Seeing elephants in the wild was always a dream I had, but it seemed just that… A dream that rarely becomes a reality. Lucky us, Periyar National Park was full of happy, wild elephants, so we kept pinching each other, just to be sure we were in fact awake.
Our next stop after Munnar was Periyar, or officially called Thekkady. It was another exciting windy drive, but luckily a short three hours. We first checked into our tropical bungalow at Spice Village, located in town but designed to feel like a remote jungle location. As a travel industry professional, we were given a thorough tour of the property and a spectacular lunch (another one that overflowed our table). The property had so many activity options and wonderful nooks, we wished we could have stayed for more than only one night. Guests can partake in paper making courses, yoga and meditation classes, wildlife slideshows, and enjoy live dancing in the evenings. Plus, the location in town allows easy walking access to the local market.
After lunch, we were taken to nearby Periyar National Park, a unique wildlife sanctuary that is about 485 square miles of land centered around an artificial lake fed by the Periyar River. A boat cruise is how most people get a glimpse of the varying wildlife, so we were given two tickets at the very front of the boat! It was a barge that held at least 60-70 people. Everyone was required to wear a life jacket and asked to remain silent so the guides onboard could point out any animals. The life jackets were no issue, but the silence seemed impossible with this crowd. The boat started slowly moving and people started getting scolded as they stood up to take photos. Especially if an animal was spotted, chaos arose! We were spoiled with V.I.P. seats at the front that gave a perfect view with no blockage.
The water in the lake was particularly low due to lack of rain during the monsoon season. The water level gave the lake an eerie look, with tons of tree stumps poking out that we were told are normally much more covered. Since they aren’t usually as visible, the boats are known to hit the trees and get leaks if the captain isn’t paying close attention to steering. The boats have been known to sink, hence the required life jackets. I appreciated how unique it made the lake appear, and I suppose we felt a tad safer the trees could easily be avoided.
Due to the severely low water level, the animals had to travel further from the bush to drink, making them much more noticeable to us wide-eyed humans floating in a boat. The first animals spotted were some river otters. Playful and squirmy in the water with one another. Next we saw a sambar deer. Its long horns caused quite a raucous among everyone trying to be a photographer. People started handing their cameras to the guides for closer shots. Large birds were perched on the treetops, seeming to glare at us as we passed by. Then, there they were… A large herd of elephants, hydrating at the water’s edge, and enjoying the beautiful day and the green grass. Adorable baby elephants were being chaperoned by the adult elephants, who seemed as if they were happily socializing with one another. It was a beautiful scene that had us all in awe. So calm, so pristine, so beautifully wild and real. Sure, we were all gawking from a boat about 100 feet away, but it was far enough that the elephants didn’t notice, or didn’t care.
The boat made sure to go slowly by the elephants. Clearly, they were an absolute highlight. We floated on to the end of lake, not seeing much else in regards to wildlife, then made a slow u-turn to head back to the starting point. This allowed another round of elephant ogling, which is what most of us really wanted.
Later that night we bought tickets to see a Kalaripayattu performance, a martial art that originated in Kerala. Said to be one of the oldest fighting styles in existence, with written evidence of martial arts in Southern India dating back as far as the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The performances are a very popular tourist draw, and after witnessing the magic these men display every night, we completely understood the appeal. They did solo and duo routines, usually involving sharp weapons or even burning hoops. There were backflips off the walls, distance jumping over multiple crowd members, and sparks flying off the metal weapons as they slammed onto the concrete mid-lunge. The skillful choreography was beautiful and entertaining from start to finish.
The next morning we departed Thekkady, onward to Kumarakom, stopping at a small spice plantation on the way, to get educated on the various spices, fruits and vegetables that grow in Kerala. It was basically a large garden with one of each as examples to display the various plants for tourists. The guide that showed us around was very passionate and knowledgeable. We learned a lot, and were thankful for his enthusiasm. He ended the tour at the gift shop, that sold all types of spices, priced four times the cost of what can be found at local markets. Lucky for our wallets, we had walked around the local market the previous night and bought every spice possible from some very kind and chatty locals, that even cut us a deal after swapping stories. Two bags full of spices and gifts cost a total of $16, which would have been upwards of $60 from this shop… A friendly tip for future visits.
After visiting the spice plantation, we were given the option to ride an elephant. There was no denying how awe inspiring the views of wild elephants at Periyar National Park was, so passing up an opportunity to meet some elephants wasn’t possible, but the idea of riding them didn’t feel morally right. Especially considering these elephants weren’t free like the ones we had seen. Allowing random strangers to ride them was quite the polar opposite. We reluctantly accepted, but only agreed to the shortest ride they offered, which lasted a quick 15 minutes. Sandhu was her name. She was 22 years old, spotted, and very sweet. To saddle her we had to walk up some stairs, then grab ahold of the handlebars attached to the thick mats that were mounted to her back. I instantly felt awful, assuming I was hurting her in some way. Her tamers guided us along a dirt path that circled through the trees. It was surreal getting to touch her skin. I particularly appreciated softly petting the small puff of coarse hair on her head as she walked, all the while hoping she did, too.
When the ride came to an end, photo ops were encouraged and we were able to give some love to Sandhu up close and personal. I can’t even describe how enchanting and gorgeous her large eyes were. The operation that owned and/or cared for Sandhu was very small and no one spoke English, so we were never advised how Sandhu came to them and why. It did not seem like a rehabilitation center, but of course we hoped it was one. I truly hope Sandhu was able to experience a free life, like the many elephants we saw at Periyar National Park. And that she gets freedom again.
A gallery from our time at Periyar National Park and Thekkady: