Backwaters of Kerala – An Indulgence with Responsible Tourism

Boat ride

The backwaters of Kerala, particularly the ones near Kochi, offer unmatchable experiences of boat rides, village visits to spice plantations, first-hand experiences of coir-making, a leisure ride across the expansive Vembanad lake and the unmissable lunching experience at village homes across the crisscrossing backwater channels.

backwaters-kerala-tour
Source : Pixabay / Edited in Canva

Best place to experience the charm of Kerala backwaters

The month of October always brings back fond memories of my trip to the backwaters of Cochin or Kochi in Kerala. It has been seven long years since we undertook our family trip to Kochi and that wonderful vacation remains as the most cherished sojourn to date. I love Kochin (Cochin) and is one place apart from Dalhousie, in India, where I would love to settle down and lead the rest of my life.

Tailor made-tours, homestays, heritage resorts and the internet have boosted tourism in recent times, but a decade back, not many reliable options were available to gain information about Indian states barring the Lonely Planet Guides and a handful of efficient tourism boards like Kerala Tourism. And, one of the Cochin sightseeing maps suggested that we undertake the backwaters village tour.

A traveller or a tourist who visits Kerala should very well term his or her trip incomplete, without a boat ride in the serene backwaters of the longest lake in India- the Vembanad lake or Vembanad Kayal in Malayalam. Touted as the best place for Kerala backwater tour, the Vembanad lake and its canals offer unparalleled vistas of backwater village life!

You may also want to check my write-up on watching a Kathakali performance, one of the must-do things when in Cochin.

House boat
A house-boat resting along the banks

Visit Kerala backwaters through half-a-day backwater tour

We had arranged for a half-a-day boat trip through our hotel travel desk that was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guide in those days. But, my apologies, I do not remember the tour operator’s name.

Most of the backwater rides start from Alappuzha or Alleppey, which is a town to the south of Cochin. I remember we had not opted to drive down to Alleppey due to time restraint. Instead, we had chosen a boat ride from a place which was just 45 mins of drive from our hotel in Ernakulam. This was one of those conducted tours from Cochin. We wanted to ride in the traditional Kerala country boat called ‘Kettuvallam’.

Come with me virtually on this backwater tour that we undertook, soaking in the brilliance of the serene and divine ‘God’s own country’. I am just reminiscing some peaceful time we spent on the boat doing nothing but connecting with elements of nature and appreciating village backwaters’ life for close to five hours. All this without littering the lifeline of Kerala- the waterways!

Disembarking from the boat
A modest Kettuvallam used for a backwater ride

 

The backwaters of Kerala
The starting point at the jetty

What is Kettuvallam?

Kettuvallam is a traditional houseboat that has been in usage across the backwaters of Kerala for centuries. Kettu means ‘to tie’ and ‘vallam’ stands for a boat in Malayalam (the state language of Kerala). Do not mistake this word with ‘vellam’ that stands for water in Malayalam. Also, these kettuvallams differ from the snake boats called chundan vallam used in the famed boat race or Vallam Kali.

In earlier times, these Kettuvallams had a small kitchenette and storage room, to facilitate the boatsmen and traders as they rode from one place to another carrying their goods ( especially rice and cargo) to sell. Over the years, they have morphed into palatial houseboats to serve the purpose of tourism.

Constructed using the principles of traditional boat-making techniques, a Kettuvallam is made of wild jack ( similar to jackfruit) wood called Anjili in Malayalam. Basically, the structure of a Kettuvallam is made of a wild-jack wood hull held together by tying the wooden planks with the help of coir knots. No nails are used in the making of a traditional Kettuvallam. The thatched roof is put together over the hull by using organic and eco-friendly materials like coconut fibre, coir ropes and bamboo poles and mats.

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Interiors of a Kettuvallam / Source: Pixabay

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Kickstarting the backwaters village tour

The blue sky was bejewelled with shiny white clouds while the chocolate brown earth was accentuated by the emerald lush greenery as we started the boat ride across the expansive backwater of Cochin. The teal coloured water shimmered and dazzled, as a gentle breeze cruised past its surface with a periodic frequency under the soft sunlight. Ah! a perfect kickstart to a laid-back ride…

Slowly and effectively, the boat was navigated with precision through the various narrow canals of the backwaters of Cochin by the skilled boatsmen. The traditional ‘Kettuvallam’ houseboats were beyond our budget and the many Shikara sorts of boats were found to be crowded and lacked the required peace to enjoy this natural beauty. Thus, for us, this country boat worked like charm. Also, the country boats of Kerala are hand manoeuvred and do not pollute the water, and being responsible is a sort of an ode to a place..isn’t it?

A non-mechanized country boat
A typical non-mechanized country boat in the backwaters

Village backwaters – the riverine life

The backwaters of Kerala have been used for ages now, by the local people for fishing, transportation and agriculture. A backwater tour ride like this gives a glimpse into the riverine culture. The visuals of the daily routine of villagers who have their homes along the sides of the water bodies give an inside peek of the village backwaters.

Many of the houses, had a small boat/kayak anchored in front of their homes, used to commute from one place to another. The villagers went about their daily chores of fishing, farming,  coir making, spice cultivation, and shell mining. In a way,  these villages have benefitted by tourism and the backwater tourism industry has made them self-sustainable.

You may also want to read about the Chantaboon Waterfront Community of Chanthaburi in Thailand, that is very similar to the backwaters life of Kerala.

One of the village homes along the banks of the backwaters
A village home along the backwaters

 

Backwater Country Boats in Kerala
A village canoe

Shell Mining in the backwaters of Kerala

If there was a man busy with unloading the cement sacks, then there was another woman busy in knee-deep water of the canal, going about her search for clams in the backwaters of Kerala. Yes, clamshell mining is one of the means of livelihood of the people in and Vembanad lake.

I also learned that clamshells are used as a raw material in cement manufacturing units, as an add-on in fertilizers and pesticides and in some cases as medicines, as well.

Clam shell mining in the backwaters of Kerala
Clam Shells

Coir making in the Vembanad backwaters

A visit to one of the villages on an island nearby the Vembanad lake also gave us a closer glimpse into the making of coir. Kerala and coconuts are made for each other. A Coconut tree literally strips itself to provide a livelihood to its seekers and thus is called the ‘Kalpavruksha’.No part of the tree ever goes waste. And, coir making out of the coconut fibres just proves this fact. Coir is thus known as the golden fibre of Kerala.

Do have a glimpse of the efforts in one of the steps that go into the making of coir rope, in the video clip

Spicy stuff from the backwaters of Kerala

Many of the villagers living along the banks of the backwaters in Kerala, also grow spices that are organic and fresh. After all, it is for the trade of these spices that the Portuguese and the other invaders came to India. Nutmegs, Pepper, Bay leaves and other spices were being grown in these villages along the canals gives a glimpse into the occupation of these villagers.

Nutmeg in Backwaters of Kerala
Nutmeg

Flora and Fauna of the backwaters of Kerala

The canals crisscrossing the vast expanse of the backwaters in Kerala ran into innumerable numbers, and some of them looked pretty eerie to me. May be due to the lush greenery, the dense canopy over them and the lack of sunlight seeping into the canals. However, the darkness of the lush greenery was sometimes interspersed by the colourful blooms and not so colourful signboards!

The widespread silence was often interrupted by the voices of the Neer kaaka (Cormorants)  that cooled itself in the backwaters.

The many canals in the backwaters of Kerala
Meandering canals in the backwaters of Kerala

 

Cormorant in the backwaters of Kerala
A Neer kaaka frolicking in the backwaters

 

A typical village in kerala backwaters
Village home in the backwater

 

White water lillies in the backwaters of Kerala
Blooms in the backwaters

 

lotus bloom in the backwaters of Kerala
Water Lilly blooms amidst the backwaters

 

A signboard in the backwaters of Kerala
Wonder, why no photography?

Satisfying the hunger pangs on a backwater tour

Soon, it was lunchtime and the boat was nearing an island in the Vembanad Kayal. We were to have a traditional Kerala vegetarian lunch in one of the village homes on this strip of land surrounded by canals on all sides. The spread was simple yet flavoursome and satisfying.

A typical vegetarian lunch would consist of the Kerala par-boiled steamed rice, Aviyal, Kalan, Poppadom and a banana, apart from a spoonful of banana chips. The food was delicious, however, I found that the quantity served could have been better!

The island where our lunch was served
The house on an island where our lunch was served

 

Kettuvallam country boat
A Kettuvallam sans a house

Vembanad Kayal backwaters

Post-lunch, the boat entered an area with a vast expanse of blue! For a moment, I wondered if we had entered the sea, but soon, the realization set in that we were actually afloat on the Vembanad lake.

The wide blue water body was lined with inclined coconut trees that tapered on either side and looked as if this was the route to paradise. The sumptuous lunch, the cool breeze, the warmth of the sun and the picturesque sapphire lake put us into a deep slumber for the rest of the trip.

All through the trip, the sun was playing peekaboo behind the clouds. If at one point, the sky looked bereft of the clouds, then just as we entered another canal, it looked joyful with grey clouds that were impregnated with rain. The photos of this trip looked vibrant with different shades and shadows as we sailed across the lake of Vembanad or the Vembanad Kayal as known in Kerala!

Vembanad Lake
The entry to the expansive Vembanad Kayal

 

Boat in the backwaters of Kerala
The boatsmen using a bamboo pole to steer the boat

 

Unpredictable weather
Grey clouds loomed large over the backwaters

 

Coconut and palm trees line the shores
Coconut and palm forming fringes along the banks

It looked as if the whole world was busy with chores except the mortals on this boat…Bliss! Not surprising that Kerala was ranked as one of the “50 destinations of a lifetime” by National Geographic Traveler

Responsible travel and backwater tourism

On our return to the dock, we saw some tourists throwing thrash into these canals of the Vembanad lake. Empty water bottles, packets of chips and other wastes lay strewn amidst the flora and fauna. These acts of foolishness are the reason why tourists lose respect in the eyes of the locals. Vembanad lake pollution has been destroying the backwaters of Kerala for years now. We as tourists and travellers need to be more responsible and make sure we educate others too on the importance of responsible tourism. And this indeed is the need of the hour.

Responsible Tourism

That one waste bottle floating in the picturesque canal still haunts me and is part of my memory of that otherwise memorable backwater trip, at the end of which, we were reluctant to disembark from the boat …

Have you been on a tour to the backwaters of Kerala? Did you opt for the houseboat or the country boat? Do share your thoughts with me……

All the photos in this post have been captured by me on my very first digital Camera – SONY DSC  in the year 2010. Except three where the source has been mentioned as Pixabay.

polkajunction

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43 thoughts on “Backwaters of Kerala – An Indulgence with Responsible Tourism”

  1. Great post, It is very useful for me when I plan for a trip to Kerala. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. I had taken the same trip based on the same Lonely Planet Book. It was nice. Back in those days, mostly foreigners took this trip. It was a nice introduction to Kerala. However, now I find Kerala a bit overrated.

    1. Now..now… I am no more surprised when our tastes match! Looks like I have been following your footsteps even before I started following your blog!
      I have a lot more to explore in Kerala so really can’t comment if it is over-rated, yet!

  3. When we were in Munnar 3 years ago, we had decided out of the blue to travel to Cochin and allapuzha to rent a boat ride in the backwaters. Long story short we had a horrible 1 hour there, it was summer hot, and escaped quickly from this crazy place where boat owners were aggressively trying to sell a boat ride. I know now that this not a place I want to go back to. However, I do want to experience the backwater’s ecosystem and it’s people and their culture so I believe the other place is where I need to go. Where was the starting village of your backwater tour? I didn’t quite catch it.

    1. Maybe summers are not the right time to indulge in the backwaters…We had gone in October and it was quite pleasant. I don’t remember the name of the place but we had driven down for around 45 mins from Cochin…May be a place called ‘Vaikom’…not sure!

  4. Beautiful pictures. I am from Kerala but we get to visit during vacations only. We took a day trip on a country boat as that was sufficient for our needs. There was a small toilet in the boat for emergencies as we had travelled with small children initially. Otherwise, we had regular halts every 1 to 2 hours. We had the best day on the serene boat trip. And will recommend the same to all.

  5. Sad to see tourists littering and indulging in such behavior. But, what a trip you narrated about the life of locals in th village and the beautiful boats that make it an enthralling affair, Meenakshi. I’d love to visit, someday. I love the description and of course, the gorgeous pictures.

  6. JayanthyGovindarajan (@JayanthyG)

    I am waiting to visit the backwaters! I love your photos and it is so serene! My mother has visited and the same with my husband. Both tell tales and I will listen and then tell them, we must go! 😉 Detailed post Meenu! I will bookmark this for my future trip!

  7. Kerela Backwaters are essentially the most peaceful of the places I have explored in my short travel duration. Your post brings back my memories of the family trip five years ago and reading your words I could almost re-live those memories which still brings me peace!

  8. Gosh how wonderful it must be to experience the wonders of nature in a natural setting, to live in the house just next to water. Didn’t know that clams are used in cement too. Beautiful pictures of the backwaters. I have been to few places in Kerala but didn’t see this much. Enjoyed reading the post.

  9. Such a beautiful post this is. Our Kerala trip is pending and I can’t feel sad enough for it. I want to visit all the places in these pictures and see it all for real!

    1. What ! I understand as we are happy to stay at home, visit our relatives and have good food. But, give it a try. It is super. We are from Kottayam and so could start our boat trip from near Kumarakom.

  10. Two years ago, I had a workshop at Kumarakom and had seen some beautiful houseboats. Since then, staying in a houseboat has been on my wish list. Your travelogue makes we want to take a vacation real soon now. Thanks for a detailed virtual tour of the backwaters of Kerala!

  11. Kerala is very close to my heart as my hubby is from there. It’s truly beautiful and justifies the saying ‘God’s own country’. You post and particularly the pictures brought back very fond memories of my backwater and house boat experience 🙂

  12. We were there last October with Treetrunk Travel. Both my wife and I are convinced that it was our best holiday ever, and we shall probably go back again. The next time, though, we’ll probably have two nights on the houseboat rather than just the one. Or maybe three!
    This year, we’re off to India’s Golden Triangle after christmas, and we’re hoping (and expecting) to be as enthralled as were were in beautiful Kerala.

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