Our short stay showed us that Thekkady is definitely worth visiting, as long as you have a nice place to stay, and keep away from the crowds.
After our quick visit to Kochi, we headed up into the hills for two nights in Thekkady. Our original plan was to spend two nights in Kochi, then two at the famous Lake Palace in Thekkady, before moving on to Munroe Island and Varkala. But because life’s like that, there were a few last-minute booking hitches. So we ended up spending one night in Kochi, and three in Thekkady: two at the Lake Palace, and another at the Mountain Courtyard. So was our Thekkady visit worth it? Well, some things were definitely worth it, while others weren’t.
In this post:
IQ’s top tips to make your Thekkady visit worth it
- Driving from Kochi to Thekkady will take you about five hours; if you’re taking a taxi, expect to pay anything between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 6,000, depending on the size of the taxi.
- The drive from Kochi to Thekkady is beautiful for the most part, but expect it to be warm and humid before you start climbing into the hills.
- Thekkady is a popular tourist destination, so expect crowds in most places.
- Kumily, the town that hosts the entrance to the Periyar National Park, is the most crowded of all part of the Thekkady. There are hotels and restaurants everywhere here, and the closer you get to the park entrance, the more tightly packed they are.
- Outside Kumily, it’s difficult getting around without a vehicle of some kind. Hire yourself a long-term taxi, self-drive car or bike, or at least keep a rental agency’s number handy.
Activities in Thekkady
- The Periyar National Park is the center of all activity in Thekkady, and boating on the lake are one of the most popular things to do.
- While elephant rides are also very popular, they cause infinite misery and pain to the elephants themselves, disfiguring their spines over the years. I urge you to please not contribute to their suffering!
- The Kerala Forest Department runs a whole host of activities in the park, from short safaris to overnight camping treks within the park. Activities can be booked at the crowded counter at Aranya Nivas inside the park.
- Since Thekkady is up in the hills, finding hidden viewpoints from which to admire its spectacular natural beauty is one of the most enjoyable things to do here. Pro tip: Ask a local to tell you about places that tourists don’t usually go.
- We also heard that Thekkady has lots of adventure sports on offer, from kayaking to paragliding and zip-lining. While we didn’t do any of those ourselves, the place you’re staying at should be able to arrange something for you.
Accommodation in Thekkady
- Periyar National Park itself contains three hotels, all run by the government: Periyar House (budget), Aranya Nivas (mid-range) and the Lake Palace (high-end). The Lake Palace and Aranya Nivas have a very ‘government’ feel, and I can only assume that Periyar House is the same.
- If you’re looking for accommodation outside the park but don’t like crowds, the surrounding hills have many hotels away from the hustle and bustle.
- If you’re planning to stay inside the park, remember that the park closes at 7:00 pm; also you’ll have to pay a separate entry fee for the park, even if you’re staying in a hotel inside.
- If you’re thinking of staying at the Lake Palace, remember that you’re mainly paying for the location and the privacy. The place isn’t as luxurious as you’d expect for the price, and there isn’t anything much to do there. Also, you’ll need to bring your own alcohol.
- The Lake Palace is only accessible by boat, and the last boat you can use to reach it leaves at 3:00 pm from Aranya Nivas. Make sure you get there before that.
- You get a free safari on one of the big boats for every night you stay at the Lake Palace. If you want to do anything else, you’ll have to take a boat back to Aranya Nivas.
- Summer is the best time to be at the Lake Palace. It’s hot, but the lake’s water level will be low enough for you to see lots of wildlife right from your front door. Conversely, monsoon (or just after) isn’t the best time to stay there.
Reduce your carbon footprint by taking one of the many buses from Kochi to Thekkady, instead of a taxi.
Tips for eating as a vegetarian
- Vegetarian food is not as hard to come by in Thekkady as you might think. It’s here that we discovered thoran (stir-fried vegetable with coconut), erissery (lentils and vegetables in thick coconut gravy) and pulissery (light yoghurt curry). And we loved them! Avial (mixed vegetables in thick yoghurt gravy) is another of our all-time favourites.
- Of course, you’ll get South Indian staples like idli, dosa and vada, with the local versions of sambar and chutney. But for a truly local breakfast, I’d suggest asking for puttu (steamed rice flour and coconut cylinders) with kadala (black chickpeas) curry.
- Kerala cuisine undoubtedly has many more vegetarian delights to be discovered. And since Thekkady has lots of visitors from all over the country, you’ll surely find vegetarian dishes from other cuisines as well.
- If you’re staying at the Lake Palace, their local vegetarian food is excellent, but they do other cuisines pretty badly. Pro tip: Try and convince them to give you local dishes for all three meals.
- For a typically local experience, ask for ‘boiled’ rice with your food. This local rice variety has large, rounded grains, and is slightly spongy and very filling! If this isn’t your thing, you can always ask for regular ‘white’ rice.
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The drive from Kochi to Thekkady
We started out from Fort Kochi around 8:30 AM, because we wanted to get to Thekkady in time for lunch. And also because the last boat from the pier to the Lake Palace hotel was at 3:00 PM. We were told the journey would take us around five hours, but we wanted to give ourselves a buffer. You know, just in case we had a puncture or something.
Our taxi driver was pleasantly punctual, and because he was from Thekkady, we took his word when he said we’d get there with time to spare. The weather was pleasant too, with the slightly overcast sky allowing us to enjoy the cool of the morning air. That didn’t last long, though, and the sun came out soon enough. But even though the rest of the journey was quite warm, the lush green landscape and quaint little villages made up for it. If you like road trips, the drive from Kochi is enough to make Thekkady worth visiting!
Also read: Our quick visit to Kochi
Our first sight of Thekkady
As our driver had promised, we got to Thekkady (specifically Kumily, the town with the entrance to the Periyar National Park) around 1:15 pm. And even though we knew the place was popular with tourists, we didn’t expect the sheer density of hotels that we saw while driving through town. The last kilometer or so on the road to the National Park’s entrance seemed like it was just hotels and lodges!
At the entrance, we spent about ten minutes paying the entry fee and waiting while the guards verified our booking. Once inside, we drove for another kilometer or so through the dense greenery until we got to Aranya Nivas, the Kerala Tourism Department’s mid-range hotel. The pier was just down from the hotel, but we needed to wait around a bit for the next safari boat to drop us off at the Lake Palace. Despite being mid-range, the hotel had a very ‘government’ look to it. The overall feel was that of a basic hotel, with some fancy bits slapped on here and there.
Our first day in Periyar National Park
While we waited, the person from the hotel we’d been coordinating with — a very enthusiastic chap with somewhat broken English — gave us the low-down.
Firstly, he said, there wasn’t anything much to do at the Lake Palace except hop on a passing safari boat. If we wanted to do anything else — like take a guided jungle walk, for instance — we’d have to come back to Aranya Nivas. My initial reaction was one of disbelief. Surely we could go on a jungle walk from the Lake Palace itself, since it was right in heart of the National Park! He also said the Lake Palace didn’t serve alcohol, but we could buy some beer to take along. More disbelief! I was beginning to think this chap was being paid an incentive to generate business for his hotel at the Lake Palace’s expense. Still, to be safe, we bought two bottles of beer (wrapped in newspaper) and put them in our backpack to take along.
Seeing the Lake Palace for the first time
Eventually, we were told that the boat was ready to leave, and that we could board. So we followed our man down to the pier, and boarded the large double-decked safari boat. After about ten minutes of chugging over the beautiful lake, the Lake Palace came into view. It was sitting on a little raised peninsula that extended into the lake from the surrounding forest, with part of its sloping roof poking through the trees. The overall effect was magical!
The boat dropped us off at a little pier at the front of the hotel. From there, we walked up a flight of stairs to the hotel proper. I must admit, it seemed a little small for the former summer palace of the erstwhile Maharaja of Travancore. But it still looked pretty luxurious, all things considered. And the spacious sit-out in front of our room reinforced that feeling.
Settling in at the Lake Palace
Our room — one of only six on the property — was full of antique-looking furniture and bric-a-brac. And while the room itself was quite big, it was slightly shabby. The overall feel was like that of an old colonial-era club or guest-house: a bit kitsch and overdone, and not maintained very well. The feeling was reinforced by the pair of very plastic-looking fake elephant tusks sitting on the writing table. And the fact that the bathroom light had come off the wall and was resting on the mirror over the sink. Not really what we were expecting, considering the price we paid.
Since we’d arrived after 2:00 pm, we were pretty hungry, and quickly headed back out for lunch. This consisted of a spread of local dishes served at a table in the verandah outside the main dining room/reception. And while we couldn’t tell whether the food was authentic, we loved every bit of it! Oh, and the beer we’d bought from Aranya Nivas came in pretty handy (it turned out, the Lake Palace doesn’t stock alcohol after all). Overall, our first meal there — overlooking the magnificent lake, and surrounded by nature — was pretty special.
A quiet evening surrounded by nature
If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that we take our afternoon naps seriously. And our first afternoon in Thekkady was no different. So after a splendid lunch, and having hit the hay for an hour or so, we woke up refreshed and ready for a stroll in the jungle. Unfortunately, our man at Aranya Nivas was right about this too: there’s really nothing to do at the Lake Palace except soak in the sights, sounds and smells of nature, from inside the property. I later realized that this is probably because of the typical government style of working: the hotel is run by the Tourism Department, and all forest-related activities are organized by the Forest Department. And never the twain shall meet, at least not at the Lake Palace.
So we thought, if we couldn’t tramp around the jungle, we could at least stroll around the hotel grounds. Sadly, that didn’t work out great, either. Because the property turned out to be so tiny, it was almost claustrophobic. And while the front was expansive enough, with a great view of the lake, the back was little more than a patch of grass between the building and the rear fence.
The property was probably small to prevent any large wildlife getting in — the deep anti-elephant trench all around was proof of that. But it was frustrating to be in middle of such a vast expanse of nature, and still not be able to walk more than two minutes in any direction. In the end, we had no choice but to enjoy the peace and quiet, while admiring the lake and the forest beyond. Which wasn’t a bad way to spend an evening, either.
Making the most of our second day
We were up bright and early the next morning. The plan was to catch the first safari boat and see what sights the lake had to offer. After, we were going to head back to Aranya Nivas (since we’d had our fill of sitting around the Lake Palace), and see if we could score a jungle trek.
Spotting the wildlife of Periyar National Park
So we were ready and waiting when the 8:00 am safari boats swung around to pick us up. Over the next hour, we chugged around the lake, trying to spot the animals and birds of Periyar National Park. And craning (pun intended) our necks to see whenever the on-board guide pointed out something interesting. We managed to see an elderly elephant, some nesting cormorants, a darter drying itself off, and some sambhur deer, among others. Sadly, no gaur, leopards or (haha) tigers made an appearance.
Back at the Lake Palace, we tucked into some breakfast and then hopped on the next round of safari boats as they were heading back to Aranya Nivas. There, we taken aback at the sheer number of tourists waiting to board the next round of boats, lining up at the forest department’s ticket counters, and just generally milling about. Thankfully, our man at Aranya Nivas helped us negotiate the crowds and book a two-hour jungle walk.
Scoring a private jungle walk
The kick-off point for the jungle walk was a little cottage just off down from the main driveway to the lake. By the time we got there, it had gotten overcast and a bit drizzly. Which was lucky, because it would’ve been a hot and muggy walk, otherwise. Another stroke of luck was that, though each walking group could have up to six people, it seemed like we were the only ones who booked this slot. Yay.
So we filled in some forms (because government), strapped on our anti-leech socks and set off with our guide. This gentleman, it turned out, was from a local tribe of forest-dwellers, and used to be a poacher. But like a lot of his colleagues, he’d been convinced by the government to become a guide instead, giving him an incentive to protect the animals instead of hunting them. What a great idea!
Before we could enter the jungle, though, we had to cross a little stream on a hand-pulled raft. It seemed like time was standing still while we were on it. But we did eventually get to the other side, and headed into the jungle.
Also read: Up close with Kenya’s incredible wildlife
Two hours in the jungle
Once we were in the jungle proper, everything else faded away into the background. All that existed was the lake, the path, and the dense foliage around and above us. Our guide led us through like it was his backyard (which it probably was), pointing out a Malabar giant squirrel here and some fresh leopard tracks there, and occasionally reminding us not to stray off the path.
The highlight of the morning having a group of passing tribesmen point out a lone elephant a few hundred meters away. We shadowed the elephant for quite a while as it munched its way through the greenery. When it disappeared into the trees, it was time to head back.
As we walked back, it started raining. But because the canopy was so thick, we could mostly just hear it, with only a few drops here and there making it down to us. The overall effect of walking through the trees and along the lake, while surrounded by the sounds of the rain, was otherworldly. And when we were on the raft again, two hours after we’d first crossed, we knew the morning had been well spent.
A very private last evening
That evening, we had contented ourselves with taking it easy just like the previous day. In fact, this evening promised to be evening nicer, because most of the other guests had headed back during the day. That left just one other room occupied, apart from ours.
Even better, one of the hotel staff saw how disappointed we were at being confined to the hotel grounds, and took us on an unofficial jungle walk. This gentleman — called Suresh — had been working there for close to 20 years, and knew all the ins and outs of the jungle around the hotel. Sadly, our stroll through the trees was cut short by a group of gaur standing near the path. Gaur (also called Indian bison) are notoriously bad-tempered. So we thought better of trying to go around them, and headed back to the hotel instead.
Back at the hotel, we sat around staring across the lake until well after dark, finishing off the last of the beer in complete privacy, and soaking up the sounds of the jungle night.
We see more of Thekkady on our third day
Because our bookings didn’t quite happen as planned, we ended up having to spend an extra day in Thekkady. But, instead of at the Lake Palace, our third night was booked at the Mountain Courtyard instead. It wasn’t what we’d originally wanted, but it gave us time to see a little more of Thekkady.
Anyway, after our last breakfast at the Lake Palace, we and the only two other guests were taken back to shore on one of the safari boats. Being the only four people on a huge double-decker boat felt a bit weird. But at least we got to take photos from wherever we wanted.
Back at Aranya Nivas, our faithful taxi driver picked us up, and off we headed. Luckily, he was a local, so he knew some good spots away from the madding crowd.
Getting a bird’s-eye view of Thekkady
Since we had a bit of time before we needed to check into our next hotel, we thought we’d explore a bit more of Thekkady. But since we’re crowds-averse, we asked our driver if he could show us some non-touristy sights. And show us he did.
Our first attempt at getting to a viewpoint was a washout, unfortunately, because the rains had decimated the approach road. But maybe that was a good thing, because the next one we tried turned out to be spectacular! The Ottakathalamedu view point was obviously popular, with a big, flat space for cars (or tents), and a little snack shop. But there was only one other car there besides us, so we could enjoy the incredible view of the valley in almost complete privacy.
The next viewpoint we visited was much more off the beaten track. We had to scramble down a small slope and then walk a bit up a red-earth path to get to it. And the viewpoint itself was small and precarious, with a few rocks to perch on, if you dared. But the view! Looking out over the endless green plains of Kerala, we felt like we were far above the rest of the world! If you love views, then this nameless viewpoint, on its own, would be worth visiting Thekkady for. And which, in my opinion, is one of the best places to visit in Thekkady. If you can find it.
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Our last evening in Thekkady
We finally checked in at the Mountain Courtyard at around lunchtime. The property was nice enough, with lots of green around, but nothing very innovative or exciting. And while the room was nice (and with a nice misty view), the corridors and restaurant were bare and spartan; a strange and slightly surreal contrast.
What was nice, though, was the winding road leading up to and beyond the hotel. It led through lots of lush greenery and plantations, and we couldn’t resist an evening stroll along it. But steep as it was, it wasn’t very long before our legs started protesting, so we didn’t get very far. Still, it was a nice, peaceful walk. And a nice way of ending our time in Thekkady.
The bottom line: Is Thekkady worth visiting?
Thekkady’s spectacular natural beauty and pleasant climate give it all the makings of a great holiday destination. Predictably, that brings lots and lots of visitors. But if you can find a place to stay outside town, manage to avoid the crowds, and get a local to help you discover its hidden secrets, you’ll find that Thekkady is definitely worth visiting!