Taking a Houseboat Through Kerala’s Backwaters

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While I did a short kayaking trip through the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, boating had been a smaller component throughout the trip traveling without bus tours through India. That was all changing today, with a houseboat trip and kayaking excursion through the Backwaters.

backwaters

The Backwaters, a long body of water composed of two giant lakes in southern Kerala — a state in southern India — where the people are dependent on the water. On a an overnight houseboat excursion with Cruisers — arranged by my tour outfitter, Kalypso Adventures — I was able to do a homestay on the water, staying in the home of three men, Chef Sabu, Engine Operator Baiju and Captain Sasi.

houseboat

My room on my Cruisers’ houseboat. My boat was the Cruisers II.

Historically, these boats were used to transport rice up and down the river; however, with a rise in tourism and people requesting to experience these boats, many of them started offering tours instead. Made of steel and bamboo with coconut coir roofs, these ambient vessels offer a mix of culture and luxury with simple yet comfortable air conditioned rooms with ensuite toilet, shower and sink and a common deck with cushioned benches and chairs and a bowl of fresh fruit.

fresh fruit

Fresh fruit and a coconut drink were the perfect welcome.

The tour began and ended in the coastal town of Alleppey. After being welcomed with fresh coconut milk — still in the coconut — and a garland of jasmine, I immediately pulled out my telephoto lens to snap some photos. Colorful houses flanked by palms and mango trees lined the shores, with women washing pots and clothing in the water, beating the fabrics against against stone steps. At some points, fruit plantations came into view, as did areas full of chickens, cows and goats. It was particularly interesting watching the fishermen go out in their wooden canoes to reel in the day’s fresh catch, before biking along the banks to sell it door-to-door.

jasmine garland

I was also greeted with a garland of fragrant jasmine.

This as well as floating supermarkets provide people with nourishment. There are also boats that transport gas for cooking. If people need other supplies, a ferry costs 5 Rupees (about $0.08 USD) per ride and can bring them to shop-filled towns.

waterbirds

A cormorant dives for food in the Backwaters.

The birds were another highlight of the boat trip, with colorful King Fishers, graceful black crows, egrets and herons performing aerial acrobatics. My favorite was the cormorant, who would balance on broken tree trunks before diving into the water for some fishing. You’d often see them swimming, their heads bobbling above the surface like the eye of a covert submarine operation.

food

A tasty Indian lunch aboard the Cruisers II.

Along with seeing the sites, food is a must-mention of a houseboat excursion. Chef Sabu loves cooking, and excitedly served three traditional Keralan meals large enough to feed a family. Rice and bread were always accompaniments, paired with spice-rich dishes like cabbage with coconut; fried mini shrimps; fried local fish ; coconut curry with coconut, cumin and garlic paste; sambal; stewed tomatoes; and a couscous and long bean salad.

sunrise

A fiery sunrise in the Backwaters.

After a comfortable sleep, I awake to a bright-orange sunrise, looking like a basket ball set on fire above banana trees.

kayaking

Me, about to kayak the Backwaters.

Kalypso Adventures also arranged for me to take a kayaking trip through Alleppey, the oldest planned town in the Backwaters. Because I wasn’t sure the views would really be that different from what I’d seen on the boat, I left my camera behind.

Big mistake.

backwaters

Locals use canoes for fishing and for transportation.

The views from that close to the water were extremely different, from being eye level with the birds and locals to being on top of the water’s mirror reflections of the surrounding tropical plants. I highly recommend pairing the kayaking with the houseboat for this unique perspective (and bringing a camera or GoPro to capture it with).

To give you an idea of my experience, here are some of my favorite photos from the journey:

houseboats

A view of the houseboats and Backwaters from the departure dock

backwaters

Locals in the Backwaters.

ducks

Ducks gliding across the water in the shape of a heart. I’ve never seen anything like this!

ducks

There were so many ducks in the Backwaters.

backwaters

Fishing in the Backwaters.

backwaters

A local home in the Backwaters.

backwaters

Locals waiting for the ferry in the Backwaters.

boat

Beautiful boat in the Backwaters.

kids fishing

Kids fishing in the Backwaters.

birds

Bird-watching is a must when visiting the Backwaters. I recommend a telephoto lens if you’re taking photographs.

birds

There are so many beautiful birds in the Backwaters.

Pazham Pori

Pazham Pori (essentially a banana fritter with spices like cardamom and turmeric). The food aboard my houseboat was absolutely delicious as Chef Sabu cooked traditional Indian dishes using local ingredients.

backwaters

The sun setting on a village in the Backwaters. This is where we docked for the night, and I got out to take some photos.

india

Walking around one of the Backwaters’ villages, I met a man and his daughter who excitedly asked me if they could have their photo taken.

birds

Birds are everywhere in the Backwaters.

sunrise

 

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