Cruising the backwaters of Kerala

In 2015, Zev and I were given a backwater cruise in Kerala by my godmother and her family as a wedding present. Now, three years later, we've finally had the chance to use it!

Although we had planned to make it to India as part of our honeymoon, things didn't quite go according to plan, and we didn't make it this far. We were beyond delighted to finally get a chance to tick a backwater cruise in Alleppey off our bucket list, thanks to the wonderful Woolliams family.

The wonderful owner at our guesthouse in Alleppey organised our cruise for us. Sure, we could've walked down to the wharf ourselves and haggled to make sure we're getting the best deal possible, but in the scheme of things, that's a lot of hassle to probably not save much money. 

We weren't leaving the accommodation until 11am, so at the sugegstion of our host, we checked out an espresso bar down the road for breakfast. Zev thoroughly enjoyed cornflakes and milk (anything that isn't toast and jam is a luxury), and I had a pineapple lassi and a milk tea.

When we got back to the guesthouse, the host asked if we wanted to leave our big packs with him, and just take our day packs. When we agreed, he replied, 'Great, then we can all go on my scooter to the boat!". Sure enough, the three of us climbed onto the scooter for a very... intimate ride down to the boat.

The boats themselves are huge, and really cool. Technically, they're called Kettuvallam, and have been around in South India since 3000BC. Traditionally, they were built without using nails, and the hull was made from elongated wooden planks, secured with coir ropes made from coconut fibre. Cashew shells were boiled to create a greasy black resin which was used to waterproof the hull. The top portion of the boat was created by weaving natural materials such as bamboo and coir to create vaulted shapes for spacious rooms and high ceilings.

Disclaimer: not our actual houseboat

Our boat had two bedrooms, each with an ensuite, with a dining area in the front, and an upstairs deck with a day bed. You hire the whole boat, so Zev and I had the place to ourselves, apart from 3 staff - 2 drivers and a cook. We were welcomed on board with lime sodas made freshly by the cook, then shown to our room. After dropping our bags off, we headed upstairs to the viewing deck and settled in for a strenuous afternoon of cruising.

Looking back over the roof of the boat

Soon enough, the motor started, and we were off. I had very much managed my expectations of the cruise. I thought it would probably be very nice, but honestly, how much fun can it be - you're just sitting on a boat all day? I couldn't have been more wrong. Everything we’d read and heard was true. As we sat back, reading and playing games, we puttered down glassy canals lined with palm trees and watched dozens of birds flying overhead. Rice paddies lined the sides of the canal, and the water was often filled with water hyacinth, making it look like we were cruising in a meadow.

Water hyacinth

Water hyacinth

After stopping for lunch (more vegetarian curry than any two people could possibly eat), we headed off again for the afternoon, and resumed our prior programme of doing nothing at all while the world passed by. Later in the afternoon, a beautiful warm breeze picked up, and the sun finally cooled down enough for us to venture out onto the uncovered day bed. Our lovely cook even served us tea and friend bananas as we laid in the sun, feeling more relaxed than we ever thought possible.

Serious relaxation

The boats aren't allowed to cruise between 6pm and 6am, to allow the local fisherman to go out on the river, so at 5.30pm we pulled up and parked for the night. We were able to get off the boat and wander along the banks of the canal, mostly smiling and saying hello to locals and checking out the other boats (ours was the best, obviously).

That's our boat!

As we walked back towards the boat, the sun started going down in a most spectacular fashion, and we detoured down a side canal to get a good view. We came across a man in a canoe, pushing his way through the water hyacinth with a little difficulty. Then we noticed that he had a 72 inch plasma TV screen in his canoe. Zev joked that he was probably an Amazon Prime delivery man.

Sure, why not?

We spent 5 minutes standing watching the sun go down, before heading back to the boat. Dinner was served shortly after, and as we sat in the dining room after with the fan going, one of the staff came out to tell us that the air conditioning had been switched on in our room. We told him we were okay sitting at the table with the fan, but he was very insistent, so we figured we were being told to go to bed, and followed instructions.

Breakfast the next morning was another slight miss - curry with whole boiled eggs... Not much of that got eaten, but we enjoyed our cups of tea upstairs on the sunbed for our hour long cruise back to the wharf once we'd eaten the polite minimum.

Since our bus out of Alleppey didn't leave until 1pm, the guesthouse owner kindly let us hang out there until we were ready to go. Imagine our surprise when 5 minutes before we were due to leave, the two English girls we'd met at lunch in Munnar walked in! There were only 2 rooms at the guesthouse, so it's not like the chances were high of them picking to stay there. We caught up with them quickly before dashing off to catch our bus back to Kochi.

This was to be our first experience of public buses in India. The ones we'd caught previously were private buses, which offered us the reassuring ability to book seats in advance, and which are designed with tourists in mind so have space for luggage etc. Not so with the public buses - it's first in, first served, and your bags go where you can make them fit. This did not sit well with my travel anxieties. The stationmaster told us the bus would arrive at 1pm, and it would say 'Airport'.

The bus station was chaos, which did nothing to alleviate my fears. There was a constant stream of buses pulling up, stopping briefly, then taking off, all with signs in Hindi. There are no bus numbers, so there was no way for us to identify which bus was which. At about 1.05pm, we finally managed to find a man who looked like a ticket seller and asked him which bus was going to Kochi airport. He pointed, we got on, frantically cramming our bags into any available space and taking our seats. No sooner had we sat down that the bus took off - talk about a close call!

The bus was actually surprisingly comfortable. Despite my mental image of a packed and chaotic bus, there was plenty of room, and the lack of AC went unnoticed because all the windows on the bus opened right up. We even had more leg room than on the private bus. What had been a massive source of stress for me had turned into one of the more pleasant bus rides we'd taken - a good life lesson I suppose!

3 hours later we were dropped at Cochin Airport, for the mere sum of $3NZD. We headed in to check into our $35NZD flights to our next destination, Bangalore, India's 3rd largest city.

Lots of love,
S & Z