We planned 3.5 weeks in India, and most of our time was TBD but for two places: Varanasi and the backwaters of Kerala. I had read that spending time on a boat in the backwaters was a relaxing experience that also offered a glimpse into village life in southwest India. My expectations were high, and I was not disappointed.
I arrived in Kochi fully intending to arrange a two-night motored houseboat out of Alleppey, about an hour and a half south. There are many options for a backwater experience including a day trip on a public ferry between Kollam and Alleppey. My comments on all except the trip we did is from reading and word of mouth, so I will write as though it’s fact but I cannot confirm.
Alleppey is by far the most popular place for booking houseboats, and these days there are hundreds if not more than a thousand. Many of these are fairly luxurious with air conditioned bedrooms and an upper deck with sofas. It sounds great, but word is at least at this time of year the Alleppey area has gotten so crowded that you might wait in a line of boats to make a turn. And the water is oily.
In Kochi we popped into Walton’s Homestay to see if they arranged backwater tours, and Mr. Walton fortuitously directed us a couple doors down to his friend Stanley Wilson. Stanley told us that he worked for years in Alleppey, but that the original intent of a relaxing float had become a victim of its own success. As more and more tourists, both domestic and foreign, wanted a houseboat tour, the boats became bigger and more luxurious and the area more crowded and polluted. He offered a simpler and more eco-friendly alternative.
Stanley arranges punted boat tours from a village about halfway between Kochi and Alleppey, with solar power during the day when the boat is out on the water. Punted means that men propel the boat by pushing long bamboo poles on the water bottom. Except when we passed through a canal lined with stone walls, when the boat men disembark and pull the boat using a rope. They do this because punting is hard work, as Jenni and I both learned when we gave it a try.
There is no air conditioning and no upper deck, but also no noise. Stanley promised our money back if we saw more than three other boats, and I am happy to say he still has our money.
After an hour drive from Kochi, we arrived in the village and boarded the boat at 10:30 am. We were accompanied by two boat men and Manu, a great cook who speaks English very well. The boat is made of wood and bamboo and has a simple kitchen in back, a basic bedroom and toilet with sink, and a front area with a dining table, some comfy lounging chairs and a side table. The front is covered so you do not roast in the direct sun all day.
As we glided through the backwaters we passed between wider and narrower channels, surrounded by palm trees and many birds including ducks, egrets, cormorants, storks and kingfishers. We saw tiger prawn farms and men in canoes laying out fishing nets in a circle. There were lots more Chinese fishing nets like those we saw in Kochi.
The villagers onshore always stared and almost always waived and said hello. Kids were full of smiles and relentlessly asked for “one pen, please.” So if you can fit them in your luggage, bring a boatload of pens to throw to these adorable youngins. And one group of boys who walked alongside our boat for a while said they love Justin Beiber, so maybe bring some Belieber paraphernalia while you’re at it.
While much of India is frenetic, the backwaters epitomize relaxation. Jenni and I each commented that we could not recall the last time we felt so relaxed…perhaps on the second half of our honeymoon in the Maldives. The food was delicious and enormously apportioned. Coffee and tea were offered multiple times. We had fresh fish with each lunch and dinner plus rice, okra, curries, freshly made chapati or paratha and watermelon, pineapple or banana for dessert.
The first night we drank a bottle of Sula chenin blanc that we purchased in Kochi. We knew Sula from the bubbly we had the first night of our honeymoon last year in Jodhpur. The winery is located in Nashik in the state of Maharashtra, India’s burgeoning wine region. Time may tell, but for now Napa and Bordeaux ought to rest easy.
The one thing about this arrangement that may be better on the Alleppey boats (I am not sure if it is the case or not) is that at night we are anchored yet also docked back at the village. In other words, the boat is pointed out towards the water so you still get some of the feeling of sleeping out on the water, but it is not the same as being anchored in the middle of a lake. On the bright side, when docked there is electricity so you can charge devices and you can take their dugout canoe for a spin.
We could also hear music and fireworks both nights, as if to remind us this was still India. But the noise subsided before bed time. Some of the fireworks were so loud. Remember that if you are in India and it sounds like war is breaking out, stay calm. Most likely it is not.
On our first day before lunch the boat docked across a wide waterway and we walked five minutes to the Arabian Sea. There were so many colorful wooden fishing boats and I helped push in a new arrival loaded with mackerel and catfish caught in a chicken wire like net.
On the walk over one of the boat men pointed out a fruit tree that looks exactly like mango, only this one he said is poisonous. Good to know…
We had made arrangements with Stanley to spend the first day and night on the boat and the second day onshore and sleeping in the village home stay. We so enjoyed being out on the boat that on Saturday morning we called an audible and switched to the one of their three boats that was free that day.
As I wrote above, I have no personal experience with a motored houseboat from Alleppey and I imagine it could be wonderful. Among other things, two-bedroom houseboats are offered which is not so at Stanley’s village. These boats might also anchor out in the water, which sounds nice. If you are interested in going that route, this post from globetrottergirls.com seemed sensible and helpful.
Our taxi from Kochi cost Rs 600 and each night on the boat was Rs 4,000 with all meals included. Had we stayed in the village that night would have cost Rs 2,500 without AC or 3,000 with AC.
It is worth noting this was a good reminder that sometimes you just have to trust people. We paid Stanley in full in advance. This is slightly unusual, but he came recommended from a hotelier who seemed trustworthy and was recommended in my guide book (the hotelier, that is), and Stanley has a permanent office on a busy tourist street in Kochi.
Two nights on the backwaters was perfect for relaxing, reading and writing. I made it through 500+ pages of Mandela’s book Long Walk to Freedom. If you want a quintessential south India experience, I highly recommend unwinding here for a couple days.
You can find Stanley at www.wilsontours.co.in, firstname.lastname@example.org, (+91) 98474 76750, or the old-fashioned way on Princess Street in Fort Cochin
December 19-21, 2013 (Thursday-Saturday)