Backwaters, Kerala’s biggest and arguably the best tourist attraction need no introduction. There’s only so much that has been said and written about its charming beauty. And there’s a tonne of information available about backwaters tours and houseboats. I had visited Alleppey’s backwaters about 3 months back, and its enamoring beauty compelled me to spend more time here again. Since I had already taken tours on a houseboat and a kayak the last time, plus considering the shoestring budget that we were on, I decided to try something new this time. This ‘something new’ turned out so wonderful that if I had to share it here.
As we reached Kochi from Munnar, DK (the partner in crime) prepared to leave for Haridwar (he had to attend to a family thing). That left me in charge of the journey for the next one week (this also means very few photos for the few days).
In Kochi, I stayed at Vedanta Hostel at Fort Kochi (which is a great place for solo travelers), roamed around the beautiful streets of Fort Kochi (don’t do this on foot. unless you plan to stay there for a week, rent a bike), got the Bullet serviced, visited the famous Biennali Art Exhibition (only to know that my art-quotient is in single digits), watched a great Kathakali show with friends from Hostel, had amazing Kerala food and left for Aleppy.
For Alleppey, I took the picturesque old route (SH66) that runs along the coast passing through smaller villages and beautiful backwaters. It was a Sunday morning with absolutely no traffic except for the people visiting churches. Fishermen were maneuvering their Chinese nets every here and there (the famous Chinese nets of Kochi are more abundant in the interior of Kerala). I took a halt at Marari Beach, and met an awesome elderly German couple who were traveling in their Volkswagen caravan around the world. Had a nice little chat over breakfast, thanked them for everything and hit the road again. Reached Alleppey.
Now, the backwaters. The backwater system of the western coast starts from Karnataka and keeps on getting better as we go further. Of these, Alleppey’s backwaters are unarguably the prettiest, supported with the largest lake in Kerala (Vembanad Lake), paddy fields of Kuttanad (highest producer of rice in India), and a complex network of waterways. This also means that Alleppey is very popular & commercialized destination making it tricky for travelers on a budget to get the best of it.
There are two areas where accommodation options are aplenty. One is near the backwaters, another is in the town. Here is the summary for both
Near Backwaters – Rooms available only in resorts and expensive homestays. Price starts from 1500 per night. Note that this is near backwaters, not on them. So you don’t get to experience anything backwaters here. The area is peaceful. Food is expensive. Backwaters are at 5 minutes walk.
Few resorts have rooms overlooking the backwaters, and I didn’t care to check their prices.
The best option here is Vedanta Hostel. They charge 350 per night for a dorm bed and has a great atmosphere for backpackers. But, the hostel is full most of the times, so get your bed reserved well in advance.
In Town – Rooms are available everywhere in the town, but the cheapest ones are near the bus stand or the main market. I stayed at a place called Udupi Lodge for 250 per night. The room was OK. Food options were amazing here (ask for Indian Coffee House or Thaffs). Backwaters are 15 minutes walk from here. The main jetty is 2 minutes from here (this is important, you will see why).
Now about touring the backwaters.
House Boats – I am not a big fan of these. I had done a 1 day 1 night (11 am to 11 am) tour on a big boat (4 rooms) with my college friends in November. And did not like it one bit. Here’s why
If you choose wisely, the cost per head comes around 1500. This includes a lot of good food and very good accommodation. No complaints there.
The houseboats don’t take you to the real backwaters. Look at this way, the backwaters are like a town, and the houseboats being really big, can only cruise through the highways of that town. They just keep on cruising through open lakes or bigger waterways, offering good views, but skipping the best parts of backwaters.
The boats, obviously, dock during the night. They dock near the houses or shops they have an arrangement with at around 6pm. Everything about this is frustrating. Since it is getting dark, you can’t walk around and see the place’s beauty. So you are mostly stuck in the boat. Later, while you have your dinner in the plush setting of your boat, the local people are ending their day along the sidewalks. So not natural.
The morning ride starts at 6-7 am, depending on your crew, which is pleasant. And takes you toward the final docking station called Finishing Point.
In short, House Boats are highly touristy and crap. If you are traveling in the real sense, do not go for these, even if you have heard about them more than the backwaters themselves.
Kayak Tours / Shikara Tours / Smaller Boats
These are day tours, and typically start around 6-7 am in the morning. Their price range starts from 300 per hour (manually paddled shikara) to 600 per hour (shikara with engines). The kayaks tours are fixed at 1500 for two hours.
I liked these ones better, as they take you in the interiors of the backwaters. You get to see a different side of backwaters, people engaged in their daily chores along waterways, paddling through the pretty paddy fields.
Of these, I would suggest the engined shikaras or kayak tours, as they take you to the farther interiors which are much more peaceful and beautiful, as compared to the areas covered by manually paddled shikaras.
The Best Option
A fellow hosteler at Kochi, who also happened to be a local from Kerala, suggested me this way of touring. I added a few things of my own and what I experienced surpassed the above two options by miles.
The govt. runs a tourist ferry service from the main jetty from 8am onwards. It is a 3-hour tour that covers most of the route that a houseboat covers. Believe me, you won’t miss out on anything the houseboat has to offer with this. The ferry also carries local passengers, hence stops at smaller jetties, giving you little glimpses of the local life. So grab a seat on the first ferry.
Buy a one-way ticket on this ferry, and get off at the last stop.You will find yourself in the heart of backwaters. Now it’s time to walk back to Alleppey. Explore the chapels, temples, paddy fields, colorful houses while treading along the narrow sidewalks. The backwaters have small shops called Todi Parlors which cook amazing ducks. Have your breakfast/lunch here. On your way back, you will cross backwaters over tiny wooden bridges, wait for your turn to get into canoe taxis and ask the locals to give you a lift to the nearest jetty in their tiny canoes. That right there is the real backwater experience for you.
There is one weak spot in this plan. The ferry timings. The first ferry leaves around 8am, and you are already late for backwaters. You don’t want to miss the sunrise here (i had to extend my stay here just for that, and it was all worth it). So, instead of taking the tourist ferry, you can take a normal ferry that will take you to the interiors early morning. (these start around 5am in the morning). The only difference is these don’t have first-floor seating (which is important).
After this gorgeous sunrise, I left for further South with Kollam & Varkala in my mind. Kollam has a very picturesque port, with a lighthouse and I wanted to take my bike to the last point of the port. Unfortunately, the authorities wouldn’t allow me, so I decided to continue riding further and reached Varkala.