Munnar (pronounced ‘Moon-are’) is a hill station located 1600 metres above sea level in the Western Ghats range of mountains in Kerala, India. It’s also Southern India’s largest tea-growing region – with over 50 000 hectares of its hilly terrain covered in tea plantations.
Munnar was not part of our original plans for India – in fact, we hadn’t even heard of it! Once we realised it was home to copious amounts of tea fields however, we knew we had to visit. We absolutely loved our day exploring the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia – there’s just something completely photogenic about this type of landscape – so we locked in several days exploring the emerald jewel of Southern India.
Getting to Munnar is half the fun – the only way in and out is one, winding road all the way up and through the mountainside. With blind spots on every turn, the journey can be quite harrowing – a comfortable vehicle is a must. We took a low-floor AC Volvo bus from Kochin (departs from the KSRTC bus stand in Ernakalum every day at 9.00AM) for 480 rupees (approx $9.60) for the both of us – a little more than the local buses however the comfort was well worth if for the 5 hour journey.
When deciding on a new destination to visit, the first thing we tend to do is look online for other travel blogs to read of actual experiences from travellers in the area – we find these are much more honest and truthful than websites offering tours of the area and package deals. However, we were surprised how little information we found about Munnar – not even a map so we could see where the sights were. On arriving into town, we did something we haven’t done once yet – we sought out the local tourist stand for more information.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Very little of Munnar can be explored on foot – in fact, Munnar itself is only a tiny township with all of its attractions outside of the hub in every direction. A vehicle is required to reach most sights, and as mentioned before – with its single lane roads and crazy traffic, a comfortable car with a good driver is a necessity. The Munnar Tourism Development Co-Operative Society – a government appointed tourism office – was fantastic help. They provided us with a map that showed all the sights of Munnar and in which direction they were and the driving tours they offered that stopped at each sight along the way. As well as driving tours, they also offered trekking – a popular activity here – from 2-3 hours ‘soft trekking’ to trekking adventures lasting for days.
We opted for a soft trek through the nearby tea plantations. At 600 rupee per person (approx $12.00 AUD – inclusive of water and a guide) it wasn’t a super cheap activity, however as we soon learned – trekking through the plantations is actually not possible without a guide. All the plantations in the area are private property and not open to tourists unless with a government approved guide. Trekkers found in the plantations on their own are subject to fines of 3000 rupees (approx $60.00 AUD). We came across two other groups whilst trekking and our guide phoned up the ranger and advised them of the trespassers. As much as fines are awful, at the same time it was good to see somewhere where there were rules and regulations that were actually enforced. It also made us happier about our decision to be good travellers and follow the rules and get a guide!
After a steep 1.5km trek uphill through the winding paths of the tea plantations, we came to an incredible vantage point looking out over Munnar in every direction, the cool breeze a welcome respite from the hot sun.
The tea plantations were incredible – they covered the hills as far as they eye could see. They were much more extensive than those we saw in Malaysia, and the fact they were non-touristed made such a difference to the experience. Without copious amounts of other people and vehicles, the trek through the plantations was totally peaceful, not a sound to be heard.
Most of Munnar’s residents are employed in the tea industry, however strangely enough it is mostly women who do the back-breaking work of harvesting the plants. With their days often starting from 6.30 AM to commute to the plantations, they then spend all day doing hot, sweaty work until 6PM in the evening – for just 300 rupees (approx $6.00 AUD) a day. Hearing the reality of what this life is like for locals makes you really appreciate a) every cup of tea we take for granted without knowing the full extent of its journey and the suffering it may have caused b) – how incredibly lucky we all are in the western world to have the opportunities we have.
Conducting some further research we discovered that only 1-2% of global tea sales are Fairtrade, and that even the so called Fair Trade Tea Estates that wear their seal of approval, barely sell 10% of their product as Fairtrade. This makes it so much more important to purchase wisely when and where we can, so next time you are in the tea aisle at your local supermarket, spare a thought for the families around the world that make it possible for you to be able to buy that four dollar box by breaking their backs for what we spend on a cup of coffee, and perhaps pay that little bit extra for the ethical option.
The area we were trekking in Munnar is home to a group of six wild Indian elephants – in fact, our guide told us that on the trek he’d done the previous day, they’d seen the group right their in the tea fields that we were walking! Evidence that they’d been through was found everywhere – we saw footprints, droppings, and trampled foliage. We had high hopes that we would see them, especially when during one of those peaceful moments we happened to hear them trumpeting! It was an incredible sound. We trekked in that direction, however it appeared they’d made their way into some nearby dense forest that we were unable to walk through. It would have been amazing to see real wild elephants, but it wasn’t to be – knowing they were just there though was way too cool!
As our trek through the tea plantations came to an end, we snapped some more shots looking back towards the hills, the sun peering through the trees. They are just so photogenic – we couldn’t get enough!
Munnar is well worth the trip if you are in Kerala. The landscape is incredible, the temperature wonderful, and there’s something for everyone – from wildlife sanctuaries, trekking tours for all fitness levels, spice plantations and all kinds of sightseeing – mountain ranges, waterfalls, lakes and dams. It really is Southern India’s emerald jewel!
- How to get to Munnar?
Munnar is only reachable by road. There are dozens of buses that travel to Munnar daily from major towns around Kerala as well as the nearby state of Tamil Nadu. The roads are very winding, so if you suffer from motion sickness ensure you travel in a comfortable vehicle. A low floor bus is the best budget option.
This is the official KURTC website to pre-book tickets if you wish, otherwise we suggest getting there about half an hour early to grab a seat and buy your ticket on the bus, as it gets absolutely packed, and standing up – for 5 hours as some late-comer tourists did – is not a comfortable way to travel!
- When to visit?
Outside of monsoon season (July – September), Munnar is perfect to visit. The days are warm with plenty of sunshine, though the early mornings and evenings are a little frosty.
- Where to stay?
Be aware that when looking for accommodation, many guesthouses and hotels claim to be in ‘Munnar’ however they are actually located on the outskirts of the main township – and are sometimes just a single building on the winding road up to the centre. Make sure you reference a map to see exactly where your hotel is located before you confirm your stay – or you might find that you are staying in the middle of nowhere. Whilst everything is reachable by a rickshaw, staying within Munnar’s township means that you have tourist facilities, dining options, transport options and shopping all within walking distance.
- What tours are available?
You will require a guide for any trekking in Munnar, and will definitely need the services of a vehicle to get around. We had a very pleasant experience with the Munnar Tourism Development Co-Operative Society – they were great at pointing out the different attractions on the map and the all-day rates for drivers to see the sights were affordable. See the screenshot here for their location. They can also be contacted by email – email@example.com