Located along an old spice route, Kochi’s old shop houses and abandoned colonial mansions have been converted into cool cafes and boutique hotels.
Kochi echoes with voices from the past.This was once a great staging post on the spice routes between Europe and the Far East, a place to tickle the taste-buds and fire the imagination. Traders and chancers from every corner of the globe came here searching for fortunes, and today their legacy is writ large in the streetscapes of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. This is a place where churches, temples, mosques and synagogues stand cheek by jowl amongst the crumbling warehouses of long-forgotten trading companies.
Today all this living history makes for the perfect shabby-chic destination. Old shophouses have been converted into cool cafés, and abandoned colonial mansions are now beautiful boutique hotels. The pace is slow in the old part of town on the seaward side of the harbour, and it’s a place to linger over coffee or admire the sunset behind a phalanx of Chinese fishing nets.
This is not a city stuck entirely in the past, however. Ernakulam, the landward half of Kochi, is a bustling modern town with malls, cinemas and plenty of shopping opportunities. And when you’re done with the city, Kochi is also the gateway to everything else that Kerala has to offer, from soft-sand beaches to misty tea gardens, old river ports, and an otherworldly network of backwaters.
Kerala is hot year round, with high humidity. Most people visit during the driest months (Oct-Mar), when the temperature is a little lower. There are torrential monsoon downpours in the middle of the year, but some people enjoy the rains, when the landscape is at its lushest.
Singaporean citizens can obtain a 30-day tourist visa on arrival at Kochi airport for US$60. Visitors from most other countries need to apply for a visa in advance from an Indian consulate.
The Indian currency is the rupee (divided into 100 paise). There are ATMs and exchange counters at the airport. In the city Ernakulam has ATMs at every turn and there are a few across the water in Fort Kochi.
There are prepaid taxis from the airport to town, as well as regular air-conditioned buses that run all the way to Fort Kochi. Within town there are plenty of taxis and auto-rickshaws, though you'll need to bargain for the fare. Passenger ferries criss-cross the harbour linking Ernakulam with Fort Kochi and the nearby islands.
Kochi is one of India's safest cities, and the biggest threat you'll face is the traffic in downtown Ernakulam. Taxi and rickshaw drivers may try to steer you towards certain souvenir shops, but the hassle is low-key compared to other Indian destinations. The one major issue in Kochi is the mosquitoes, which thrive in the humid climate. Cover up and use repellent unless you want to be covered in bites.
|How are you?||Cukmano?|
|What's your name?||Ninte peru entanu?|
|My name is…||Enthe peru aanu…|
|I am from…||Nan…ninnu|
|I would like…||Nan venam|
|How much?||Enta villa?|
|Where is…?||Evide anna…?|
|Where's the toilet?||Tailet evide?|
|I don't understand||Mancilla illa|
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Chinese fishing nets
The ultimate Kochi icon, the spindly Chinese fishing nets that line the entrance to the harbour resemble a ceremonial guard of praying mantises. According to legend the technique of fishing with huge cantilevered nets was brought to Kochi by a 15th-century Chinese treasure fleet. You’ll spot them in use throughout the backwaters, but they are at their most accessible and photogenic here, silhouetted against the sunset. Teams of fishermen still work the nets at high tide, though for increasingly meagre returns. They’re usually happy for travellers to lend a hand at the ropes, and they’ll sell you the catch of the day to be grilled up at the nearby stalls.
Little passenger ferries will take you across the harbour mouth from Fort Kochi to the southern tip of Vypin Island. It’s pleasant to wander away from the crowds, and you’ll find a bustling fish market near the ferry landing. However, the real attractions lie to the north. Take an auto-rickshaw for the hour-long ride to the lovely Cherai Beach. There are a few low-key resorts and homestays here; the water is clean, and on weekdays it’s a quiet spot to kick back and enjoy the views.
The sea gives way uneasily to the land in Kerala, and the narrow entrance to Kochi’s harbour is a portal between two different kinds of water-world. Inland from here a vast network of lakes, rivers and canals makes a watery web stretching some 900km across the state. The Backwaters are a magical realm of drooping palms, drifting water hyacinth and gliding boats. You can take daytrips from Kochi into the nearby channels, hire a traditional houseboat and plot a course for forgotten corners of this watery kingdom, or head south towards the old river towns of Kollam and Alleppey.
In the mid 16th century the Portuguese built the Matancherry Palace as a gift for the local raja. In return they got trading rights and a lucrative chunk of Kerala’s spice trade. From the outside the palace looks every inch the colonial relic, with flaking walls, mildewed red roofs, and shuttered windows. Inside things get much more colourful. The buildings are ranged around a temple courtyard, and the royal bedchamber is wildly decorated with intricate scenes from the Ramayana. In the downstairs women’s quarters, meanwhile, some of the murals are decidedly X-rated.
Nowhere speaks more clearly of Kochi’s past as a melting pot of trade and immigration than the alleys of Jew Town, with their old spice warehouses and shuttered windows. This area was once home to dozens of Jewish families, though in recent years immigration to Israel has seen the community shrink to a handful of old-timers. Centrepiece of the area is the Pardesi Synagogue. Built in the 16th century, from the outside it looks a little like a Dutch church, with a bell tower and clock. The cool interior features a shining expanse of blue Chinese tiling and dangling chandeliers.
Kochi is a great place to get your teeth into spicy Keralan cuisine. This is the place where the ubiquitous chilli first reached Asia, in the ships of Portuguese traders who had brought it from its native South America. The locals never looked back, and cooking in Kerala makes abundant use of fiery spice.
Ernakulam is the best place to hunt out authentic street food, served from pavement stalls known here as thattukada. M.G. Road, the roaring thoroughfare that spans the modern side of the city, is the best place to hunt out fried meat and fish dishes. One place that’s always busy is 36 Pai Brothers Fast Food, just off M.G. Road. This is the spot for dosas, and as the name suggests there are 36 different dosa varieties on offer.
Once you’ve had your fill of street food, cross the harbour to the more sedate quarters of Mattancherry for a hearty lunch of Kerala biryani from Kayees Biryani on Durbar Hall Road. Afterwards take a wander through the alleys of Fort Kochi, and stop for coffee in any of the trendy little cafés that have taken up residence in the old shop-houses here. By the time the sun is setting you’ll hopefully have worked up an appetite once more. If so, head for the iconic Chinese fishing nets that line the entrance to the harbour. The fishermen here will sell you fresh fish and there are little barbecue joints nearby that will season it up, cook it over charcoal, and serve it to you there and then with plenty of fresh lime.