For many travellers, a trip to Kerala and its famed backwaters is high on their Indian to-do list. And why not – numerous rivers, lush vegetation, a chance to view villages from a different perspective. Throw in some of India's best food and it becomes a no-brainer.
So what are the backwaters? Thousands of kilometres of rivers and canals, a 2000 sq.km lake, all squeezed into a small and narrow state. And given their proximity to the sea, the waters are often a mixture of salt and fresh water.
This network of waterways have earned the backwaters the sobriquet 'Venice of the East'. Granted, it's not unique; within India alone, it's also used by Udaipur and Srinagar, along with many other Asian destinations. But given it's largely rural setting, amongst a striking jungle environment, perhaps a more accurate nickname would be 'The Green Venice'.
The backwaters are an inspirational place. Arundati Roy set part of her Booker Prize-winning “The God of Small Things” near her backwaters hometown, while numerous Indian movies have been set here.
The Keralan backwaters are a popular destination - over 500,000 tourists visited the main backwaters districts of Alleppey, Kollam and Kottayam in 2017. But they're more than just a tourist drawcard of physical beauty. They are the heart of Keralan culture. Aside from the offshore islands, no other Indian state is as reliant on, or as dominated by, their aquatic features. It shapes all areas of local life – fishing, rice plantations, transport; the list is endless. Whereas most tourists opt for an overnight trip out into the backwaters on one of the numerous houseboats, I instead opt for something a little different – ferries. I wasn't against the idea of a houseboat (much later in my Indian trip, I'd stay in a Kashmiri houseboat in Srinagar), I just felt like my experience should be a little more adventuring, a little less holidaying.
Alleppey to Kollam ferry
My first trip on the backwaters is via the tourist ferry to Kollam. Being after peak season, our boat is sparsely customed that day. A mere eight passengers as we depart Alleppey, I have all the room in the world on the top deck as I settle in for the leisurely journey ahead.
The ticket price of 400 rupees (NZD8) was reasonable, although by no means the cheapest option, given what I'd find the following day.
We depart Alleppey at 10am, and spend the next 90 minutes motoring down a widish river, averaging around 200 metres in width. Its banks are initially packed with houseboats, then replaced by tree-lined banks interspersed with the occasional village.
We then branched off onto a much smaller tributary, rarely more than 20 metres wide. The first major village we pass through is Karumadi, home to St Nicholas' church. We see children swimming, women washing clothes, fields of rice, cows and goats.
While most of the day is spent on the boat, we do have several short stops. Around three hours into the journey we stop for a lunch of fish thali, and several hours later comes a ten minute break for tea and coffee. Neither break gives enough time to explore, although a more aquatic view of life was what I was after so I wasn't too disappointed.
Throughout the journey, we're never more than 5 kilometres from the sea. But aside from the occasional sea view down a side canal, it seems a world away as we float through this idyllic rural setting.
The last hour is spent crossing Lake Ashtamudi. Every bank had a temple, plus the odd 5-star resort. And, strangely, a large white statue of a naked goddess, bum pointed directly at our boat. The boat finally pulls into Kollam around 6.30pm, just as the sun is disappearing. A short rickshaw ride later, I reach Kollam train station and board one of the numerous services heading back up the coast to Alleppey.
Ferry to Kottayam
My interest in the backwaters piqued, I was keen for an altogether more intimate approach. The previous days' ride had introduced me to the Kerala waterways – now, I was seeking more.The local tourist office had given me details of a local ferry that ran several times a day through to the town of Kottayam. This time I wasn't alone – I was joined by Manuela, my friend from Liechtenstein. We'd met in Sri Lanka, she had stayed in the hostel I was working in, and we'd kept in touch ever since. As luck would have it, she was couch-surfing with a local in Kochi, only a short train ride further up the coast, so she agreed to catch the train down for a trip out into the backwaters. Manuela had been reading a novel set in the backwaters, so she jumped at the chance for a first-hand view - “I'd recently read a David Hunter novel; his main character was investigating a case in Kerala so I was interested to see for myself what I'd been imagining”.
After handing over the princely sum of 19 rupees each (around 40 NZ cents ), we're on our way. Unlike the previous day, this is no quiet cruise, with a noisy diesel motor constantly chugging away. We make over 20 stops, each port of call requiring extra revving of the engine while it manoeuvred into position. No one had warned me not to sit at the back; as a result, conversation was limited, often unable to hear each other over the engine. Understandably, my first piece of advice for anyone taking this trip would be to sit at the front in order to be as far away from the engine as possible. But none of this detracts from what is all around. Aside from a brief incursion into Vempanad Lake, where houseboats were congregated in Halong Bay-esque volumes, we were never more than a stone's throw away from the lush river banks. This trip truly was a world away from the houseboats that draw tourists by their thousands. A journey through the backwaters by ferry opens up a whole new perspective.
Every five to ten minutes came a brief stop at another village. Each time, a hive of activity. Children frolicking, laughing. An elderly women scrubbing a shirt vigorously, as if she has a grudge to bear. A group of elderly men, squatting, chewing on tobacco, discussing the days' events. Fishing boats of every colour imaginable, casting perfect reflections in the still waters, disturbed only by the occasional passing ferry or canoe.
The vegetation was green and lush, enveloping the rivers on all sides. And in some cases, enveloping the river itself. For the last 3 kilometres leading into Kottayam, it's as if we are a slow-motion golf ball, travelling over a smooth fairway of green. A thin layer of lilies appears to choke the river, with water barely visible, only for our ferry to effortlessly glide amongst them. Glancing back, they reform their carpet, as if they've politely stepped aside before moving back into position.
After a short 20 minute break in Kottayam, enough to visit a local temple, we re-board the ferry for its last service back to Alleppey. This time, a little wiser, we grab front row seats – much quieter and with a better view. The return journey is much the same as the outbound but still as enthralling.
As the sun fell lower in the sky, the colours changed, the vibrant jungle dimmed, our eyes drawn away from the river and toward the sky, intense and warm. A sunset of abnormal beauty, with tall, slender palm trees silhouetted against an orange glow. Distant storm clouds only added to the grand display unfolding in front of us.
For Manuela, this was the highlight of the trip. “ The colours were just amazing, I hadn't expected something so lovely and beautiful. And to see it from a boat made it that much more special“. I couldn't agree more. The perfect end to a couple of memorable days on the backwaters of Kerala.