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Kumarakom: Top five experiences

We were in Kumarakom (Kerala) this rain soaked weekend and even as I write this—from a staid, cloistered hotel room—I yearn to be back…to feel the silky-soft green of the leaves, marvel at the nodding lotus stalks and other indeterminate undergrowth on the undulating backwaters, protest at the resounding scream of the Cicadas, savor the mildly sweet-pungent taste of the roadside Toddy, bask in the warm afternoon sun in the slowly cruising houseboat…

Kumarakom is a village on Vembanad Lake (the longest in the country) in the backwaters of Kerala. Located in district Kottayam, it is filled with canals, migratory birds and rich foliage. The closest airport is Kochi, 2 hours away by car. Kochi can be reached by a 55 minute flight from Bangalore.

Things you can do here:

  1. Stay at a houseboat/ lakeside resort
Taj Vivanta

We stayed at Taj Vivanta but there’s also Zuri and Coconut Lagoon, all highly rated. KTDC runs a resort on the same stretch of road. The hotels have private villas and organize their own sightseeing, cultural programs and houseboat cruises. It is well worth your money to stay in one of them.

A houseboat on the Vembanad lake as the sun sets
  1. Have Toddy by the road
A glass of Toddy
A Toddy joint

Kerala used to be the highest consumer of alcohol in the country, but after the government alcohol ban last year, it’s quite a task locating a beer & wine store, and harder still to find a hard liquor store. I think only a few registered stores sell them anymore. We had a mini adventure though, locating Toddy to taste. Toddy or Palm wine is an alcoholic beverage created from the sap of various species of palm tree such as the Palmyra, date palms, and coconut palms. Roadside shacks give you a bottle of Toddy for around 100 bucks, and you can buy some spicy, yummy food to go along with it. An experience not to miss.

  1. Eat well and eat a lot

Seafood overload. Karimeen pollichathu, or marinated pearl fish wrapped in banana leaf and grilled, is a specialty of the region, an exotic freshwater fish dish. Also to savour are Appam (rice bread), Avial (mixed vegetables in coconut curry), Paruppu payasam, Kerala Matta rice, Bittergourd thoran. Chillies, curry leaves, mustard seeds, and coconut are frequently used to make the local cuisine, which makes their food sharp tasting and piquant.

  1. Take nature trails
Walking through the Kumarakom bird sanctuary

If you can wake up at 6 AM to go to the Bird sanctuary, you might get to see a few exotic birds, but while we did not see any birds (‘coz, obviously, we were late waking up), we did hear them (sigh). The walk itself, under a canopy of drizzle laden trees, was an interesting one. Entry ticket: INR 50 per head. A guide is available at INR 300

  1. Visit the Bay Island Driftwood Museum
Raji Punnoose and the Lord in her Driftwood Museum

We were in two minds whether or not to enter (it looks like a home artifact display from the road), but once the proprietor Raji ushered us in, we were hooked. She turned out to be as fascinating as the displays themselves, about a hundred in number. She had set up the whole place herself and modeled the driftwood sculptures, collecting driftwood from Andaman where her husband was stationed, over a period of thirty years. The museum is the outcome of her tenacity and imagination, though she attributes this to (and in every second sentence) to the Lord’s glory. She takes visitors around herself, talking about each sculpture and it was well worth the hour we spent. Entry: INR 80 per head.

Just two days and I was sufficiently impressed with God’s own country.

Vietnam: Top five experiences

Ta Hien Beer Street in Hanoi

Vietnam is uniquely South East Asian with all the good parts – great food, polite service, plenty of old culture and sights to devour, yet with subtle differentiating touches of its own. I mean, the sight of scores of locals and tourists sitting on low stools, red and blue, chugging fresh beer (Bia hơi, 20 cents, I kid you not) out of large decanters, throwing peanut shells and questionable animal leftovers onto the floor, and creating a party cacophony into the receptive night… was really uniquely Vietnamese 

My memorable experiences were many, but I’ve tried to list the top five, which despite being hyped and touristy, were totally worth it.

Cruising along Halong Bay
By the Halong Bay

Totally worth the hype and the money paid. Cruising along the bay, watching the sunset amidst the gently lapping sea, looking over as the towering hills pop out of the sea and loom around as I sip an unidentified cocktail on the ship’s deck, was quite something else. Hạ Long Bay, in northeast Vietnam, is known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rain forests.

A Hạ Long bay cruise costs between USD 170 to USD 220. Paradise, Indochina and Dragon junk are among the better rated cruise companies. We took the Huong Hai Sealife cruise which was very good too. It visits the Bai Tu Long bay, more remote than the others, else we hear the night docking area looks like a parking lot. As part of the cruise, we also visit some fishing villages, learn how to cook local fare, watch movies of the French rule or American war and attempt Tai Chi. Cheesy, but picturesque fun.

Boating on Trang An
Trang An Grottoes

Situated at the south of the Red River Delta in Vietnam, the Trang An Landscape Complex is a spectacular landscape of limestone peaks permeated with valleys, many of them partly submerged and surrounded by steep, almost vertical cliffs. This is less crowded than the more popular Tam Coc, just minutes away, but equally mind blowing. Rowboats, driven by hardy women, take you through the limestone caves and the hills, and over a period of three hours you get a taste of darkness and light…green hills and greener waters…slow lapping of the paddle…gentle lulling of the sun on your face…silence of the tall hills around…bees buzzing in your ears… you get the picture.

The bike ride from Hue to Hoi An
Riding along
Riding along lagoons from Hue to Hoi An

This is a must do activity. We were lucky to have good weather and a fantastic tour group organizing this for us and we had the best 8 hours of our Vietnamese sojourn. we tried all modes of transport in this trip – we flew (JetStar – good enough), took the SE19 (basic and clean), cruised, took a local bus to Ninh Binh (decent but avoidable in bad weather) and this rounded the portfolio.

It drizzled on our faces. The wind blew our hair. The roads were wide and smooth, the sights beautiful. Specially when we moved over from Hue to Da Nang.

I looked it up online. The Hải Vân Pass (or “ocean cloud pass”), is a ~21 km long mountain pass on National Route 1A in Vietnam.

The first view of Da Nang

“Historically, the pass was a physical division between the kingdoms of Champa and Đại Việt. The pass is renowned for its scenic beauty. Presenter Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, featured the pass during the show’s 2008 Vietnam Special, calling the road “a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world.” Wikipedia

 

Hoi An
Hoi An streets

What a great, great little place!

The little town is called the Venice of Vietnam and you’ll see why as soon as you’ve stepped foot on it. Beautiful night markets, lanterns in the sky, a fancy Japanese bridge, perplexing art work, old houses, crafts and coffee…I didn’t want to leave. Umm… did I mention lanterns in the sky?

Buy a ticket for 120k Dong to enter the old quarters and just walk and walk. I could never tire of it and wanted to stay on forever. And there is a lot more to do.

Night life
View from Chill Sky bar at Saigaon

Backpacker’s street in Saigon and Ta Hien street in Hanoi – party the night away with cheap beer and pop mixes which seem to run on a loop. The locals love a good party too and the weekends are throbbing with activity.

Did I convince you enough? Pack your bags for Vietnam now. It is pocket friendly, and offers experiences you will scarce find elsewhere.

Freeloaders – Part 1

“It was a good thing they decided to stop by the police station.”

“…a good thing they’re giving us a ride.”

“We hardly left them any choice.”

“Even so, lucky us.”

There were four of them sitting at the backseat of the car. Squeezed together like playing a game of poke-a-rib.

Two of them were boys, similarly dark and lanky. The grumpier one was called Ganesh. Long haired, angular nosed, arched heroine-like eyebrows, a mole on his upper lip that bobbed when he spoke. Hands that stayed clasped on his laps. A stiff body. Stiff movements. Very angry. His friend was Vinod. More genial. Gaunt cheeks but huge bags under his eyes and chin. Bruises on his forehead. Welts under his eyes. Nervous movements. Constantly scratching his head. As if checking for lice. Or blood.

Next to them was a very dishevelled woman in her thirties. Shilpa. She looked as if she had just gotten out of bed. Hair in clumps over her forehead and ears. Her well-tailored clothes crumpled. Necklace awry. Lipstick smudged, Kohl running down her cheeks. The corners of her mouth were pulled down in a permanent grimace. She looked like a disgruntled mannequin.

And last was an old man. Avinash. Generously built. Slightly bent. Slow, deliberate movements. In green kurta and white pyjama. Sports shoes on his feet as if he had just been out for a walk. He was the most pleasant looking of the lot. Smiley. Twinkling eyes.

“Why wouldn’t the damn constable release our vehicles?” Ganesh grumbled.

“He was totally ignoring us,” Shilpa said.

“Both the car and the bike were in pathetic states,” Avinash murmured.

“Do you think we’ll ever get them back?” Vinod asked. “Or get back in them?” Chuckled.

The four of them, save for Vinod and Ganesh who were childhood buddies, had grown friendly during their visits to the police station. The outpost was located ten kilometers from the first toll naka after hitting NH228. Usually they hitchhiked on police vehicles but today they’d gotten hold of a kind couple and had just started back when they stopped. It was ten PM and growing rapidly isolated. They did not say it but wished they’d get a move on.

“Do you think I should comfort her?” Shilpa whispered, jerking her chin at the woman weeping in the front-passenger seat.

“Fat lot that’s gonna help,” Vinod murmured. He was always doing that, discouraging and criticizing people. The worst ever pillion, Ganesh told him atleast once every day. An irritating, nagging extra. Why not just come to the front and do what you want me to do? Vinod never did that though. Too afraid. Too bored. He was the archetype backseat driver and played his role to perfection.

Then a voice piped in. Like a sage from the mountains. “You could try talking to her,” Avinash said, “but I doubt she’d hear you, the state she is in.”

The weeping woman was Arohi, in love and betrothed to the man standing outside, smoking. He was trying to calm himself down as was she. Usually cheerful, funny and level-headed, Arohi was right now sulking after a fight…a fight that had been recurring with her fiancé Veer for many months now. They loved each other with a crazy kind of zeal, but Veer loved something even more. Racing. Cars. Racing his fancy sports car on empty streets. Or even what only looked like sort of empty streets.

After a few minutes, Veer leaned to look inside. Exchanged glances with Arohi. Then tentatively smiled.

Shilpa sighed softly. “Ah, to be in love…”

“It’s not easy…and not all black and white,” Avinash muttered.

“I know.”

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