Travel Dates 15th-16th May 2011.
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We left Munnar in the early morning to descend from the cool peace and tranquility of the Western Ghats to the mid-May heat, humidity and bustle of the Kerala seaboard. The road was initially steep, narrow and and winding, retracing much of the route we took from the airport, but eventually we branched off to head more directly towards Fort Cochin.
En-route to the hotel Sajiv suggested I visit the Pareekshit Thampuran Museum. At least, I think that was the name of the place. It was apparently originally a Royal receptions palace and has been converted into a museum since. On arrival we found a long queue waiting and once again I was reminded of the value of having a driver. He negotiated immediate entry after a chat with a policeman or guard. The policeman assisted with the payment of the entry fee then conducted us to a private parking area near the steps of the Palace.
I committed a major gaffe after that, but got away withn it. I saw a long queue at the main entrance to the building so I wandered off to the side and went in a separate entrance to a building beside it. I had wandered through several rooms with fascinating large paintings of past Rajas when I noticed that everyone else was barefoot or wearing only socks. Oops. I snuck out a back door and back to the long queue where people were taking off their shoes and leaving them in a storage area. That's where I also discovered I had to surrender my camera; no pictures allowed inside.
It was OK to take pictures in the gardens at the rear. Obviously they don't waste water in India.
The museum, especially the pictures of past Rajas and the architectural construction, was very interesting. Unfortunately, they must be having financial problems because there is an obvious need for substantial maintenance work in the buildings, furnishings and displayed items.
After my visit to the museum I asked Sajiv to find a local non-tourist restaurant. The place he took me to was fascinating, with a choice of several rooms. Some appeared to be reserved for men only, some for families, some for women. I was directed to a room for men. After the hot bright sunshine outside I could hardly see in the place in the dim pink lighting; in fact I started to wonder if my request had been misunderstood and a bevy of dancing girls might suddenly appear. But no, it was actually a restaurant. I didn't bother asking for a menu, I just pointed in the gloom to the food being served to a diner near me. What arrived was superb; delicious, fragrant and just the right portion sizes for a light lunch. I wish I had noted the restaurant name; I'm sure the staff at Le Royale could provide it.
We arrived at Le Royale mid-afternoon, where I was greeted by my lovely hosts Jenny and Jose. I was a bit disconcerted to find that I was the only guest, because mid-May is the height of the hot season and thus out-of-season for most tourists to Kochi. However, I was still well looked after, with the best room in the house. That room was also apparently the bridal suite, judging from the style of the pictures on the wall. Jenny also lent me a plug-in modem for web access.
The hotel seemed more palatial than any of the palaces I had visited in India. Opulent furnishings, a vast entrance hall, an enormous room with an en-suite bathroom bigger than many hotel rooms. According to my hosts it was originally the family home. Later that evening Jenny provided a superb dinner, based around fish baked in a leaf. I have been remiss in following up with Tripadvisor reviews; I must do that after I post this.
I had chosen Jenny's service to provide Sajiv and the car as well as the night at Le Royale after recommendations on IndiaMike. I recommend the Le Royale service to anyone visiting Kochi.
Later that afternoon I spent some time visiting down-town Kochi. It was a typical Indian city; crazy traffic, lots of noise, lots of people. A mixture of shambles and wealth. There were differences when compared with the "Golden Triangle" cities I visited in the north; the higher level of affluence was noticeable in the clothes, cars, accessories and jewellery of the locals. There were very few beggars or obvious signs of poverty by Indian standards.
But they still have the interesting Indian attitude to electrical systems and safety.
After that I was taken to an area where the famous Chinese fishing nets were operating. No-one is quite sure when they were introduced to the district, sometime after the twelfth century, but it was certainly many centuries ago. It seems we came on a poor day for fishing. The massive net structures and nets, and the effort needed to operate them hardly seemed adequately rewarded by the few tiny fish that resulted. Hopefully the fishing is better on other days.
The cantilevered net cranes are traditionally built of bamboo and teak, although I noticed one or two with modern steel tubular frames. They are delicately balanced with large stones suspended on ropes at the opposite end to the net, allowing it to descend naturally into the water and just a few men to raise it. But it still looked like hard work.
Next morning I went to visit the "Old Town".
There is no longer an actual Fort Cochin; that disappeared long ago and the name now describes a district of the wider region of Kochi in Ernakulam, Kerala rather than a fort.
The history of Kerala and the Malabar coast was long and rich as a spice trading centre well before the Europeans appeared on the scene. The district was known to traders from ancient Greece, Rome, Arabia and China before Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1498 and a succession of Portuguese Armadas followed him.
In brief, the Portuguese were piratical trader invaders; bloodthirsty, ruthless and adept at playing off local rulers and factions against each other. Very much like the later Dutch and English traders, but with the added insidious scourge of zealous religious colonialism. That remains their most enduring legacy, with Kerala's high proportion of Christians compared with other regions of India.
One of the sites I visited was the rather unremarkable St. Francis Church where Vasco Da Gama's remains hold pride of place. The Keralans are obviously a forgiving people. On the other hand, it was the arrival of the Portuguese that led to a degree of independence for Kerala from their northern overlords in Calicut, so possibly he is fondly remembered for that.
The Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1663, invited in by the locals discontented with the Portuguese. Among other things they took over a 16th century palace from the Portuguese which has become known as "The Dutch Palace". After some improvements they presented it to the Raja. It is now a museum displaying not only it's own unique construction methods, especially Kerala flooring, but also some of the best mythological murals in India. The flooring, which looks like polished black marble, is actually a mixture of burned coconut shells, charcoal, lime, plant juices and egg whites. Unfortunately interior photos were not allowed. The curators appear to have more resources than the Pareekshit Thampuran Museum as the exhibits and premises are in much better condition.
The Dutch controlled the trade to Europe from this rich source of spices until the British replaced them in their turn in 1814. The British and Dutch agreed to exchange spice sources in a treaty. The Dutch received Bangka, a spice island near Sumatra which is now part of Indonesia, and the British took over Fort Cochin. As usual they started as traders but soon were the effective rulers of Kerala, controlling the Raja of Kochi. They remained so until Indian Independence in 1947.
During the early 20th century the British expanded and improved Kochi's maritime facilities to become one of India's major ports. The entire district is a maze of waterways meandering between islands. Over the centuries natural changes, such as the floods which led to the rise of Kochi at the expense of an earlier nearby port have been helped by engineering works, dredging and deepening some channels to allow better access and control of shipping. The resulting port area is enormous, and the waterways are constantly busy with everything from massive ships to overcrowded ferries to tiny rowboats and dinghies with individuals fishing.
Near the port many areas are filled with ubiquitous Ashok and Tata trucks, waiting their turn to pick up loads.
Part of the standard tourist's route includes the Old Synagogue. I found the history more interesting than the building, especially as photos are banned. The synagogue was built in the 16th century when there was quite a large community of Jews in the district. There had been a Jewish presence for 15 centuries by that time, varying in numbers and nature depending on immigration resulting from pogroms in other parts of the world. But there are only 11 now, with most emigrating to Israel or the USA since 1947.
The streets leading to the synagogue have become highly prized (and priced) locations for traders hoping for tourist rupees. Some of the shops had fascinating goods on display. I must admit to wondering how they expect the tourists to take some of these goods home in their checked luggage.
I had hoped to visit some spice warehouses, but apparently I chose the wrong time of year for everything but ginger. This is a yard full of ginger drying before being packed for export. Ginger is one of my favourite spices; the aroma was intoxicating.
The other picture is yet another example of the Indian version of construction worker's Occupational Health and Safety in operation. They are building some amazing buildings many storeys tall with techniques like that.
Eventually, it was time to head back to Malaysia; but first I had one more small experience in cultural misunderstandings to encounter.
Near the airport I asked Sajiv to find a non-tourist local reastaurant. After a couple of choices that weren't suitable we came to a fairly rough-looking place on the upper floor of a building. I wanted Sajiv to have lunch with me, but he refused vehemently. Possibly there is something in his terms of service that does not let him eat with the customers. It would have been much better, but less hilarious, if he had. He stayed in the carpark and I went up to the very basic dining room with laminex-topped tables and cheap chairs.
The food on the tables in front of the regulars looked and smelled good. The waiter had no menu but claimed to speak English, so we had fun trying to work out what I should order. He kept saying "salad", but I avoid salads when travelling to minimise the chance of traveller's curse. So I said "No salad" then asked for "Thali" which is what the waiter in the dimly-lit restaurant the day before called my delicious lunch.
Aparently "No" translates badly to Mayalam. The first picture shows what I was served ten minutes later. I didn't complain, I simply asked again for Thali. Maybe it was my pronunciation, but "Thali" came out as bread, papadams, rice, a spicy sauce but nothing else. Eventually I took him to a nearby table and pointed to exactly what I wanted.
The second picture shows what was left on the table as I left after lunch.
The other diners thought it was amusing when I showed him what I wanted; they thought it was hilarious when I finished. They probably had a feast with the leftovers after I left.
Sajiv never quite understood that I invited him to lunch to be interpreter for ordering.
Finally, it was time to depart for my evening flight from Kochi Airport to Kuala Lumpur after an enjoyable, relaxing and fascinating experience. Once again, India was incredible.