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 undulating undergrowth on the 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…The experiences were many and memorable, and I am going to list down my favorites, because you only have a weekend, right? You want to make it count.
Kumarakom is named after Kumaran, the deity of Kumarakom’s oldest temple. It 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. Other ways to reach are by rail: Kottayam Railway Station is located 16 km from Kumarakom, by bus: through KSRTC (Kerala State Run Transport Corporation) traveling between Kumarakom and Kottayam, and through ferries across the Vembanad Lake, from Muhamma, near Alleppey.
My recommended top five experiences were:
1. Staying at a houseboat/ lakeside resort
We stayed at Taj Vivanta which was fantastic. There are other upscale options such as 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 because you can get all your experiences within. For example, the stay at Taj also included cooking classes, Kathakali, and music performances.
Booking a houseboat on your own: You can book one for 24 hours with a private cook for as less as INR 10,000. You can book a boat even after you reach; there are several local operators whose offices dot the road. Alternately, you can book online.
2. Having Toddy in a roadside shanty
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. So we settled for the locally brewed Toddy.
And no, this Toddy is not the same as the English Toddy. Kerala Toddy is a mildly alcoholic beverage created from the sap of coconut palms. Toddy is legally sold in Kerala and is a major money churner. The industry has over 50,000 employees with a welfare board under the labor department. It is also used to mix with rice dough and left overnight to make the bread soft.
We had a mini adventure locating some Toddy to taste. 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.
3. Eat well and eat a lot
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. Another widely available and delicious meal is the onasadya or Onam food.
4. Take nature trails
If you can wake up at 6:30 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 and surrounded by lotus farms, was an interesting one. Entry ticket: INR 50 per head. A guide is available at INR 300.
In a good season, the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is home to several birds such as Siberian Cranes, Parrots, Herons, Owls, Egrets, Darters, and Waterfowls. It is located on the banks of Vembanad Lake, so there’s also an option to canoe across the lake. Opening hours: 6:30 am – 5 pm; all days.
5. Visit the Bay Island 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.