Last Updated on February 2, 2020 by Natasha Amar
Cotton-like clouds and blue skies sway in rippled reflections in Kerala’s backwaters along the edge of an Alleppey houseboat, flanked by village houses, paddy fields, and coconut palms that are a soul-soothing shade of green. Come sunset and the skies turn a fiery orange pink, birds flutter with a sense of purpose, and the last rays of the sun turn the houseboats from a sandy hue to a glorious gold just before night falls. The concept of time seems optional, illusory even, when you’re sprawled on the deck of a houseboat in Kerala’s backwaters.
Here, the only sound is of the music made by nature and life takes on a calmer pace. Women in colorful sarees go about their daily chores, schoolchildren with bright smiles and brighter eyes wave back at you, and goats are your friendly companions when you step off to explore village markets. It seems, if only for a little while, that everything that makes sense has come together in these moments alone, forcing one to be fully present in them.
Why You Should See The Backwaters on a Kerala Houseboat
While travel in India is often described using words like ‘intense’ and ‘chaotic’, the backwaters of Kerala are none of those things. That is why staying on a houseboat in Kerala is among my favorite things to do in India, one you’ll love for a gentler, kinder, and more enjoyable introduction to the country. But remember, Kerala really is like nowhere else in India, something you’ll realize in how close the bonds of human and nature are here.
The backwaters of Kerala are a network of lakes, canals, and lagoons parallel to the coast of the Arabian Sea, where ferries have always offered a necessary means of transportation to get around. For centuries, houseboats, known locally as kettuvallams and built using wood, coir rope, bamboo, and coconut fibers (of which there is plenty in these parts), plied these waters as a means of transporting rice, goods, and people.
What To Expect on a Kerala Houseboat
Tourists can rent houseboats, from simpler kinds where bamboo poles and strong arms power the boats to motorized ones with hot tubs on the deck. Some companies operate houseboats run on solar power, many with biodegradable toilet systems, in an effort to keep their running eco-friendly.
Alleppey is the most popular starting point for houseboat tours, with options for every budget, but you’ll also find options in Kochi, Kumarakom, Kottayam, and Kollam.
Tourists sleep overnight in the houseboats and by day have the privilege to see a part of Kerala, after which one cannot help but agree that this might just be, as the state’s tourism slogan says, “God’s own country.”
Modern houseboats maintain their original rustic appeal and look similar to traditional kettuvallams, and are also made of bamboo, rattan, coir and woven palm leaves, but step inside and creature comforts abound. Our houseboat came with a spacious living and dining area, two air-conditioned bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, and a hot tub on the deck.
A chef onboard offered to cook us our preferred cuisine- we asked for Kerala cuisine and every meal was an absolute highlight. Freshly caught fish, procured from fishermen in the villages, colorful curries (okra and pumpkin), and an array of side dishes kept us full and often guessing, “What vegetable is that?” and “I never knew this one tasted like that.”
Our daily order of business was to plop ourselves on the outdoor deck to take in the views; local commuters on the ferries on Lake Vembanad, lone fishermen on boats, piles of rope placed before them, houses, churches, temples, and low-rise buildings peppered across this verdant, tropical dream of a landscape. The locals are engaged in tourism and related businesses; those who aren’t fishermen, duck farmers, or boat builders might run or work in homestays, eco-resorts or have paddy fields, coconut oil production workshops, or stores selling groceries or toddy.
Sometimes, we’d dock and step off onto an island to stretch our legs in a little piece of paradise surrounded by palms, and encounter a kind local who’d hand us a fresh coconut to cool off. We’d watch the sunset from our hot tub on the deck, a few chilled beers placed in a cool box within reach- modern luxuries to enjoy in the heart of nature. (Oh what a wonderful time to be alive.) And just before it was time to retire for the night, we’d watch thousands of stars put on a show, to the music of nocturnal riverside insects.
Is a Kerala Houseboat Expensive?
While seeing the backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat is certainly not the cheapest way to experience them (there are cheaper options that I’ve mentioned below), I would not say that renting a houseboat for one or two nights is expensive. One, there are options available to suit your budget, for example choosing an air-conditioned or non-AC houseboat.
Two, if you pay more, you get more value. If you compare this experience to the nightly rate at a resort of similar quality, you’re paying a bit more for the experience of being on a houseboat, which to me seems fair. A houseboat stay can cost anywhere from 8000 rupees to over 20,000 rupees a night for two, depending on the level of luxury, amenities and meal options.
Moreover, I hate the idea that every travel experience should be super cheap, just because it’s India. You have to understand that tourism dollars help boost local economies, so really the coffee money you’re saving or haggling about in India, can do so much more for the local economy than you know, a cup of coffee.
What I do like is the concept of finding the highest value for what you pay, and there are plenty of options when it comes to houseboats in Kerala, to that end.
Tips for Staying on a Houseboat in the Backwaters of Kerala
Pack light, bring just what you need for the one or two nights of your stay.
While one night is enough to see a bit of the backwaters, I recommend at least two nights to fully appreciate the experience and really switch off from the outside world and into the slow life of the villages.
Bring sunscreen and mosquito repellant and don’t forget to use them.
Dress modestly on the boat and in the villages when you get off the boat. Remember, these are Indian villages, and dressing modestly helps make the locals feel comfortable around tourists and vice-versa.
Don’t blast music in your houseboat- whether during the day or at night. Houseboats aren’t suited to parties when they’re docked next to a village at night.
To avoid crowds, try to rent a houseboat just outside of peak season- such as February and March.
Don’t Want To Rent an Alleppey Houseboat Solo? Other Ways To See The Backwaters of Kerala
If you’re traveling solo and don’t want to rent a houseboat all by yourself, then get on a government-run tourist cruise or take the public boats that run in the backwaters, with stops at various villages. Alternatively, take a guided kayak trip or tours around the backwaters on smaller country boats (shikharas) or speedboats.
But remember, nothing else lives up to the experience of navigating these waters and staying overnight on a houseboat.
This post was presented in partnership with Kerala Tourism. All opinions as always are honest and independent and based on my own experience on a houseboat in Kerala for which I bore my own expenses.