An Iconic Experience – Cruising Kerala’s Backwaters On A Houseboat

24th April 2014

The sunset over Kerala’s backwaters.

Staying on a houseboat is the iconic tourist experience in Kerala.  I purposely decided not to do too much research about Kerala before going, but I had heard of the houseboats and was incredibly excited to get a chance to experience one of them.

These houseboats, while now used for tourism, were once vital to the local economy.  Back before it was convenient and economically viable to ship rice and other cargo via road, air & rail, the houseboats or Kettuvallam were used to transport cargo back and forth between the more remote backwaters to Kochin’s large international port.

Workers loading rice from a small boat to a truck for transport. In the old days these would have been transported by Kettuvallam.

In the early 1990’s many of these boats were sitting around being unused, victims of progress.  One day someone had an idea to make a tourist houseboat out of one.  Since then many of the old boats have been converted and hundreds more have been built.  In total there are over 900 such boats cruising Kerala’s backwaters.

Our houseboat adventure began near Alleppey which is about 70km south of Kochin.  Our group of 30 took up eight boats in total. Since the boats were operated by two different companies, we were split into two groups before setting out. Each boat had a different capacity with variations containing two, three & even four bedrooms.

A group of houseboats docked in line.

It was only day 5 of the trip and I still hadn’t quite adjusted to being part of such a large group.  I can be a shy person and often feel overwhelmed by too many people. While I did eventually adjust and get to know almost everyone, I saw the houseboat as a chance to recharge my rapidly draining social batteries.

Eventually I learned that I was going to share a 2 bedroom houseboat with Ola from Poland.  Like me, she has a history of family blogging and we later learned that we have a lot in common including not always being comfortable in large groups!

Ola and our captain sitting on the front of the boar as we cruise the backwaters.

Once the groups were split, we had the opportunity to purchase beer from a small grocer before getting on the boat.  Ola & I agreed to each buy three since we had an entire day in front of us.  Before long we were on a small boat which took us to a remote area where the houseboats were docked.

It is hard to describe what the next six or so hours were like.  After a hectic travel schedule to get to India and a few long days and nights before getting on the boat, I was in heaven.  The scenery was fantastic, the conversation was interesting and I was doing what I love.  I was fulfilled.

Duck herding!

After cruising around for a couple of hours, we were served a fantastic lunch consisting of fried fish with all of the typical Keralan sides.  Following lunch we continued to cruise and watch as local life passed us by. At one point we passed a farmer herding thousands of ducks off of the main river.  Duck herding. Who knew?

Just before the amazing sunset, we docked next to some of the other boats.  While we didn’t see everyone from our group, two other bloggers, Prasad & Nelson joined us for what seemed like hours of conversation.  The conversation was so good that we asked to have a joint dinner, but our crew informed us that they had already started the preparations and it wasn’t possible.

Our delicious lunch!

As the inevitable end to this wonderful day drew closer with every minute, we said goodbye to Prasad & Nelson and slowly enjoyed a dinner of fried chicken with rice and naan.  It was every bit as delicious as lunch.  Once dinner was done, it was clear that neither Ola nor I was ready to let this day go.

Apparently Nelson felt the same way, because he came back over for awhile and the three of us talked about travel, life & food.  These conversations are not often ones that I can have at home, so I cherish them.

I will never forget Nelson scolding me for telling him that The Shawshank Redemption is my favorite movie. “That is the #1 movie on IMDB,” he said with his trademarked snarkiness as if to chastise me for not having a unique answer. I then quoted my favorite line from the movie, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Who can argue with that?

Nelson & Prasad say hello from their neighboring houseboat!

Before long it was evident that we could no longer put off the inevitable.  This amazing day was over.  Nelson left and we went to sleep in our surprisingly comfortable air conditioned rooms.  Life was good.

The next morning I awoke early and sat on the front of the boat by myself, reflecting about the trip thus far.  For the first time in over a week I felt somewhat refreshed and at ease.  The hectic pace of travel had for a moment been suspended.  I was mentally and physically refreshed.

Eventually the crew came out and began the preparations to head back.  As I watched them pull the anchor up for our one hour ride back to the dock, I realized how amazing they were.  The food was delicious, their service was impeccable and most importantly they made a difficult job look easy.

Our crew raising the anchor as we set off in the morning.

As a traveler I often try to seek out local experiences.  This was not one of them.  We did observe the everyday lives of locals as we cruised along, but it wasn’t the same.  We were sitting in a luxury vessel while they did backbreaking work outside.  Even then, the locals always managed to wave and smile as we passed by.  Their friendliness and incredible spirit were something that we witnessed time and time again in Kerala.  Truly inspiring.

Houseboats in Kerala go for $200 USD per night and up depending on their size and whether or not it is tourist season.  I can’t help but think that the money which is brought in by their existence does more good than harm.  Either way, I highly recommend trying one for yourself.  The houseboat experience was one of my favorites of the trip and this is no doubt one of the best ways to see Kerala’s stunning backwaters.


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