys by the side of the road

Monkeys by the side of the road

Monkeys began to appear and sit calmly at the sides of the road watching as the car passed by. This was the first time I’d seen monkeys in India. I love monkeys. They’re so interesting and characteristic. I asked the driver to stop so I could get a better look and some photos. He pulled up right beside a pair sitting on the wall by the side of the road not  two feet from the car. They didn’t flinch or look at all scared. They sat and posed nicely for a few photos and then off we went again driving higher and higher into the hills of Munnar.

Our driver was full of useful information and would answer all our questions and drop in some useful information from time to time. He told us that the best time to visit this place is just after the monsoon season as there are some spectacular waterfalls. Unfortunately for us it was just before the monsoon season and all the waterfalls were either completely dry or nothing more than a trickle.

Some more elephants

Elephant rideIt wasn’t part of the tour but it was on the way so our driver asked if we’d like to visit another elephant camp, this time with adult elephants that offered rides. I was a little apprehensive after seeing the treatment of the young elephants at the sanctuary but I did want to ride an elephant so we thought we’d check it out. The treatment of the elephants here was a lot better. They weren’t unnecessarily chained and I didn’t see a single stick being swung. They had lots of free space to move around and a mountain of food that they were happily shovelling into their mouths with their trunks. There was a much better vibe here and it appeared as though the elephants were being treated quite well so we decided to go ahead and take a ride.

These elephants were huge and it was only with the help of a large platform that we were able to get onto one. Both Anna and I sat of the same elephant. As the elephant moved and began to walk I could feel each huge step and from this you get a sense of how sturdy and powerful he is. A guide walked in front directing the elephant on a thirty minutes trek through the jungle. During this time he also took photos and videos for us on our cameras. It was a great experience, one I would definitely recommend.

The homestay

After a short visit to a spice farm and a tea processing factory and about an hour before sunset we reached the homestay where we were spending the night. It was set in a beautiful location at the top of the hill surrounded by tea plantations with a spectacular view over the valley. It was within a small village of just a few other small houses. The families in these houses looked quite poor but they were smiling, waving and seemed quite happy. We were given a very comfortable room with a balcony looking out over the hills. We sat out on the balcony and watched the sun slowly sink below the landscape in a colourful display of blues and reds.Two other guys who were travelling together were also spending the night at this homestay. They were on a three day tour. I looked into the three day tour but I found it was basically the same as the two day tour with one or two extra location that didn’t really appeal to me. Our host was a very jolly single, middle aged Indian man. He prepared a traditional Keralan vegetarian dinner in the dining room where we all sat together and discussed our travels. The electricity cut out half way through and we ate under candle light.

Tea plantations in Munnar

Tea plantations

The next morning we got up early for a long walk among the tea plantations. The starting point was a nearby guesthouse where several small tour groups had gathered and were enjoying a morning cup of tea while waiting for the expedition leader to arrive. The walk was long and tiring but very scenic and worth the effort.

Honey

Boys selling honey taken from the hives in the trees

Back on the road we came across a section of the jungle that was filled with bee hives hanging high in the trees. A group of small boys were by the side of the road each with a bucket full of beehives that had been taken out of the trees. They were scooping out the honey and filling up bottles to sell. It was amazing to see how much honey came out of one of these bee hives, and I have no idea how they got them down. Our guide said they’d climbed up into the trees and took them down themselves. Seems pretty dangerous, not only is there the risk of falling to your death but there’s also a swarm of angry bees protecting their hive to contend with. I guess it must pay off for them because many people were interested in buying this honey. I love honey, I would have bought some myself but he was only selling it in litre bottles and I wouldn’t have been able to take it through the airport anyway.

Echo point

Horse

Horse with curly ears

Echo point is a valley aptly named as when a noise is made there is a single echo in return. It’s not amazingly impressive but this natural phenomenon brings in the tourists and as such, market stalls have popped up and there are even horse rides. Coach loads of tourists were arriving every minute to clap, whistle and shout to the far side of the valley with amazement. Large groups were having photo sessions as though they were in front of the Taj Mahal. It’s moronic how taken-in some people become when they’re told something is amazing. It’s an echo, It’s not that amazing, you’ve only been brought here so you can buy cheap crap from the market stalls. The horses that you can ride are an Indian breed unique for their inward-turning ear tips. Anna loves horses and desperately wanted to ride one. Even though the rides were aimed at children and consisted of a simple walk up and down the valley led by a man holding the reigns, she wasn’t deterred. She paid fifty rupees and had a ten minute ride.

Toddy

Toddy bar

A local bar serving up Toddy

I’ve heard a lot about this drink called Toddy and I’ve wanted to try some of it for a while. I mentioned this to our driver and he took us to a local Toddy bar that we happened to pass on the return journey to Kochi. The outside was painted red with large black letters advertising the Toddy for sale inside. It was a very basic setup; nothing more than a small room with a few battered tables and chairs. Anna and I took a seat whilst our guide spoke to the bar owner in Hindi and ordered our drinks. We intended to share a glass between us but he brought over two glasses, a full jug of Toddy and poured it straight out. We each took a sip and reflected on the taste. It wasn’t really that bad at first, and then the after taste kicked in which was pretty awful. Anna didn’t want to drink anymore. Honestly neither did I, but I didn’t want to upset or offend the enthusiastic bar tender so I drank all of mine, and Anna’s as well. He poured me another glass which I also drank. I insisted on no more after the third glass and we left. During the two hours it took to drive from the Toddy bar back to our hotel in Kochi I felt rather sick and was trying my hardest not to throw up in the back of the car. Fortunately I managed to hold it down this time.

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