Last year we shunned the Christmas turkey and made our way to the backwaters of Kerala, where we spent an unusually sunny festive holiday puttering about on a little boat between shockingly white sandbanks and hard-to-reach villages. Christmas morning was amazing: I spent it doling out jelly beans, the only present that I had brought for myself from the UK, into the sticky hands of screaming, smiling young children who lined the river banks. They waved madly as we glided past. It was a humbling experience knowing that a handful of easy-to-buy jelly beans could make these kids so ecstatic!
After we had navigated away from the network of shady-green villages, we found ourselves as far removed from a traditional Christmas Day as we had thought possible. We could smell the tangy scent of the salty sea, feel the heavy humidity seeping through our bodies, and the best Christmas present of all, could feel the Indian Ocean lapping small waves against our tiny white-washed wooden boat.
Google map: bit.ly/V6CCuw
If you are looking for a smooth, polished performance, don't go to the Cultural Centre. But if you want a fascinating evening watching the dancers put on their make up, don fantastical costumes and perform scenes from the Ramayana, then the Cochin Cultural Centre is the place to be. It takes over an hour for the principal dancers to apply their makeup and change into the costumes. It is also excellent for people-watching the groups of European tourists in the audience who have their own cultural norms and practices!
Opposite the RDO office, near Fort Kochi Police Station, K.B.Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, 682 001, Kerala, India
+91 484 2216911
Beloved by all photographers, Kerala's elephant temple festivals are world renowned. Thrissur has the granddaddy of them all in April/May, when the festival of Pooram is celebrated. Not a time to visit for the faint-hearted—you will need stamina and sunblock, and feel comfortable in loud sweaty crowds of excitable worshippers.
But Thrissur is an interesting day trip for anyone staying in Kochi at any time of the year. It's a pleasant introduction to Keralan town life: not too busy, dusty or crowded, and small enough to walk round in a day. The two hundred-year-old Shakthan Thampuran Palace is now an elegant archaeological museum set on a hill among painstakingly landscaped gardens. The building was closed for refurbishment at the time of my visit, scheduled to re-open 1st April 2012 (but don't hold your breath). Thrissur is also famous for its magnificent churches, their colourful stucco façades peeking over the town's roads in every direction.
Don't be afraid to join the workers for some roadside food. But watch the amount of sugar they add to the delicious fruit cocktails, Keralans have a sweet tooth.
Get there by train from Ernakulam Junction (any visit to India is not complete without a train journey) which lasts around one and half hours, and costs a mere 28 INR for a one-way ticket.
Shakthan Thampuran Palace, Stadium Road, Thrissur
Google map: bit.ly/LaGN4w
GO, it's wonderful!! Fly to Kochi or Trivandrum - both are great to visit anyway, especially the fascinating town of Kochi. But best of all, take a journey by boat through the backwaters and drop in on village life. It's magical. And you'll never get better food!
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