What are the Kerala Backwaters? Essentially the Kerala Backwaters means all the crisscrossing brackish lagoons, canals, deltas and lakes that riddle the state of Kerala along the coast of the Arabian Sea. This is also known as the Malabar Coast and is where the world-famous Malabar cuisine comes from. The backwaters have been heavily promoted by the Kerala Tourism Development Board in the last decade and have become quite popular with tourists visiting the state. They are an independent ecosystem and have all sorts of water creatures. The gentle journey through their pristine beauty is what draws most to visit.
How does one get to a Houseboat?
To truly enjoy the region you need to try one of the houseboats that ply the backwaters. You can choose to spend anything from one night to a month on board one of the houseboats. Most tourists take the one or two night cruises that start off at Alappuzah and may end at Alumkavadi, Kidangara, or Mankotta. The boat does not travel at all at night, and takes a slow journey down the river by day through the lush green countryside. The fields are fertile and usually have rice planted in them. Thatched huts that dot the banks of the river add to the rustic charm.
You can reach your houseboat by using the regular ferry service or have someone from the houseboat meet you at the riverbank and take you over. The more organized houseboats will offer to pick you up. Traditionally these were known as kettuvallams and carried harvested rice and nowadays most houseboats have been modified for the tourist industry and have a western toilet on board. The bedrooms are usually air conditioned, but if you choose to sit and enjoy the sunset on the deck make sure you protect yourself against the mosquitoes.
On the houseboat, you can settle down to a typical and traditional meal, or you can choose from the limited 'Continental' food options onboard.
What to do
There are some boat races organized between houseboats on the same route and they are keenly contested. For a short trip into some side canals you can use the coracles, which are small round boats rowed by using two oars in tandem. Great fun trying to navigate but they tend to go round in circles if not rowed properly.
There is good fishing here if you wish to sit on the bank and relax for a while. You can also watch the Snake Boat Races in June and July from the decks of the houseboats.
Which regions do these exist in?
The Kerala Backwaters have about half a dozen specific regions. These include Kollam, Alappuzha, Kuttanad, Kumarakom, Kasargod, Kozhikode, Thiruvallam and Munroe Island. Of these Alappuzha is the most commercially active for tourists and Kozhikode is largely unexplored so far. If you are adventurous try going off the beaten path.
It is best to book in advance to make sure that all the logistic details are arranged and you can choose which type of boat you'd prefer as there are several different types. A slightly larger group may enjoy renting a full houseboat. Alappuzha is the place to book your boat as this is where you are most likely to get the widest range of choice.
What to Watch Out for
Make sure that you see the houseboat before you rent it. There is no typical houseboat and they can range from anything resembling a bucket of rust to a floating palace. Also, ensure that the price that you agreed upon is inclusive of the meals, boat rides, and any other onboard activity.
If you are environmentally conscious pick a boat that does not have a motor but uses two large bamboo poles for punting the houseboat. While there are more than 400 houseboats available make sure you choose a good one, as not all operators are very scrupulous.