Kerala has several natural attractions to offer to the backpackers waves crashing over beaches, swaying coconut palms, misty mountains with rolling plantations of tea and spices, wildlife sanctuaries and forests that take you back to gentler times, spectacular painted sunsets along the coast, and the joy of rains during the romantic monsoons. One of its most distinctive features, however, that sets it apart from the other Indian states, are the backwaters.
The Kerala backwaters are a labyrinth of connected canals, rivers, lakes, and lagoons that run along the western coast. Used extensively as a means of transport and for fishing and irrigation purposes, the waters also support a flourishing tourism industry. A visit to Kerala is incomplete without a trip to its famous backwaters and there are several regions that offer tours and stay options for travellers. The backwaters start in the South with Kollam (formerly, Quilon) that was once at the heart of ancient India’s maritime trade.
They end with the lesser known Kannur and Kasargode in the North. In the middle, lies the Kuttanadu region comprising Alappuzha and Kottayam districts. Alappuzha district is headquartered in the city of Alappuzha, better known as Alleppey, long promoted for it houseboat tourism as the ‘Venice of the East.’
When in Alleppey, you will have numerous means to tour the backwaters. I am listing a few that I recommend – you can choose the ones that work for you depending on the time you have and how deep you are willing to dig into your wallet.
Have an hour or two to spare? Looking for a laid-back way to explore the canals? Simply flag down a passing boatman and bargain for a delightfully laid-back trip through the backwaters. My hostel was located on the banks of a waterway and one evening, I simply stepped out and hailed a canoe down.
As the monsoon clouds glowered on the horizon, the ferry man rowed us through the main canals, pausing to dart in and out of the smaller water-lanes. While I was busy waving to tea-stall owners I had earlier befriended and clicking pictures of the sun playing peek a boo with the clouds, the boatman collected PET and glass bottles from the waters, presumably to recycle. I helped immensely by excitedly pointing to discarded bottles that he had already spied.
Altogether, a wonderfully quaint way to spend a few hours on the waters and an activity I highly recommend. An hour-long trip will cost you around INR 100 to 200 per person depending on your negotiation skills.
I stumbled on State Water Department Transport’s site through sheer chance, while researching ways to get to Thekkady in the hills. That’s how it came to pass that I found myself seated on the coir padded wooden benches of a ferry, one sunny morning, making the 2.5 hours journey to Kottayam from Alleppey. I was enchanted by the play of sunlight on the rippling waves of the lake and canals, the palm trees that cheerily waved their fronds at me, and the uniformed children that hopped on from the various stops on their way to school. The children were equally fascinated by me, a complete oddity amongst those uniform clad kids, in my harem pants and large sunglasses. The ferry is used primarily by the locals as a means of transport, and behaved exactly like a very noisy bus. All this for INR 15!
The District Tourism Promotion Council runs several tours and tourist boat cruises. Amongst the most popular ones is the Alappuzha – Kollam cruise (8 hours, INR 300) that passes by scenic Chinese Fishing nets, green and watery paddy fields, and local villages.
I was quite excited about Lonely Planet’s recommendation on kayaking in Alleppey. Guided kayaking, a knowledgeable guide, support boats, what’s not to love? Further, the moment I checked into my hostel, the hosts offered to fix me up on a kayaking trip. For INR 1000, I was promised an entire day out in the waters, freshly cooked breakfast and lunch, and a visit to a local village. Sadly, I was short on both time as well as money and had to postpone the activity for another trip. The reviews on the internet make it sound like fun, so do check this option out, if this is where your interest lies and your budget allows it.
You will read several points of view for and against hiring a houseboat. The for-houseboat crowd will wax eloquent about the pleasures of dropping anchor in the middle of nowhere to cook and eat freshly caught fish, meandering through the lanes of a village when the boat docks for the evening, waking up to the chirping of the birds, and the romance of spending the night on the waters. The against-houseboat folks will accuse them of being over-hyped and over-priced, too touristy, and contributing to water pollution. Both sides are right. I, perhaps, am biased by the fact that the cook on our houseboat was probably a Michelin starred chef working in disguise. His fried plantains alone are worthy of a sonnet or two. Added to the culinary delights was the magic of temple bells that heralded dusk, and watching dawn break over water hyacinth floating in the sleepy waters. Having said that, I am in no hurry to repeat the experience, and one night on the houseboat was quite enough. It is expensive and unless you are in a group of travellers or find like-minded people to split the costs with, I recommend that you are better-off choosing from amongst the other options that I have listed. They give you more bang for your buck and still allow you to explore the backwaters to your heart’s content.
● If you have an evening to spare, make your way to Alleppey Beach for views of the sun as it goes to bed in a crimson ocean. Or better still, catch a state run (KSRTC) bus to Marari Beach, about 11 KM away from Alleppey. While the beach in Alleppey has better eating options, Marari is less crowded, the views are far more spectacular
● Places to Stay: I stayed at a quaint property called Lemon Dew. Sandwiched by paddy fields and the canals, my room on the roof afforded me a ring side view of a pale sunrise over misty waters. However, the place is tucked away far from any form of reliable public transport (over land, that is) and eating joints, leaving me with rather limited options. The staff was quite helpful and arranged auto-rickshaws for me and allowed me to use their kitchen to dish up some instant noodles. I would recommend that do check the location of your accommodation before making any bookings.
● Getting There: Alleppey is well connected by train and bus to various places such as Cochin, Varkala and Thiruvananthapuram.
This travel post is a part of Aao hostels fellowship travel series.