Kerala House Boats
Backwater Cruise in Kerala, Kollam Backwaters.

To travel around the backwaters by Kerala house boats is the main reason visitors come to Kerala, and it is a good reason indeed. Chugging along the region's waterways reclining on the observation deck of a traditional Kerala house boat is among the most pleasurable experiences India has to offer. But it doesn't come cheap, and may not live up to expectations if you fall into the clutches of a cowboy outfit.

For those with limited time or money, cheaper backwater cruises in Kerala are also on offer. And there are always the local ferries.

Where and How to Chose a Kettuvallam ( Kerala House Boats)

Whoever dreamed up the idea of showing tourists around the backwaters in old rice barges or kettuvallam (literally "boat with knots"), could never have imagined that two decades on, five hundred of more of them would chugging around Alappuzha backwaters and Kollam backwaters.

These houseboats, made of dark oiled jack wood with canopies of plaited palm thatch and coir, are big business. Almost all mid and upmarket backwaters hotels, guest houses and "heritage homestays" seem to have one.

Some 480 of them work out of Alappuzha alone. The flashiest of them are fitted with glass-sided air-conditioned rooms, silk cushions on their teak sun deck, giant plasma-screen TVs and satellite dishes, imported wine in their fridges and Jacuzzis that bubble away through the night.

One grand juggernaut (called the Vaikundan, based near Amma's ashram in Kollam district) holds ten separate bedrooms and won't slip its lines for less than Rs. 100,000 ($ 2,200). At the opposite end of the scale are rough and ready transport barges with gut-thumping diesel engines, cramped, smelly bedrooms and minimal washing facilities.

What you end up paying for your cruise will depend on a number of variables: the size and quality of the boat and its fittings, the number and standard of the bedrooms and, crucially, the time of year. Rates double over Christmas and New Year and halve off-season during the monsoons.

In practice, however, Rs 6,000 to 15,000 is the usual bracket for a trip on a two-bedroom air-conditioned boat with a proper bathroom, in early December or mid-January. The rate is inclusive of three meals. The cruise should last a minimum of 22 hours, though don't expect to spend all of that on the move. Running times are carefully calculated to save gas. From sunset onwards you'll be moored at a riverbank, probably on the outskirt of the town where the trip started.

You can save quite a lot of cash, and be doing the fragile ecosystem a big favour, by opting for more environmentally friendly punted kettuvallom. This was how rice barges were traditionally propelled, and though it means you travel at a more leisurely pace, the experience is silent and altogether more relaxing.

Houseboat operators work out of Kollam, Karunagapally and Kumarakom but by far the highest concentration is in Alappuzha, where you'll find the lowest prices - but also worst congestion on more routes. Spend a day shopping around for deal and get it fixed on paper before setting off.

How is a Kettuvalloms Built? (Kerala House Boats)

The roots of building Kerala house boats can be traced back to Alumkadavu near Karunagappally in Kollam district, the first place in Kerala where such work was undertaken.

The kettuvallom is a traditional boat that has withstood the test of time and tide. It remains popular to this day, using indigenous materials to build a mode of transport that adheres to local needs.

Kettu means to build, and vallom is a small boat; hence, kettuvallom translates approximately as building a boat. Every day except Sunday, from 8am to 5pm, you can see kettuvalloms being constructed very near the Green Channel Backwater Resort.

The processes call for a strong stomach since fish oil is used as a coating to protect the surface of the unfinished wood-and-coir boats. The smell will not assail you once you move away to observe the next stage in building a kettuvallom.

After the bottom of the boat has been shaped and the thatching of its roof has commenced, you'll be astonished to see its bare floor chalked up like the plan for an apartment. They say it takes about three months to build one of these Kerala house boats.

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