Traversing the breathtaking Thekkady highlands

Cool relaxing winds, beautiful local culture and lush tea plantations as far as the eyes can see. This is how the highlands of Kerala are often painted in travel books and catalogues. I thought everything was exaggerated until I experienced their beauty firsthand.

Located some 257 km from Trivandrum and 145 km from Kochi, Thekkady is one of the most important tourist attractions in Kerala. Aside from its lush tea and spice plantations, the city boasts of well-preserved forests and savanna grass lands.

One of the many tea plantations we passed by en route to Thekkady!
One of the many tea plantations we passed by en route to Thekkady!

We drove to Thekkady after our wonderful cruises in the backwaters of Alappuzha. We made a couple of stops along the way to document the picturesque scenery of the mountains we passed by.

Our group arrived at the perfect time – it was 6pm and the weather was sublimely cool. We checked in at the Spice Village hotel before having dinner. Each of us had our own traditional villas good for two people. The rooms didn’t have air conditioners – it wasn’t needed given the cool temperature.

A beautiful cultural performance to cap off the night!
A beautiful cultural performance to cap off the night!

The hotel had various activities for its guests – yoga sessions every morning, spice plantation tours, cooking sessions, and elephant rides, among others. Just before dinner, we witnessed a cultural presentation courtesy of the hotel – two ladies showed the Bharantanatyam dance, a classical dance form which originated in the temples of South India.

Just outside Spice Village, there are shops selling traditional Kerala clothing and souvenirs. I just had to buy my own dhoti before I hit the sack in my villa. I got an orange casual one for IDR 250 and a formal white dhoti for IDR 600. Our tour guide said this was the regular price so I’m happy I wasn’t asked to pay more.

Traversing Thekkady

Most of our activities in Thekkady involved getting in touch with nature. Thekkady, after all, is famous for its nature reserves. Here’s a couple of things you can try when visiting Thekkady.

1) Go on a nature walk at the Periyar Tiger Reserve

We set out from our hotel at 7am and headed to the reserve, which was only a few minutes away from Spice Village. After registering with the park authorities, we were met by some local park rangers who served as our guides.

Looking back, I don't know how I survived this trail!
Looking back, I don’t know how I survived this trail!
Yup, that's a leech in my shoe!
Yup, that’s a leech in my shoe!

The first few minutes were easy as we were walking in a concrete road to the forest trail. Then came the mud and the grassy areas. For the next 2 hours, we crossed streams, mud trails, and wooden bridges to reach the top of one of the hills. The temperature was perfect for the walk. Though we were sweating from all the walking, the cool morning breeze kept us feeling fresh.

While we were in the park office, the rangers gave us knee-high socks to cover our legs. As we went along the trail, we realised the importance of this accessory. There were leeches in the grass areas and they stick to your shoes and pants. No worries though, the local guides come prepared with tobacco powder that immediately repel the leeches.

The forest was well-preserved. I could smell it in the fresh air and see it in the almost untouched flora and fauna.

thekkady 5
A wild bison appears!

We saw a couple of wild animals as we walked along. There were different species of birds and wild bisons. The climax of our walk, however, was to see wild elephants in the reserve. Though they were far from where we were, it’s amazing to see these wild beasts in their natural habitats. Kudos to our local guides for spotting them!

According to the rangers, there are more than 40 tigers in the park but they are rarely seen. It’s a good thing we didn’t spot any. I wouldn’t know how to react if I saw a wild tiger.

2) Visit a spice plantation

A visit to Thekkady is incomplete without checking out some of the spice farms and gardens. This was the second part of our morning tour in Thekkady.

Some 15 minutes away from our hotel is a local village cultivating and selling spices. We went there to see the different spices being harvested and processed by the locals.

Some of the spices we saw!
Some of the spices we saw!

The spices were just grown in the people’s backyards. From the plentiful harvests, it’s obvious that the soil in the area was perfect for planting. The village had all the spices in my vocabulary. I can imagine the locals just plucking the spices they need for cooking.

A local harvesting green cardamom!
A local harvesting green cardamom!

Some of the spices we saw were green pepper, coffee, cocoa ginger, cinnamon, mint, and chilli. We also saw a group of women harvesting green cardamom – a very delicious and intensely aromatic tea.

A trip to one of the spice shops near the village culminated our short tour. Of course we had to buy our share of spices and tea to bring home!

Disclaimer: The other bloggers and photographers went on a cruise to Periyar in the afternoon. Unfortunately, I was unable to join them due to flu and tonsillitis. You can check out the cruise here.

3) Watch a traditional Kalaripayattu demonstration

Kalaripayattu is an Indian martial art that originated from Kerala in the 4th and 5th century AD. Aside from bodily movements and attacks, it also involves the use of weaponry in battle.

Being a big fan of martial arts, I couldn’t miss the demonstration even if I was battling flu. I joined the rest of the group and went to the Kerala Kalari Center to see the action.

Spear vs knife and shield
Spear vs knife and shield
It was too fast for my iPhone!
It was too fast for my iPhone!

One word: Intense! Not only were the martial artists flexible and strong, they also mastered their weapons very well. Unlike other martial arts demonstrations I’ve seen before, Kalaripayattu really involves intense fighting using swords, metal whips, spears, shields, and knives.

They also knew how to impress their audience. The artists showed exhibitions involving Kalaripayattu weapons on fire, and did stunts with involving members of the audience.

The most impressive stunt for me was when one of the martial artists jumped over 5 bended people. Those legs were strong!

4) Ride an elephant in the Tusker trail

How can you go to India and not ride an elephant? Before we left Thekkady for Munnar, we passed by the Tusker Elephant trail to ride the beautiful beasts of the highlands.

This is the elephant we rode and fed!
This is the elephant we rode and fed!

This is not the first time I’ve ridden an elephant. My first time riding one was in Ayutthaya, Thailand last April 2014. I’d have to say though that the elephants of Kerala looked healthier and more well managed. They seemed friendlier, too!

It was drizzling when we took the trail but that did not drench our excitement. We rode the elephants around the muddy trail while they were guided by their owners. We also had the opportunity to feed the lovely beasts. It’s both pleasant and disgusting to actually touch the elephants tongue while feeding it with sugar.

According to our tour guide Manoj, riding the elephants help both the locals and the animals. The money tourists pay are used to feed the elephants, which grew up in captivity and hence, cannot sustain themselves in the wild.

Some would say it’s not animal rights friendly. But hey, at least you get to help both the locals and animals!

Achievement unlocked: I actually rode an elephant wearing a dhoti.
Achievement unlocked: I actually rode an elephant wearing a dhoti.

When in Thekkady

We only spent 2 days in Thekkady since we had to leave for Munnar (another highland area) to reach Kochin in time. If it were up to me, however, I’d spend more time in Thekkady. The place has a very relaxing atmosphere – the type that makes you want to meditate and discern about life (lol).

If you’re going to Kerala, I suggest you spend at least 4 days in Thekkady. You can spend a night camping in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, participate in harvesting tea and spices, or just enjoy the cool climate while drinking hot tea in your hotel room’s balcony.

I’d definitely go back to Thekkady in the future. It’s the perfect place for nature lovers and tea enthusiasts like me!

Thekkady: Too beautiful for words :)
Thekkady: Too beautiful for words 🙂

This is a part of my #ComeToKerala blog series. My trip to “God’s Own Country” was sponsored by the Kerala Tourism Board. I had the time of my life in Kerala and I’m sharing my experiences here:

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