Cochin

Whether it be known by Cochin or Kochi, this city is one of the major attractions for all visitors to Kerala. Given the reasonable size of the airport, it is inevitably a gateway to the region, but not all gateways are interesting in themselves, this is very much an exception.

It’s a fast growing place, and suffers from the usual problems that rapid city expansion in fast developing nations brings, but while this may seem to be a problem, for the visitor it provides an opportunity. One of the laziest tropes any tourist can pass on is that others should go to a place before it changes, yet there is often a kernel of truth provided it is understood what those changes mean. In most instances it describes increasing affluence, something which should be celebrated rather than lamented, but it does also imply greater numbers of arrivals as a location becomes better known and more easily acessible. 

This is certainly true of Cochin, its historical importance over several centuries, whether to India or the waves of European powers seeking access to the spice trade and from there control over it, means that the old city is a fusion of different styles and attitudes, and one that is deeply attractive to tourism. There seems little doubt that it will increase over the coming years, and this will have an impact, both good and bad. 

Certainly the waterfront is anything but sanitised, the degree of plastic and associated rubbish discarded is unpleasant on the eye and has an obvious environmental impact, but it’s also not hard to see how in the drive for increased tourism this is quite likely to change. There are plans already in place to ensure this is cleaned up and within the next few years the entire area may well be substantially different. Kerala is a highly educated and highly literate region, one where awareness of the issues at hand is high. Expect substantial changes. 

Fort Cochin is the usual starting point for an exploration, and like so many places walking is the best way to see it. There is all too often a temptation to stay in the car and be ferried from site to site, but this never provides the feel of a destination, and certainly never allows for any interaction with those who live there. The Dutch construction of Fort Emmanuel overlooks the waterfront itself and provides the backdrop to the Chinese Fishing Nets that provide a sense of historic life. 


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The backstreets of old Cochin are a big attraction. Both picturesque and full of cafes and restaurants, they are quiet and peaceful, easily walkable and a long way from the busy nature of so many cities. They are also full of colonial buildings, many of which have been converted into hotels or rather grand residences, but there are also churches, mosques and synagogues, the oldest in India and even Asia, and in the case of the former, the resting place for Vasco De Gama for some years before the repatriation of his remains back to Portugal.  

The Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest remaining in the Commonwealth, and forms the centrepiece of the area known as Jew Town. Historically, this was a market of streets focused on spices, and while this has largely disappeared, the area now is filled with antique (as opposed to souvenir) shops that are well worth browsing. 

Near the synagogue is located the Dutch (or Mattacherry) Palace. Despite the name, it was constructed by the Portuguese – the Dutch later carried out modifications – and presented to the King of Cochin as part of the machinations to win the right to exclusivity in the spice trade. Photography is not permitted within, but the wall murals are astonishing and the relics from the various eras fascinating. 

I had one night there. It simply wasn’t enough, and perhaps that’s the best expression of how likeable  it is there can be.

Kerala and alcohol

Given the clear attraction of the state to tourists, with its gorgeous scenery and endless activities define a place people wish to visit. But the alcohol policy is an issue, albeit one now being addressed as far as holidaymakers are concerned. The problem was the exceptionally high alcohol abuse rate in the state, leading to a 2014 state government decision to close bars and refuse licence renewals. It affected hotels too, with only 5* properties able to retain the right to sell drinks, and with restrictions there as well. 

The effect was to make the destination less attractive in a number of markets and cause serious issues for the mid range hotels who found clients either upgrading to the highest grade properties or going elsewhere. In attempting to address a domestic problem, undoubtedly serious, the knock on effect was to give pause to those wishing to come and see the destination. 

That’s not to say that visitors were all desperate to drink the bars dry, but the ability to have a glass of wine with a meal on holiday is not to be dismissed, nor can it be ignored that other, even more restrictive societies have found a way to act domestically, without risking the visitor market. 

Things have relaxed somewhat, the change in government allowed a partial softening of the regulations, with licences now being renewed and most recently an extension of the hours to 11pm. However, the national Supreme Court stated in a judgement that any bar should be 500m from a main highway, leading some to adopt creative mazes to ensure the walk is sufficiently long to pass muster. Some hotels have even changed their reception areas to the other side of the property to ensure compliance. 

As things stand, it merely requires a little thought and planning to ensure a bar is present at the booked hotel, if that matters to the visitor (and it certainly doesn’t to all). Equally, the first of every month is a dry day, so some planning may be needed the day before to ensure any requirements are met. Yet with the rules in place as they are, huge queues are present at the existing liquor stores. It’s worth seeing those just for the experience, they take on some aspects of a Speakeasy, the vaguely illicit act of buying alcohol becomes remarkable in itself for someone from a society partly built around the pub. 

It shouldn’t prevent anyone except perhaps the truly desperate from coming, but it does highlight the expectations of many tourists and the global nature of competition for their business. Addressing the very real domestic issues without damaging a valuable source of foreign currency is the challenge. Places such as Dubai have managed that quite effectively, Kerala appears to be moving in a similar direction. 

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Thekkady and the Vembanad Lake

Having travelled through the state of Tamil Nadu, it was finally time to reach Kerala. The latter state is often used as a shorthand by tourists for much of the wider southern India region, but it is quite distinct for a number of reasons. Notably, it is greener, the degree of vegetation visible increases by the mile on arriving, as does the elevation, before descending again towards the sea. 


Thekkady is one of the small towns in the mountains, well over a thousand metres above sea level.  It’s also the hub of the Periyar National Park, a noted Sanctuary for both flora and fauna, the latter case notably tigers, elephants and macaques. Indeed, it was declared a tiger reserve in 1978 although they remain few in number. A boat trip can be taken on Lake Periyar, within the park where herds of both elephants and bison can often be seen, in their native habitat. The lake is stunningly beautiful, and even if the larger animals don’t cooperate and put in an appearance, it’s a bird watcher’s paradise, with numerous species on display. 



Thekkady is a spice growing region, indeed the range of peaks comprising the area is called the Cardamom Hills, but black pepper, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon are widely grown, and can be easily bought on the street at a price a fraction of that when exported. The proximity ensures that the food is highly flavoured and exceptionally fresh in preparation, making it highly attractive as somewhere to try something different. 


The way in and out is notable for the twisting mountain roads, offering stunning views of the incredibly lush slopes, plus – depending on season – spectacular waterfalls, some of which spill on to the highway. There is one other item worthy of mention in this area – it’s cool. For many visitors not requiring air conditioning, either in the night or during the day, will be a particularly pleasurable sensation. 

It’s not too far in distance from there to the numerous tourist sites surrounding Lake Vembanad, but the journey tends to be rather slow, both given the numerous hairpins, and the busy towns en route. It’s worth it when getting there though for on the Kumarakom side can be found a cluster of small islands within which is a bird sanctuary that represents heaven on earth for ornithologists. 

One of the most popular activities undertaken is a cruise on the lake in a houseboat. The waters are generally calm, and the snapshot of daily life on the banks is one of the most memorable elements any tourist will take away. The lake, associated river and canals are such an obvious attraction that any idea it will be a deserted haven is misplaced, plenty of the houseboats cruise the waters, but it remains one of the more evocative activities any visitor can undertake, and it’s far from crowded in any case. 



It is difficult to convey how stunningly beautiful this landscape is. When the waters are still, the reflections of buildings, boats and indeed animals can clearly be seen, and while the reflection photograph may be something of a cliché, to see it constantly is quite exceptional.


Trichy and Madurai

Trichy is easy. Snappy in fact. But it’s been renamed as so many Indian towns and cities have been.  The trouble is it’s now Tiruchirappalli, which neither trips off the tongue nor can be written without frequent Internet visits to ensure you’ve got it right. So Trichy it is, though that was short for Trichinopoly which was just as absurd, hence the abbreviation. Tiruchi at a push maybe. It’s a medium sized town, notable for a couple of things, firstly the Rock Fort, used periodically as a defensive redoubt, but now possesses a temple at the summit. It dominates the northern half of the town, climbing 273 feet above the ground. For the visitor, the temple at the top is nothing special, but the views on offer are worth the climb. 


More impressive is Srirangam Island, home to the Ranganathaswamy temple, one of the largest in the worlds with a two and a half mile perimeter and encompassing 156 acres. 


It’s more like a small town than a temple, with its own streets and even shops within the grounds. The 21 towers within are striking, both for their size and the ornate decorations from ground to tip on each of them. It’s possible to head out on to the roof to gain a better perspective on the scale of the place, but it’s still hard to truly grasp it’s all one entity. 

Madurai is the next town on the route and it too possesses a notable temple in the form of the Meenakshi Amman one. It is also large and although most of the construction has been over the last four hundred years, it is claimed to have been there since the sixth century BC in some form. 

It’s not the only site worth visiting though, Tirumalai Nayak Palace appears unassuming from the outside but the interior is genuinely spectacular. The style is a fusion of Dravidian and Rajput with supposedly Italian architectural input. Only a third of the palace remains, demolished by the grandson of King Thirumalai Nayek for his own palace in Trichy. Lord Napier, governor of Madras ordered the preservation and restoration of what remained, and the Entrance Gate, Main Hall and Dance Hall give a pretty good feeling for how it would have been at the time it was built. 


Yet the Madurai experience isn’t based on seeing the landmarks, but the cultural and social life of the city. It is an ancient place and the markets and street life has developed into niches and sectors, while experiencing the street food is a must do, particularly that specific to South India and the Tamils in particular. It’s a lively place, best appreciated walking around, despite the usual chaotic traffic common to many Indian cities. And do try the dosas, because they come in many flavours and they’re all delicious. 

Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry

It’s been some years since visiting India, and this vast country has always such held a fascination for me that my return feels long overdue. The scale of the place means that there’s so much to see and this is the first time I’ve been to the south of the country. The trip is through Kerala, arriving in to Chennai cutting across the tip of India and leaving from Cochin.

The problem and the excitement is that I know so little about the destination. When I’m asked my favourite place in the world, I usually answer ‘the next one’ because there’s little as enthralling as seeing somewhere you haven’t been before.  Almost everything is going to be new and exciting, and the sights surprising by definition. And it started almost immediately when calling in to Mahabalipuram. Sometimes in this game you feel vaguely ashamed when visiting somewhere that you really ought to know about but don’t, and wonder quite how it is you can be so ignorant. In some ways it’s the beauty of travel, in others a reminder that however much you see and wherever you go, it merely scratches the surface of what is out there. 

For Mahabalipuram is an astonishing place, with 7th century rock temples, an astoundingly large and beautifully preserved bas relief known as the Descent of the Ganges, and the beautiful Shore Temple, last survivor of what was known to sailors as the Seven Pagodas. Indeed according to locals, as the sea retreated just prior to the 2004 tsunami, ruins were uncovered before the water rushed in. 

Most of the rock carvings are incomplete, possibly due to outbreaks of war, although some believe given the different styles on display that the area was a sculpting school, which would offer a pleasing explanation for the missing elements. The tsunami did also uncover some previously buried artifacts, a very small compensation for the destruction and loss of life wrought. 

It’s not especially busy either, the day I was there was a public holiday, and it still wasn’t particularly crowded. It’s a place that ought to be seen in far greater numbers than it is, for it has a wow factor that is genuinely surprising. 

The next stop was Pondicherry, a town that remained under French governance throughout the period of British control, and even remained so after independence of the rest of the country in 1947 for a few years. It is divided by a canal, one side is the Indian town, the other the French. And it is very French indeed, it could hardly be more so. The architecture has that distinctive Gallic flavour, the streets are wide and with numerous trees along either side. It is quite striking to see how the French recreated their own towns in another continent, and it is pleasurable to see now how this is embraced locally and celebrated. Colonial history is a thorny topic, but these places are not French or British any longer, they belong to the country they are in. The Tower of London is a symbol of French domination over the English, but no one sees it that way any longer of course, and visitors would be unaware of that original status. 

The town is also notable for the yogic, meditative thinking of Sri Aurobindo Ashram and his long term partner and collaborator Mirra Alfassa, known as ‘the Mother’. It has drawn thousands of adherents from all over the world, particularly after the creation of the experimental commune called Auroville sited nearby. The village is divisive to say the least, its construction is impressive and many will like its focus on creating a society without borders or preconceptions, while others will be rather more cynical, noting the vast expense next to a poor village (no borders of course, but they’re kept outside) and that it doesn’t seem short of money. I know on which side of the debate I sit, and that makes trying to be even handed rather difficult. Still, it’s well worth seeing, even if I struggled to get the Woody Allen film Sleeper out of my mind seeing it. Or Sizewell B nuclear power station.

Visitors will have to make up their own minds, and after all that is the joy of individual expression. For me, it’s difficult to reconcile the contrast. So be it.

Palaces and Markets

Aside from the city social life, something that all visitors to Phnom Penh will do is see the Royal Palace. Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy and the king still live. s within the environs of the complex, though . understandably enough the living quarters are out of bounds for tourists. These kinds of attractions can often have something of the box ticking element about them, they are there, they need visiting but that’s about it, but the palace is certainly more than that and well worth the time. Its location on the banks of the river is immediately attractive anyway, and the staterooms available for viewing are undeniably spectacular. It may not be the oldest such construction but it is both beautiful and exceptionally impressive, and the Silver Pagoda every bit as much. 


Nor is it overly crowded at this time of year, making it one of the more pleasurable visits of this nature to be had anywhere.


The Palace is often combined with a visit to the National Museum, where extraordinary numbers of artifacts from Khmer history can be seen, and even the odd bas relief from Angkor that was stolen and recovered subsequently. 

For bargain hunters, the Central Market holds obvious attractions. Street food is plentiful and varied, while deeper in to the maze of sub-streets inside is clothing, jewellery, electronics, and everything in between. A note of caution though, designer sunglasses don’t cost $4 anywhere, no matter how good the market might be. Expecting anything to be genuine would be the height of optimism, a good reason why although electronics are present, they represent a risky purchase.

Another popular excursion is to take a sunset river cruise for dinner. Cities with a river have a special feel to them, and Phnom Penh is no different. As a way to unwind after a busy day, it’s an excellent choice – relaxing and yet still offering scope for seeing the city itself.

My time in Cambodia is at an end. It has proved more engaging, more evocative and at times more troubling than anticipated. But it has been a pleasure throughout. Next up is southern India.

The Cambodian Genocide

If you’re of a certain age and British, you’ll remember first hearing about Cambodia in the context of the Killing Fields and Pol Pot’s murderous regime in the 1970s. In my own case it was principally through the children’s television programme Blue Peter, which in its long history has never shied away from introducing adult themes to the very young. There were various fund raising campaigns on the back of that programme, the Bring and Buy sales across the country included a couple organised by my mother, which either points to it affecting me at the time, or more likely my mother – and parents up and down the country – seeing the reports and having the desire to do something to help. 

Many visitors to Cambodia do seek out the memorials to what happened, when anything up to 3 million people died, some from the catastrophe of disease and famine that followed, many if not most deliberately murdered in the name of a fanatical doctrine of agrarian socialism that was intended to reset the clock to year zero.

It’s easy to be cynical about the wish to see the evidence of such hideous events, or to consider it a form of voyeurism, but it would be wrong to do so. It surely speaks to the very essence of humanity to wish to understand what happened, and in the smallest possible way to pay tribute to the victims and express the revulsion of the normal person at the barbarity that sadly so often plagues our species.  Genocide happens when people cease to be people and become things, to be disposed whenever the whim arises.  

There are two sites that tend to be the most commonly visited. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the centre of the city wasn’t a place where people died, except inadvertently, but it was the interrogation centre and torture facility known as Security Prison 21, or S-21. The cells have been largely preserved as they were prior to the Vietnamese invasion that halted the genocide in 1979. Of the approximately 20,000 people who were sent for interrogation, it’s thought that only seven survived the genocide, a figure that in itself is simply staggering. Only two of those are thought to still be alive and can be seen near the exit most days selling their books of the experience. Lest this be thought to be somehow cashing in, these are now old people, and it’s their means of contributing to their families. There’s no social security support to be had here, there’s just nothing else for them to do.

Perhaps the most haunting element of what’s there is the seemingly endless display of photographs of those who were put through the ordeal. Knowing all of the faces across the wall were murdered is chilling and shocking. 

The second site most often visited is the Choeung Ek extermination camp, about a 50 minute drive from the city depending on traffic. It was here that was located one of the hundreds of Killing Fields so notorious of the time, in this instance where nearly 9,000 were murdered. Perhaps most striking is that despite so many people coming, there is near silence. Conversation is in whispers, particularly in the memorial Buddhist stupa built to commemorate those who were killed and which displays thousands of skulls  with coloured dots denoting how they were killed. These people have never been identified. The mass graves across the country themselves still yield items of clothing or remains, particularly after heavy rain. It is a place to feel both deep sadness and extraordinary anger. 

If the two sites weren’t enough, I was there in company with a Cambodian colleague who was a child during the period in question. He fled with his family but they were separated as he was told by his father to run. He’s never seen any of them since and despite regular trips to Kampot to try to determine their fate, has found nothing. Put to work on a farm he subsequently lost his closest friend to sickness as the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed. He’s built a life for himself, because what else is there to do? But as a guide taking visitors to these sites he must re-live the hell of the times repeatedly, something that is hard to contemplate. As we talked to each other and became firmer friends he explained his experience. He didn’t go through the interrogation camps and certainly not the Killing Fields, but the desperation of never knowing what happened to his loved ones was more than clear forty years later, as was the deep distress I caused him when he related the story to me. For that, I felt and feel dreadful despite his determination to tell the story, a single question that led to a 20 minute explanation, filled with anger, bewilderment and tears. Yet he said that it was important to him that the story be told especially to foreigners, and I think by that stage he trusted me enough to tell it. 

There was no embellishment, no experience other than the same gone through by hundreds of thousands of his peers. That in itself makes it even worse if possible, and one of the most harrowing listens of my life. Yet my own sadness and tears would not help anyone, and perhaps the only thing I can do to recognise it is to pass on his story, and say that I like this man immensely and am filled with admiration for what he has achieved as an adult.

There’s a coda to this. That afternoon Phnom Penh time the British and Irish Lions kicked off the first Test against the All Blacks (this is rugby union for the uninitiated). He came with me to an Irish bar to watch the first few minutes. The haka had him smiling and laughing, the game itself utterly entranced. Liam Williams’ extraordinary counterattack finished off by Sean O’Brien had him leaping in the air with delight, and a new rugby fan was born. It may seem trite to note the contrast in moods, but the simple joy of life is perhaps the most important thing there can be.

There are no photographs of my visit to the two sites. I don’t think there should be. Tourists will go, and so they should. It’s not enjoyable in any way, it’s not even interesting in the normal sense of the word. But perhaps it’s a moral obligation. And overall, I think that’s about right. If you go to Phnom Penh – and you really should for all the right reasons – this is the part of it that is a human duty.