Kerala travel advice
October 29, 2005 4:16 AM   Subscribe

Travel advice requested - Kerala, India

I am planning on taking a trip to Kerala, India and would like some advice/suggestions.

I am thinking of going for three weeks in Feburary. I have a pretty good idea of an ittinery, but would welcome any advice about great places to go, hopefully stuff thats not in the normal guide books. Also suggestions for good hotels to stay.

Should I book up places to stay in advance or would it be fine to sort things out once there?

Whats the best way of getting around? taxi, train, hire car?

How should I avoid getting ill?

Postcards to the best answers!

posted by juniorbonner to Travel & Transportation around Kerala, India (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
First, let me suggest that if you can swing it, I would stay longer in India and travel around more... I mean, once you've dropped the cash for the plane ticket, your in-country expenses are quite low.

I actually didn't go to Kerala when I went, so I can't give any ideas of places to stay, but in general, I never had a problem finding a place to stay. I stayed in generally nicer budget kind of places, so if you want chi-chi fancy pants hotels, maybe you would want to reserve, I just don't know.

If you're traveling city to city, train is the thing to take; the Indian train network goes everywhere and is quite affordable, though there are inevitably delays on a system that carries something like (IIRC) 100 million people per day. Within cities, or even for short outside trips, either taxis or auto rickshaws are the way to go (and way fun, though I did come much too close to imminent doom a few times...).

Health: bring Cipro; your doc will prescribe you some. Use it for pretty much anything. You can also buy cheap generic cipro in India for way cheap over-the-counter. Indian pharmacies are amazing. As for prevention: ONLY drink bottled water. It's cheap and plentiful on the street and in restaurants and stores. Make sure the cap is still sealed, too. Eat no meat, or as little as possible, unless you're in a top-quality (read: expensive by American standards) restaurant; even McDonalds' meat will get you sick (from anecdotes, of course, as I didn't eat there). What got me sick? Ice cubes in coffee from a trendy coffee shop in Jaipur. Ice cubes. Be vigilant! There's always a chance that you won't get anything, but even with precautions, expect to get something.

Have fun!
posted by The Michael The at 6:08 AM on October 29, 2005

I actually didn't go to Kerala when I went, so I can't give any ideas of places to stay, but in general, I never had a problem finding a place to stay. I stayed in generally nicer budget kind of places, so if you want chi-chi fancy pants hotels, maybe you would want to reserve, I just don't know.

What I meant was ". . . I never had a problem finding a place to stay just by showing up, or by calling ahead by a day at most. Usually, though, we just showed up, no worries, and usually the proprietors of full hotels would be glad to refer you to another place."
posted by The Michael The at 6:12 AM on October 29, 2005

Along the lines of The Michael The's comment about travel, you really should consider the trains, at least as a backup if Kerala loses your attention. I've been East in Chennai (Madras), and it's a great city.

The vegetarian food in Southern India is incredible, so you'll likely not find yourself gravitating towards "non-veg" restaurants after a few days. I purchased an onion fried in batter at a stand on the beach, and that was what did me in during my stay. Cipro seemed to help immensely for that problem.

From a germ perspecitve, it's like landing on another planet -- residents are exposed to certain germs every day and thus have a tolerence, but you're dropping in there relatively unprepared immune-system-wise. I think my lymph nodes were a bit swollen the entire month I was there.

If they want to perscribe an anti-malarial, opt for an alternative to Lariam (mefloquine). You want India to be amazing becuase of India, and not because of the mind altering drugs you've been perscribed.
posted by VulcanMike at 7:03 AM on October 29, 2005

Oh... and be prepared to get ripped off by the auto rickshaws. I never traveled without my coworkers, so I can't give any solid advice about how to deal with it, but you can probably Google some more information. Perhaps negotiating a price up front? Generally, it's good to be vigilant about what you're paying, and definitely negotiate.

Of course, the Shore Temples on the East Coast literally charge 10 rupees for Indians and 10 dollars for non-Indians, per the sign, so there's not much you can do there. $10.00 exchanges to about 450 rupees.
posted by VulcanMike at 7:11 AM on October 29, 2005

Oooh, I forgot about the antimalarial drugs. I took doxycycline (one per day, start two days before, end four weeks after) and was fine, without any of the sunburn that the warnings warn about. All of my friends (we're anthropologists, so malaria risk is part of the job, I guess...) that work in Guatamala, Belize, East Africa, and India recommend Malarone, I think, which is supposed to be the most expensive (I chose doxy because it was covered by my insurance, as it's a multi-use antibiotic, so it could be snuck through the system as not a prophylactic). They've said the same thing about Lariam as VulcanMike: look at the groovy colors! More information is available from the CDC website.

As for the autorickshaws, negotiate a price before you get in, and be a strong bargainer. Don't let them up the price after the fact. Really, it shouldn't cost more than 150 rupees to go anywhere within a city, in my experience, even as a gringo. A friend and I hired one for a whole day for r200 in Jaipur. If they demand more, start walking away. Some driver will take you for that much, and they know that, so either 1. they'll lower their price or 2. you'll find another driver.
posted by The Michael The at 8:35 AM on October 29, 2005

I spent about a week in Kerala as part of a much longer India trip a while back. The advice an Indian friend of mine (who had been living in the States for a long time) gave me as the only sure-fire way to not get sick was to only drink beer and only eat fried food (which isn't too far from my natural diet). I actually didn't follow that advice but I never got sick either (other than the normal “tourist stomach” that often happens when a person has to adjust to a completely new, and in this case, rich cuisine). I was on an anti-malerial and took cipro with me but never used it. Just be careful with what you eat – I avoided anything that might have water in it that wasn’t cooked. On top of the other advice in this thread, it doesn't hurt to carry a little bottle of the waterless anti-bacterial hand wash with you to use when you can't find a place to wash your hands. Wash your hands before you eat.

I never made reservations in advance at the sort of budget places I stayed (although it was the off season). It was pretty easy to just show up. Within cities – the auto-rickshaws are great. Trains outside are great. Cochin was one of my favorite stops on the whole trip – I spent an afternoon hanging out by the Chinese fishing net area (and was actually invited to help pull up the nets for a bit). I bought some fresh fish there and carried it across the street to a cooking shack and had it fried up with masala. Served with a beer – it was one of the best meals I had there. I also second the idea of traveling beyond Kerala if you can – Kanyakumari is pretty close by and pretty cool.
posted by Staggering Jack at 10:01 AM on October 29, 2005

Non-medical health advice: Bottled water and avoid meat!

Other: People keep mentioning antibiotics and antimalarials and and... if you're worried about these, please call up your health care and discuss your travel with them. A nurse or PA should be able to help you get the right prophylactics for the region. It's not something you want to self-medicate on as it can be expensive and still leave you unprotected against things you didn't consider.

There was an earlier thread about the differences between antimalarials. Note that the mefloquine can cause whack-ass dreams, among its side effects. Its major advantage is only having to take it once a week - fewer pills means less to remember, lower cost.
posted by whatzit at 10:59 AM on October 29, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks guys for the advice so far. I like the sound of a beer and veg only diet, combined with mind altering drugs too.

I'd welcome any details about good places to stay, so any information is welcome.

posted by juniorbonner at 3:06 PM on October 29, 2005

From a germ perspecitve, it's like landing on another planet -- residents are exposed to certain germs every day and thus have a tolerence, but you're dropping in there relatively unprepared immune-system-wise.

Absolutely, I couldn't agree more. This is why staying longer is advised. I think it takes about 2-3 weeks for one's body to adjust (aka stop feeling dizzy all the time). I don't see anything wrong with staying in one region. I went for 5 weeks, felt it was a waste of time to go to New Delhi (which is just weird) when Kerala is one of the most beautiful places on the fucking earth (lush green like you've never seen, jasmine everywhere, tea feilds, rice feilds, elephants, waterfalls), that 5 weeks was not enough.

Kerala is mainly rural, plantation country, so it will be harder to get around. Not as many people speak English since it's not a big city, and Malayalam is very hard to pick up, so good luck with language. When I was touring around it was via hired car (with a friend and her family). The area is mountainous, and the roads are rough.

Seriously, I don't think you'll have a problem with illness in Kerala. It is very clean, I drank the water from the stream. Also, I have never had a problem with Lariam, btw (5 weeks in Kerala, 2 months in Calcutta). Illness is more of a problem in the big cities. February shouldn't be bad for mosquitoes, but when I was there in July I had thousands of bites it was disgusting.

The food there is EXTREMELY SPICY. So be warned. I couldn't eat anything but bread and water when travelling, even the fried rice was incredibly spicy. If you can through connections, stay with a family who speaks English and will make you food, because that will be the best food you have ever had.
posted by scazza at 3:45 PM on October 29, 2005

Oh also, all this about Keralan vegetarian food and avoiding meat, I really don't know where this is coming from. Kerala is dominantly Christian, and I never saw a meal that wasn't meat (lamb, chicken, fish) and rice/paratha. If you're worried about getting sick, just spend more money to eat somewhere visibly cleaner. But again, I really think the concern is more acute in cities, not in a rural area in the wealthiest province in India.
posted by scazza at 3:52 PM on October 29, 2005

Best answer: Sorry scazza, I have to contradict most of what you said. Kerala is hardly dominantly Christian, although there are more Christians there than most other parts of India. There is vegetarian food available all over the place (although, compared to Tamil Nadu where I spent most of my 6 months in India, it was nice to have more meat availability). And it's also far from the wealthiest state (India doesn't have provinces) in India... it's actually one of the poorer ones, but the wealth is distributed more equally than most (it has a tendency to elect communist governments), so villages in particular are look better off than other parts of India.

Health is easier to maintain in cities, because they at least have some kind of sanitation system. In villages if you're not careful might get stream water to drink, which is likely to get you sick (although if you're in a remote area in the mountains, stream water might be OK - just make sure there are no villages or livestock upstream from the source). Water in cities is often fairly safe (it's chlorinated and all), although I still wouldn't recommend it.

Personally I would recommend against any kind of anti-malarials. You're only going to be in India for a short period. The risk of catching Malaria is pretty slim. If you do catch it, you'll be back home by the time it becomes a problem. Malaria is entirely treatable if you catch it early, so watch for symptoms. My vision got really blurry on anti-malarials and I stopped taking them soon after I arrived in India. A friend went totally psycho. This stuff is not good for you.

Oh, and if you're in the area, I would recommend spending some time in the mountains accross the border in Tamil Nadu. Even the turisty towns (like Kodaikanal) will be quite empty because it's the cool season.

I didn't spend a whole lot of time in Kerala, but I enjoyed the whole Ernakulam/Kochi (Cochin) area immensely. I just spent days wandering around the city fairly randomly, and taking the little ferry boats from place to place.
posted by Emanuel at 7:13 PM on October 29, 2005

Kerala has some of the finest national parks/ wildlife sanctuaries in India, so I would advise making a visit to atleast one of them.
I agree with the water advice. Stick to bottled water.

Another nice place to visit is Kanyakumari: the southernmost tip of india, where you can see the waters of the bay of bengal, the arabian sea and the Indian ocean. A short boat ride out gets you to Vivekananda rock.

The backwater ferries are quite interesting, and you can almost travel the whole of south kerala by boat alone: but be prepared to see miles and miles of coconut trees. Oh and in my experience, they cook almost everyhing with coconut oil.

Also if youre used to driving on the right side of the road, i would be a bit hesitant of driving (say -hire car) on the main highway that runs north-south in Kerala. The bus/ truck drivers are known for their rash driving. I cycled down the entire length of kerala and I had to get off the road quite a few times.
posted by dhruva at 10:13 PM on October 29, 2005

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