South India, Day 5. Ponnani to Calicut (Kozhikode)

It’s been a rowdy, fishy morning, but now it’s time to take to the road again. I’m heading for Calicut, or what is now called Kozhikode. I like the old name better, more exotic. In fact, most Indians still refer to it as Calicut.

Since I left Cochin, the riding has been great. Meandering along the coastal roads, exploring the backwaters, meeting friendly locals, and just going where few cycle-tourers have ever been. I’m hoping for more of the same today.






The road less travelled…is like opening a wrapped gift



Sometimes, I would just ride until the trail peters out to the water’s edge and then I would turn back and explore another interesting looking one.



Roads that lead nowhere often end with rewarding views.



And interesting colours





A primitive toll setup at one of the many bridges I’m crossing today. Not all have tolls though, and bicycles are free anyway.



Sometimes I feel like a celebrity when locals, like this group here, runs across the road shouting excitedly, stopping me in my tracks  … just to take a wefie.



Inevitably, I have to turn back to one of the main roads. This one is surprisingly nice to ride on; smooth, straight and with a wide shoulder.

Just before Calicut, the traffic becomes normal again … as in, noisy and chaotic. Strangely, with all that honking and getting buzzed by lorries, buses and autos, I don’t feel like I’m in danger of getting swiped off the road. All I have to do is keep my line and everyone else just avoids me. Kinda reminds me of the equally crazy traffic in Vietnam. I call it orderly chaos. I suppose if I can ride through this mess with a camera in one hand unscathed, I’ll do fine.

By the time I find a decent hotel, it’s getting quite dark, and I finally end up at a hotel called White Lines. 700R a night. I think I’ll stay another day and check out the town. And since it’s not too far from the railway station, I’ll enquire about taking the train to the next town of Kannur. From what I can see on the map, there’s not much chance of riding coastal roads on this leg, and riding Highway 17 all the way there is not fun at all.


White Lines Hotel, located just off the main road behind these stalls. I wonder if it’s a reference to snorting dope…








South India, Day 5. Exploring old Ponnani.

Ponnani is made up of 2 very distinct districts — the old and the new. The old Ponnani is what you’ll see first if you come in to town using the coastal route 17. The new Ponnani greets you first if you stay on the busier route 62, which then meets route 17 just at the edge of town.

I wasn’t impressed at all by the newer side of Ponnani when I arrived yesterday. It’s chaotic, nosiy, busy and without much character. So, this morning, I decide to ride around the old part of town and see if it’s worth my time. As I head towards the port, the houses and buildings seem to age backward in time.

It’s old, very old, but colourful and full of old-world charm and character. Some of the shops are shuttered and locked, abandoned for the glitzier side of town, but many are still in operation. They’re mostly small businesses; selling anything from bananas to ropes to bamboo. Even the residents seem very much in character. They’re very friendly; even more so when I get up close and personal with my camera. If there’s one thing that lets you make friends instantly, it’s the camera. Must be their innate sense of Bollywood in their DNA.








Cows, pedestrian, motorcycle and a bus… so who gets right of way? The cows of course. Next in line? Whoever is bigger, louder and faster.





































At the end of the sealed road, I find myself riding on a dirt road leading towards the sea. Continuing on, I come upon some huts next to the water, busy with fishing boats and groups of people gathered around some of the boats. The smell of salty air permeated with that of rotting fish, punctuated by the sound of seagulls, crows and egrets cawing and flapping their wings, , completes the whole scene.

I stop to absorb it all. I feel a little overwhelmed, heady even, but I think that is likely from the thousands of rotting fish being dried in the sun.

Some of the fishermen behind the huts are loafing around on the beach, looking at me uninterested. The action seems to be happening around the boats so I ride straight into the thick of it.

Instantly, I become the star attraction.


Ponnani’s fishing port





Fish being dried in the sun. Once dried, they are bagged in gunny sacks. I don’t think they’re for human consumption



Fresh off the boat



A cycle-tourer does seem to stand out like a sore thumb here.



My presence incited a heated argument among some of the fisherfolk, with this guy seemingly telling the other off for being ignorant about touring bikes (I think…). I just stand there and watch them go at it, amused by it all.



Except for his flip-flops, he looks very much a seasoned tourer.



Me too!







One of the joys of cycle-touring…being welcomed by locals.



Next….. I continue towards Calicut aka Kozhikode. A big city, I expect it to be crazier than Ponnani.



South India, Day 4. Triprayar to Ponnani

Breakfast is a simple affair at a little stall across the road from Dreamland. 2 pieces of apom, and a cup of Bru coffee, for only 38R. It’s a good enough start for my day. Anyway, I won’t hesitate to stop for a quick snack, and a cup of chai, when I see a tea-shop next. On the road, food is a constant. And it’s cheap.


500 metres down the main road, I see a turn-off. I’m hoping it will lead to the coast. It does.



Off the beaten track that’s off the beaten track… Out of curiosity, I turn off onto a sandy path leading towards the beach meandering between some houses. I decide to follow it. It’s hard going pedalling on fine sand.



I come across a bare-shirted man in front of his house. Surprised to see a cycle-tourer appear out of nowhere, he stops me for a chat. This is actually the norm in India. They are not an inhibited people; not shy talking to strangers, and definitely not camera-shy. The hand-operated pump in front is his only source of water supply.



Soon, his neighbour comes out and join us.



Neighbour’s simple hut.



My new friends from Triprayar; Sunil (in shorts) is a scriptwriter and speaks fluent English. He invites me for tea in his home, but seeing as it’s getting on in the morning, I decide to continue my ride instead. Well, at least I know this will be a good spot to camp if I should come this way again.


Scenes along the coast ……….










Man plucking coconuts



Coconut Man comes down. Rewards me with one for watching his performance.



After I finish drinking the water inside, Coconut Man splits the fruit open with a deft chop of his special knife, slices off a piece of the shell which I then proceed to use as a spoon. Nifty…



Nice Coconut Man. The thing sticking out of the crook of his shoulder is his razor sharp sickle-shaped knife.









These coastal roads are some of the most beautiful I have ever ridden.







A village grocer..



Nice beach roads don’t go on forever. Here I’m back on the main road again.



The road has been taken over by a colourful procession



The sharp rapping of their drums is very mesmerising.






In India, it’s hard to find anyone who shies away from a camera.






“You’d better take my picture, dude”







My destination today is Ponnani, but I think I’ll detour to Guruvayur for a quick look. It’s a famous temple town; we’ll see if there’s anything interesting.



Guruvayur was disappointing. Nothing much to see. This is one of their biggest temples but I don’t think they’ll allow me to push my bike in.



Lots of sweet tooth devotees in Guruvayur.



Just outside Guruvayur, I met Denny Abraham George and Ajith Varma, on quick 5-day-ride from Mangalore back to Cochin where they live. Gave me a few tips on where to go and what to avoid on the way to Udupi.



Ponnani coming up…



Ponnani is a chaotic little town. Not exactly a tourist spot, and there isn’t much choice when it comes to accommodation. Dreamland this is not. 400R, take it or leave it. I won’t show you the bathroom…


Tomorrow, I’ll check out the old part of Ponnani before heading to the big city of Calicut aka Kozhikode.



Triprayar to Ponnani : 70kms


South India, Day 3. Cochin to Triprayar.

The ferry to Vypin Island is just one of the many ferries connecting the many backwaters that dot the state of Kerala. Like most of the backwater ferries, it’s just a short ride across the water from Fort Cochin. The fare for cyclists is just 3 Rupees. The ticket seller, lodged inside his tiny box with a tiny window, is not a very nice man. Twice, he pushes back the Rupee note that I hand him, saying something which I obviously do not comprehend but my guess is he wants exact change. Seeing this hapless foreigner not getting anywhere, a young man behind me tells me he’ll pay for me instead; “no problem”. Saved yet again by a kind soul.


On board the ferry to Vypin Island



My ferry-fare saviour





Once on Vypin Island, I point by bike west and soon, I’m pedalling along a sandy, coconut-tree-lined country road running parallel to the sea. It’s a bright, beautiful blue-skies kind of day. And scorchingly hot, too. Well, better than riding in freezing temperatures, I always say. But at least it’s not as humid as I thought it would be.

Throughout the day, I wind in and out, alternating between sandy paths and dirt roads; sometimes roads with water on both sides. These are the backwater roads connecting the many houses and villages along the way. Sometimes I hit a dead end while riding along the beach, then I simply head inwards and try to find another entrance to the beach again.

By mid-afternoon, I’m find myself on Cherai Beach, a sliver of land with the sea on both sides of it. A single sealed road runs the entire length of it. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful place, and popular with backpackers who come to Cochin although it’s not crowded with them. I regret not bringing my tent. This is a great camping spot.











The stone wall, about 5-6 ft high, runs along almost the entire coastline, protection against the massive waves that hit during monsoon season.



Could have easily camped in the garden





Off the beaten track, and into someone’s front yard….



where I meet a resident with his home-made bow and arrow shooting small fish



Along Cherai Beach









Joseph and Mary ice factories… How cool!



Wedding, Kerala style, complete with banana trees.




At the end of Cherai beach is Munambam, from where I will take another ferry across Periyar River to Azhikode. Again, I quickly head west after disembarking and find myself riding along quiet village roads. The roads here are surprisingly of very decent quality, and it’s such a joy to ride slowly along and absorb the local colour, smells and sounds that permeate the air.


Ferry ticket seller was nicer here



Munambam ferry



My stop for the day is the town of Triprayar. Leaving the quiet village roads, I head for route 17, the main thoroughfare that’s typical of a busy Indian road. Honk, honk, honk … cars, trucks, busses, motos … whatever, they never stop honking. Well, at least you know when something’s coming up behind you.

Tripayar seems to be a bustling little town. The main street is busy, noisy and very colourful. I zero in on a hotel I’d read about — Dreamland. Newish looking, it’s located on the main road. The room is 700R, no aircon but it’s big and comfortable. No free wifi — Internet is 50R an hr.



Main street, Triprayar.



Bakery in Triprayar. Entrance is at the back, I think.



Peanut seller, Tripayar. I couldn’t pass up on this cheap treat , of course. His pushcart is parked at a very strategic corner.



A good day’s ride, followed by a great dinner, and I’m off to dreamland…


Cochi to Triprayar: 70 kms.



South India. Cochin, Day 2, pt 1

Cochin is old. Very old. That’s what makes it such an absorbing little town. On a bicycle, which is the perfect conveyance for this place, you can amble along at your own pace exploring its nooks and crannies.

Some of the quiet streets are loudly coloured by garishly painted exteriors walls and signs. Other streets are less elaborate — a monochrome of whitewashed walls of old European looking houses. With so many Europeans having made their homes here throughout the centuries, a Jewish enclave in Cochin would not be out of place, which is where I’m headed next.

Jew Town is located along Jew Town Road near the Mattancherry jetty. Not unexpectedly, the synagogue has become a popular tourist sight, complete with stalls hawking trinkets and the like. I push my bike into the pedestrian-only main street for a quick look. Nothing much to see except tourists gawking at the synagogue. Most of the Jewish action must be happening behind closed doors.


Portrait of the day. A lottery seller plying hope to prospective millionaires.



Rich in years, he agrees with me on the best mode of transport



Poetry on the streets. Even a simple task like sweeping can be graceful. She was fluid with her movements, pirouetting with her broom, almost dancing. She was a joy to watch.


jew town, cochin

Lost in thought, this trader sitting outside his shop in Jew Town was oblivious to me as I took this shot of him.



Quaint little shops with their quaint wares





An open space, a patch of grass, and the game is on. Actually in India, cricket is not a game, it’s a national obsession. When I was there, World Cup Cricket was in full swing and support for the national team reached a feverish pitch.


My favourite part Cochin is Fort Cochin. Everyone seems to make a beeline here. There’s a permanent air of festivity to the place. The locals seem to enjoy walking the promenade which extends all the way to Mahatma Gandhi Beach a ways down.

The most striking sight here are the many Chinese nets dotting the shoreline. Strangely unique to Cochin and nowhere else in India, these nets are fully operated by humans, at least half a dozen to each net. They’re a sight to behold when the huge square net is slowly lifted up by a cantilever aided by a counter-balance of rocks tied to the other end of the contraption. The catch, however, is usually modest — a handful of fish and some crustaceans.









Mahatma Gandhi Beach. Weekend crowds throng the beach from end to end



A peanut seller on the beach



Nuts are simply fried in sand from the beach itself; no oil, no salt, just plain fried delicious peanuts



Once done, the sand is sieved through this strainer. Plenty more sand where that came from…



Only 10 rupees for a handful served in a paper cone. Some minute grains of sand could still be tasted…you know it’s there when you crunch down on them with the peanuts.



Tomorrow, I head north along the coast, starting with a short ferry ride from Fort Cochin to Vypin Island. From there I intend to hug the coast as much as I can, making detours through the backwaters, not just to avoid the busy main roads, but I reckon it will be more fun this way.








South India. Cochin, Day 2, Pt 2.

Cochin, or Kochi, as it is officially called today, is very laid back. I like this place. As I ride along its shady tree-lined streets, I’m assailed by wild colours, incredible smells and a cacophony of sounds at every corner. Life seems to move at an easy relaxed pace here.

The promenade by the sea is a particularly nice place. Just where it starts to wind along the shore southwards is a jetty where a roll-on-roll-off ferry discharges its cargo of motorcycles, cars, autos and trucks. I think this is the ferry that will take me to Vypin island tomorrow when I start heading north.




The sun is shining brightly in the cloudless sky. It’s hot and I’m feeling hungry. I haven’t had breakfast since I checked out of Taj Mahal. I think I’ll head for that not-too-fancy eatery just next to the jetty. A young man is busy preparing little balls of dough to make pratha. I order some, with a glass of milk tea, or chai, as they call it here in India. The curry for the pratha is very good, as is the chai, so i order seconds. No spoon or fork, it’s fingers-only cuisine. In India, do as the Indians do…




Hygiene looks a bit iffy… but what the heck…



it’s tasty!




Cochin has a very chequered history of being colonised by first the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, then the British. It’s not unlike Malacca and the rest of the Malay peninsula, which was also colonised by the the same gang of Europeans. To me, colonisation is merely a politically-correct term for economic rape. They lord over the ignorant natives, enrich themselves with the land’s abundant natural resources, then leave when it looks like the next greedy bunch of colonists have a made a new deal with the native rulers, and so on… until the natives finally revolt.

These Europeans did, however, leave an enduring legacy behind  —  their culture and heritage, especially their architecture which gave Cochin its distinct personality. All these, in effect, made Cochin what it is today — a popular tourist destination.


Kerala goes by the touristy tagline ‘God’s own country’. And it’s not undeserving of this accolade either. Cochin, and the rest of Kerala, is as beautiful as it is pious.



Churches of every denomination, shape, size and colour can be found throughout the city.









Not surprisingly, Mother Teresa is revered here.



And so is St Something, I didn’t quite get the name when I asked his devotees…



Even guest houses are overtly religious.  Like a lost sheep, I was drawn to this garishly painted one after checking out of Taj Mahal.



Colourful sareed women at a Hindu temple ceremony add to the mélange of faiths in this city



Old world charm … this could easily pass off as a street in Europe

South India. Cochin, Day 1. Arrival.

The nearest international airport to Udupi (my destination) when flying budget, is Cochin. A mere 500kms from Udupi, it should take me a less than a week of easy pedalling to get there. And since I’m hugging the coast throughout, I don’t expect granny (as in gearing) will be given much of  a workout. Just as well, February is blisteringly hot in south India.

As with anything cheap, you don’t get to choose your arrival time at a more sensible hour. In this case, it’s late at night, which puts paid my usual ride-out-of-the-airport routine. A 40-km ride to an unknown city in the dark is not on my things-to-do-before-I-die list so the only other option is to hire an ‘auto’, a Tata-powered 3-wheeled taxi you can find all over India.


Nothing less than the venerable Taj Mahal will do for this cycle-tourer. When we arrived, the Taj, and the whole streeet, was asleep. The auto driver had to bang on the door to wake the owner up. He finally answered the door in a daze, and clad only in a sarong.


The friendly owner of Taj Mahal and his family, posing here in the grand lobby of the hotel, just next to the suite I was put up in.


My princely quarters.

I’m checking out of the Taj, maybe something a little less royal. But first, breakfast.

South India. A coastal ride from Kerala to Karnataka.


As a travel destination, India is a contradiction of sorts, often maligned by the ignorant traveller.

“India? Why do you want to tour India by bicycle? It’s dirty, the drivers are crazy, the cities are congested, and there are robbers and rapists everywhere…..”.

Not entirely untrue, of course. That is, if you limit your Indian experience to the slums of Mumbai, or the chaotic streets and highways of New Delhi, or the less-than-hygienic riverside ghats of Kolkata where throngs of humanity come down to bathe, wash and pray in the holy waters.

On the other side of the Rupee coin, it’s a land of infinite colours, with a geographic palette covered by mountains that reach to the heavens, huge swathes of lush forests that blanket the plains and valleys, and sun-bleached beaches that hug the coastline for kilometres on end. Then there are myriad cultures that trace their roots back thousands of years, unique cuisines that defy gastronomic descriptions, but most of all, it’s a country peopled by some of the friendliest folk I have ever met in all of my travels.

But, in truth … my other excuse for adding India to my list of cycle-touring destinations is a familial one — it’s just so I can accompany my little girl home for her one-month semester break from her medical studies at Manipal University. Well, what are fathers for anyway?

And so, lawless drivers, robbers and rapists not withstanding, I make plans to ride the south-western coast of South India, starting from the old colonial city of Cochin in Kerala, then head north towards the temple town of Udupi in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, where Manipal University is located. The ride should cover about 500 kms, give or take a few detours through the beautiful backwaters that Kerala is famous for.

From Udupi (with my bike packed up), my Junee and I will hop on a train for an 8-hour ride back to Cochin from where we’ll fly home to Kuala Lumpur.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 12.40.57 PM