Discovering the Beauty of Kerala’s Backwaters on a Houseboat

Backwater boat in Kerala

Rhonda and Dan Bannister enjoy life in the slow-land in India’s Kerala. Words, Rhonda Bannister. Photography, Dan Bannister.

As the sun drops from view, a glimmer of golden light finds its way through the dense canopy of tropical forest, lighting the way for the deckhands returning to our houseboat, which is moored on the bank for the night. It’s time for the cook to prepare the evening meal of succulent prawns, blackened fish, rice and vegetables, all cooked in Kerala’s famous zesty spices.

Kerala's sunrises are worth getting up early for
Kerala’s sunrises are worth getting up early for

As we settle into our cushioned lounge chairs, wineglasses in hand, we raise a toast to the fulfilment of a travel dream – a kettuvallam (houseboat) cruise along the backwaters of Kerala. This has long been seen as one of India’s most romantic travel experiences, cited by National Geographic as one of its ‘50 Places of a Lifetime’, and certainly one we were delighted to cross off our bucket list.

The town of Alleppey is the hub of an enormous network of amazing lakes, canals, rivers and lagoons, and it’s the base from where dozens of houseboats begin their one-, two- or three-night cruises. We used local tour company Lakes & Lagoons and, accompanied by three crew members who would cook, clean and steer the boat, we left the pier at noon to begin our overnight journey. A large, open lounge area furnished with comfortable seating and a dining area take up the front section of the boat; the kitchen and crew quarters are at the rear and the air-conditioned, ensuited bedroom with a private viewing deck is mid-section.

As we headed down the main canal, long vistas of a watery highway fringed by villages, rice fields and lush tropical vegetation in every shade of green opened up to reveal a kaleidoscope of local life. Women clad in vibrant orange, pink and green saris chatted to each other on the river bank, while others washed their laundry by the water’s edge, all the while eyeing two young dudes with cool haircuts and tight jeans riding past on their coveted motorcycles. 

Related: Explore Fort Kochi – the gateway to Kerala’s backwaters

Boats are a vital mode of transportation for Kerala's locals
Boats are a vital mode of transportation for Kerala’s locals

Alerted by the noise coming from the opposite bank, we spied a farmer herding his flock of ducks from the water to his field. Much has changed here, but traditional life still goes on, simple and unspoilt – fishermen fish, farmers farm and women get on with the daily grind of housekeeping.

Pulling up to the bank, we were served a lunch of spicy parippu dahl, sautéed vegetables and Kerala chicken curry, while we watched a group of local women and children ambling along the path, smiling and waving to us – a friendliness we had found in most everyone we met on our journey through this beautiful state in south west India.

Boats are a vital mode of transportation for these villagers and all afternoon we watched as a variety of craft was plied back and forth. Traders and fishermen selling their wares, taxis of dugout canoes weighed down with people, school boats and ferries bustling their way from bank to bank.

Related article: Lakes & Laneways in India’s Udaipur

Don't miss Fort Kochi's markets while in Kerala
Don’t miss Fort Kochi’s markets while in Kerala

In the afternoon we stopped to visit a local market before making our way to a church where the sound of voices raised in devotional song drew us in. Kerala is one of the most tolerant states in India for religious freedom with Hindus, Muslims and Christians coexisting harmoniously – if only the rest of the world could follow their lead.

The further we travelled down the waterway the less civilisation and more wild jungle we saw, until just before sunset we stopped to moor for the night. Surrounded by nothing but water and jungle, every sound is magnified – the gentle plop of water as oars from a canoe dip in and out, the distant hum of a motor as a fisherman returns home and the full-throated roar of a bullfrog romancing his mate on the far bank the only noises to break the quiet as evening’s shadows gather.

Sated with beautiful visions of colourful local life and some of the best food we’ve had in India, we surrender to the sounds of nature and the sheer majesty of a night sky alive with shimmering diamonds, ready to awaken to an amazing sunrise and the return journey. 

There are plenty of colourful sights to see (like bright face paints) in Kochi’s markets

For more information on packages and other itineraries to India and Sri Lanka, visit the India Unbound website here.

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