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marianne Alleppey - A travel report by Marianne
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Alleppey,  India - flag India -  Kerala
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marianne's travel reports

The Backwaters of Kerala

  23 votes
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Alleppey’s canals were once alive with shipping traffic. Now they are clogged by rampant water hyacinths and commercial shipping has declined. These days houseboats are moored along the banks and boat tours are big business.


Houseboats moored along the canal in Alleppey
Houseboats moored along the canal in Alleppey
What are Backwaters?

The backwaters are a maze of waterways in the Southern Indian state of Kerala, stretching some 100 km from Kochi to Kollam. They are composed of lagoons, rivers and canals lined with coconut groves interspersed by tiny settlements where people go about their daily chores.

Many of these settlements are on reclaimed land and surrounded by water. During the monsoon the water level rises by about one metre and the islets are flooded. That’s why many houses have raised doorsteps to prevent water from seeping in.


What are Houseboats?

Houseboats are converted rice barges. A roof of woven palm leaves encloses one or two bedrooms with attached bathrooms. Arch-shaped windows look out on the palm silhouetted horizon, the rotan armchairs on the shady veranda are an invitation to laze away hot sunny days. A cook prepares tantalizing Indian meals. The boatman steers the barge across lagoons while the guide tells about local life and customs.


What are Backwater Trips?

Backwater trips are tours, private or with a group, that cruise the backwaters from one hour to several days. They can be booked in both Kochi and Alleppey or Alappuzha, (two names for the same town).


What will it cost?

A two-day private houseboat trip, meals included Rp 4000 (€80) for two persons.

A one-day backwater group tour (about 20 people), including hotel pick-up, lunch, village visit Rp450 (€9) per person.

A three-hour private sunset trip Rp 400 (€8) per person.

(price quotes in 2006)


Where to Book?

In Kochi:
KTDC, Tourist Reception Desk Shanmugham Road in Ernakulam open 8 am – 7 pm Tourist Desk Information Counter at Main jetty near Canon Shed Road in Ernakulam and Tower Road in Kochi. open 8 am – 6.30 pm

In Alappuzha:
DTPC, Tourist Reception Center Boat Jetty Road near the footbridge

Favourite spots:
Fishing Eagles at rest
Fishing Eagles at rest
We had enough time that’s why we went on two backwater tours. If you are pressed for time I would advise you to take Alepuzzha as your starting point.

Houseboats are moored along the banks of the canal that passes through the town. This means that your departure point is always close to your hotel.

If you book in Kochi there is a 30-minute transfer in in mini-bus to the mooring place. If you are not interested in a boat tour, you can board the public ferry that plies between Alappuzha and Kollam. It is an 8-hour journey and most passengers are westerners.

We did this stretch by bus (2 hours) because we had already been on a full day tour in Kochi and a sunset tour in Alappuzha. Another 8 hours on a boat was unattractive for us. It goes without saying that the scenery is beautiful, but there is not much variety, (large stretches of water, flat landscape, thousands of palm trees) and 8 hours is very long.

What's really great:
Shop alongthe canal in Alleppey
Shop alongthe canal in Alleppey
Alappuzha is a walking town. We strolled along canals lined with old warehouses and red-tiled houses. We visited St Thomas Church, climbed the steps and took in the breathtaking view. The church itself was less interesting.

We ambled along the bazaar on Mullakal Road and admired the selection of lunghis (wrap-around male garment), dhotis (white ankle-length male garment), saris and all kind of household articles.

A steady flow of travellers gets to Alappuzha. The town has a sufficient number of hotels and guesthouses. Especially if you arrive in the morning there is no need to book in advance. We stayed in KTC Guesthouse (see tips) in an alley beside Arkadia Hotel, next to the KRSTC bus stand, from where there are half-hourly buses to Kochi (90 minutes)

Sights:
Public ferry
Public ferry
We had booked a 3-hour private sunset tour. At four o’clock our boatman collected us. His motorboat was moored on the Vadia Canal, opposite the hotel. Two chairs on the top deck ensured unristricted views.

Our boat chugged along palm-fringed shores, passed under curved bridges while we watched fishing eagles circle above the water looking for prey. Backwater life glided past: men loading boats with rice, coconuts and cashews. Children, satchels on their back, marching home from school. Women going about their daily tasks. It felt like watching an all-surround movie.

When the sun was low, we came to a wide lagoon and the boatman stopped the engine. Streaks of sunset sparkled brilliant hues of red, pink and yellow on the mirror-like water. Darkness welled out of the vegetion and slowly took possession of the lagoon. We returned in the growing darkness. On the shore lamps flopped on, dark silhouettes moved on the banks. People going home after a day’s work in the paddy fields

Accommodations:
Fisherman scrape the bottom of the lake for shells
Fisherman scrape the bottom of the lake for shells
In Kochi we booked another backwater trip: the Village Tour. This time it was a full day on a houseboat together with 18 other tourists

The tour is divided into two parts.
In the morning we cruised around the lagoon on a houseboat and in the afternoon we switched to smaller boats, seating 6 to 8 people, and followed the small canals with onshore village life to watch

The Village Tour starts with a tranfer (30 minutes) in a mini van to get to the houseboat that is moored in Poothotta. All morning we sail along rivers and over lagoons, going round in large circles, not making any distance. Fishermen work from tiny boats scraping the bottom of the lake for shells which they use to make lime

The backwaters are busy waterways. A constant criss-cross of heavily loaded boats that transport all kind of goods. Water lapses perilouly close to the upper edges, but they don’t flood. Dugouts ferry people across from one bank to the other. Life takes place as much on the water as ashore

Nightlife:
Everything is covered in a layer of white dust
Everything is covered in a layer of white dust
Mangroves have been removed to make place for reclaimed land, now cultivated as paddy field. A gaggle of geese waddles through a vegetable plot, looking for something to eat.

This reclaimed land is strengthened by planting coconut palms on it. Electric pumps dry out the normally flooded land. It all so familiar to me: dykes, polders and low lying land. It is the Netherlands without palm trees.

We get off at an islet and walk towards a tall chimney. This is a working factory where shells are burnt with coal dust to produce lime. Everything is covered in a layer of white dust. The labourers ask for cigarettes. Most tourists don’t smoke. If you do this trip be sure you buy some to hand out, a gesture greatly appreciated.

A makeshift bridge leads to a small herb garden. A local families looks after it and sells fresh coconuts to the tourists. Even if you are not thirsty you may want to buy one as it help the family to survive.


Hangouts:
Keralan Thali
Keralan Thali
The guide explains how to recognise curry leaves, vanilla, mace. The spice garden is tiny and the spices are grown especially for the tourists. Most of the plants look miserable because several times a day guides pick leaves to show the tourists. These plants never get the opportunity to grow to maturity.

Back on board it is time for lunch, a Keralan Thali – mounds of rice surrounded by several side dishes of curried vegetables and accompanied by puri, puffed-up bread.

After lunch a car-transfer of 7 km to Ithhipuza, where we board canoe-type boats that seat 7 to 8 passengers. This is the most interesting part of the trip. The open vistas of the lagoon which we saw all morning change to narrow canals bordered by dense vegetation.


Restaurants:
Bailing water from the boat
Bailing water from the boat
When I watch the locals bathing, washing their clothes, working in their gardens, children frolicking and waving at passing tourists, I feel an intruder. The canal is so narrow, the people on shore are very close, I can almost touch them. There is a mutual feeling: they watch us while we watch them.


We go on land and see how women make string from coconut fibre. All tourists take photos of them. They pose and start the string-making process again and again.

I thought that the villagers shared in the profits of the boat tour but afterwards I learned that they weren't paid at all, but had to show their skills at a voluntary basis and had to accept that their photos were taken.


Other recommendations:
They pose and start the process again
They pose and start the process again
Without them the whole trip is less interesting as it would mean that we would only see rivers, lakes and the palm trees. Interesting as they may be, it is not enough to keep focussed for a whole day.

It would be a good thing if tourists gave a small amount of money to the villagers. After all they make the trip memorable.

As I had taken it for granted that the village women got paid, it was too late for me to do something about it.

My plea: if ever you go on this trip, I hope you will give each of them a tip. A few rupees will suffice. Your gift will be greatly appreciated.

Published on Friday August 4th, 2006


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Fri, Feb 23 2007 - 02:58 PM rating by travler

I must go on a houseboat next time I come back to India. I'll make sure the villagers get paid!!!!

Tue, Sep 26 2006 - 07:50 PM rating by mrscanada

Don't all Eagles eat fish?

Fri, Sep 08 2006 - 11:48 PM rating by mkrkiran

Marianne,

Excellent description.

I am going to Kumarakom in the last week of September and hope to experience this splendour myself as well.

Kiran

Tue, Sep 05 2006 - 01:44 AM rating by fymind

An excellent report !!

Sun, Aug 27 2006 - 10:08 AM rating by akhila

Excellent report Mari! Seems like you really enjoyed India.
Warms Regards.

Tue, Aug 15 2006 - 04:47 PM rating by leillli

an exellent nice report:)

Wed, Aug 09 2006 - 06:37 AM rating by gloriajames

Marianne... u made this place so inviting! My mum read your report and she wants me to take her there. I loved the first pic. Excellent!

Sat, Aug 05 2006 - 04:03 PM rating by st.vincent

I've no doubt that life on the river is difficult but there's something quite romantic and appealing about living on a houseboat. Wonderful description of your experiences Marianne, especially the sunset tour. An early bid for ROM maybe

Sat, Aug 05 2006 - 05:57 AM rating by frenchfrog

very informative report, superbly composed, well written, as always Marianne your reports are always a pleasure to read, I can not put 10*, but I would if I could, so you get 5*.

Fri, Aug 04 2006 - 06:57 PM rating by rangutan

An excellently written travel tip in a different fresh layout.

Fri, Aug 04 2006 - 12:21 PM rating by sajjanka

great report

Fri, Aug 04 2006 - 07:08 AM rating by davidx

First rate; text and pictures.

Fri, Aug 04 2006 - 06:05 AM rating by mistybleu

Marianne, another well crafted report.

Fri, Aug 04 2006 - 05:14 AM rating by adisidh

nice report. kerela is very beautiful place and Ayurveda massage is keeping fit and fresh.

thanks for nice reports and Pictures

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