A view from the Top station in Munnar
Situated 1,600 metres (5,200 ft) above sea leverl, Munnar is a famous hill station in Kerala, and known as the ‘Kashmir of South India’. It is not only popular with foreign tourists but also with the locals. From 1880 onwards, Munnar flourished as a tea-producing region started by the British and Europeans, it is now the largest tea-growing region in South India, largely operated by corporate giant Tata.
I didn’t come to Munnar for sightseeing, but to attend a textiles conference on natural dyeing (see my future posts). The easiest way to reach Munnar is by road as there is no railway station nearby. It took me about 5 hours to reach Munnar by car from Thrissur (where I spent a few days at an Ayurveda and yoga retreat) including a lunch break.
After reading about Munnar’s natural beauty, I was horrified to see the chaotic, polluted and ugly Munnar town centre when we arrived. Essentially it is a dump. And the minute I saw the conference hotel, which stands right in the middle of town, my heart sank. For the next six nights, I had to endure the noise from both inside and outside of the hotel, crappy service, internet connection and breakfasts. It was baffling for us to understand why this hotel was chosen as the base of the conference except for its location.
Munnar’s town centre
Besides breakfasts, we also had lunches and dinners prepared by the hotel during the 3-day conference. As I get older, I have less tolerance for mediocre food and accommodation. It is not so much about the cost, but more to do with the quality and value for money. The room rate of the hotel is considered quite high in India, but I felt that the service and quality did not match the cost.
With very few decent restaurants in town, we found comfort and relief at the cheap and cheerful vegetarian restaurant Saravana Bhavan. I had breakfast and dinner there and I loved it. Their dosas are some of the best I have tried during my journey, and their staff are all very friendly. The food and service here is so much better than the hotel, yet the price is only a fraction – I highly recommended it.
On a positive note, I did enjoy the sunset view from my hotel room, though it was accompanied by noisy traffic and people’s various activities from dusk til dawn
Since I arrived 2 days before the conference, I had one full day to do some sightseeing in Munnar. Upon arrival, I tried to get some advice from the receptionist but the guy was very unhelpful, so I had to turn to the internet. I didn’t like the itineraries of the guided day tours available, and I spent hours online searching without much luck. Finally, at the last minute, I found a tuk tuk driver on Airbnb, and decided to book a day tour with him at a very reasonable price. Although the driver spoke little English, we managed to communicate without any issue. The best thing was that I could stop whenever I wanted to, which was more flexible than joining a group tour.
We started early in the morning to avoid the crowds, and that was a wise decision. The minute we left the town centre, my vision turned green… apart from the blue sky, everything was green! This was the Munnar I was hoping to see, and it is within 15 minutes’ drive from the town centre.
Besides the scenic tea planations covering the mountains, I also love the beautiful trees especially the tall native Eucalyptus trees. My driver/guide suggested to stop by a famous honey bee tree en route to Mattupetty dam. This tree has attracted many bees to built their hives here, and my driver said it is due to the smell of its fruits. Since this is the only tree that has many bee hives, someone has placed a small shrine under the tree treaing it as a ‘sacred’ tree.
Most guided tours would include a visit to the Mattupetty dam built in the 1950s. Honestly, I didn’t want to stop here, but since we took some time to reach here, I did get out for a short walk. It is very picturesque here, but I think you can easily take photos from the car/tuk tuk without getting out.
Another popular sightseeing spot is Top station, located 32 km away from Munnar. It is the highest point (1700m above sea level) in Munnar where you can enjoy the panoramic view of Western Ghats and the valley of Theni district of Tamil Nadu. Top Station is, in fact, located in Tamil Nadu, but accessible only from Kerala. This area is also famous for the rare native Neelakurinji flowers (Strobilanthus) that bloom once every twelve years. Unfortunately, I missed the bloom of the monocarpic plants in 2018, so the next bloom will be 2030! You can learn more about this plant on the BBC website here.
Nonetheless, you can find some rather special flowers in Munnar without a 10-year wait. To my surprise, Poinsettia (also known as Christmas star) can be seen dotted around Munnar. It is believed that the plant (native to Mexico) was introduced to Munnar by British planters and was used to decorate their bungalows.
The journey continues…