THE OLD AND THE NEW
Saturday, April 2, 2011
Munnar - When Heaven is a Town on Earth
A Tamil guy approached me when I alighted from my overnight bus from Bangalore. Touts, we call them, but to the people concerned, they really are just earning their keep. He would be B.G. who offered an exceedingly cheap 500-rupee half day tour around Munnar, this hillside station in the heart of Kerala's mountainous region. As usual, I was adamant, but after agreeing on the price, I told him I needed to freshen up first and get a short bed rest. It was some bus ride! Overnight buses are always exhausting.
While rinsing my hair at the shower, the water from my head was gray! All that grime from a non-AC bus travel over night! SMM Cottage (from Lonely Planet) wasn't a bad choice although I would have prefered the inviting descriptions showered on JJ Cottage, just beside SMM. I told BG to pick me up at 1PM.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
I was to learn that I was staying in this area called Old Munnar. The chaotic bazaar district a kilometer away was the New Munnar. I hopped into BG's rickshaw. He was mild mannered, but I am always weary of drivers. And this one felt too good to be true. i was the boss for just 500 rupees? Red light was flashing in my head. Sometimes, strangers (like auto drivers) have to earn it to deserve trust, and BG is this stocky dark skinned guy who looked at you with dagger eyes! How wrong was I?
BG didn't rush me, not for a second, and he would always ask me if I wanted to stop somewhere. From the main town, we rode into the mountain. Our first stop was a satisfying Floriculture Garden where every plant seemed to have bloomed at this precise moment! It was such a treat to see everything bristling with life and with color! I had a field day snapping away. If you are into flowers, you can never go wrong with it! For just 20 rupees (10 for the entrance and another 10 for camera), this has to be one of the cheapest visits I've ever had in a while.
Then it was time to turn to the inevitable, the kilometer after kilometer of tea plantations, they call "Tea Estates". On sloping and winding terrain, these tea farms look like they've been trimmed to undulating perfection, and getting lost in their maze could be a dream come true. BG would stop his rickshaw and point to some special spot for great photographs. I have been to a tea plantation in Hangzhou (near Shanghai) and the magnificent Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, but these estates in Munnar seemed endless, and could go on for eternity! I watched a film called "Christian Brothers" in Bangalore, and the opening scene featured Munnar. This was so much better than cinema.
Along the way, BG stopped to show me leafy excrecences growing from the bark of a giant tree. they looked like giant elephant ears flapping. I had no idea what they were, but BG siad they were called "Honey Tree". Interesting! I couldn't find any reference of such from google. Maybe I misheard.
We went onward and passed by a school called Highrange School. This was in the middle of a jungle up the mountains. Imagine what it would be like to be a student amidst such lush vegetation, with cool air all the time. The students must find it conducive for learning - or sleeping, but it might seem eerie too!
My favorites for this tour would be Mattuppetty Dam, and its contiguous waterways stretching to as far as the Moon Valley Boating Lagoon, all the way to Echo Point and Kundaly Dam! Mattuppetty Dam is an important source of hydroelectrical power, a reservoir of water, that provides adequate nourishment for the vegetation and the wild animal sanctuaries in the area. I walked the leangth of the dam, noticing the immense power of water being released down below, the stream and gush of water looked like a geyser in mad scampering!
Moon Valley Boating Lagoon is a wondrous, serene area where family and friends could go boating for just 350 rupees for a 15 minute ride on a speed boat (good for 5 people). It's not really the speedboat ride that's giving delight, but floating through majestic sceneries that's priceless here. Photography is supposedly not allowed, but BG asked the guard, and he just waved his hand at me, making me smile.
Echo Point has small stalls at the entrance but after walking past that, you get to a lakeside down below where you can shout facing the mountains and lush vegetation from across Munnar Lake - and find your shouts echoed back. We stopped at a different site beside the lake where BG found some of his friends fishing! I loved the lazy demeanor throughout this experience; the cool wind wafting all throughout this journey.
Some 32 kilometers from Munnar, we finally reached an area called Top Point. It isn't really a special park. Just a place in a curved road with steep slopes, but from this vantage point, you could see the mountains that border Kerala from the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu! I was just amazed with all these natural beauty!
The ride back to Munnar was quiet. I kept thinking, it couldn't be worth just a mere 500 rupees considering all these places that BG took me to see! Top Point alone was 32 kilometers away, down winding, curving steep mountain roads. On our way back, we passed by Kundaly Dam, which is the catch basin of the abundant water flowing from Kundaly River. There were tall pine trees from the riverside. I rushed to order an egg omelette (25 rupees) and a masala tea (10 rupees). that would be my first meal of the day - though it's really just a snack. Elsewhere in India, an egg omelette only costs 10 rupees, even in Delhi's congested Paharganj.
It sure was worth more than 500 rupees, and with BG's hospitality, calm and mild demeanor, I am really falling in love with Munnar! "Sound of Music" should be proud to be referenced by Lonely Planet on Munnar! The accolade is well deserved.
That night, I splurged on food at the upmarket "Silver Tips". I walked in and must have looked like I crawled out from a hole. The restaurant inside was called "Maya Bazar", a homage to a classic Telugu film. The scene inside the restaurant was nothing less than posh, with waiters in uniform. I felt underdressed but didn't really mind much. I was a foreigner and my "exoticism" lend the place a certain panache. LOL. With an attentive service and a good serving, I was pleased with myself: Lemon Fried Chicken and Chicken fried rice, and a Pepsi. They never tasted this good - although I am sure if I had proper lunch, the dish would be nothing spectacular. But it's been a nice day and I couldn't complain further.
This is the Eye in the Sky!