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iXiGOers Jul 31 2013

Where can I visit the backwaters of Kerala?

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In Kerala’s tiny coastal villages, strung together by an intricate network of canals and lagoons, exists a liquid emerald world. Deep green coconut fronds, lighter green rice shoots, the water itself turning green and sometimes, when the trees meet overhead, a dark green tunnel. Life moves at 20 km an hour, water winks unendingly for miles around, and traffic has to slow down because armies of ducks have paddled into view.

Kerala’s backwaters are yet another instance of culture being a product of geography. The state is effectively a narrow strip of land lying between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. The monsoon winds from the ocean deposit heaps of water on the hill ranges here. These waters travel back to the sea in the form of 40-odd rivers and streams. But the tidal waters from the sea flow inland since these short-lived rivers, which originate relatively close by, have a weak flow. The river-sea dynamic results in a network of lagoons and lakes, with an ever-changing corpus of water — brackish and saline as well as fresh and sweet. There are five big lakes and as much as 1,500 km of canals across the length of the state. Vembanad is the largest of the lakes, with Alleppey sitting prettily on its shores. Ashtamudi, with Kollam by its side, is another famous lake.

Kerala Backwaters Kuttanad

Here, the day begins and ends on water. The houses are oriented towards the canals, since those are the ‘roads’ of the backwater economy. And the life of the people that live along these waters is open to view. The canals are indented at regular intervals by tiny household jetties, which host the family boat and also serve as the family’s chief water source. Watch the lady of the house come down to the water and buy detergent powder from a floating shop in return for eggs or coconuts. Watch the vendor’s boat, piled high with plastic mugs, tooth powder, detergents, stationery... rowing on to the next house. Women are always here, washing clothes, vessels, fish, rice and, unavoidably, babies’ bottoms. Quotidian life continues pretty much at the same pace as ages ago. Men and women dive under for mussels, baskets tied around the waist. They catch shellfish with a long hoe-like stick with net attached.

You can still see the odd raft made of banana tree trunks criss crossed together. Only now, the houses have satellite TV and fridges. Along the narrower, remoter canals of the backwaters, you just up and row yourself to work, worship or school. Man, woman and child wield an oar fluently. There’s quite a hierarchy of boats, ranging from the one-seater family kocchuvalloms to the 10-seater churlamvalloms with their curlicue bows that can be hired as taxis for family occasions. There are large public transport barges, ‘school bus’ launches, repairmen’s boats and more.

Houseboat Cruises

You can start your backwaters tour from a number of places, including Ernakulam, Kumarakom, Kottayam and Kollam. You can start from Alappuzha, which has possibly the best infrastructure for this — good hotels and its jetty crawling with houseboat operators. Or book yourself into one of the resorts, and get a speed boat or motorboat or row boat to explore. For choice do the famous Alleppey-Kollam houseboat ride, eight idyllic hours of luxury, drinking in some of the best views in Kerala.

Houseboats in Kerala

Comfortable ambling vessels, the kettuvallom houseboats usually come with a crew of a cook and a bearer, along with the driver. From a single bedroom to five-bedrooms-with-living-rooms and air conditioning, there’s a wide range to choose from. Fixed itinerary tours typically take in several stops along the backwaters — resorts, temples, museums and villages where snake boats are made. But, if you want to venture deeper into the narrower canals and remoter villages, you can design your own itinerary with most operators. Every now and then, moor your boat and hop out to watch a boat being built, coir ropes woven, or coconut oil extracted or just join in whatever fun is going on. The whole thing is laid out almost like some live anthropological museum!

Cruise and Houseboat Operators

There are many government agencies you can opt for: Alleppey Tourism Development Co-op (Tel: +91-477- 2264462; Website: atdcalleppey.com) and Alleppey District Tourism Promotion Council (Tel: +91-477-2253308/2251796; Website: dtpcalappuzha.com) are helpful. Also check the packages on the Kollam District Tourism Promotion Council’s website dtpckollam.com. Apart from Kollam-Alappuzha or Kollam- Kottayam/ Kumarakom tours, they also offer long Kollam-Kochi tours.

Among private operators, Soma Houseboats (Tel: +91-477-2264112; Website: somahouseboats.com) is run by the reputed Somatheeram Ayurvedic Resort group. You can check out Bon Voyage Backwater (Tel: +91-477-2261079, Mob: 09847310105; Website: bonvoyage backwater.com), River and Country Tours (Tel:91-477-2253581; Website: river andcountry.com), Lakes & Lagoons (Tel: +91-477-2266842-44; Website: lakes lagoons.com) and Marvel Cruise (Tel: +91-477-2264341, Mob: +91-98470-54884; Website: marvelcruise.com).

Some indicative prices

Motorboat INR 300 per hour per person for a 10-seater, INR 400 per hour per person for a 20-seater Speedboat INR 1,500 per hour for two (3-4 pax) Alleppey-Kollam day cruise INR 300 per person Overnight houseboat cruise for a couple from INR 7,000-12,000.

Kerala Houseboat

Don't miss this unique experience while you are in Kerala!

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