Exploring the absolutely stunning scenery of the Alleppey backwaters in a houseboat made of reeds is without a doubt one of the things to do when you visit Kerala. Before arriving in the country it was actually one of only two true ‘tourist experiences’ I’d heard of, the other being the Munnar tea plantations. And when you bear in mind that I have more Keralan friends than I have fingers and toes, all of whom were throwing different suggestions at me but every single one of them said something along the lines of ‘You can’t miss Alleppey’, you can’t really blame me for not wanting to miss the experience.
The only thing that was causing me any doubt about it was the cost.
Because while just going to Alleppey and looking at the backwaters and maybe taking a gentle little stroll along the side of the water is a splendid idea, the whole point of Alleppey is the houseboats.
I don’t know why. They are literally just houses but in a boat. Apparently nobody even lives in them permanently, and they exist purely for tourism but whatever, they’re pretty!
I won’t even go into how much one of these things costs for a day because, quite frankly, it makes my penny-pinching self cry just thinking about it but luckily (for me anyway) one of my friends over here has ‘connections’ and was able to barter for a pretty good deal. Not as dodgy as it sounds, I swear!
This, dear readers, is why having local friends is the best thing in the world when it comes to travel in India. Locals always pay less.
So yeah, I’ve now done the whole houseboat thing twice. The first time I became Rosie from Rosie & Jim (blast from the past or what?!) and explored the Alleppey backwaters last April, it was an all expenses paid day out with my previously mentioned super-connected friend and it was lovely. Despite the fact that ordinarily I’m a “let’s jump in puddles and walk through forests and use up all our energy” kind of girl and you don’t really do anything on a houseboat, I actually thoroughly enjoyed myself. So much so, in fact, that when two of my friends from the UK were over I sort of heavily hinted/forced them into coming to Kerala just so I could take them on a houseboat through the backwaters. This time it was paid for by me but all praise super-connected friend because he managed to get me one hell of a discount that saved me having to re-mortgage my Nutribullet to afford it!
On both occasions I went out with different tour companies (there are so bloody many in and around Alleppey, you really could just have your pick of the bunch!) but the days were pretty much the same both times.
There are two main options when it comes to renting out houseboats in Alleppey: half day, or full day. Full day is basically the same as the half day tour except you get an overnight stay too. The half day ‘tour’ typically starts at 11am from the section of the water most conveniently located to the town. You’re welcomed on board by the ship’s driver (or is it captain?) and introduced to the chef. Both times when I started uot there was also another crew member on board, but he mysteriously disappeared as soon as we set sail. And when I say mysteriously disappeared, I mean mysteriously disappeared! I did not see him disembark the boat, nor was he hidden anywhere on-board. Very strange.
Anyway, the captain gave a brief tour of the boat although to be honest I definitely could have shown myself around. It’s a simple set up – lounge area leading on to the part where he steers the wheel (very technical boat language, I know), then a corridor leading to the kitchen. There are a few doors in the corridor, all of which lead to bedrooms, inside of which are little cupboard-like bathrooms. It’s all decorated like an actual house and is super quaint and such a novelty and even though it’s just a boat with rooms, something about it feels special.
I don’t have any pictures of the inside of the boat because I’m a bit of a turnip, but just imagine the interior of any old house from that BBC2 show about people wanting to move to the countryside, and you’re probably not far off.
So, after a
house boat tour the driver shot off into the distance at a dizzying speed.
That’s a lie. It genuinely moved slower than a slowworm. But it’s nice and guess what?! THE DRIVER LET ME DRIVE!!!!!
I don’t quite know how to explain what the backwaters are. They’re kind of like canals, but also like swamps, but also like one giant windy lake at the same time. People live in them. Or more specifically, they don’t live in them because that’d mean they’re freaky water people, but they live alongside them in houses built right on the edge of the shore/bank/whatever it’s called. Making your way through the waters, you see people going about their daily business, washing themselves and their clothes in the waters, fishing with rods, fishing with nets, fishing with their bare hands (!!!), it’s such an interesting viewpoint to have.
After about 2 and a half hours of rolling down the river it was lunchtime!
The boat docked in what felt like the middle of nowhere but actually isn’t. I was told in good faith by my amigo that it’s “the Keralan countryside“, and there’s actually no better way to describe it. You’re facing nothing but rice fields and other agricultural set ups for as far as the eye can see, and the serenity and blissful silence of being surrounded by nothing but nature is so calming.
In April when we parked up the boat this little boy wearing a Ben 10 t-shirt came running up to us and started waving, shouting “One pen please, one pen please!” I tried to talk to him but it became obvious that his English didn’t stretch any further than asking for a pen, and so relied on my trusty interpreter (aka friend) to be my voice. On my request he asked the boy why he wanted a pen.
“To do my homework.”
Obviously this would have been the first time since leaving the UK that I was completely and utterly pen-less, and he looked so freaking sad when he found that out! Then his little sister came running up asking for the same thing and was equally disappointed when it transpired that this particular foreigner clearly didn’t value homework as much as they did.
It turned out that the kids belonged to a family who ran a little shop just a little way up the path (I say path, but it was basically just the edge of the field, about half a metre in width) selling drinks and snacks to people who came up on the houseboats. Seeing as a day trip on the houseboats come with lunch and snacks included, it’s hard to believe that they’re raking in money. So obviously the cynic in me came out in force and said to my friend “Do you think he just asks for pens from tourists and then sells them?”
No, was the answer.
Apparently where we were is so hard to reach that more often than not school is accessible by boat (which of course they have to pay for) and so in a lot of cases, the kids from poorer families just don’t go.
I don’t know for sure if the little boy and his sister actually wanted to do their homework or if they were the masterminds behind some under-the-table pen selling business, but either way they’ve stuck in my mind ever since. So when I planned another trip a few weeks back, I hoped that the boat would stop at the same place and the boy would come running up again so I could give him as many pens as he could carry.
We did stop at the same place, but the boy wasn’t there. Which is a blessing in disguise really because I forgot the pens. Oops.
The chef prepared some traditional Keralan food including fish fry, chicken fry, thoran, red rice and loads more, and honestly? There was enough to feed a whole army. They cooked up the same amount of food when there was just two of us as they did when there was four of us, and there was an absolute mountain of leftovers both times! And then came the pineapple for dessert, cut in the most magical way I’ve ever seen! I can’t even begin to describe it! Seriously, I have trawled YouTube to try and find a tutorial on how he did it but no luck so far *boohoo*.
After lunch we paid the chef to go off and get some toddy for us to try. If you ever get the chance to try toddy (otherwise known as palm wine) do yourselves a favour and just don’t. It is foul. It is disgusting. It took me almost a litre of water and 2 fried bananas to get the taste out of my mouth. Ych a fi.
Taste buds well and truly destroyed, we made our way back the same way we came and bam, day finished.
There is honestly nothing to do on these boats but sit, enjoy the scenery and
get destroyed by enjoy the heat so if you have the attention span of a two-year old, you should really take a book or game of Pokémon or something. But seriously, it’s a really nice experience with beautiful views and wonderful food. I’d highly recommend it to anyone!