Kerala Backwaters, Kerala Backwater Tours
Kerala Houseboats and backwaters are the most unique tourist attraction in Kerala.
A unique aspect of Kerala's geography is its backwaters, a network of rivers, lagoons, lakes and canals along the most of its coastline. The best-known backwaters are Ashtamudi lake in Kollam and Vembanad lake stretches around Alappuzha, Kumarkom and Kochi. The southern section of Vemband lake is called Kuttanad.
The backwaters have few outlets to the sea and the lagoons depend on river for their water. In the monsoon season, seawater enters parts of the inland lagoons and canals. This combination of saline and fresh water is essential to the aquatic life of the backwaters, including the coveted karimeen fish.
Touring the backwaters is one of the highlights of a visit to Kerala. Waterfront activities like coir-making rice-growing, toddy-tapping and fishing can be seen along the banks, and traditional dugouts ply the waterways. The banks are green with coconut palms and groves of mango, papaya, jackfruit and other trees, and tapioca is among the crops grown here.
Travelling the backwaters also give a glimpse of village life. The entire settlements are located on strips of land separating the waterways, and houses have poultry, cattle, pigs and ducks, and even green vegetable garden. Prawns and fish are farmed, sand is dredged for construction, and shells are collected for the production of lime. The boats pass canals where coconuts, coir, cashew and food are loaded onto dugouts.
Popular Backwater Trips
The most popular backwater trip is the journey from Kollam to Alappuzha, or vice versa. The trip takes about eight hours, usually departing at 10.30. The halts along the way are; to the coir village of Thrikkunnapuzha, to islands such as Leskshmithuruth, and to popular stops such as the ashram at Amritpauri.
Shorter trips are also available from Kollam, Alappuzha and Kochi, and from the northern backwaters near Kozhikode and Bekal. Some cruises, such as those from Alappuzha and Kottayam, include toddy tasting in their itinerary.
Apart from tours, passenger boats and public ferries, it is also possible to hire motorboats and speedboats for travelling around the backwaters. Hotels and resorts at Kumarakom, Alappuzha and Kollam also organise backwater cruises and short boat trips. The best, but more expensive, option is to charter a houseboat.
The Majestic Kerala Houseboats
Kettuvallams are strong and sturdy boats capable of carrying heavy loads. Often called rice boats, the Kettuvallams are used for cargo and as a means of transport. They are made of wooden planks tied together with coir, with thatched roof to protect people and cargo from the rain. In deep water the boatman uses an oar to propel the boat along, but in shallower water he uses a long bamboo pole.
The Kettuvallam declined in importance when road transport began to make most of the waterways redundant, but today many of them have been remodelled as passenger boats and houseboats.
Few visitors return from Kerala without taking a boat trip on the backwaters. One means of travelling the backwaters is by charted houseboat, which allows more flexibility to plan an itinerary than tour boats and ferries.
The price is based on the route, the facilities and services, the duration of the cruise, the size of the houseboat, the number of rooms, and the meals. Kerala Houseboats trips usually start at Alappuzha, Kollam and Kumarkom but other stretches, such as the backwaters near Trivandrum, Calicut and Bekal are also good for cruising.
Government tourist offices can be contacted to book Kerala houseboats. Hotels and resorts of Kollam, Alappuzha and Kumarkom have their own houseboats or can arrange one according to your requirements.
Hiring the Best Kerala Houseboats
Take a cruise at the right time on right houseboat, and it is going to be the highlight of your vacation in Kerala. Kettuvallam houseboats are available at different levels of luxury, and may be rented for day cruises or for sleep-in trips of several days.
We recommend that you spend 2 nights on board to realize how relaxing it is to cruise around in a houseboat. The major attractions are watching the sun turn the lake orange before settling down in the middle of the lake and witnessing the activities of households on the smaller backwaters at dawn and dusk. The boats must be moored or anchored by 6pm for the fishermen to cast their night nets.
The best Kerala houseboats have features like solar-panel power and heating, bio toilets, and an average cruising speed of 10kmph. You'll have a private team-minimum of two, a cook and pilot-who work hard to make your experience unique and exceptional. Respecting your privacy the crew manage to leave you to experience the backwaters in peace. Meals are authentic Kerala fare-if you're curious about Kerala cuisine, you're welcome to observe proceedings in the tiny kitchen at the rear end of the boat.
With the huge increase of traffic on the backwaters, don't expect exclusivity-try to avoid booking over the peak season. September is to our mind the best month, when the water is high, harvest is due, races are scheduled, and tourist numbers are relatively low.
Preserving the Backwaters for the Future
The backwaters are lagoons fed by a network of perennial rivers with only few outlets to the sea. The salts are flushed out between May and September in monsoon. But sea waters rush inland by up to 20km at the end of the monsoon and the waters become increasingly salty through the dry season.
This alternation between fresh and salt water has been essential to the backwaters' aquatic life. However, as land value has rocketed and reclamation for agriculture has reduced the surface water area, the backwaters' fragile ecology has been put at risk. Many of the original swamps have been destroyed and the waters are becoming increasingly salty.
Tourism, too, is taking its toll. Exploring the backwaters in a traditional kettuvallam is the ultimate Kerala experience but the popularity of these trips is having an adverse effect on the waterways. However, there are ways to help prevent further degeneration.
The trend so far has been for houseboat operators to offer larger, more luxurious boats to meet the demands of tourists. The powerful outboard motors contribute heavily to pollution levels in the canals. Opting for a smaller boat not only helps ease environmental damage but also allows you to venture into the many narrower and less visited lagoons that the larger boats are unable to access.
Some operators are becoming aware of the damage being caused and are putting responsible travel practices in place. Support these efforts by checking that your houseboat is equipped with a chemical toilet. It'll prevent your waste being dumped into the canals. If possible, opt for a solar-powered boat. Alternatively consider hiring a hand-propelled thoni or canoe as an entirely carbon-neutral way of discovering this unique region.
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