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home > recommended index > recommended kerala

Recommended states - Kerala (KE)

This page gives some background info on places to go and things to see in the state of Kerala for backpackers and budget travellers, plus shortened "quick reference" versions of the full listings for some of the recommended places within the state. These in turn are linked to the full description and local information for that place (one place per page).

On this page:
BekalGuruvayurKochiKovalamKuttipuramThalasseriVarkala

All states reviewed by us are: Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, or visit the recommended section's index page

See the bottom of the page for a description of the rationale behind the recommended section.

 Kerala (KE)
state capital: Thiruvananthapuram
 population: 31.8 million location: South West Coast of India
 popup quick ref statistics on Kerala
state description: In comparison to most other Indian states, Kerala is relatively small; a slim strip of land bounded by Karnataka and the Southern Ghats (including the famous Nilgiri hills) on the eastern, inland side, and the Lakshadweep Sea on the Malabar Coast. For such a small state it has a wide variety of landscapes and terrain, from plantations and hill stations to beach resorts and the famous 'backwaters', making it a major destination for package tourists as well as backpackers. The coastal strip - the only part we've seen - is generally very lush and green with a seemingly endless cover of coconut palms, more so in the south than the north.

Although Kerala has a long coastline and plenty of beach, very little is given over to beach resorts suitable for the kind of activities favoured by foreign tourists; the rest of the coast mainly being small fishing communities. The beach areas there are lack the variety and gentle beauty of the Goan or Karnatakan coast, and the main resort of Kovalam, with its cramped feel and fetish for concrete, feels a little like a nascent Benidorm.

The eternal village

Kerala is an extremely densely populated state (two to three times the Indian average population density), and after a few days on a motorcycle the coast begins to feel like one long extended village punctuated by the occasional large town or city - especially south of Kochi and Thrissur where NH17 and NH47 join to become the main route south. While the endless human habitation makes it easy to find a place to stay if you're touring by motorbike, any of those " tranquil solitude of the open road" moments are pretty much toast after Mangalore, and the delights of the Kannur one way system make you appreciate the logic of London's - only marginally less scenic - A205 South Circular.

The state's lush interior may well have a more relaxing pace, but travelling through the endless village that is the coast - and playing chicken 8 hours a day with Kerala's generally psychotic and talentless drivers - tends to take the edge off any pleasure gained by arriving at the destination; give me the Grand Trunk Road any day.

One of the things that lighten the tedium of playing with Kerala's endless traffic is sharing the road with elephants, a common sight on the highways, sometimes in two's or three's, and often carrying their own substantial lunch of palm fronds in their curled trunk. They trot along at a surprisingly pace, and can apparently cover around 50 Km in a day. Some are working animals employed in the forestry industry, but the most famous are the "temple elephants" which, painted and ornamented, take part in festivals and religious ceremonies at Kerala's many Hindu temples. If you're travelling on the coast, the elephant sanctuary at Guruvayur keeps 58 animals for religious purposes, and is well worth a visit, as is the atmospheric town itself.

Social development and the Left

Keralan government has been dominated for years by left leaning or communist politics, and as a result the state has a strong emphasis on social development. Early governments introduced extensive agricultural and land reforms, extended rights for tenant farmers and placed education at the top of the agenda as a route to development and prosperity. The state has the highest literacy rate in India by some way, and its well educated citizens often travel abroad to work, particularly to Gulf countries, where they are much sought after.

The substantially better money they earn makes them fairly wealthy by Indian standards, and otherwise simple looking villages often have a number of very nice looking modern houses built by returning expats. As there is money around, major towns and cities such as Ernakulam / Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum) tend to have far more modern office buildings and shopping centres than you'd see elsewhere in India.

Food, religion and culture

Look around any tourist destination in North India and you'll see plenty of restaurants offering South Indian dishes. Down south it's the real thing and the Dosas, idlis and parothas are generally extremely fresh and bear little resemblance to those sold in the north. The parothas - a sort of cross between bread and moist, flaky pastry - are fabulous when fresh and its hard to stop having 'just one more'.

Most Keralans seem to have very substantial appetites. The roadside dhabas serve vegetable dishes with a mountain of rice, and most customers seem to have second portions. In one place we ate in close to the Tamil Nadu border, our jaws dropped as we watched an tiny old lady of 70 or so demolish two heaped plates of rice and veg. Kirsten had eaten around half a plate and pronounced herself 'stuffed'.

Religion is a very important element of Keralan life, predominantly Hindu (60%) but with a substantial Muslim (23%) and Christian (17%) population as well. There are plenty of important Hindu shrines and pilgrimage towns, and the colourfully painted temples - often with extensive compounds - and their intricate carvings are markedly different to those found in north India.

Part of the religious tradition in Kerala are the famous Kathakali dramas (Katha - story, kali - performance or play) which mix dance, music and drama to tell the stories from the Hindu epics. The performers faces are painted with elaborate and heavily stylised make up - a process that takes several hours - complimented by equally brightly coloured costumes and head pieces, all of which play a part in the complex language of movement and facial expressions that form the narrative. Viewing a performance is not for the faint hearted, and requires stamina; in Varkala we saw bits of a Kathakali drama that stretched over several days and nights, interspersed with the odd bout of - seriously loud - fireworks.

Eve-teasers

In spite of the high level of education, an irritatingly significant proportion of Keralan men seem to think they're God's gift to woman kind - something that seems several light years from the truth - and take the euphemistically named practice of eve teasing (usually referred to as sexual harassment / assault elsewhere) to Olympic standards. Apart from flagging us down in the middle of the road every few metres to ask our "good names", the tedious and seemingly endless squeals of "hey, baby" and "hi sexy", invariably accompanied by a kind of demented cackling or giggling (no doubt at the stunningly original wit) began to grate like nails on a blackboard after the 457th iteration of the morning.

While it should be pointed out that this vain, egotistical and moustache - preening section of Keralan society is (so it is claimed) a minority, they have a disproportionate visibility and the only way to avoid their infantile attention is to be male or dead - even being pig-ugly, 90 years old and wearing your ultra-conservative Great Granny's Victorian era passion-killing Sunday best is unlikely to put off Kerala's thick-skinned (or just plain thick) eve-teasers.

Conclusion

For all of its theoretical plus points, Kerala never quite matched our expectations of how "God's own country" (Kerala's nickname) would look and feel. Before we went to Kerala we heard little negative feedback from those that had been there (few raved about it either however), so perhaps our impressions are the exception or the interior would have been a better bet. The local tourism industry is certainly well organised by Indian standards, and the State tourism board have been extremely successful in promoting the resources they have and attracting visitors.

Kerala also offers many 'niche' activities for those who want something beyond beach holidays, such as ayurvedic or health resorts, tours of the backwaters on converted rice boats and elephant safaris. There is plenty of local culture to imbibe and some places, such as Fort Kochi, have a fantastic ambience and sense of history.

For those interested in such activities combined with a few days on the beach, there's plenty to occupy a couple of weeks break. But those who arrive expecting Goa style beach life or a relaxed tour on two wheels may well end up disappointed if prior expectations are too high.

 season: November to February (rest of the year hot and humid)
 tourist spots: Kochi, Kovalam, Varkala, Allapuzha to Kollam backwater trip, Munnar hill station
related: South West Coast gallery
our  listings: BekalGuruvayurKochiKovalamKuttipuram
ThalasseriVarkala (full entry, one place per page)


 recommended places in Kerala


 Bekal
recommended recommended graphic
 state: Kerala location: about 60 km south of Mangalore
 info date: Feb 2002 size: small town or big village
 season: Nov - Feb transport: bus, train
 hotels: a few good for: all travellers

Bekal is more a long stretched out village than a town. Kapli beach, just 1 km west, is miles of palm fringed beach idyll, unfortunately not really suitable for women to sunbathe, as you're likely to be stared at. A small stretch of beach front is... more (full Bekal listing)

 
 
 Guruvayur
recommended recommended graphic
 state: Kerala location: app. 30 km north west of Thrissur
 info date: Feb 2002 size: town
 season: Nov - Feb transport: bus, train
 hotels: many good for: all travellers

Guruvayur is yet another pilgrimage town, due to their famous Shri Krishna temple. Nearby is the elephant sanctuary, which keeps 58 elephants for the purpose of religious ceremonies. A BBC documentary was made about the place in 1999e... more (full Guruvayur listing)

 
 
 Kochi
recommended recommended graphic
 state: Kerala location: in the middle of Kerala's coastline
 info date: Feb 2002 size: town
 season: Nov - Feb transport: bus, train, ferry
 hotels: many good for: all travellers

Kochi is one of the major tourist destinations in Kerala; it generally is referred to as several islands and the busy noisy city of Ernakulum on the mainland. The beach in front of Fort Cochin (with alternative spellings or names Fort Kochi or Fort... more (full Kochi listing)

 
 
 Kovalam
don't bother don't bother - not recommended at all
 state: Kerala location: appr 20 km south of Trivandrum
 info date: Mar 2002 size: tourist resort town
 season: Nov - Feb transport: bus, taxi
 hotels: far too many good for: all travellers

The shanti India of the guidebooks and brochures this ain't. If your idea of a great holiday is the concrete drenched beaches of a down market Spanish resort, you'll feel right at home in Kovalam's Concrete Hell. The beach front is a motley and extremely... more (full Kovalam listing)

 
 
 Kuttipuram
recommended recommended graphic
 state: Kerala location: appr 50 km south of Kozhikode
 info date: Feb 2002 size: small town/village
 season: Nov - Feb transport: your own, bus, maybe train
 hotels: one good for: motorbike tours

There is not much in Kuttipuram, apart from it's just nice to stay at the KTDC Hotel Araam, in particular if you feel too hot from the drive along NH17. Kuttipuram itself is just a small town with a couple of shops. It's situated on a hill overlooking the... more (full Kuttipuram listing)

 
 
 Thalasseri (Tellycherry)
recommended recommended graphic
 state: Kerala location: 22 km south of Kannur city
 info date: Feb 2002 size: town
 season: Nov - Feb transport: bus, train
 hotels: several good for: all travellers

Thalasseri is one of Kerala's many major towns lining the Malabar Coast. Its major attraction is its Fort, next to the coast, pleasant to stroll around in; some wacky echoes can be produced in one of the old concrete bunkers. Right next to it is an old... more (full Thalasseri listing)

 
 
 Varkala
recommended recommended graphic
 state: Kerala location: appr 45 km north of Trivandrum
 info date: Mar 2002 size: town
 season: Nov - Feb transport: bus, train
 hotels: many good for: all travellers

While Kovalam is Kerala's sun & beach Concrete Hell for a lot of package tourists, Varkala caters more to the independent backpacker and a lot of ashram junkies (term nicked from a friend) taking time off from achieving inner peace and... more (full Varkala listing)

 
 

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The why and what for of the recommended section

Guidebook syndrome
Like most backpackers and independent travellers, we usually travel with a guidebook to get some idea of what we are letting ourselves in for, but over time have become extremely disillusioned with the bland writing, long out of date information and inconsistent opinions these guides usually offer. The air of neutrality and the number of writers with opposing likes and dislikes prevents these "guidebook gurus" from telling you when somewhere isn't worth the effort, or leads you into some dhaba they claim is “the best food in India” while ignoring the place round the corner that sells the Chicken Kiev you’ve been craving for 3 months, just because it doesn't fit their politically correct 70’s veggie world view.

The travellers grapevine
The best recommendations and advice always come from people you meet on the road, and in that spirit we’ve put this section together to let others know of the places we liked - and the ones we didn't, to offer a few basic facts and background to give you a feel for the place and how to get there, plus the date the information was current so you can gauge the accuracy. We have also added a note on the size of the place where it is applicable.

Off the beaten track
While some listings are our impressions of well known backpackers destinations, others are not found in the guidebooks or only rate a bare mention. Many are places we have passed through while touring by motorcycle, and may be rather inaccessible to those travelling by train and bus - or may be only worthwhile as short breaks from the heat and dust of the National Highways. In the same vein, some places are less about arriving than getting there; the landscape, villages and people that are only really accessible if you have your own transport and would not be worth the effort of 3 days on a local bus. To this end we’ve included a “whos it for?” note to give an idea if its worth the effort.

The living "heart of India"
There are many towns and villages in India that lack any obvious sort of tourism pull, yet have an undefinable quality that makes them worth visiting and watching the world go by for a few days. It is often the fact that they are simply very "typical" Indian towns gives them that edge that the pre-packaged experience lacks. They are usually the places that you find while going from A to B; Bhavnagar in Gujarat, Mandi in HP and Mahad in Maharastra fit the bill. These towns and villages - and the people who live there - are the heart and soul of modern India.

Subjective recommendations
We’ve tried as far as we can to be honest in our assessments, but will offer an opinion - good or bad - where we feel it is warranted. At the end of the day, these are very much the impressions of two people who know what they like, and you may have similar or different tastes to us, so please bear that in mind when viewing the information presented.

A note on food and costs
As a guide to the words “expensive” and “cheap” when used to describe hotels or restaurants; we think 100 Rs is cheap for a room, and 500 Rs is expensive; when in touristy areas we will usually spend somewhere around 80 - 100 RS each on a meal, in a major city, more. To put “great food” in context Kirsten is a lover of spicy dhaba food, I wish India was littered with cafes that sold a full (very non veg and chilli free) english fry up of the "heart attack on a plate" variety. We tend to agree somewhere around kebabs.

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 Kerala Stats
 nickname: "God's own country"
 location: South West India
 capital: Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum)
 population: 31.8 mil (2001)
 area: 38,864 sq km
 population density: 749/849 persons per sq km
 urban: appr. 20% (deceptive figure; close, crowded rural population)
 languages: Malayalam (96.6%); Tamil (2.1%) (1991)
 number of districts: 14
 religion: Hindu 57.3%, Muslim 23.3%, Christian 19.3%
 literacy rate: 90.9% (male 94.2%; fem 87.7%) (2001)
 gender ratio: 1058 fem to 1000 male (2001)
 child (0-6 yrs) gender ratio: 960 fem to 1000 male (2001)
 normal temperature range: 27C-32C
 main income: tourism, agriculture
 main season: October - March
 tourist places: Kochi, Alappuzha, Kovalam, Varkala
 
 
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