Alappuzha, also known as Alleppey, on the coast of Kerala, is a special destination. It is nestled in the middle of the backwaters, the amazing system of rivers, canals and lagoons that stretches for hundreds of miles parallel to the coast of Malabar. It is not a surprise that it was called the ‘Venice of the East’ by the viceroy Lord Curzon during his visit to Kerala.
I came to Alleppey in the early afternoon with the intention of exploring the backwaters that were outside the traditional tourist circuit. One of the nicest ways to traverse these water mazes is by cruising in a ‘house boat’, traditional barges of bamboo that have been converted into comfortable accommodation. With furnished bedrooms, modern toilets, cozy living rooms, a kitchen and even a balcony, houseboats are ideal for honeymooning couples or a relaxing family vacations, but not for those who love a bit of adventure.
Touring the Kerala Backwaters
Recently, a friend of mine rented a canoe and wandered for a week on the network of the backwaters, often getting lost in the maze of channels because there is no map of these water routes. If you think this experience is a bit too challenging, there are other alternatives. For example, there is an eight-hour cruise on a double-decker boat starting every day at 10 am from Kollam to Alleppey. It is organized by the Tourist Board of Kerala and reserved for tourists. You can also make a stop at the ashram of Matha Amrithanandamayi also known as Amma, the ‘hugging saint’, famous worldwide for her philanthropy, but recently involved in a new controversy after a book written by one of her followers.
There exists another option, albeit not very well known, but the easiest and also the most rewarding for those who like a full immersion into the daily life of the backwaters. It is the public transport ferry. A large number of the services are operated by the Kerala State Water Transport Department (KSWTD) from places called ‘Boat Jetty’. But unfortunately there is no timetable and the tourist office is not very keen to give information about it. In this case, the solution is to jump into the first boat leaving from the jetty and asking people where it is going. And if you feel a bit lost, just look at your GPS!
My ferry ride to Kavalam
Randomly, I got a ferry direct to Kavalam, an idyllic village in on the banks of the Vembanad Lake, which, until a decade ago, was only accessible by water. It is journey of 17 km that lasts a total of five hours and costs just 24 rupees, including the return. It starts at 3 pm from the jetty in the city center on Boat Jetty road. It is an old boat carrying students, housewives and some office employees.
Since I was the only foreigner, I got the privilege to sit at the front row where you can enjoy the best view. After a few minutes the boat joined the Punnamada Lake, the venue of the famous Nehru Trophy, the boat race organized every year in August. Then it turned towards the Pombal River, surrounded by palm trees and important buildings such as the Orthodox church of St. Thomas. Many houseboats were cruising here, with entire families or couples relaxing on the veranda. They were quite amused to see me on the ferry taking photos of them.
More or less, every 10 minutes, the ferry docked to one side or another of the river, to take new passengers or drop off others. When it entered the huge Vembanadu Lake, it seemed to go out on the high sea. I could not see the end of the stretch of water. But the horizon again became narrow when we turned into one of the artificial channels crossing rectangular shaped fields cultivated with rice. One of the two dikes was under construction.
Here the river was crowded with barges carrying construction materials or small shrimp fishing boats. Little houses with colorful gardens dotted the bank. The scenery was so enchanting that time seemed to have stopped. After an hour, I arrived at a place called Kunumma. There were schools, temples and churches along the banks. People were coming in and out at every stop, signaled by a small bell, with all kinds of commodities. In some places there were only rice paddies around and no sign of roads. It seemed like the boat is the only way to reach these villages.
Temples, school, churches and rice paddies
After two and half hours I reached Kavalam, the last stop. I was the only passenger left! The boat stopped there for 15 minutes, just enough for me to go out and to buy a fried banana in the small shop and to admire the countryside around the tiny village.
A dozen ducks were swimming in the middle of the water, crossing slowly and undisturbed. When the ferry was making a U turn to head back, the conductor came to me again with his book of tickets. Where are you going? “Alleppey”, I promptly answered this time. Again 12 rupees for another round in paradise!
To plan your own tailor made trip to amazing Kerala, take a look at some of our itineraries http://www.shantitravel.com/en/south-india/kerala/