Our decision to go to Kerala was put in doubt back in August when news broke of widespread flooding throughout the state. This was then made worse by rumours of virus and disease. However, we had heard of how beautiful Kerala was and still greatly wished to go there. Most Indians we spoke to along our journey also assured us that by the time December comes, Kerala will be safe. So we decided to stick to our original plan and travel to Kerala. First to Kochi, a quaint, former Portuguese town home to the famous Chinese fishing nets. Then on to the backwaters.
Most tourists that visit Kerala for its backwaters will end up in Allapuzha (formerly, but still known as, Alleppey). Though, the backwaters are not confined just to this city (which it still is; a busy, loud city). The ‘backwaters’ are actually a series of larger and smaller man-made canals that join up to a couple of natural lakes. Vembanad Lake is the largest of these and is the 2nd largest lake in Asia, stretching a huge area! On one side of the lake, at the very southern most point of Vembanad Lake, you will find Alleppey. On the opposite side to this, you will find a town called Kumarakom. Both of these towns directly fall onto the backwaters and are fantastic for easy access to the activities on the water.
Travelling north up the lake, around 20km or so, will take you to a town called Vaikom. Vaikom is still situated only half way up the lake (I told you it was big). This is where Brad and I were based during our visit. We were staying in a family owned residency called Vembanad Lake Villas, directly backing onto the lake! Whilst we were at a larger distance to the canals of the backwaters, we did have complete and utter peace and tranquility – something you will not find further south.
Thomas and his wife have created the most beautiful garden for their guests to relax in. Perfect for watching the fishermen row boats on the lake or bird watching in the mornings. An afternoon sat reading a good book on the lakeside or using the kayak on their private canals is hardly an afternoon wasted! We weren’t sure how the distance to the canals would make us feel, but in fact we were relieved that after a day in the hustle and bustle of touristic Alleppey, we could escape to our lakeside paradise. Especially since the home-cooked, traditional Keralan food is to die for!
For anyone thinking of travelling to the backwaters I would suggest at least contemplating staying away from the cities. You definitely get a more authentic and relaxing experience. Plus the bus journey is super easy (and super cheap) to Alleppey.
Whilst we did spend a morning in Alleppey, walking the beach etc. Without a doubt the star attraction is the canals of the backwaters.
The biggest draw for Indian tourists and foreign tourists alike, is to take a boat trip or a houseboat trip. The problem with these types of boats is they are restricted to the wider and deeper canals. That’s why we decided to get a bit more stuck in and take a kayaking tour!
The company we chose was Kerala Kayaking, mainly because they were the most recommended. But also because they were the only ones that picked up the phone when I called (you snooze you lose).
For 1500 rupees each they took us on a 4 hour kayak cruise of the backwaters! We took the kayaks down a couple of the main canals (kind of like canal motorways) and then down a couple of intimate, narrow waterways. We got to get up close and personal to the local people that live and breath these backwaters. Passing schools, churches, homes and shops all only accessible by boat. The local people use these waters for everything from cleaning to transport (not to drink though).
We were told by our fantastic guide that the waters here are closed off to the sea, but once a year this passage is opened. This essentially ‘flushes out’ all the crap that builds up in the water. Everything from beer bottles to pesticides from the many rice paddies these waters feed, build up in the canals. There is also a bit of a weed problem from a pond flower that has claimed the canals and actually blocks off whole waterways from the density. The plant was brought over by a government official from South America who thought it was pretty (which it is). Now however, the people have to wait for the water to be flushed away to be able to freely move around some of the canals!
Once we had finished the kayaking we were moved onto a comfortable ‘support boat’. We then relaxed, ate some deep fried banana and chilli and headed back to Alleppey.
On our initial visit to Alleppey we sought out a company to do a houseboat cruise with.
Tip: Wait until you’re in Alleppey to arrange this excursion because you’ll almost certainly get a better price!
We ended up picking Pournami which specialises in luxury boats and a high quality service (we deserve it right?). Normally the boat we were given is 12,500 rupees for 2 people, but we only paid 9000.
The boat trip lasted from 11:00am until 9:00am the following day. It was 100% worth the extra pennies for such a chilled out, beautiful day floating through the canals. We put some laid back music on and watched Kerala drift on by.
Our chef was fantastic and we were provided with 3 humongous meals. All of which were bloody delicious! Tea was available whenever we wanted and we had a bowl of fresh fruit just for us! We also stopped off at a shop on the water so we could buy extra fresh seafood, if we wanted (they do provide fish included in the price). I couldn’t help myself and bought a whole crab for 150 rupees (about £1.80 – bargain!) which the chef cooked for us.
After the sun sets over the water you dock up in the smaller of the 2 lakes. It’s super quiet and you only have the geckos and birds to keep you company! It was a fantastic evening and the whole experience completely lived up to our expectations, which were pretty high.
Visiting Kerala and talking to the people who lived here has really opened our eyes to the reality of this years floods. Each and every person was affected in one way or another. From Kochi to Varkala, everyone was impacted. Yet, the floods themselves are not the main issue.
Every single year, the backwaters in Kerala flood. Every year. The difference this year was that the flood waters were higher. Instead of reaching only the bottom of a window, the waters reached the top of a window (on a single storey house). Obviously this is bad and many 100’s of thousands of people are moved into temporary accommodations each year. But, the people who live here are used to this and whilst this year was worse, they bounced back much quicker than the media led us to believe.
In fact, whilst the media was scaremongering with rumours of disease outbreak (which we were told only affected a handful of people), a new issue was being set in motion.
Whether directly or indirectly, many families in Kerala are supported through the tourism industry. Since the media spread panic about the state of Kerala, the majority of tourists this year have decided to cancel their trips. As a result of this, the whole state is now struggling. Places like Kochi, that weren’t even affected by the floods have seen far fewer tourists!
Honestly, having travelled through Kerala for a couple of weeks, you cannot even tell (apart from some paint damage) that the floods were here at all! But walking down the street in Alleppey you’d be surprised to see another tourist. Businesses are struggling, they need people to return so that they can provide for their families.
The problems people in Kerala are facing now are far worse than the problems given to them initially. It’s just another case of the media taking a story and twisting it to fit their headlines. As a result they have created a situation that is affecting millions of people.
If you are thinking of heading to Kerala, please do! It’s such a beautiful state, with the friendliest faces we’ve encountered all trip. They need the tourism now more than ever.