Cruising the backwaters of Kerala

There are miles upon miles of canals and lakes in the Southern Kerala region, mostly centered around the town of Alleppey (or Alleppy or Alappuzha). They form an impressive network that has some calling the area the "Venice of the East." It is certainly no Venice, though that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. The canals provide, among other things, water and transport connectivity for vast rice paddies in the region. Today there is less rice farming (though it definitely still exists) and more tourism in the area. Buildings that used to house farmers now house coolers stocked with ice cream and soda for the visitors. Many of the old cargo boats have been converted to houseboats, plying the waters loaded with tourists out for a day cruise or an overnight stay anchored out on the lakes.


There is still plenty of local life on the canals. We hired a relatively small boat for a 3 hour tour of the backwaters (cue Gilligan’s Island) and headed out to see what there was to see.


We puttered by as folks went about their daily routine, most of which appeared to be doing laundry. And being out on the water was a rather pleasant way to spend a few hours, with a cool breeze blowing through the boat. Still, I cannot help but think we were doing something wrong with our version of the tour. Maybe I’m just not cut out for the slow boat.


And it was incredibly slow. I think that I could have swam faster at points in the cruise, though I certainly wouldn’t be swimming in that water. Maybe that was just our boat. Actually it probably was as we were getting passed by pretty much every other boat out on the water. I suppose the slow is good for taking in the sights but we were only on the boat for a few hours and I’d have rather seen more than seen slow. Alas, it was not meant to be.


The peek into folks’ lives was a bit overly voyeuristic, particularly as they don’t really have much choice in the matter. They were doing laundry, washing dishes or washing themselves in the river. And there we were, motoring by at 3 miles/hour, staring at them from 25-100 feet away. It was a bit strange.


The other bit that disappointed me more on the tour is that we purposefully chose a smaller boat, not one of the 3 bedroom behemoths with satellite and a/c, so that we could sail through some of the smaller canals and see a more intimate version of the life. Yes, I know that doesn’t really jive with the strange mentioned above, but, well, I’ve always had issues with internal consistency. We wanted that slightly different experience. When we booked the boat we discussed this with the proprietor and he agreed that we’d see that aspect of things. Three hours later we returned to the dock having followed the exact same path as all the other boats, large or small. There was apparently no variety to be had on the tour despite the promises made.


It wasn’t a bad day-trip from Kochi. We definitely enjoyed the time on the water and relaxing.  But it was a bit of a let-down compared to what I’d read about and what I think it could have been. Probably more our fault than not – I don’t think that it is an experience that should be arranged as a day-trip and also not one that can be easily booked from afar. You have to know what you’re getting, see the boat and make sure it will meet your needs rather than hope for the best upon arrival. And spending only a few hours on the water versus a full day also doesn’t offer up the ability to cruise as far back into the network of canals, though I also didn’t realize we’d be moving so slowly throughout the trip so I thought we’d cover more ground (or water, as it were).


I would almost certainly consider doing it again if we are back in the area. I’d just make sure we did it differently.

Read more from the India/Sri Lanka New Years adventure here.

Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.

Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.