Cruising Kerala’s Backwaters

Even before I got to India I was being told to make sure I visited Kerala’s Backwaters. Previous visitors, websites and tour guidebooks all told me it would be a highlight of any trip to India… and they weren’t lying.  I decided to book a private houseboat through Southern Backwaters for a 2 day 2 night journey from Kollam (about 90 minutes outside Kerala’s capital of Trivandrum) to Thanneermukkom (about an hour outside Kochi City)… and it was magnificent.  The boats are called kettuvallams and originally were used as rice barges, someone had an idea to convert one into a houseboat for tourists and now there are about 500 of them cruising the Backwaters.  The scenery is spectacular. The Backwaters are a series of rivers, canals and lakes through the south western state of Kerala.  Towns and villages are scattered along the route, many sustained by fishing and agriculture (mainly coconuts, coconut fibre and rice) and of course tourism.  We would often see boats being moved along the river carrying big loads of coconut fibre (used for making Coir – used in doormats, brushes, mattresses etc.),  but it would be tough going, usually they were being pushed along by huge poles that would be driven down to the bottom and then used as leverage to move the boat.  That’s also how the small canoe ferries operated, carrying passengers (sometimes overloaded) and their cargo (I often saw motorcycles straddling the small canoes) from one side of the river to the other.  The fishermen would more often go out on small canoes made from hollowed out trees or use makeshift sails out of pieces of plastic sewn together.  But there were also bigger fishing boats, brightly coloured, all along the route. There were also these huge hoists set up along the river for the fishing boats to hook their nets onto to lift their catch out of the water, as well as huge fishing nets set up along the shore to dip into the water and scoop up huge amounts of fish at one time. The waterways were as calm as glass with the palm trees, bridges and boats reflected on the surface.  All along the way people would stop whatever they were doing to stare out at the passing houseboat and give you a tentative wave, if I waved back their faces would break out into huge smiles and they would start waving their arms enthusiastically or blow me kisses urging me to ‘take photo, take photo.’  Some would pose for the camera while others, especially young boys, would ham it up.  You would think that spending several hours a day just floating down the river would be tedious and boring, but you’d be wrong.  I brought along books to read and a few other things I thought I might want to have to pass the time, but I didn’t look at any of it.  There’s nothing quite like the experience and I didn’t want to miss a minute of it. I thought the Andaman Islands were relaxing, but Kerala’s Backwaters take you to a whole other level.  It’s almost Zen like to cruise down the river, laid out on the luxurious velvet seating or the mattress on the front deck; sipping coconut water and watching the world go by.  Occasionally fish would jump out of the water bouncing across its’ surface, other times I would be amazed at the beautiful birds that followed us along the way.  I certainly don’t consider myself a birdwatcher, I can’t even tell the difference between a sparrow and a swallow, but with the help of the boat captain I was seeing majestic orange winged Eagles dive into the water, flying right back up clutching a small fish in its talons, and not just one or two but dozens of them, sometimes perched on the wood posts that boats are tethered to.  There were also long necked Ibis and Egrets, beautifully coloured Kingfishers, green parrots, mynah birds and when I didn’t see them flying overhead or perched on branches or in the water, I could hear their calls echoing across the waterways.  Part of the Backwaters are surrounded by dense tropical forest on one side and only a narrow strip of land separating the river from the Arabian Sea on the other.   We made a few stops along the way, to check out tourist sites or to stop for lunch.  At one rest stop we hopped off the boat and I started walking around and suddenly felt my legs crawling with bugs… turned out they were large red ants that were impossible to get off of you, if I tried to flick them off they would stick to my hand.  I quickly ran back to the boat and managed to get them off me, but for hours after I kept having the feeling like bugs were crawling all over me.  Creepy!  At the same stop we did venture off the boat one more time to walk (quickly) into the nearby town to go to the liquor outlet and buy some Kingfisher Beer… yes I actually had a beer, probably my first one since I was a teenager, (and yes I’m wearing the traditional Lungi) but when in India, sweltering in the hot sun… you gotta join ‘em.   A lot of people who know me (and even regular readers of my blogs) will know that I am not really comfortable on the water or on boats.  But I didn’t have a moment of fear or panic, in fact I even took the wheel for about a half hour (with the Captain looking over my shoulder), giving me even more confidence on the boat.   There was a crew of 3;  Subhadan the captain, Jayachonkhenlok (sp?), the engine operator and Shivan the chef.  They all made me feel like they knew what they were doing and well in control.  In fact all three had been making this trip hundreds of times a year for many years… all veterans of the circuit.   The food was unbelievable… cooked fresh for every meal, everything from the banana fritters for afternoon tea to the fish curry, it was better than the food I have eaten in many restaurants and always so much food for little ole me.  And Shivan wouldn’t let me leave the table without eating as much as possible, I’m sure I gained a few pounds on the two day trip… in fact I KNOW I did.   The weather held out, it was very hot and very humid.  At one point we did run into a storm that looked like trouble but we managed to just suffer through a short cloud burst of rain.  We cruised past the ashram for Mata Amritanandamayi or the Hugging Mother.  What a success she has been… there are two massive buildings (the largest I have seen in Kerala) for all the guests who want to stay there.   One of the things that surprised me in Kerala is all the catholic churches everywhere, mainly from the Portuguese settlement of the area.  We saw several along the waterways and stopped at St. Mary’s Syrian Catholic Church in Champakulam, one of the oldest churches in South India.  The site was consecrated in 427AD making it more than 1500 years old, the current church on the site is 250 years old and has beautiful artwork all throughout the church including the ceilings, originally painted by two Tamil artists from Sri Lanka.   One of the unusual things about it was the confessional, set up outside the church.  People would line up and get down on their knees in front of the confessional with the priest on the other side of the screen, but it was all open to anyone who walked by.  All the catholic churches I saw were busy, mainly because it was Easter Week so there were special masses and programs going on.  On my second night, when we stopped outside the city of Alleppey, there was a Hindu festival underway at a nearby temple.  After the sun set we heard the music getting louder and suddenly brightly lit boats, blasting their music, with people and huge marionettes dancing to the beat.  It was spectacular to see and I’m so lucky I happened to be there for it.  Later that night I went over to the neighbouring houseboat for a shot of whiskey.  The guy staying there had planned a romantic week on the waters with his girlfriend and booked one of the most luxurious houseboats available, 3 bedrooms, beautifully decorated with top end materials, and I have to say the bathroom was spectacular with a stand-alone shower (mine was nice but the shower was right in the middle of the room).  He also had a top deck with nice furniture and a full entertainment system with TV and stereo.   His cost 32,000rs/night (abt. $800usd)while mine was just 16,000rs (abt. $400usd) for the two days. Unfortunately his girlfriend had a family emergency and had to leave before the journey started, so there he was stuck on this beautiful 3 bedroom houseboat, and all alone.  We kept each other company for an hour or so (in between his numerous calls from his girlfriend) but I had to get back to my boat because I knew the crew would be waiting up for me before they would go to bed. 

I hated for the journey to end and sat on the front deck for the two hour ride across Vambinardi Lake watching all the morning fishermen beginning their day.  As we docked at Thannirmukom I bid farewell to the crew promising to see them again one day.  I had a car and driver take me to the city of Kochi, about 90 minutes away and had decided to stay in the Fort area, an old part of the city where there are numerous mansions built by Portuguese and Dutch settlers hundreds of years ago that have been converted to hotels and guest houses.  They have all been beautifully maintained and I really lucked out with the one I booked.  Poovath Heritage Home Hotel is right on the beach, with the powerful surf of the Arabian Sea amazing to watch the sunset but making the water impossible to venture into.  The Hotel is beautiful with huge rooms all very tastefully decorated.  It even has a swimming pool!  And all for just over $50 a night! I toured around a bit, but because of the Easter weekend a lot of things were closed so I spent a lot of time just walking along the boardwalk.  I hired a TukTuk to take me around the city, showing me the highlights, and the best part about that was when he took me to his brother’s home and his home nearby to meet his family. It was great to meet them and see their homes, something not a lot of tourists get to do.  I did spend one evening taking in some Kerala culture, watching a demonstration of Kalaripayattu (martial arts) and Kathakali (traditional classical dancing).   Part of the show is the actual application of the makeup and I had front row seats for all of it.  It was facinating watching the makeup process, especially since one of the characters is transformed from a middle aged man into a woman for his role. The costumes were spectacular and there was a young drummer onstage, who must have been about 10 or 12 years old but was absolutely amazing… pacing the entire show with his drum beats.   
The martial arts demonstration was facinating as well, especially when one guy came onstage with two long metal sticks and proceeded to twist and twirl them with amazing power and speed.
Kerala is definitely one of my favourite parts of India, and it’s a very fitting place to end my 3 month journey through this magnificent country.

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2 Responses to “Cruising Kerala’s Backwaters”

  1. Amanda
    April 26 at 11:42 am #

    Absolutely fascinating – the boat trip sounds amazing!!!


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