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Sunday, 13 October 2013

Munnar Area - Good vacation experience

Tea estates of Munnar area
Munnar, I believe, is a good tourist spot for different people who may have a variety of interests. Bird watcher, Trekker, Lover of nature, Sight-seeing, Vacation away from buzz, Getaway from heat of Southern plateau, Boating in scenic lakes and reservoirs - these are just some of the varied prospects for someone visiting Munnar and its nearby locations.

Munnar town itself is quite small. It is located pretty high from the mean sea level on the western ghats, just across the border from Tamilnadu into Kerala. The places to visit are spread in a radius of about 50-70 km around Munnar. It is accessible only by road from nearest city which in turn may be accessible by air, rail or road. Whichever route one takes to come into Munnar, if we take a relaxed drive in & out, then it would cover about one-third of the places to see and visit around Munnar. That is to say, if one were to be airdropped in Munnar, then one has to spend 3-4 days going on the different trips to cover the various points of interest in the different directions, 1 part of which can be covered during the in-or-out direction of road trip.

Chinnar - Marayur - Eravikulam - Munnar

Thoovanam falls from SH-17 -
near Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary

We chose to take the road from Coimbatore to Munnar and back to Coimbatore. This route has quite a few nice places to stop along the way, which are on the primary to-do lists of most who visit Munnar. The Amaravathy dam in the foothills, between Udumalai (or Udumalapettai) and Chinnar, Chinnar wildlife sanctuary across the border into Kerala, Thoovanam falls view from SH-17 (probably also accessible by trek), Watch tower in the Chinnar wildlife sanctuary, many waterfalls along the SH-17 to Munnar, Sandalwood forest in Marayoor, Lakkom Waterfalls outside Marayur, entrance to Eravikulam National park, grand view of the valley (from the spot view Marayur, the full valley along which we travel in SH-17 and all the way to Udumalai) from about 5500 feet above MSL are those that can be covered in this drive upto Munnar. A non-stop trip by good car would probably take 4 and half hours (180 kilometers). If you take time to stop and relax in the scenic spots, it could take anywhere between 6 and 8 hours. If one were to take the Jeep ride from Eravikulam National Park entrance to higher spots in order to view the Nilgiris Tahr (endangered goat species), it could take a while, especially if there is a long queue of visitors waiting for the jeep trip.
Periakaanal Falls

We had been booked into Club Mahindra resort, which is about 18 km away from Munnar town on another direction - towards Madurai (through Bodinayaganur, Theni, Madurai). It was important to keep asking for directions and ensuring we were on the right path - if we missed a turn and did not realize, we would be a few kilometers down a path that we had to retrace. Located in a township called Chinnakaanal, it is quite close to a beautiful road-side waterfall called Periakaanal falls. The resort is located on the side of the mountains from where a jeep trip could take us to Kolukkumalai tea estates (we did not take this one), one of the scenic spots high up in the mountains overlooking the valley and the route to Tamilnadu. The beautiful view of the tea plantations and the reservoir formed due to the Anaiyirankal dam (quite close to the Munnar-Madurai road) can leave us wanting to just pull a chair and relax for hours.

Mattupatty Reservoir - Top Station
Motor boat view from Speed boat - Mattupatty reservoir
One set of places of interest are along the road from Munnar to Top Station (2nd highest view point in Tamilnadu, as per local literature). The Mattupatty dam, Flower Garden, motor boating point, Echo point, pedal-boat and rowing location, upper dam, drive through some farm lands and leading finally tot Top-station, one can take many stops to enjoy the reservoirs, lakes, waterfalls and sceneries. We went on the speed boat trip, which can accomodate upto 5 members. It is a nice and long 15 minute trip covering about half of the Mattupatty reservoir. We made only cursory stops on other points along the way to Top station.
View of reservoir, plantations, pastures - on way to Top Station

At Top station, one has a grand view of the valley that lies to east of Munnar, which also leads to the foothills quite sharply & one can see the plains of Tamilnadu from this point. There is a path that leads to multiple observation decks about 200 metres below the Top Station into the valley - entrance ticket of Rs. 10 is charged. One should be prepared for the climb back up the slope and steps after soaking in the sights of the valleys & mountains.  Since, this hill station also involves quite a bit of drives along winding roads, we stopped only at a few points of interest along this route. We wanted to get back in the afternoon to the resort and relax a bit, before enjoying some games at the resort activity centre.

Near Top-Station - bee aiding pollination
in The Flower garden
On the way back, we decided to stop at the Flower Garden. Here, in a small area, there are a variety of flowers and plants maintained for us to look at, in leisure and enjoy nature's gifts for the eyes.

Anaiyirankal Dam - Devikulam lake
On second day, we decided to take in only one trip to the Anaiyirankal dam and reservoir before relaxing at the resort. We split in the afternoon with the family deciding to learn arts, painting, etc., indoors, while I decided to trek up to the Devikulam lake (as per Google Maps), which is locally identified as Sita-devi lake and Sita-devi falls.

Red-whiskered Bulbul - during Trek
Path near the lake
The trek to Sitadevi lake goes along mountainous road for about 1 kilometer upto Kurinji village (having about a dozen houses) after which it is a footpath with some steep climbs through shrubs. This leads to the small falls which are above the Periakaanal falls (and feeds it), which flows from the Devikulam lake. I took a small wrong turn here and went on about a half-km detour through some tea estates (jeep tracks followed), before realizing and heading back to the falls. From the falls, along the rocks, headed on another steep foot path before locating the serene Devikulam lake. At that time, there was probably not a single soul within 1 km radius. It was a really nice and enjoyable trek through nature alone, with some capture of birds in the evening sun.

Lucky Weather
Lakkom Falls - near Marayur
We were lucky to have clear skies on all the days with just a few dots of clouds kissing the mountains, during our Munnar visit. That added quite a bit of advantage in seeing the places in bright light, good cool weather, distant visibility of valleys, mountains and the plains, etc. The final day was the day of return to Coimbatore by road. We stopped on a few scenic spots on the way back, especially the various waterfalls including Lakkom falls and Thoovanam falls. These we had skipped on the drive up, because of a bit of tiredness by the time we had reached Marayur from Coimbatore. On both drives we took a bit more than 6 hours due to small stops. Eravikulam National Park was skipped due to the long queues for the jeep ride to the higher altitudes. We had also skipped visits to spice estates and tea plantations, which is another attraction around Munnar.

Red whiskered Bulbul -
just outside our resort room

 The cool weather, natural mountains and valleys with greenery all around, scenic locations, several reservoirs and lakes, tea estates and plantations, combined with the overall cleanliness, no-plastic policy, etc., make this a beautiful location for a tourist visit as well as a regular vacation spot to recharge our batteries.

For more photographs from Munnar area, visit this link 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Clean hill station in South India - Munnar

I spoke too soon, I guess, in my post "Shimla - why can't South India be like it?" - where I rued the lack of clean tourist-friendly hill stations in South, by comparing Shimla with Ooty (Udhagamandalam), Kodaikanal, Yercaud and Yelagiri. Recently, visited Munnar, which has changed my opinion. We do have a gem of a place at Munnar. It is clean, still not exploited by commercial interests that destroy the environment / ecology (tea estates abound but they are not spoiling the ecology or environment).
Tea Valley near Munnar, Kerala

Munnar is very scenic and calm place for a long relaxed vacation. There are quite a few naturally enjoyable spots with variety of valleys, lakes, waterfalls, tea estates, reservoirs, flora and fauna.

What are the simple differentiating factors:
(a) Beautiful green plantations, valleys - with some mountains and clouds kissing them.
(b) Tourism related exploitation of land is very less. Very few resorts and well spread out.
(c) Smaller town compared to other South Indian hill stations.
(d) Cleaner - no plastic, less non-plantation exploitation of nature.
(e) A couple of kilometers out of Munnar onwards, if one looks out in the evenings / nights, hardly a few lights dot the whole landscape - hence we are sure we are surrounded by forests, plantations and nature.
(f) Many waterfalls, lakes and reservoirs dot the nearby areas.
(g) Trekking through various places - variety of options. Good place for birders too.
(h) High view points of Kerala and Tamilnadu.
(i) Clean air, mists in the morning, clouds and mist kissing us often, comfortable weather, etc.

Munnar is a very good place to go for a vacation & recharge ourselves after being drained by the rigours of our busy corporate lives. Hope locals and tourists alike continue to maintain this pristine place on the Western Ghats.

Jai Hind.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Mt. Abu and rest of Udaipur

ROYAL - Udaipur Zoo
There are many more things to see at Udaipur, but we decided to make a day-trip to Mt. Abu, on the second day. It was a long drive, but the roads were pretty good for the most part. Hence, it was a good choice for the trip in the middle of the 3 days at Udaipur. After break-fast we headed out. Enroute we were informed of the bandits/tribal trouble that occurs in the night time along that highway. The cab drivers suggested that we either return before sun-down or stay over night at Mt. Abu. We thought it was not worth the while to spend lot more time at Mt. Abu.

We took in regular sights of Achalgarh temple (skipped the fort), Dilwara Jain temple and Arbudha Devi temple. The Dilwara Jain temple is pure artistic marvel - amazing sculpture on pillars, ceilings, walls - pretty much all around. Symmetry, eye for detail, and variety of patterns from tile to tile (very little repetition - and only when required for symmetry). Since photography is not allowed in most temples, we did not click any throughout Mt. Abu! Next was the climb to Arbudha Devi temple, which was about 450 steps and did take a while to make it. One has to bend / crawl below a huge boulder to get into the sanctum - even more difficult for tall and fat people like me! It was worth it - as we had a good exercise before lunch. We took lunch at a small vegetarian restaurant before we went for a boat trip on Nakki lake. It was casual pedalling around the small lake in the cool afternoon sun, taking in the greenery around the lake. Then, after some shopping for souvenirs we headed back to Udaipur.

Entrance to Sahelion Ki Badi
The third day was spent in further exploration of Udaipur. First stop at the zoo was for about an hour - and we wondered how they would maintain these in the peak of Rajasthan's summer. It must indeed be difficult to maintain, but I guess the lakes are good enough to provide the water, and some greenery to Udaipur. The whole Gulab Bagh area is full of greenery and the zoo tucked into a corner. Then a stroll around the Gulab Bagh area, including a view of the Gulab Bagh Library, was pretty relaxing. Fateh Sagar lake view was taken up next - but no boat rides on that day - the lake was over-flowing. The road around the lake would have been submerged if there was 3 inches more water in the lake. So, we took some photos of the full-to-the-brim lake before heading up to Moti Magri (Pearl hill) to see the museum and Maharana Pratap statue commemorating the Battle of Haldighati. The view from this hill was very nice too.

We drove along the lake, upto the spillway of the lake, before heading down to an architectural marvel 'Sahelion ki badi' (garden of the queen's friends). This garden contains many fountains, which function without a single pump. The garden and fountains are about 85 feet below the level of the Fateh Sagar lake (as per the guide). The fountains are directly linked from the lake and the water-head makes it function without any external effort of motors / pumps. Variety of layouts with different fountain patterns surrounded by a botanical garden was a real pleasure to enjoy. One wondered whether this is supposed to be part of Rajasthan desert in the first place! Probably not - just the border, maybe?
Fountains in Sahelion Ki Badi

The rest of the evening was spent in relaxation and shopping for a variety of things. Clothes, bedsheets, trinkets - bought a few of these, here and there - as per the cab driver's suggestions, after avoiding the main markets totally. He advised us that the main markets make hefty profits on tourists. As I have mentioned in a separate post earlier - the courtesy of the people, and the shopping experience was amazing. We are drawn to pull out our wallet and empty it at every shop! The politeness and willingness to serve was a contrast to the metro snobbery (majority of places in metros where customers are treated with disdain).

Overall, it is worth a more relaxed visit - probably on someone's sponsorship to stay at those fancy 5-star hotels or the Taj Lake Palace! :-P Temple visits would also be worth it, along with some more shopping. So, travel donations anyone?

Fountains at Sahelion Ki Badi

Friday, 9 August 2013

Pushkar and rest of Jaipur

Moti Doongri Fort near Lakshminarayan Mandir - Jaipur
Jaipur has quite a few more things to offer, which we decided to go through on the 3rd day. As we had earlier planned, we decided to visit Pushkar on the 2nd day, to see the only temple for Lord Brahma where he is worshipped as the main deity. The Pushkar lake is also supposed to be very sacred with many deciding to offer prayers for ancestors here.

The roads to Pushkar were pretty good, except a few kilometres nearing the destination. We took the help of a guide who took us to the lake and bathing ghats. Priests usually compete to get your attention in order for them to do the pooja for you and ancestors. Since we had gone with the guide, he had arranged for one to do the pooja for us. Since both parents are alive and well, for both of us, it was a small disappointment for the priest as he would have wanted us to make sacred offerings in case of deceased parents, etc. Beware of very smooth talking people who would try to get you to donate huge sums for various causes at this place. We then went to the Brahma temple and had a good dharshan before heading back to Jaipur.

Amber Palace - Jaipur
We decided to relax in the evening and took up the trip around Jaipur the next day. This included visit to Lakshminarayan Mandir near the Moti Doongri fortress, Albert hall and Museum (gave a miss to the zoo and bird park nearby) and followed by the majestic and huge Amber Palace to the north of Jaipur. The Lakshminarayan mandir is at the foot of the hillock on which Moti Doongri fortress is built. After a peaceful visit to the Mandir, we decided to go to the Albert Hall and Museum, where the artifacts are just huge in number. Sculptures, paintings, arts, craft, instruments - everything is collected and documented for us to take in. One can spend a couple of days and still not grasp the wonders of the Rajput periods. We decided to take a few photographs for later analysis and went through the exhibit halls before proceeding to Amber Palace.

Glass work at Amber
The grand Amber Palace in the Aravalli hills was the next stop. The big fort and palace overlooking the lake is really breathtaking. The size of the construction and using the natural layout of the hills - is really amazing. The paths provided for the people of the area to come over for meetings and celebrations in the huge court-yards, big rooms, sophisticated baths, great view of the hills and natural protection from the fortifications, etc., are indeed stupendous. Again the use of a guide, in this case a person with fluent English, was really useful for us. Then we went to a few places to shop, near Amber palace as well as near Jal Mahal. Courteousness and salesmanship were very obvious and we picked a few things from the variety of shops we visited.

In the evening, a second visit to the market rounded off the stay at Jaipur, as we bought a few dresses, nuts, spices, chocolates, etc., before spending evening and the next day relaxing. We indulged further in sweets and good vegetarian food, bought many sweets for distribution to relatives, friends and colleagues before we big goodbye to the Pink city.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Pink city - within the walls

Pink buildings in city
It was really comfortable to travel to Jaipur by train overnight, from Udaipur. Many had suggested that we should drive to Jaipur and could see a few places en-route, like Nathdwara and Pushkar. We decided to not strain ourselves by long car journey. Moreover we had covered Nathdwara from Udaipur, while Pushkar is nearer to Jaipur and we thought we could make a trip from there, if it could be fit into the schedule.

First day at Jaipur was spent with a short half-day trip around the Pink city area. The centre of the city within the main gates and walls of Jaipur old-city have this rule of having all buildings painted in pink, which is the reason for the name. It was painted such during the visit of the King of England and the tradition continues and, in fact, is now in the rule books of the local government.

Jantar Mantar view
 Our first stop was the astronomical center Jantar Mantar. The many scientific instruments (yantras), built by the Rajput king Maharaja Jai Singh II in early 18th century, are simply awesome. Practical approaches of using the instruments have been taken into consideration along with precision for making the readings. Jaipur's latitude and longitude has also been taken into consideration for accurate measurements. Since we engaged a guide, it was very useful to understand all the instruments built at Jaipur Jantar Mantar. Some of the instruments have a precision of about 2 seconds and other instruments provide further information and aspects of zodiac. The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur is the best and encompasses maximum number of instruments, amongst the many built across north-west India.

Samrat Yantra - Huge with 2 second precision of time

The next stop for us was the City Palace and Museum, which is adjacent to the Jantar Mantar. The medieval collection of the variety of transport, dresses, utensils, equipments and weapons are well preserved and presented for the public. Again, the help of a guide was very useful in getting to know the facts and history of the palace and the maharajas. Though there are some exaggerations and personal opinions that are slipped in, it is worthwhile to employ a guide at most of these places.

Near these two places is the famous Hawa Mahal (palace of winds). The rows of rooms along a single line, rising 5-6 floors, look quite simple. The winds in the rooms through the engraved windows of the rooms are indeed surprising. From the Hawa Mahal, one can have a good view of the market, Jantar Mantar and City Palace. We decided to rest for the afternoon and walked along the market for some window shopping in the evening.

Hawa Mahal
The sweets in Jaipur are pretty enticing. Huge portions are available at a very nominal price - in some cases about 1/4th of the price of same item in Chennai! We were enticed to sample them after every meal and thoroughly enjoyed it. One can return to the city, not only for the cleanliness and people's camaraderie, but also to enjoy the cuisine and sweets.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Udaipur - Lake, Palace, Museums

On the first day in Udaipur, we decided to go through a few sights that would be guided by our cab driver. We planned, as usual, to take it easy and cover a few places during the day, with some rest in the afternoon, followed by evening visit/shopping. The natural first stop was for the boat trip in the very famous Pichola Lake. We all longed for a trip to that Lake palace, but are immediately disappointed to know that it is out of bounds for anyone who does not stay at the hotel! Entry to the Taj Lake Palace, as shown in the James Bond movie, Octopussy, is only allowed for those who book a night or more at the hotel, and stay there. Well, who needs to go into the palace. It is likely to be full of algae, fungii, etc. (or actually sour grapes, isn't it :-) )

Lake Palace - view from boat

The boat ride from near the garden took us around the Taj Lake palace in anti-clockwise direction, first showing us a wonderful view of the City Palace. The majestic palace that extends 100s of meters along the lake is simply awesome. As we turn and take a closer look at the Taj Lake Palace, we are also pointed to the Leela Palace and the Trident on other shores of the lake. It must be really serene to spend many days along the lake in such beautiful surroundings. We ride along closer to Jag Mandir before the trip came to an end. As it was not the peak period, the overall experience was nice and calm without any rush.

Part of Lake Palace on left, with the full City Palace at the back - view from boat in Pichola Lake

The next place to visit was the Karni Mata Temple atop a hillock near the Pichola Lake. One can take a shared rope-car (which may need a wait for 15-20 minutes to collect more people) or pay for a full rope-car (like we did, to avoid the delay) - definitely pretty costly (was about 500 rupees, I think, in 2012). We decided to hurry and get the trip done quickly in order to get back to the hotel before 2 PM. The panoramic view of Udaipur is very nice indeed from this hillock. Construction work was in progress at the temple and expansion was also seen on couple of sides. After taking in a full view of Udaipur, the Pichola lake, the various palaces and gardens, we came down without wait.

Glass work in City Palace
A trip around City Palace was the next item on the agenda and we decided to go with a guide. Though the palace is a long narrow building (or set of buildings), the number of floors and rooms, make it quite imposing. We took about 2 hours to cover it along with the guide (and we think the guide took a smart short cut near the end, cutting it short probably by another half hour). The art work, architecture, carvings, glass-work, paintings, living quarters, facilities in those times, etc., are really fascinating. The palace, having been built around a mound, has trees growing on the 4th floor - that is 4th level, but that part is actually on the mound itself. It is indeed interesting piece of architecture and usage of the land around that area.

Inner Courtyard - with glass art and carvings
Overall, it was a very long walk around the palace and it was getting close to lunch time. We decided to take lunch at the Garden Hotel, which is also in same compound as the Vintage Car Museum of the House of Mewar. After the stroll around seeing all the cars, carts and other vehicles of the Maharanas we had lunch at the Garden hotel, before heading back to our resort. A good couple of hours of rest was ordered before a change of plan took us to the visit of Nathdwara temple and Eklingji temple. There is very limited opening hours and aarti timings at Nathdwara and we were able to make it to the afternoon darshan. Evening stop at Eklingji was also very nice to take in, with the view of extensive architecture of these old temples. One wonders where the crowd comes from, as both were quite crowded. I think it was an auspicious day as well, which added to the crowd, but mostly it was pretty organized and not much of pushing/shoving, which happens during crowded times.

View of Lake Palace from City Palace
We were not done for the trip around Udaipur, though it was enough for the day. One of the tidbits we learnt is that the Custodianship of City palace museum, Vintage car museum, variety of hotels, temples, etc., are with the House of Mewar and is not with the Government (Rajasthan or India). One should say that all these places are being maintained well by this House of Mewar.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Naldhera and Mall Road

The third day of our trip we decided to visit Naldhera and cover the Mall Road in Shimla in leisure. Naldhera is only 10 km from Mashobra village, which was our base. We decided to not attempt the climb from the road to the peak on our own. We took the mules - one for each of us - along with the guide to take us around the points of interest at Naldhera. First stop was at a clearing in the pine forest where several films have been shot. The climb along the winding path along the side of the mountain was at times scary. A slip would send us 100s of meters down the slope! The guides skillfully directed the mules and we reached hole 7 of the golf course there. The golf course is said to be the highest located in Asia, at about 2200 metres.

After taking some snaps of the golf course, we continued up to the top spot of the peak. From the top of the peak we had a view of Sutlej flowing deep in the valley, probably around 1 - 1.5 k.m. below the spot. We also had a grand view of the Himalayas including the India-China border. Evergreen pine forests and some mountains with different other vegetation, depending on whether it was leeward or windward side slopes were also a grand treat to watch. The climb down by the mule was a little more scary as we were worried that the mules will start to trot and get out of control. Again the guides skillfully maneuvered the animals and helped us reach the road. Another kilometer on the road and we were back at the starting point.

After this adventure, we decided to relax at Mashobra for an hour before heading out to Shimla for the Mall road visit. This time we took the "Lift" to the Mall road and had a slow visit around the shops in the area. After spending a couple of hours, we had our lunch and then continued with shopping at HPMC outlet for Himachal's yummy stuff. We could not get enough of the cleanliness of the city or the orderly behaviour and friendly nature of the people. Tourism is bound to thrive in such a city.

Some of the things that struck us at Shimla are as below. Narrow roads leave very little space for parking. Still people manage to park in areas where it will not cause any inconvenience to others. If city folks park 8 cars in a stretch, we found that in Shimla, in same space, they have managed to park 10 to 12 cars! Innovative constructions for parking cars were also found aplenty. Extensions from the road with minor construction held one car or two. Even a small mistake of pressing the accelerator instead of the brake would take the car hurtling down the side of the mountain - still they have managed to create and use such spaces.

Various buildings seem to flout all norms of construction. Match box like arrangement of buildings after buildings seem to raise a question about the law of the land. At the same time, one can notice that everything is not concentrated into the city. There are enough roads leading all over the place and the houses, buildings, etc., are spread out around the whole area. A view of the whole area at night shows dots of lights all over the mountains and spread out. Most of these places are well connected by road as well & those are decently maintained.

With everything going smoothly in this time of year, we wonder how it will be during peak time. It is likely that it will be much crowded. When asked about parking and driving problems, the folks said that it was not a problem. We don't want to test it - but with the positive approach and good attitude of the people, it may well be true.

Incredible India - Jai Hind.