Kerala backwaters beyond houseboat tours

You whizzed past it on the long train journeys on family trips during the school holidays. Stared wide-eyed as the windows of the Indian Railways sleeper coach revealed a world of straw huts and thatched roofs. Invariably, a jackfruit tree in the front yard. Even waved to someone your age, sitting in the canoe “parked” in the stream next to their home.

That journey had your imagination run loose. Wondering the hows and whats of the life of the girl/boy who had returned your wave with a smile.

You reminisce in the still but cool morning air of coastal India’s touch-and-go “winter”, letting the mirrored coconut trees be your constant companions. The only sound you’re hearing is the slicing of the smooth water as you move ahead through the Kerala backwaters.

Kerala backwaters, a throwback to simple times

Suddenly, a shrill sound, very unbecoming of the prevailing quiet calmness cuts through your thoughts. You realise it is a signal for the boat driver to make a stop and announce your arrival to those waiting. “Those waiting” are lungi clad men, and children dressed for school.

You’re startled – standing before you are the little boys and girls you’ve been waving at through the train windows! (Well…not exactly, those boys and girls must now be parents to these school going children who have just boarded your boat!).

The boat is now buzzing with activity. The kids scurry to seat themselves right next to their friends. The conductor squeezes through the crowd, handing out thermally printed tickets to each one of them. The boat makes a few more stops, picking up more lungi clad men and students from different schools – all along the Alleppey (Alappuzha) backwaters you are traveling through.

They get busy chattering or playing games on their mobile phones. The last-minuters use this commute time to finish off their homework. The variety in their school uniforms takes you by surprise. Thatched roofs and canoes don’t necessarily mean a lack of good education – you tell yourself chidingly.

The schools here in the Alleppey backwaters, though, resemble the schools of a bygone era – your school years! No fancy air-conditioned classrooms or canteens with international cuisines. These are simple whitewashed buildings, with walls full of paintings of the “father of the nation”, “India’s national bird”, “the national animal” (to those wondering – Gandhi, peacock, tiger!).

The channel has now broadened. These are the Alleppey backwaters section of the big network of Kerala backwaters, surrounding the villages around Alleppey (Alappuzha). There are a few bridges across the backwaters. But the village folks prefer crossing over using their canoes – it’s faster. A group of older men gets off the canoe at the “boat stop” and gets onto your boat. Backwater rush hour is underway.

Exploring the chraming Kerala backwaters

The sun is now up. The golden carpets behind the coconut tree barriers catch your attention. The swaying rice fields mesmerise you. Farmers are rowing their canoes to get to the fields. The backwaters, coconut trees and rice fields – the views match the image of Kerala you have in your mind.

In our travel lives, Kerala is a late entrant. And being on the Alleppey backwaters a mere afterthought to a family event we attended in Trivandrum. When we asked for suggestions for places to visit in Kerala, everyone had unequivocally answered Kerala backwaters. And now, we owed them big time for the recommendation.

Experiencing life on Kerala backwaters

A couple is rowing in the direction of the post office – maybe sending a loan application for their latest tourism venture to the state capital at Trivandrum? Along the way, did they make a pitstop at the local Alleppey (Alappuzha) market for some fresh fish? Or at the BSNL office for availing high-speed internet? On the way back, will they surprise their kid with a visit to the school? Will they all row to the church in their family canoe for the Sunday morning mass?

Is this how life is for whom the Kerala backwaters are a lifeline? Do they “stand and stare” at the beauty they live in? Do the mirrors of the palm-lined banks have a therapeutic effect on them? Or, when you are privileged enough to call the Kerala backwaters “home”, all else is frivolous?

Kerala backwaters tourism – Alleppey houseboat tours, Ayurvedic massages

The “therapeutic effect” is sure had by the rest of the world, making the Kerala backwaters a tourism hub. The locals have grabbed the opportunities that the Kerala backwaters have made possible.

Away from the villages, the Alleppey backwaters have a sprinkling of well-kept bungalows. Some are even nestled on the tiny islands in the middle of these backwaters! A perfect recluse from the maddening crowds!

Sit in the front yard on a clear night, enjoying the star-studded sky. Devour the sumptuous Kerala cuisine cooked to perfection by the “local chef”. Rejuvenate with the famous Kerala Ayurvedic massages or the panchakarma treatments (yes, use a canoe to get there!). Read a book. Even better, write one!

Or, you could choose the luxurious houseboats, as lavish as your budget permits, for “cruising” these backwaters at Alleppey (Alappuzha). These houseboats take you around the Kerala backwaters for a few hours depending on the “backwater houseboat package” you sign up for. Just like the Dal lake in Kashmir, you can stay overnight on the Kerala backwaters in these houseboats.

We crossed many of these houseboats during our backwater trips in Alleppey (Alappuzha). For larger groups of families and friends, houseboats might be a suitable option. Or for a romantic “couple time” over the Kerala backwaters.

For us, on the state transport boat, the romance of the gentle squiggles, the steady symmetry of the coconut trees merging into the backwaters over the horizon was gratifying. The landscapes were a personification of a serene, stunning wonder.

But what we had experienced in those few hours, was something beyond the almost-in-your-face picture perfect beauty of the Kerala backwaters. Our companions on this ride – the locals – who lived not only “on” the Kerala backwaters but also “off” it, had made the Kerala backwaters come to life.

On this ride, all the hows and the whats that had sparked our childhood imaginations were finally answered!

How did we ride through the Kerala backwaters for cheap, like a local?

  • We learnt of this nifty little option from a friend (@sankarrad). Have a look at Ferry Notes, for an in depth understanding of the Kerala backwaters.
  • Just like he recommended, we did what the locals do. We went to the ferry terminal at Alleppey (Alappuzha).
  • We waited for the boat to Kottayam and traveled to and fro by this boat. These are run by the Kerala State Water Transport Department.
  • The next day, we took a smaller route to Nedumudy, giving us a closer look at the backwater villages, and a chance to actually get off the boat and wander into the Nedumudy village. Then, after around an hour, when the return boat arrived, we boarded it, along with the lungi clad men, back to Alleppey!
  • Do we need to stay on a houseboat in Alleppey?

    • You can, but there are several on-the-gound options for stay in Alleppey as well. Alleppey is teeming with accommodations, that fit all budgets.
    • We had stayed at a nice little place called The Wind n Waves, a minute away from the Alleppey beach.

    Top tips for experiencing Kerala backwaters on a budget

    • Because the Kerala backwaters play a vital role in the daily lives of the locals from Kochi, Alappuzha (Alleppey), Kollam, to Trivandrum, the state transport has a well-connected network of boats.
    • Since they are state run, the charges are official. This is real Kerala backwater experience, not the popular Kerala backwater houseboat tours.
    • How to get to Alleppey (Alappuzha) for a Kerala backwaters experience? Some Konkan Railway trains halt at Alappuzha (Alleppey), some at nearby Kottayam. Alappuzha is a 2 hr train ride from Trivandrum, in the south. Regular shuttles run between Alappuzha and Kochi (Ernakulam) to the north.
    • If you have the time, there is a longer route from Alappuzha (Alleppey) to Kollam. This is an eight-hour journey which means a stayover at the destination is a must.
    • Kerala backwaters do not have to be an expensive affair. These state transport rides are not only cheaper making Kerala backwaters on a budget possible, but also the experience is more immersive and real.

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    Sandeepa and Chetan. Married. Indians. Exploring Travel as Lifestyle. Featured by National Geographic, Yahoo. We hope that through our travel stories we inspire others to make their dream into a reality.

    46 thoughts on “Kerala backwaters beyond houseboat tours

    1. Shaurya Jain

      Reading your post was so much fun. It is not that I have not been to Alleppey. I live in trivandrum and I have been to alleppey more times than I can remember but your writing is just so wonderful that it almost teleported me to the place!

    2. THANGAMANI V

      Your pictures are enchanting. Your pictures and write-up are tempting us to travel in local State water transport in and around Alleppey.
      We are retired couple. We like to travel in this February or March (as per your suggestion) by train from Chennai to Alleppey, stay in a lodge in Alleppey, travel in Kerala State Water Transport Boats, stay one night in a boat house. Then travel to Munnar, stay for 2 days and return to Chennai.
      Kindly advise us: (1) Reasonably priced lodge in Alleppey (2) A Safe and reasonable priced boat house in Alleppey (heard some boat houses have a lot of insects, ants etc.) (3) Mode or transport from Alleppey to Munnar (4) Reasonably priced lodge in Munnar.

      Thanks for your valuable time
      V Thangamani

    3. Sophia

      Nice blog.. Good job.. Thank you so much for the information. It’s a great post…I love travelling and want to travel all over the world. Explore new places, adventurous things and many more. And photographs are just amazing. Keep writing !!!

    4. Shreenidhi Ekbote

      Really nice article and beautiful clicks. Been there twice. I must try state run boat service next time.

    5. Pingback: Kerala backwaters beyond houseboat tours – Welcome to Inford

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Hey Aritra, November is a great time to visit Kerala. The boat ride from Alleppey to Nedumudy was a little less than an hour long. We spent some time in Nedumudy and took the same boat back to Alleppey on its return journey.

    6. Kalyan

      This is such a comprehensive post with stunning pictures! Backwaters is one of the most important aspects of tourism in Kerala which receives a large number of tourists from all over to discover the real beauty of ‘God’s Own Country’.

    7. TANUJA DURVE

      Hi !Sandeepachetan,I always read abt ur travails in मटा रविवार .How wonderful and myriad experiences u guys gather every day ! Reading all those goodies even I feel to do the same.
      I must all ur clicks n pics r eye candies ! Hv a wanderful life both of u ☺ Regards,Tanuja Durve.

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Hello Tanuja, thank you so much fro writing to us. It is always great to hear from our MaTa readers. We try to explore the local way of doing things when we travel. The Kerala backwaters exploration was also one such attempt. We really enjoyed the experience of being in the backwaters of Kerala with the locals!

    8. Manogna M

      Wow…I loved reading about Kerala. I have always wanted to visit the famous Backwaters of Kerala. I hope to fulfill my dream. 😀
      And I loved your narration.

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Thanks, Divyakshi! You are right, I am guessing what we see if we are sitting in one of those luxury houseboats would be different than what we saw, this time, traveling with the locals in their mode of transport over their backwaters! Glad you enjoyed the read 🙂

    9. frederick anderson

      The photographs are mesmerizing – the lifestyle they portray certainly looks idyllic, at the tourists’ glance. I think the well-appointed bungalow would draw me. Am I right in thinking the mosquitoes would not?

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Hello Frederick, thank you so much. Glad you liked the photos of the Kerala backwaters. It would be an amazing experience living in those bungalows – something we definitely want to do on our next trip to Kerala. Friends who previously lived on the houseboats did complain of the mosquitoes. The bungalows would probably be better. It was the dry season when we were there so they didn’t bother us much. But an insect repellent should always be kept handy 🙂

    10. upasna1987

      Lovely experience. You guys not only traveled but explored , lived the local life out there. I experienced ferry rides but I soon get sea-sick.

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Oh no, sorry to know about your sea sickness, Upasna. Even the ride over the calm backwaters caused it? We are so happy that we chose this local approach to experience the Kerala backwater. It would not have been possible, traveling isolated in a houseboat.

    11. Kalpanaa

      I did the Kerala Backwaters in one of the houseboats – with my old father and young children – and have always felt – well, been there, done that, it was great but…After reading your post I’m tempted to try the more adventurous, really backwater experience. Thanks.

    12. indrani

      Stunning captures! I have stayed close to back waters but never in a boat house.
      Must be quite an experience.

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Houseboats are good for them who just want to relax. May be we will stay close to backwaters in our next visit and then in houseboat… step by step upgrade 🙂

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Thank you so much! Now you should go back to the Kerala backwaters and travel in these state transport boats, to see which experience you enjoy the most 🙂

    13. vishvarsha

      lovey post!! Of late posts on kerela have become so monotonous that I somehow lost the interest to visit kerela but your post was so different and so refreshing! Recently saw a malyalam movie called premam which had these raw shots of backwaters and forests of kerela and I fell in love with the place and your post was like that movie, gave the best of the best but with a very rustic touch. 🙂

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Thank you so much, for your lovely comment Varsha! We have seen very little of Kerala, but we assume it has way more to offer than what a few blog posts can reflect. Recommend you to not lose your interest in Kerala 🙂 When you try to experience a place inclusive of the people who live there, it makes a whole lot of difference to what you feel about it.
        Though we won’t understand the movie, will try to watch some videos for the cinematography of the movie you mention. Thanks! Happy travels!