Kerala, Part 2: the backwaters

Exploring the backwaters on a kettuvallam.

After a swim on the beach at sunrise, we left Thiruvananthapuram and drove north about 4-5 hours to Alleppey, gateway to the famous Kerala backwaters [location]. The “backwaters” of Kerala are an extensive network of brackish lowland lagoons, lakes, and canals that have been developed over centuries into rice paddies and villages. We spent two days exploring this interesting area. Read on, and check out the photos!

Our kettuvallam, the Bay Pride, seen from the water. (Kerala backwaters.)

The first night we spent on a kettuvallam: a traditional rice barge converted into a floating hotel with two bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. Each bedroom has a shower and A/C; the sitting room had a ceiling fan and an entertainment system.  In the rear is a full kitchen.  I saw some 2-story kettuvallams with 4-5 bedrooms!

five lake prawns, Rs1500. (Kerala backwaters.)

We motored out across the lake and along several canals, before anchoring for the night.  The kids were thrilled that “Captain Babu” let them steer!  The food was classic Kerala cuisine; for lunch we had a tasty curry, deep-fried blackfish, and 5 different cold salads, many based on coconut.  We stopped in the afternoon to purchase fresh lake prawns (Rs1500) – the largest I’ve ever seen, each the size of a small lobster!

The backwaters are full of wildlife, but there are 500 houseboats toting tourists (we saw as many as 20-30 at any one time) so the wildlife was hard to spot.  The most fascinating part is watching the people who live along the canals. We took a brief hourlong tour by canoe, allowing us to explore some of the shady narrow canals.  It’s a bit like bicycling down the back lane of a village, with sidewalks on either side and a variety of homes – everything from simple shacks to middle-class homes sporting a satellite dish. It is quiet, but there is lots of activity: schoolchildren skipping homeward, women washing clothes, men in dhotis bathing, a grandfather paddling children home.

The backwater canals; these alley-ways are quiet and peaceful. (Kerala backwaters.)
Andy played with water hyacinth in the Kerala backwaters, and its juice created a terrible rash.

The backwaters are increasingly choked by water hyacinth.  While we were canoeing, Andy found these plants fascinating: they have little air-filled ‘floats’ on their stems, which Andy – ever the scientist – picked apart to investigate. Unfortunately, as we discovered when he awoke next morning, they are filled with an irritant; Andy’s face was a splatter of nasty rashes.  It took two weeks for them to fade.

Siddarth, who showed me around his village. (Kerala backwaters.)

When we stopped for the night, anchored alongside one of the canals, I hopped out to explore the shore.  A local boy had been there to help catch the bowline and tie up the boat. Siddarth, I think, was his name; he seemed eager to show me around, so along I went.  I asked about his school; he said he was in 8th standard and that he had a lot of homework… English, Malayalam, Hindi, maths, chemistry, physics, and biology.  His ambition was to go to high school and then into the army. Soon, we passed a small building that he explained was the local rice mill.  There were two men inside, packing rice powder into plastic bags; nearby were piles of atta powder (a particular grind of wheat flour used for chappatis) and chili powder.  He showed me huge haystacks, that were made of dried rice stalks and were used for feeding cows.

The prawns for dinner were excellent, but we didn’t sit up long after dinner because of all the gnats and bugs. If we turned on the ceiling fan, it blasted bugs down into our drinks; if we turned off the ceiling fan, the bugs were everywhere.  Fortunately, there were six tiny gecko lizards crawling on the ceiling, who were snacking on the bugs.

Our second night was at the Coco Bay resort, a rather bland spot.  It had a nice swimming pool for the kids.  The highlight was a visit by my parents, who were also on a houseboat tour in Kerala and whose tour guide arranged a brief detour so they could visit us.  It was exciting to see them, and fun to meet some of the members of their tour group.

Cocobay resort – with us waving! Photo by Jack Kotz. (Kerala backwaters.)

I took many photos.  I only have an approximate map location.


This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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