No trip to Kerala is complete without a visit to its unique backwaters and it is quite fitting that the state’s vibrant self-supporting ecosystem should be showcased first in this series. An intricate labyrinth of brackish lagoons, inlets, 5 large lakes, 38 rivers, and interconnected canals, Kerala backwaters are simply mind-blowing. The system is formed by Arabian Sea waves and shore currents and spreads over half the state of Kerala. Important National Waterways ply in this region and the landscape is puddled with palm tree-fringed rice paddies, spice trading towns, and villages. Many unique species of crabs, frogs, mudskippers, birds such as terns, kingfishers, darters, and cormorants otters and turtles inhabit the backwaters and palm, pandanus and other leafy plants create cool green channels to the unique watery landscape.
Understanding the Kerala backwaters
Technically speaking, Kerala backwaters can be divided into many regions among which the Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam district, Vembanad in Alleppey, Kottayam and Ernakulam area, and Kannur-Valiyaparambu Backwaters are most popular. Many islands dot the backwater and the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is also located here. The most popular way of enjoying the emerald green backwaters of Kerala is on a kettuvallams or a traditional Kerala houseboat. Traditionally used as grain barges, kettuvallams are postcard subjects of Incredible India advertisement campaign and Kerala tourism advertisement campaigns and the local government has classified them into platinum, gold and silver categories.
The popular grain barges of houseboats of Kerala backwaters
In olden days the kettuvallams used to transport rice grown in the paddy fields along the backwaters and the unique design of their thatched roof covers had protected the grains from natural elements. Today, they provide excellent overnight cruises for tourists and complete with staff, sleeping, dining quarters and western style bathrooms, the kettuvallams are equivalent of floating hotels/guesthouses.
Cruise, kayak, canoe, or paddle along the Kerala backwaters
Although it is a great way of enjoying the region’s bucolic way of life, there is more to the backwaters than cruising on a barge. The possibility of exploring the green channels on a local boat, kayak or a motorboat is also there and I found canoeing along the sleepy tree shaded tunnels to be immensely satisfying. Once away from the populated tourist circuits, the Kerala backwaters fan out in thousands of labyrinths and I slowly canoed down those less trodden lanes to take in the state’s idyllic rural beauty. Life along the backwaters is highly interesting and the amount and styles of boats plying those channels are of staggering proportions.
Life along the backwaters is all about boats and palm trees
From bowl-shaped shaped coracles, wooden motor boats, small paddle boats, and palm trunk dugout canoes, life on Kerala’s backwaters move on these contraptions and fishing is the primary occupation of most of the residents there. In fact, fishermen/women and fish sellers are the most common sights along the residential areas of the backwaters and in some places, reverberating calls of the hawkers mingle seamlessly with the birds chirping from the thick groves of palm trees. Palm trees are also quintessential backwater sights and from being tapped for toddy, used as thatched roofs, to forming small crossover bridges, these swaying trees of life are mainstays of Keralite rural life.
Select your Kerala backwaters destination based on your travel style and time
My forays into Kerala’s backwaters inclAlleppeylepey, Kuttanad, Ashtamudi, and most recently the Munroe Island. While one trip took me on a joy ride on a family houseboat of a friend, the others were on my trusty canoe and I spent more than a week exploring the leafy green tunnels. Those were very tranquil days when I used to paddle out before daybreak with toddy tappers clinging onto skinny trunks. My breakfasts were mostly vadas and coffee at small family run eateries on the bank somewhere and I used to traverse the narrow lanes of the Kerala backwaters with kingfishers, dropping coconuts and frangipani blossoms.
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The more remote backwater destinations are closest to the real life
Lunches used to also at some local mom and pop food joint and I used to mop up fiery fish curries with fluffy appams. Those meals used to make my eyes smart and nose run, but my heart felt at utmost peace being lost in the vast water world of Kerala. The golden pre-sunset light was the signal for me to slowly paddle back to my homestay and nights at the traditional local home were tranquil too. After dusk, there is nothing really much to do at the Kerala backwaters except to rock on a hammock, read a book, and fall asleep with sounds of rippling water, frogs and owls.
It is not easy not to return to the Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters is indeed a place like no other on earth and its fantastic mix of rustic beauty along with the verdant greenery is extremely soul soothing. After my first visit, I had thought that if I were to head back to Kerala again, the backwaters would be one place where I would return happily. And that is exactly what I did last December when Tarek and Akash joined me to explore the Kerala backwaters at God’s Own Country. We followed exactly the same routine of eating, sleeping, and canoeing and exploring the tranquil Kerala backwaters at different times of the day. Slow traveling cannot get better than this and Kerala backwaters seem to have been made for this.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE