Wednesday, March 26, 2014

India: Ten good reasons for Filipinos to visit Kerala

Namaskaram from Kerala, India! Kerala is, no doubt, a beautiful destination. But many Filipinos overlook Kerala as a vacation destination simply because it is unfamiliar or maybe because there is an impression that getting to India costs a lot. I'm listing down ten good reasons why Filipinos should visit Kerala. I got to experience this beautiful Indian state for two weeks. And I definitely enjoyed the experience!

1. Budget flights are available from Manila via Singapore and KL
When the timing is right, you can get really cheap airfare to Thiruvananthapuram/Trivandrum (TRV) and Kochi (COK) via Tiger Airways (connecting flight in Singapore) and to Kochi via AirAsia (connecting flight in Kuala Lumpur). My one-way ticket from Kochi to KL on AirAsia was about Php4500 inclusive of baggage allowance, meals and taxes. You can also play around with combinations using Philippine-based carriers to Singapore and KL such as PAL and Cebu Pacific for more cost options. For full service, Jet Airways has affordable flights from Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok.

2. Tourist Visa on Arrival (TVOA) in Trivandrum and Kochi
Just last year, the airports in Thiruvananthapuram/Trivandrum (TRV) and Kochi (COK) were included in the TVOA for Philippine passport holders for stays up to 30 days. You need to prepare the following: (1) passport valid for six months upon arrival with two unused pages; (2) a return or onward ticket; (3) hotel reservation; (4) sufficient funds; (5) two passport size photographs; and (6) USD60 visa fee.

3. Kerala is very affordable and the people are extremely nice
One thing we liked about Kerala is that the destination is very affordable for our budgets. Many things are actually cheaper than what it would cost in the Philippines. And the people in South India are generally nicer to tourists than other places in India. Which is why our stay was extra pleasant!

4. Houseboat in the backwaters
Now for my favorite experiences, the first would be the overnight stay in a houseboat in the backwaters of Kerala. We did this in Alappuzha (Alleppey) around Vembanad Lake, the largest lake in Kerala. Backwaters are where rivers, lakes and estuaries meet the beach and the sea. It's a charming cultural landscape especially with the simple rural lifestyle and colorful culture that exists in these backwaters. While we're used to many of these scenes in the Philippines (the village tours might not be as interesting especially if you come from the provinces), the houseboat stay was one of a kind! It was a relaxing and pleasant trip through pristine backwaters. It was a chill experience if I may say!

5. Wildlife sanctuaries and the Western Ghats
Who wants to visit a zoo when you can see wild elephants in the many wildlife sanctuaries all over Kerala! The eastern area of Kerala is part of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, we saw wild elephants, gaur (Indian bison), sambar deer, wild boar, a striped-necked mongoose, and many species of birds among others. Driving through the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, we saw even more wild elephants, spotted deer and Malabar giant squirrels among others.

6. Hill stations and tea plantations
Being a former British territory, tea is a very important product of the many hill stations they established all over India. Kerala has many of them. And the most spectacular of these tea plantations are in Munnar. It was a pleasant drive going to Munnar as we took in these beautiful scenes of tea fields and workers picking tea.

7. Kerala is the land of Ayuveda
Even during a previous trip to India, I was told that the center of Ayurveda is Kerala. Which is why I was excited that I was getting Ayurvedic treatments in Kerala. The state has an abundance of forests with the herbs and medicinal plants needed for Ayurveda. The secret of Ayurveda is in the herbal oils that they rub onto your body. So make sure to try the Ayurveda when you visit Kerala.

8. Delicious food and colorful culture
For centuries, traders have sought Kerala's famed spices. The Romans, Phoenicians, Chinese, Arabs, Jews, and later, the Europeans, all landed in Kerala to trade spices. In fact, Christopher Columbus was headed west to search for Kerala's spices but instead found America. So it's no surprise that the food in Kerala is an experience worth trying. In fact, Travel + Leisure chose Kerala's breakfast as one of the best in the world!

Classical performing arts is also a major attraction. One of the cultural symbols of Kerala is Kathakali, with its elaborate costumes and colorful facial make-up. There is definitely much more!

9. Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram heritage
Kerala has been a center of trade and melting pot of cultures for thousands of years. Before Kerala, there were three major kingdoms: Travancore, Kochi and Malabar. Although much of the heritage was destroyed by a succession of colonizers, its historical character remains alive in places like Kochi and Thiruvananhapuram. I enjoyed walking around Fort Kochi and Mattancherry in Kochi. The details of the gopuram of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram were fantastic! Many of the stately British colonial buildings can be found in Trivandrum.

10. Many luxury resorts all over the state
Budget travelers will definitely enjoy Kerala. But high-end travelers who prefer staying at luxury or five-star resorts will also have a feast! Kerala has fantastic resorts, many of them branded, all over the state. There are resorts by the beach, in the heart of the backwaters or in the middle of the pristine forests of the Western Ghats. Among my favorites are Vivanta by Taj Kovalam near Trivandrum, Coconut Lagoon in Kumarakom, WelcomHotel Raviz Kavadu in Kozhikode (Calicut), Spice Village Resort in Thekkady, Vythiri Resort and Tranquil Resort in Wayanad and Estuary Island Resort in Poovar. For a high-end houseboat experience, we did Lakes and Lagoons in Alappuzha (Alleppey). Kerala also has comfortable five-star business hotels in major cities. I stayed at Vivanta by Taj Malabar Cochin and Crown Plaza Kochi, both fantastic hotels in Kochi.

Other great hotels and we stayed at during this trip were Quilon Beach Hotel in Kollam Beach, KTDC Tea County in Munnar, Vasco Dagama Beach Resort in Kappad Beach, and the Abad Airport Hotel in Kochi. Many of them have really nice beaches too!

Traveling beyond Kerala
Kerala is a good jump-off point for neighboring Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Goa. You can also take a train or flight to major cities in North India and fly out from there. But there's no doubt, Kerala is God's Own Country. And Filipinos will definitely enjoy exploring this beautiful Indian state. I did!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Instagram: Idukki (Thekkady & Munnar) in Kerala, India

Tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala, India
After the backwaters, we drove up the Western Ghats to Thekkady and the hill station town of Munnar. In Thekkady, we visited the Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, a World Heritage Site as part of the Western Ghats, where we went on a boat safari on Periyar Lake. We got to see wild elephants (Elephas maximus), sambar deer (Rusa unicolor), gaur or Indian bison (Bos gaurus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), a striped-necked mongoose (Herpestes vitticollis) and many species of birds.

We then moved on to the hill station of Munnar. Around the town are the largest tea plantations in Kerala which create a spectacular cultural landscape. Munnar itself is a busy mountain town with an even busier local market. For more photos, follow @ivanhenares on Instagram.

Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary & National Park, Kerala, India
This is what we saw at the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, India! Wild elephants!
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary & National Park, Kerala, India
Sambar deer, gaur (Indian bison), elephants, wild boar, a mongoose and different species of birds were among the animals we saw at the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, India
Tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala, India
Fantastic cultural landscape at Munnar, Kerala's tea country!
Tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala, India
Kerala's tea plantations in Munnar with the Western Ghats as a backdrop are so picturesque! Every turn was another beautiful scene to enjoy! Indeed this is God's own country!
Munnar Market in Kerala, India
An auto rickshaw makes its way through a busy street of Munnar Market in Kerala, India

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Instagram: Alappuzha (Alleppey) in Kerala, India

Houseboat in Alleppey, Kerala, India
One of my favorite experiences in Kerala, India was our overnight stay on a houseboat. We did this in the backwaters of Alappuzha (Alleppey) and Vembanad Lake, the largest lake in Kerala. Kettuvallams were previously used as rice transport boats. When roads were built, they fell into disuse and the boatmen lost their livelihood. In the 1990s, someone thought of converting them into houseboats. They started with three. Now they have over 800. For more photos, follow @ivanhenares on Instagram.

Houseboat in Alleppey, Kerala, India
Vembanad Lake is the largest lake in Kerala & the longest in India. We are staying overnight in a houseboat in the backwaters of Alappuzha (Alleppey)
Houseboat in Alleppey, Kerala, India
School bus! Errr... Here's a school boat taking children home in the backwaters of Alappuzha (Alleppey) in Kerala, India

Instagram: Kollam in Kerala, India

Ashtamudi Lake, Kollam Backwaters, Kerala, India
We're still in Kerala, India. After Thiruvananthapuram District, we proceeded to Kollam. We spent an afternoon touring the backwaters of Kollam, particularly Ashtamudi Lake. Ashtamudi Lake in the backwaters of Kollam in Kerala, India is a freshwater lake with a high level of salinity. During high tide, salt water from the Arabian Sea flows in. We saw many of these fishing boats docked in the lake. Most of them fish at night or before sunrise and return early in the morning. For more photos, follow @ivanhenares on Instagram.

Ashtamudi Lake, Kollam Backwaters, Kerala, India
Kettuvallam was a Kerala boat traditionally used for carrying rice. They fell into disuse when the road networks were built & were converted into houseboats for tourists about 25 years ago
Ashtamudi Lake, Kollam Backwaters, Kerala, India
Cheena vala (Chinese nets) were introduced to Kerala, India in the 14th century and are a popular method for fishing in the backwaters of Kerala

Sunday, March 16, 2014

India: Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Napier Museum & Padmanabhapuram Palace in Trivandrum, Kerala

Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Trivandrum, Kerala, India
Thiruvananthapuram was the capital of the kingdom of Tranvancore, which covered southern Kerala. It's the current capital of Kerala. Since its name was quite long for the British colonial rulers, they called it Trivandrum, hence the two names. Aside from the popular beaches and backwaters, Trivandrum has a a colorful local culture and built heritage dating back hundreds of years.

Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Trivandrum, Kerala, India
Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple dates back to the 7th century. But it is believed the area has been a place of worship for thousands of years. The foundation of the present gopuram was laid in the 16th century. It is said to be the richest temple in the world owing to its vast collection of gold, silver and precious stones offered by many generations of the Travancore royal family, amounting to trillions of US dollars.

Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Trivandrum, Kerala, India
Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Trivandrum, Kerala, India
Only Hindus are allowed to enter the main temple. And there is a strict dress code. Men have to wear a mundu with their shirt off. While women have to wear a sari or long skirts. So we only got to walk around it. Photos are allowed only up to a certain point.

Napier Museum, Trivandrum, Kerala, India
Driving around Trivandrum, we could see that the city had a very interesting collection of colonial buildings. To bad we couldn't stop to take photos. We did pass by one though, the Napier Museum, an Indo-Saracenic structure built in the 19th century. The Napier Museum houses a collection of Kerala artifacts dating back hundreds of years.

Napier Museum, Trivandrum, Kerala, India
Napier Museum, Trivandrum, Kerala, India
Around the museum is a garden and a band stand built at about the same time as the museum.

Thuckalay, Tamil Nadu
Before Trivandrum, the former seat of Kerala's Travancore kings was Padmanabhapuram Palace. It is however in Thuckalay in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. When India was divided into states, based on the language spoken by the majority of the people, the palace was included in Tamil Nadu. But because of its historical association with Kerala, it remained a property of the state. So the entire palace, while a property of Kerala, is totally surrounded by the state of Tamil Nadu.

Padmanabhabapuram Palace, Kerala, India
So we had to cross over to Tamil Nadu to visit the palace. It was a two-hour drive. And I realized that they take state borders seriously here since our Kerala local sim went on roaming once we entered Tamil Nadu!

Padmanabhabapuram Palace, Kerala, India
Built in 1601, Padmanabhapuram Palace is located at the foot of the Veli Hills, a part of the Western Ghats. One of the most ipressive teak wood structures in the world, it's a sprawling complex of different structures. Since the palace closed exactly at 5 p.m. (and note also that it's closed entirely on Mondays), we didn't have much time to explore. There is a fixed route to follow, and as we left a sector, the staff and Kerala police were closing the windows and doors behind us.

Padmanabhabapuram Palace, Kerala, India
Padmanabhabapuram Palace, Kerala, India
The main structures of the palace include the Mantrasala (King's Council Chambers), Thai Kottaram (Mother's Palace), Nataksala (Performance Hall), a central building housing the king's chambers, the treasury and the Upparikla Maliga or worship chamber of the royal family among others, and the Thekee Kottaram (Southern Palace).

Padmanabhabapuram Palace, Kerala, India
Padmanabhabapuram Palace, Kerala, India
How to get to Padmanabhapuram from Trivandrum
The palace is a must visit for anyone interested in history and heritage who is visiting Trivandrum. The best way to visit the palace is to join a tour of the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC). They have an office near the Trivandrum Bus Station. It includes visits to Padmanabhapuram, Suchindram and Kanyakumari. But if you just want to visit the palace, you can take public transportation from Trivandrum. Get on a bus to Nagercoil and get down at Thuckalay. At Thuckalay, it's a 1-kilometer autorickshaw ride to the palace. Make sure to be there before 4 p.m.

Vivanta by Taj Kovalam
G. V. Raja Vattapara Road, Kovalam
Trivandrum, Kerala 695527
Tel No. 0471 661 3000

Back in Trivandrum, I checked-in at the Vivanta by Taj Kovalam, a sprawling resort right beside Kovalam Beach. The property is divided into two parts, a hill area where the reception, rooms, villas, pool and main restaurant are located, and the backwater area which has Kovalam Beach and a lake within the property of the resort. Too bad we arrived in the evening. My room had a balcony with a forest view.

Kathakali at Vivanta by Taj, Kovalam, Kerala, India
We were treated to a short Kathakali performance before dinner. I'll talk about it when we visit the Kathakali school in the next few days. But as you can see, the dance drama is know for its colorful make-up and elaborate costumes.

Vivanta by Taj, Kovalam, Kerala, India
Vivanta by Taj, Kovalam, Kerala, India
Dinner was at Bait, the beachside seafood restaurant of the resort. The next morning, I made sure to wake up to take a photo of a small lake within the property of the resort. Yes, it's a property of the resort. And it's stunning!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Instagram: Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) in Kerala, India

Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala, India
We're currently on the Kerala Blog Express, touring the state of Kerala, India. Here are some photos from the city of Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the capital city of Kerala. For more photos, follow @ivanhenares on Instagram.

Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala, India
Only Hindus are allowed to enter the main sanctuary of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum, Kerala, India. And there is a strict dress code. Men have to wear a mundu with their shirt off. While women have to wear a sari or long skirt
Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala, India
Napier Museum, an Indo-Saracenic structure built in the 19th century, is among the many grand colonial buildings in Trivandrum, Kerala, India
Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala, India
Kathakali is a classical dance drama from Kerala, India known for the colorful make-up, elaborate costumes, detailed gestures, facial expressions and well-defined body movements. We were treated to a short Kathakali performance at the Vivanta by Taj Kumarakom

Thursday, March 13, 2014

India: From Poovar to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) in Kerala

It was a beautiful morning in Poovar, an isolated but spectacular beach town in the southern end of Kerala. We were up early since we had to check out then travel to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the capital of Kerala, some 18 kilometers away.

To get to our bus, we took a boat from the Island Estuary Resort to a jetty were vehicles and buses of guests to various lakeside resorts in Poovar are parked.

It was a thirty minute ride through the backwaters of Poovar and the Neyyar River. Backwaters (a term for a wetland where rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches and the sea converge) define the landscape of much of Kerala. And we'll be seeing more of them in the coming days.

Poovar actually has a very rich trading history dating back to 1000BC. It is believed to be one of the possible locations of the port of Ophir mentioned in the Bible where the ships of King Solomon landed. He received a cargo of gold, silver, sandalwood, ivory, peacocks and precious stones from Ophir.

Our group was on our way to Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum. On the way, we passed by a temple which was having a festival since it was the peak festival season which runs from October to March, especially the last two months. The night before, we also passed by a very colorful evening religious procession. But unfortunately, the bus couldn't stop for us to take a closer look.

It took us about an hour to get to Trivandrum from Poovar. Our first stop was the Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

India: Backwaters of Poovar, Chowara & Kovalam Beach in Kerala

Backwaters of Poovar, Kerala, India
A beautiful sunset greeted me as I relaxed at our resort in the backwaters of Poovar in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. We were on an island in the Neyyar River estuary where the river converges with a lake, a beach of golden sand and the sea, with thousands of coconut trees dotting the landscape. It was a great way to start an exciting journey around Kerala, India. To all those who voted, thank you for sending me to the Kerala Blog Express!

Estuary Island Resort, Poovar, Kerala, India
I arrived in Trivandrum (another name for Thiruvananthapuram), the capital of Kerala, after a short flight from Malé in the Maldives. I was met at the airport by the Kerala Tourism staff who took me to the Estuary Island Resort, my home for the next two days. As I walked in, I could hear the calls of crows, among the many bird species abundant in these backwaters. Egrets, kites, kingfishers and cormorants were also quite common. It was a fascinating place.

Backwaters of Poovar, Kerala, India
From my balcony window I could see the small lake that separated us from the beach. To get to the beach, one had to ride a boat which the resort provides for its guests. To the right was the Neyyar River which flowed into the lake. I went straight to lunch at the restaurant by the lake.

Backwaters of Poovar, Kerala, India
I spent the rest of the afternoon getting some rest, coming out an hour later only to see the beautiful sunset. We were brought to the beach by boat where we joined locals enjoying the same view. It was an unusual strip of sand which separated the crashing waves of the Arabian Sea from the tranquil lake.

Backwaters of Poovar, Kerala, India
Backwaters of Poovar, Kerala, India
The next day, we were brought to various resorts in three areas. We walked to the neighboring Poovar Island Resort for a sumptuous lunch. Then we boarded the boats that would take us to the jetty where our bus was parked.

Chowara Beach, Kerala, India
Chowara Beach, Kerala, India
From Poovar, we proceeded to Chowara, a fishing hamlet with many scenic spots. From the Somatheeram Ayurveda Resort, we had a picturesque view of Chowara Beach with its colorful fishing boats parked on the gold sand. At the resort, the group was given an orientation on Ayurveda. But the actual treatments had to wait as we were having them at another location in Kerala. We spent the rest of the afternoon just enjoying the view while having tea.

Chowara Beach, Kerala, India
Kovalam Beach, Kerala, India
We ended our day at Kovalam Beach where we watched the colorful sunset from the Leela Kempinski Kovalam Beach Hotel while having, you guessed it, tea! Tomorrow will be another long day! Catch updates on @ivanhenares on Twitter and Instagram. Also check out the hashtag #keralablogexpress.

Estuary Island Resort
Poovar P.O., Trivandrum 695 525 Kerala, India
Tel. No. +91 471 2229222
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