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.

The entrance to Green Magic Hotel.

The view from our hotel balcony.

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.

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.


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.


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


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.

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.


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.

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


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
Munnar’s town market is quite lovely – filled with such exotica as banana flowers.

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.

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.

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

And again…

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.




Mountains, mist and H’Mong: the ethereal appeal of Sapa

Sapa town was founded by the French in 1922 as a hill station and colonial holiday spot. This view from the lake is serene. Possibly this is how Sapa looked almost 100 years ago.

This is how Sapa looks today.

Like most of Vietnam, growth in Sapa is an unstoppable force, especially with the construction of new hotels. Roads are ripped up to install updated sewers, and every block has some sort of reno or rebuild. Two doors down from our hotel is an old-school construction, complete with workers in flip flops and ball caps.

We knew Sapa was not a sleepy alpine town, but we were surprised by the number of tourists and the accompanying hubbub.  The main part of town is quite small, very walkable and crammed with hotels, guesthouses, hostels, restaurants and stores selling minority handicrafts and fake North Face products. Restaurants are mainly mediocre and same-same. Someone must have taken a survey about Western preferences and come up with spaghetti, chicken cordon bleu and T-bone steaks; those stalwarts of the ’70s appear on almost every menu in town.

Ethnic minority tribes, mainly the Hmong and the Red Dao, live in villages around Sapa and walk into town to sell their wares. Their villages are part of the attraction of Sapa – the backbone of the trekking excursions that take tourists out of town and into the countryside.

We booked a one-day, 13-km. hike through our hotel, led by a Hmong woman, Mei. She picked us and a young German couple up at the hotel and we set off, followed by another three Hmong women who joined us along the way. Through town, down a side street and down, down, down, until we were surrounded by fields of vegetables and herbs.

The massive mountain range, of which Mount Fansipan is the highest in Indochina at over 3000 metres, is almost always at least partially covered by fog this time of year. While we never got clear skies, we were rewarded with tantalizing views through the mist and comfortable walking temperatures.


Now I don’t want to blame my (almost worn-out) Keens on my struggles to stay upright, but I was having a few challenges finding steady footing on the narrow, slippery red-clay steps and rocks. The young Germans skipped ahead like the nimble gazelles they are and Stephen was doing just fine but I was lagging, so one of the women took it upon herself to rescue me. I grabbed her dry, cracked little hand and safely made it down. All the women kept an eye out for me. At one point Stephen fell down on his backside and they didn’t even look back. It’s a woman’s world out there.

Mei, our guide in green, (who walked 7 km. from her village to Sapa before we began our trek), and her buddies. The lady second from the right was my trekking assistant – have a look at her footwear. These women just walk and walk, sure-footed and uncomplaining.

The famous and photogenic rice paddies are a marvel of human construction. Mei didn’t know a lot about them, other than to say that the area families built them a long time ago.  It is impossible to fully appreciate what a feat that must have been, as each step looks to be about three to four feet high , and the surrounding terrain is unforgiving.


The rice paddies are punctuated by stands of massive bamboo, which for some reason inspired Stephen to strike a beefcake pose.

Strolling along the trail.


We left the trail and hit a paved road to come to our first village. As we turned the corner, a stonemason’s home was perched right on the edge of the road.

Further down, a mama and her chicks.

We met up with some other trekkers on the way to the village.


A typical village home. The minority tribes are very poor. They grow vegetables and rice and raise animals for food, but for better or worse they have come to depend upon tourism dollars to supplement their incomes. (more on that later).

One of the shops featured what appeared to be authentic hand-made textiles. The hills are filled with indigo plants – the natural dye used in many of the fabrics. This lady was busy sewing when we walked through and displayed none of the mercenary sales tactics of her fellow Hmong in Sapa. She barely looked up.

Mei pointed out a marijuana plant as we walked along. There are fields of hemp plants for much of the cloth that is used here for clothing and blankets, and most definitely marijuana plants as well, although we have no idea on what scale they are grown. The woman selling water and coke at our rest stop also had “happy tea”, which we declined. I figured I needed all my wits about me just to keep walking.

Back on the trail and heading for our second village for lunch. See the basket on that woman’s back? Oh yes – you guessed it, the hard-core sales pressure was coming.

Once we reached our lunch stop, Mei told us the women were leaving and it was “time to shop”. Out of the baskets came pillow covers, small bags, scarves and bracelets and rings.

We suspected all along that these three women were not walking for three hours just to enjoy our company, but the transformation from our laughing trekking pals to hard-sell street vendors was astonishing.  Not buying was not an option.

Nothing in their baskets appealed to us, plus it was all over-priced. The other couple bought two pillow covers and out of desperation we bought a small bag and a little purse. The little lady who had helped me down the hill was now very angry with me for being so cheap and I’m quite sure we were roundly sworn at in Vietnamese. It was upsetting as the whole point of our trip to Sapa was to trek and enjoy the scenery, not be coerced into buying factory-made junk.

Anyway, on our way to the restaurant, our attention was diverted by the strenuous efforts of several men and the frantic squealing of a pig. I thought we were about to witness a slaughter, but Mei told us they were holding the pig down to pierce his nose.

This was the one trekking day we had but there were a number of options. We could have stayed in a homestay in one of the villages and signed on for 2 or 3-day treks, but we were unsure about what that entailed. We walked by the homestays and saw that  many of them were purpose-built for Westerners. We had imagined living in a rustic home and sleeping in the family’s only bed (which I’m sure is also available), but homestays have turned into a small industry now. Maybe next time.

A final shot of us on the trail.


While the mountainous countryside around Sapa is its raison d’être for tourists, the town itself is pretty and is worth alloting some  extra time to explore.

One of the attractions is the Ham Rong Mountain Park, which is accessed by a series of stone stairs leading up to several viewpoints along the way.

Stunning gardens throughout the park.

One of the shops rented ethnic costumes for photo ops.

Which brings us to the complicated side of Sapa’s exploding popularity with tourists – the unintended consequences this may have brought to the ethnic minority people.

What happens when people are regarded as a tourist attraction? There is no denying the appeal of the colourful clothing and head dresses, especially when worn by an adorable four-year-old. But that four-year-old is no longer spending her days in her village; she is now carrying her baby sister in a sling on her back while tourists snap photos. She is spending hours squatting down in front of a blanket of trinkets – identical scarves and bags and toys that are being sold by the next vendor and the next and the next. When she is a bit older, she is taught to hassle tourists with toss-off lines,” Hello. Where you from? What’s your name? Buy from me?” She is taught not to take no for an answer and to pursue tourists, even as they try to walk away.

The Vietnamese children we have seen in the rest of the country are bright and happy and curious; these children are dead-eyed and sad. The older ones are hard-looking and cynical. It might be said that tourist dollars have brought them a revenue stream they didn’t have before, but I don’t buy that. Their lives were poor before but they’re still poor, only now they are captive to the lure of money that only trickles down in a meaningful way to a few.

Government signs are posted throughout the town with “Rules of conduct” for visitors – asking us not to buy from street vendors, but there does not appear to be any enforcement and certainly the tourists aren’t paying attention.

We suspect we are regarded by the Sapa town residents and the ethnic minorities as a necessary evil. We strolled though a number of stores looking for North Face jackets – almost every store carries the identical products, so competition is fierce. One woman called out to me as we entered her store and when I replied I wanted to look, she spit out, “Madam looking. Madam just looking” with such venom it felt like a slap.

The scenery around Sapa is so magnificent that it is worth making the trip. Being on the trails is like no place I’ve ever visited before; it is an essential part of the Vietnamese landscape.  But I do wonder if our interest and curiosity has created a monster.