Monday, September 5, 2016

Coorg - A refreshing monsoon gateaway

Although Coorg is a sought after monsoon gateway, it wasn’t my first choice for an August trip.  Originally the plan was to trek in the rain forests of Agumbe, followed by relaxation at Chikmangalur. I even had my train tickets booked to and from Mangalore.  However, due to an unforeseen spur in my left heel after Europe trip, an adventure trip (which also involved trekking) was out of question.  Coorg was the next best alternative and rather an attraction one owing to the cheap airfare from Mumbai to Bangalore.  Soon enough I had booked plane tickets and the rest (accommodation, itinerary) followed, including learning that Coorg/ Kodugu is not a place but a district!

Reaching Coorg, the budget way

We landed at an unearthly hour (4:30 am) in Bangalore, waited for dawn to break and took an expensive taxi (Rs 800, no uber in sight!) to Satellite bus stand, 45 kms away to catch a KSRTC bus to Coorg.  We learnt that from 6 am onward there are frequent KSRTC buses to Madikeri.  We hopped on the first bus in sight and got zipping along the narrow highway/ road (surprisingly so) towards Kushalnagar (45 minutes short of Madikeri) via Mysore for a measly fare of (Rs 205/person).  Initially we did contemplate renting a self-drive car and/or hire a taxi for our trip, but on hindsight taking local bus was a good idea. It was cost-effective and not-time-consuming.

The bus was quite empty and the driver/ conductor took an instant liking towards us, bordering on being overprotective (he had our back during breakfast and coffee break). The drive was quite beautiful (at least the stretches I noticed between my naps) and the locals in our bus were friendly.  The breakfast halt our bus made served good south Indian tiffin (idli/ dosa, etc).  the only glitch was the blaring horn of the bus! Never again will I dare to sit on the seat right behind the driver! 
We arrived in Kushalnagar in about 6.5 to 7 hours, a tad longer than expected but excited to explore the district.    

Coffee estate homestay in Coorg

Coorg is synonymous with spectacular resorts which are meant to tantalize the body, mind and soul, while showcasing a spirit of Coorg to its guests, but I wasn’t staying in one.  Instead, we had booked 2 nights at a homestay called Soul Land Estate (in Virajpet) run by Mr Jay Prakash and his lovely wife with help from their daughter, Jyothi, who manages all the guest questions and ensures smooth booking and transit.  During our long bus journey from Bangalore, we were in constant touch with Jyothi to find out if we should directly reach the homestay or explore Bylakuppe (a Tibetian settlement next to Kushalnagar). She was very responsive and patient (replying to our e-mails from 7 am onwards).  I couldn’t wait to meet her.

We arrived at Soul land estate by 5 PM after exploring Bylakuppe (read below).  The driveway to soul land estate is lined by trees on both sides.  The bungalow is large, white and imposing.  We were welcomed by JP uncle’s wife (unfortunately I do not know her name) and divine filter coffee & banana wafers.  

JP uncle was at an independent smaller bungalow 20 mins from Soul Land Estate, helping other guests check-in.  Jyothi, we found out, was in Mysore working towards her Phd.  However, uncle’s elder daughter and her adorable daughter were home and we knew we’d be thoroughly entertained during our short stay.

Soul land estate is an independent bungalow, built in 1950s and completely renovated and revamped somewhere in in 2003 when the family started it as a homestay.  

It is built on a 22-acre coffee estate and is a serene abode in Kodugu.  Back then when the family opened doors to guests, tourism was just picking up in Kodugu and advertising was mostly by word of mouth/ referral.  With the advent of technology (tripadvisor, own website and airbnb), soul land has seen a steady rise in the number of guests and the family has had a chance to delight more guests with their hospitality.

My first look at the veranda and I was in love with it.  I knew I'd spend a large chunk of time here, on the swing, on the sofa enjoying the view and sipping on endless filter coffees.  

Other than veranda, guests also have access to common drawing room, dining area and ofcourse the kitchen garden and coffee estate adjoining it.  Our room was large and had 3 beds, the bathroom was competing with the room in dimensions!  The overall décor of the place is very 70s, especially the library cum-tv-room where the family has displayed old typewriters, phone, furniture etc.

During the stay we got a lot of opportunities to interact with JP uncle and aunty, over our meals and while we lounged endlessly in the veranda. Although the family is originally from Kerala, however their fathers migrated to this region of Karnataka during British times.  JP uncle is a very humble, yet popular man in this region.  Aunty is beautiful, warm and served us lip-smacking meals.  Our stay (at Rs 1800 pp) came with complimentary breakfast and ofcourse filter coffee!  

Aunty gave us tours of all the other rooms they offer to their guests (granary house - built on stilts with bathtub and balcony overlooking a tiny pond & Cloud9 honeymoon cottage which comes with an open air shower and four-post bed complete with romantic white drapes). 

Uncle showed us around the estate, including the kitchen garden and patiently answering all our questions. Staying with the family was a delight.

The food we ate at Soul land was homely.  Most of the vegetables came from the kitchen garden and all the meals were prepared by aunty herself.  During our short stay, we ate Kadubu (steamed rice flour balls) & chana, idli & chatni,  payassam, tapioca sabzi, coorgi chicken, avail and pork curryon special request (this is an absolute must-eat dish in Coorg!).  The food was not just for our tummies, but also for our soul.

Uncle and Jyothi also helped us make most of our short stay in Kodugu.  On Jyothi’s recommendation we visited Bylakuppe and on uncle’s recommendation we took a half-day trip to Mandalpetti hills – both the suggestions were very good!

My overall experience at soul land was brilliant.  I did not feel like leaving the house.  In two short days uncle-aunty felt like family and I do hope I come back or send my family here (they were sold looking at the photos!).  Although the stay is not cheap, but the experience makes the slightly high-pricing seem inconsequential. 

Bylakuppe - Tibet of south India

The lure of cheap Tibetian food and a chance to see a one-of-a-kind Buddhist monastery in South India brought me to Bylakuppe , just 5-6 kms off Kushalnagar.  Bylakuppe is a large Tibetian settlement built between in 1960s on land leased from Indian Government.  It houses Tibetians in exile and today is a thriving hub for Buddhism and Buddhist studies. We spent and afternoon exploring the area and were delighted to see so many monks (of all ages!). 

Golden temple (Namdroling Monastery)

We first visited the most popular monastery, Golden temple (Namdroling monastery) where we were lucky to catch the afternoon prayer and food ceremony in full glory.  It was amusing to watch monks/ students literally run towards the golden temple when the drums started playing, signalling the prayer time.  

The golden temple/ vihara has stunning interiors and it was difficult to take my eyes off the three golden statues and the ornately done pillars.  Harder still was to abide by law and to not enter the temple during prayer. 

We spent a good amount of time exploring the adjoining temples and contemplating.  The place was calming in a strange way.

(Note:  On prior permission, guests can stay in the monastery.  You can find out more about this at Namdroling website)

Tibetan food

By this time we were starving and headed to a nearby family-run Tibetan restaurant next to coffee time, café.  Here the owner was very friendly and we were surprised to see the moderate pricing.  We ordered veg hakka noodles, chichken noodles and chicken mothuk (Tibetan soup with momos).  The food arrived in installments and had a wonderful aroma.  

The hakka noodles were the usual fare, but the chicken noodles (actually like thukpa!) was divine with a wonderful kick from ginger.  

Mothuk was a hearty meal as well, although flavourful rather than spicy.  We chitchatted with the Tibetan lady for a while after our meal and thanked her for the enjoyable lunch.

Ingalakere lake

With our happy tummies, we headed to the Ingalakere lake (man-made reservoir), a couple of kms from Nandroling.  The lake was a chilled out place with benches and a small walkway.  The lake has abundant fish and people come here to feed them. 

Here we met a happy monk (duh!) feeding who was making the fish in the lake and dogs by the lakeside happy by feeding them fish.  We relaxed here for a while enjoying the view and the shade offered by then trees, before hearing to Sera monastery. 

Sera monastery complex

We traversed the lanes of Bylakuppe to reach Sera monastery complex.  Here again, monks of all ages were rushing towards the monastery for prayer/ meals (all of them had their own plates/ bowl in hand).  As we entered the complex, we tried to have a conversation with young monks (who were kids), but they ran away and one of fell flat and his plate went for a toss, the other had a good laugh!
Sera monastery complex houses almost 3000 monks and is one of the largest Buddhist university complexes.   The monastery also undertakes a lot of missionary activities and propagates knowledge and Buddhist teachings. 

As we explored the complex (did not go inside the monastery), being the only tourists 9that too girls!), we did feel a bit awkward, but curiosity kept us going.  The complex was huge and offered lots of open space.  It seems like there were several living quarters just outside the boundary wall too!  

Just behind one of the boundary walls, we saw a line of beautiful stupas overlooking the stunning views.  By then, the drums started rolling and monks started lining up for meals in the courtyard behind the monastery.  We left the temple complex soon enough to avoid commotion and more awkwardness!

Mandalpatti hills

Most people told me there is nothing to see in Kodugu.  I wonder if they discount nature trails!  

Me and my friends were keen to do some short hikes, although monsoon wasn’t a favourable season.  As an alternate, JP uncle suggested a jeep trip to Mandalpatti hills to enjoy a gorgeous drive from Virajpet to Madikeri (the hills are in Madikeri region) and stunning views from Mandalpatti (the view point is inside Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuary).

We started at leisure from Soul land and reached the jeep point by 12 noon, after a lovely scenic drive with lush green trees and paddy fields.  The two-hour jeep package for Mandalpatti hills cost us Rs 1600 (for full jeep).

The jeep was an open jeep and it was rather difficult to keep our balance.  After a 20 minute drive on fairly decent, curvy roads, we reached the check-point for Mandalpatti.  From this point the road was mostly a well-defined mud track with lots of stones and beautiful shrubs all around, with the occasional tree in sight.  The clouds and sun were playing hide-and-seek and the fog was wild and plenty!  

Our jeep traversed on impossible terrain and I was literally holding my breath and praying that we reach Mandalpatti quickly. Fifteen grueling minutes later, we arrived at the parking lot of Mandalpatti view point and quickly bought out tickets (I think the entry fee was 50 per person for 45 minutes time-slot).  We started our short ascend towards the view point.  

The climb was beautiful as we were already at quite a height.  Much to our delight, there were very few tourists here and the place seemed untouched. We walked through fog and slight drizzle to reach the view point.  Our view was mostly obscured by fog and clouds, but briefly when the obstructions cleared, the view was gorgeous.  There was also such freshness to the air that we couldn’t help but sit cross legged on the grass and count our blessings.

Raja’s seat

This is by far as touristy as it gets in Kodugu. Madikeri is a fairly large hill town and rather commercial.  Raja’s seat is a small flower garden cum view point offering unparalleled view of rolling hills, valley and the glorious sunset.  This place is named Raja’s seat as the King’s of Kodugu used to come here to enjoy the view from the comfort of their seat underneath a small white structure. 

Views from Raja’s seat were pale in comparison to Mandalpatti.  However, instead of standing at the viewing balcony, we walked 5 minutes to the edge of the hill on the left of the viewing deck.  From here not only did we get a view of raja’s seat, but also of the valley and the curvy roads.  It was nice to have tranquil moments away from the crowds.


My brief visit to Kodugu was better than expected, maybe it was the lack of expectation or perhaps the unparalleled hospitality, or even untouched nature. 

Kodugu gave me so much peace, it was overwhelming.  


Shreya said...

As I was reading this blog, I started feeling that I m also in kodugu..its a well written blog with so much information. I must make a trip trailing your blog!

Preeti Datar said...

I am happy you could experience Coorg through my words. Yes, you should go here soon :)

Cmde Harshad Datar said...

Very lucid blog of Coorg trip. Ir is so well crafted that one gets a feeling of oneself being on the trip rather than reading a blog. Keep on writing such wonderful blogs.

Preeti Datar said...

You will love the place :)

Soumyendu said...

Amazing pics Preeti and I quite get you as an avid foodie of course :)

But then, nothing beats the bhangra thali at Coronation Jevnache Hotel as I remember at Colaba causeway, with a side dish of Mandli fry, or the vada pao with pickled green chillies at Kunj vihar and the mutton samosas at Mohammed ali Road, filled with onion greens, peas and mince (sigh)

Preeti Datar said...

Hello Soumyendu - thank you for your comment. Indeed travel is also so much about food and discovering a region through its cuisine.

I didn't quite like Mohammed ali road area....but U will definitely try Coronation Jevnache Hotel!

Anonymous said...

Coorg is awesome!I could visit it over and over!


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