Munnar: our first Indian hill station

Our five-hour bus trip to Munnar was entertaining (non-stop Bollywood dance sequences), comfortable (clean seats, A/C) and calm (our driver drove the twisty, winding roads in a safe and gentle manner; allowing the impatient masses behind him to pass on blind corners without challenging them to a game of chicken). We left behind blistering heat in Cochi to reach the cool, serene heights of hill station Munnar, former resort to the British Raj elite. Our final ascent to our guesthouse in the hills was by tuk-tuk.

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The entrance to Green Magic Hotel.

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The view from our hotel balcony.

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Green Magic Hotel was a perfect choice for us – just five rooms and run by the sweet and hospitable Robin, who also happens to be a professional chef. Each breakfast and dinner guests met around a table groaning with food. Robin explained the dishes and left us to chat. So far we have met guests from England, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and India. Last night we had three mother-daughter groups, two friends who had left kids and husbands behind and us.

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Our guesthouse is set high in the hills about 6 km. from the town of Munnar. At night, it is silent – the stars come out, the temperature drops and we sleep with windows wide open to cool mountain air. We wake in the early morning to raucous birdsong. If this was the turn of the century, we would be in the mountains “taking a cure”.

The area around Munnar is the largest tea-growing region in south India, and the oldest; plantations date back to the late 19th century and plants like this are 75 years old. As you can see, they thrive on poor soil – the gnarly roots appear to grow right into the rock.

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From a photographic point of view, our timing was off – the tea pickers were in another area the day we went hiking and they don’t work on Sundays. Picking tea has not been mechanized – each leaf is still picked by hand. Just the shiny light green top leaves are picked – the rest are left behind.

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The rows of tea plants are trimmed like miniature ornamental hedges – immaculate and glossy – they stretch for as far as the eye can see.

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Munnar is well-known for its “soft trekking” – unlike the Himalayas, the Western Ghat Mountain range is rounded and more gentle for hiking. It is possible (but not advisable) to head out for the hills without a guide. The paths are wide and easy to navigate and the incline is gentle and gradual enough for beginners. There are 25- 30 km. treks, but we opted for a five-hour, 15 km. hike.  Our guide Ramish met us at our guesthouse at 7:30 am, and within 15 minutes we had reached the trail, bitterly regretting not having brought a coat or hoodie. There was frost on the plants and ice on the ground. Munnar frequently gets below-zero overnight temperatures in December and early January, but as is the case in the rest of the world, Munnar is experiencing climate change and unseasonable weather. We don’t stay cold for long, and soon the rewards of the hike begin to unfold.

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The mountain range layers away in all directions, from deep purple to forest green to the palest lavender. For the first time since we’ve arrived in India, the air is pure and the sky is bright blue.

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We walked past a group of people resting on a boulder. Some of them were sitting right on the edge, with feet dangling over the abyss.

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A rare sight at this elevation – a high tree and some shade.

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We stopped for a water break and to admire the view. A long line of blue uniforms began to appear – the Navy cadets were heading toward us in full force. About 50 young men trooped by and settled in on another rock just in front of us. The drill began and so did the push-ups. We had a great laugh watching some of the guys trying to fake it after about 10 push-ups – they have a way to go yet in their training.  We found out they were from Delhi – an exuberant group of 20-year-olds down for a weekend camp.

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Ramish points out Anamudi Mountain – at 2695 m., it is South India’s highest mountain peak.  The mountain is in the background – that’s Ramish in the foreground; a little the worse for wear for having helped an old lady down a steep incline. After I slipped and nearly fell a couple of times, he became alarmed. He stepped in front of me, grabbed my left hand over his shoulder and performed a cross between a fireman’s carry and a human shield to bring me to safety. My trusty Keen sandals are normally solid, but they would not grab the talcum powder surface of the dusty slope.

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We spent two days with Ramish and got to know him a little. His English is not great, but he tries very hard and really wants to improve to become a qualified tour guide. Our host Robin recommended him (they are good friends), and we were happy with his services, but we got a bit of an insight into the challenges of his life.

Ramish is 31 years old, has a wife and two young children and has lived in Munnar his whole life. He has a night job with the tea factory; he works from 10 pm to 7 am and he and a friend switch off duties during the night so they can take turns napping (probably not an encouraged practice.) He earns 300 rupees each shift – about $6 Canadian dollars. His company also pays his health care, his children’s school costs and gives him a house to live in until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 58. Hopefully in the intervening years he will have made other arrangements for a home. To supplement his income, he bought a tuk-tuk and drives during the day. Three to four times a week during tourist season,  people like us pay him 1200 rupees ($25) for five hours touring – four times his salary at the tea factory. By many Indian standards, he is doing fine. The challenge for Ramish is that he is bright and ambitious but he only has Grade Nine education. When we stopped for lunch, we sat by a guide and his Italian guests and we watched Ramish observe them. That guide was obviously educated, fluent in English, and polished in dress and demeanour. How does our Ramish find the time and the opportunity to improve his lot? Both Stephen and I felt his longing for more – it was palpable. Ramish is charming, decent, very hard-working and bright – in Canada that would be his ticket to a comfortable life. Still, he seems to be a happy man – young, strong, self-sufficient, surrounded by community and living in a beautiful place.

Heading down the mountain and through the tea plantation; Ramish walks this almost every day and never gets tired of the view.

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Ramish took us out in his tuk-tuk on another day for a tour of the area. The draw to Munnar is the natural beauty, the trekking, the cool, clean air and the escape from the chaos of urban India. Munnar’s tourism board feels the need to gild the lily by marketing a raft of unappealing and pointless attractions, such as a garden centre with a couple of acres of parched dahlias and listless roses. We passed on that, so Ramish headed for Mattupetty Dam.  He instructed us to walk over the dam and “come back in 10 minutes.” Dutifully we obliged, wondering why we were staring through a chain-link fence to garbage and murky green water. We walked along the lake for a bit and headed back to the tuk-tuk.

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There are bison and wild elephants in the area, and although we saw dried-up evidence of animal visits on the pathways, we did not see so much as a squirrel while we were driving and hiking. As luck would have it, a mum and her baby elephant appeared, but sadly too far away from us to get a closer view. They were way down on the beach while we were way up in the hills. But still, it was a squinty-eyed thrill to see them.

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Ramish pointed out a low shrub called Kurinji that blooms just once every 12 years, and 2018 is the magic year for the next mass blooming. Apparently the area around Munnar has the best viewing, but I’m hoping we will be able to see this flower in other parts of India as well – they are due to bloom in March and April.
In the meantime, the hills were filled with giant colourful flowers – red, blue, yellow – names unknown.
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Munnar’s town market is quite lovely – filled with such exotica as banana flowers.

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Just a few stalls down, we watched fresh banana chips being made – scraped from a mandolin into boiling oil. We couldn’t resist this perfect Indian snack.

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Today, we went for a six-km. walk into the plantations and hills around our guesthouse. We ran into these characters – here on holiday from Toronto. The gentleman with the Blue Jays cap has lived in Toronto for six years and works as a chef with Aramark – the company that provides food for Rogers Stadium. He is originally from this area, and obviously could not resist doing what you can’t do in Canada – sit on the top of a Jeep while driving down a steep mountainside.

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One of the many viewpoints from the winding paths leading to the village below.

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And again…

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Our time in Munnar has been picture-perfect.  We had planned to visit Periyar Reserve, and nearby Thekkady, but learned from our host that the 900 elephants there are no longer easy to view. Three years ago, a couple was trampled to death by an elephant when the flash on their camera startled him. After that tragedy, the park closed trekking into certain areas of the park, and elephant sightings are now very rare.

Disappointing, but there are a number of other great animal reserves in India, which we will hopefully visit. Tomorrow we head for Alleppey, which is the hub of Kerala’s backwaters.

 

 

 

Geezers in Pai-radise

Pai is a sweet little town in the northern mountains of Thailand, accessible by a three-hour minibus ride from Chiang Mai that warns you ahead of time of the 762 hairpin turns it takes to get there. Gravol is recommended. After  miming driving a bus, swaying back and forth and then throwing up, the laughing clerk at 7-11 pointed me in the right direction, and armed me with two small packets of anti-nausea meds. I knew we had to avoid sitting in the back, so if I ever had any manners, they are now gone, as I pushed and elbowed and maneuvered to grab a good seat. It was worth it, as our drive up was quite scenic and otherwise uneventful.

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We had heard great things about Pai. Good food, good music, a solid hippie healing scene, and a natural springboard to all sorts of natural attractions – caves, waterfalls, hiking trails, small villages, rafting, etc. We had also heard it was a young and loud party scene, and based on that wisdom (cheek-by-jowl hostels, happy hour bars), we chose a place just 1 km. out of town – Pai Vintage Garden. We were delighted to find a little oasis an easy 15-minute walk from the action.

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We headed back into town for dinner and our first look around, and the first thing we noticed was that the young-uns outnumbered us by about 90-1.  Fit, tanned, bikini-ready and with every imaginable hairstyle, tattoo and body adornment on parade. The few older folks we saw looked as though they fell off the side of the earth a couple of decades back.    It was hard not to feel like we were party-crashers, and badly-dressed ones at that. Soon enough though, we had an ebullient fellow beckoning us over to his beer bar, and with two giant Changs in hand, we were made to feel welcome and not-so-old.

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Stephen has been keen to rent a scooter ever since we arrived in Thailand, and the first thing we did was arrange a rental with our hotel, for a walloping $6 a day. The only one our host had left was called Scooby – Pepto-Bismol pink, with bright red lips on the side. I say it takes a real man to hop on one of these babies and act as though he’s on a Harley. I think we were over-sold on the power of the engine, but it was still lots of fun.

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You actually have to rent a scooter or motorbike here, as so many of the attractions are several kilometres out of town, and there is very little public transport.  The alarming thing about this is that the town and roads are absolutely clogged with people who have never ridden a bike before. Rental places are taking five minutes to explain operations, and then tossing out scores of young people onto the roads; the results have not been pretty. We saw at least four people with bike-related injuries, ranging from scrapes to broken legs. We were starting to feel a little cocky about our own (Stephen’s) experience, when…dang. Down he went. It happened near here.

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We had been riding along this pretty country road, on our way to a waterfall. This time of year the waterfall has subsided to a trickle – but it gave us a reason to walk across a rickety bamboo bridge and stick our feet in cold water. We were back in the parking lot, getting ready to climb a hill on our way to a rice paddy when it happened. I was standing to one side so Stephen could position the bike properly and he miscalculated. He started it too far up the hill; the bike rolled back, slid out on the sand, and went over the side.  Stephen did a perfect tuck and roll down the hill (two somersaults) before landing safely and getting back on his feet. Two young people ran right over, to help lift the bike up the hill and tend to Stephen’s scraped elbow. Much to our relief, both man and bike were intact, although Stephen felt embarrassed – again, the old guy.  We took off down the road to our next attraction – elephants! This little guy is five years old.

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You can’t come to Thailand without seeing elephants, even if the only sighting is a statue or carving. Elephant “parks” are everywhere. There is much controversy about the way elephants are handled and trained, and whether or not they should be ridden. We decided before we came here that we would not go on a riding trip, but we were curious to see them in a sanctuary setting. One-day visits are quite costly ( about $200 a person), and we were considering it, when we drove right by one of the camps and stopped by for a look. I’ve never  been a fan of zoos or animal camps of any kind – but it was still a thrill to see these monstrous beasts up close, so I’m hoping they have a good situation. This elephant is 25 years old.

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Big baskets of fruit were on sale to feed the elephants, and after tentatively handing pieces of banana to the elephant’s trunk, the handler told me to pop it right in his mouth. He called out a command, and the elephant lifted his trunk to reveal a huge, slobbery tongue. Then, the handler told me to move in and the elephant would give me a “hug”. Who knew it would be so much fun to hang out with these endearing guys?

After our elephant encounter, we stopped at a very unusual tourist attraction called The Land Split. Apparently, in 2008, without any warning, a farmer woke up to discover his land had cracked open, with a fissure 11 metres deep and two metres wide.

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Although his soy bean crop was no longer viable, hibiscus flowers had been growing wild, and the farmer developed a smart business plan. He harvested the flowers to make juice and jam, and marketed this new development as a quirk of nature. I wish I had asked his name – he is a wonderful, generous man.

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He draws in scores of tourists, and serves them fresh roselle juice and small plates of fruit; asking only for a donation.  Here, we had sweet potato with salt, tamarind, passionfruit, peanuts and banana chips with hibiscus jam.
You can tour his property before or after your feast.

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As we rode back to town, we passed one idyllic scene after another.

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Constructing bamboo rafts – a staple of river travel here.

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Today, we went out sightseeing again, but the tumble from the day before had taken its toll on Stephen. He woke up feeling very stiff and sore, so we limited our riding to half a day, and then handed back the keys this evening.  We may tackle a scooter again in northern Laos. We went to the most curious tourist attraction – the Chinese Village, about a half-hour’s ride from Pai. It is in fact populated by real Chinese families, who fled Mao’s regime and settled here. In the middle of their village, they have constructed the oddest assortment of buildings and scenes – quite tacky. Small children were being led around in the blistering sun on a couple of rather listless ponies, and selfie-sticks were in full force as tourists (mainly Chinese) posed in front of a mock-up of The Great Wall of China or a pagoda. One could dress up in period costume or buy trinkets or tea, or…jump onto a 4-seater Ferris wheel and scream while being hoisted about 20 feet in the air.


After all that excitement, we rode further up the road to the viewpoint – worth the drive.

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Much more to come, including more of the town’s sights – we’re here for another three days. I’ll leave you with a sign that sums up the Pai attitude:

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