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While we were planning this trip I did lots of research but we purposefully left our itinerary totally open. So the first week that we were in India involved lots of route discussions. For awhile we really considered heading to the Maldives for a week since they were only a short flight away. In the end, we knew it would kill our budget and since we couldn’t afford the private island resorts that you waterplane into, we thought we better stick to mainland India. Most of our first few evenings in India were spent surfing through the guidebook, online forums and blogs and trying to sort out transportation routes. Eventually in Varkala, we came up with a plan and I felt much better having a plan in place. We spontaneously decided to hire a car and driver for a week of the trip to take us up into the Highlands. I found a recommended travel agent on an online forum, contacted him and within a day we had it all organized. Renting a car and driver is ridiculously reasonably priced ($40 CAD/day all inclusive) and would give us more flexibility especially since the kids were having trouble with motion sickness in vehicles here. We had used a car and driver for some of our travels in Sri Lanka and it had worked out really well. The driver was set to pick us up in the Backwaters and I was still nervous if he would actually come and this online arrangement would work out. Sure enough, our driver Arun arrived in a 6 seater clean and modern Innova with working seatbelts and AC. He didn’t speak tons of English, but he was a very safe driver, which was our most important concern.
We were headed up into the mountains to Kumily, entry point of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. While we had zero expectations of seeing a tiger, we were hoping to see some wildlife. I had read that this Reserve is very commercialized and full of rowdy domestic tourists. I also knew that as a family with children under 12 we were severely restricted in what we could do inside the Reserve, as most activities have a 12+ requirement. In fact the only reason we decided to head to Periyar was because we had a few extra days and we were headed up to Munnar eventually.
I was really excited about traveling during Onam, the most important festival in Kerala. So far we had seen the beautiful flower decorations on the streets and in the markets. School exams finished and the students were all on holidays and celebrated with long chains of flowers in their hair. On the drive to Kumily through many small towns, we crawled through traffic as we passed numerous parades and processions celebrating Onam. What I hadn’t calculated was that everywhere we wanted to go (Periyar Reserve and Munnar) were also places that everyone on holidays wanted to go. As we crawled uphill towards Kumily we enjoyed seeing these processions, the tapped rubber tree plantations and our first monkeys of the trip. The kids listened to audiobooks downloaded from the library and fell asleep (we had given them Gravel to tame the motion sickness).
The only activity in the Reserve we could do with the kids was the boat cruise through the man made lake. Our homestay convinced us that it was much better to go on the first boat of the day to see wildlife. So we woke up at 6am, drove to the park and joined the mad queue for tickets. Paul was stuck in a jam packed lineup and apparently the 7:30 boat was sold out. He could keep his position for an hour and try to get seats on the 9:30, but that didn’t sound like fun.
I went around to the back of the now closed ticket counter and asked if we were likely to get seats on the 9:30 – I didn’t want us to wait around for 2+ hours just to find out we couldn’t get seats. The man said we would get seats at 9:30 and then probably because I kept standing there, he said “Do you want to go on the 7:30?”. The kids ran to get Paul out of the line and we had magically scored tickets for the boat cruise.
Indian attractions have different prices for Indians and foreigners and in Periyar foreigners pays 20X the price Indians pay. I wondered if that might have been why he took pity on us and let us on. Regardless the boat was a total flop. We all had to wear these huge lifejackets (except Miles?) and we spotted a few birds and bison-like animals. Since we had paid a high entrance to get into the park, we looked for some walking trails or something to explore. But there was nothing, so off we went back to our homestay wondering why we came to Kumily and Periyar.
Luckily the day was all up hill from there. It was the 16th of October, which is the main celebration day of Onam. Families gather in their homes and eat Onam Sadhya – a vegetarian feast featuring 13-25 dishes served on a banana leaf. We were invited by our hosts to come down and have lunch with them. Such a special treat to be included! The kids enjoyed watching our host make papadams – popping in the pan. Of course the kids couldn’t handle the fiery curries, but they were troupers and tried everything. I think it was the only time on the trip where I ate my curries properly – without utensils, just using my hand.
After our lovely lunch and visit, we were off to see a Kalari martial arts demonstration. In Cochin we went to a Kathakali play, which the kids fell asleep for, but we enjoyed. The martial arts was a hit for every one. The kids loved all the action and weapons which culminated in a demonstration involving fire. The kids particularly liked posing with the athletes after the demonstration and testing out the equipment.
The day ended with treating the kids to pizza and randomly seeing an elephant being led down the street and of course stopping for a few photo shoots. This (see photo) happens multiple times a day and there are many photos of our family with random strangers floating around on smartphones in India. Kumily started out slow, but turned out to be a pretty fun couple of days.
- we rented our car/driver through Maurice at Wow Kerala . Maurice was really responsive and managed to get us a car/driver very last minute during the Onam holidays. We paid 2100 rupees/day ($42/CAD) inclusive.
- Kumily – we stayed at Mickey’s Homestay. We paid 1500 rupees ($30 CAD) for 2 attached rooms. Rooms were basic with a bathroom across the hall. What made this homestay special was being included in Onam Sadhya with the family. Sujatha is really sweet and caring and this was a great place for families.
- Eating in Kumily – we ate at some of the places recommended in the Lonely Planet, but they were only okay. The kids enjoyed a break from rice and curry at Pizza Max.
- Periyar Tiger Reserve – we paid 1440 rupees for our family for entry ($30 CAD). We paid 900 rupees ($18 CAD) for the boat cruise for our family.
- Kalari Demonstration – great value at 200 rupees/seat ($4 CAD)
- We did tour one of the many Spice Plantations (100 rupees/$2 CAD) – it was informative, but rushed