Advantages A fabulous experience
Disadvantages I wanted to stay longer
|Value for Money|
|Quality of Rooms|
|Standard of Service|
|Quality of Food & Drink|
|Quality of Facilities|
When we first went to Kerala as part of a two week tour of southern India about ten years ago, one of the highlights should have been taking a boat trip on the Kerala backwaters. In fact it turned out to be a massive disappointment. We got shoved in a nasty boat with a noisy, stinky engine and I got a bit travel sick from the diesel fumes and the humidity and felt rotten for the next two days. As we chugged along in our nasty little boat, we couldn't help but notice how the other half lived. Beautiful converted rice barges were gliding elegantly along the waters, their occupants lounging in recliners, sipping beers and reading magazines. The contrast was shocking. I was determined that if we ever went back to Kerala we would do the backwaters with a bit more style. I wanted to be the one in the recliner with a crew dancing attendance on me.
I asked a company called makemytrip.co.in to come up with a four day Kerala itinerary for us and they offered to include a day and night on a rice barge. I leapt at the chance and said yes. After three days in the mountains around Munnar and Thekkady, we left the high altitude behind and headed for the coast near Alleppey to meet our boat. As we approached the jetty where the boats were waiting for their clients, I started to get a bit nervous. Most of them were enormous and looked like they could easily accommodate six or eight people. Suddenly I started to worry that we might be about to get shut on a boat with a large, rowdy family group. By this time we'd had rather a lot of exposure to noisy Indian kids and their overly-easy-going parents. My image of paradise on water started to morph into a nightmare of screaming, running, yobby kids. To say I was relieved when we reached our boat would be an understatement. Noahsark (presumably intended as Noah's Ark) was one of the smaller boats and the only two by two to be boarding would be us.
You can be forgiven for thinking 'What's a rice barge?' and 'What are the Backwaters?' and I know that many people won't be familiar with either. Rice barges in the 21st century are tourists boats which come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and with different degrees of luxury. Most are residential but some are day boats which bring passengers back before nightfall. In the days when the roads were poor and vehicles were primitive (which wasn't SO long ago), the quickest way to transport the rice crops was by water on broad beamed rice barges. When the roads got better and trucks came along, the barges were converted into house boats, either for living in or more typically for ferrying tourists around. The boat converters use local wood to construct the accommodation and then cover the outside of the barges with woven coir matting. The barges range in size from our two double room configuration up to double decker mega-barges with up to eight or ten bedrooms. Whilst the big ones were impressive, we were more than happy to have ours all to ourselves.
There are narrow spits of land and barrier islands along the Kerala coastline which separate the backwaters from the sea - the are the waters at the back of the land. The water is brackish (effectively a mix of sea and fresh water) and consists of a series of large lagoons which make up the bulk of the water. Dotted about are large patches of land which has been 'reclaimed' from the water a bit like you see in some areas of the Netherlands. I did wonder if the historic presence of the Dutch in some parts of Kerala had brought the technology of land reclamation to the backwaters. The square blocks of land with dyked borders reminded me of Holland but with much better weather. In total there are more than 900 km of waterways and the land that's been reclaimed is good farmland so many local people have built their homes alongside the water – often illegally. The backwaters have their own ecosystem and are home to many birds and water animals, many of which are pretty chilled about tourists chugging past on the barges.
We walked the plank onto our boat, took off our shoes when we spotted the crew weren't wearing theirs and then watched as our bags were passed over. The captain showed us to our cabin which was much nicer than we'd expected. We have spent a lot of time on scuba diving boats being accommodated in cabins not much bigger than cupboards, typically with bunk beds so we were more than happy to have a bit more space. We had a large double bed, enough space on either side of it for our bags, and a small amount of storage space. A large window looked out onto the water and there were both a fan and an air conditioning unit. The lighting was surprisingly good which isn't something you can take for granted in most Indian hotels. Our bathroom was also a pleasant surprise with a proper toilet, a sink and a hot shower. It's not a five star hotel but for a boat, it was more than acceptable. At the front of the boat were lots of sofas and chairs, a large coffee table, a dining table and lots of padded benches. There was a small flat screen television and DVD player as well as a shelf with books and maps though we didn't use any of these.
The captain has a seat at the front of the boat with a large steering wheel although the engine is somewhere at the back so the noise level is quite low. We set off shortly after going on board and headed down a wide channel past a small white church with a bell tower. We were soon in chugging along on a wide lagoon, contemplating the flatness after being in the mountains. The only height came from coconut trees along the edges of the water. We passed a couple of very luxurious hotels including one with private swimming pools for each cabin. Luckily the inhabitants weren't too snooty to wave at us as we chugged past.
After about an hour we moored for lunch which the crew had been cooking ever since we left the jetty. The food was copious but we didn't eat too much as we were never sure if the crew had more food or would eat what we left. I hoped there was more in the galley at the back of the boat but I wasn't totally sure so we held back from over doing it. Most of the guests are Indians so the food is made to the local spice level which is milder than most of India but still packs a punch. For lunch we had 'Kerala fish fry' with a small bony but ultra-fresh fish, bitter gourd, veg curry, the evil nasty south Indian runny sauce called sambar which turns my stomach at a dozen paces, a hot tamarind curry, a carrot dish and green beans all served with rice. Bottled water and juice were also provided.
Local people get around in small canoe-like boats as well as the motorised school boats and buses. Traders chug along on large unconverted rice barges powered by small stick engines.
When we'd finished eating the crew cast off and we set off again. The peace and emptiness of the backwaters are a pleasant relife in a country that's normally so noisy. It's not easy to get away from people in India, but in our boat we felt like we were in our own little private bubble. We saw a lot of birds - white ibis walking along the banks, black cormorants perched on floating rafts of water hyacinths sunning their wings, white and brown birds with long bills and even swimming snakes. People in the small houses on the banks didn't seem to mind us waving and calling out "hello" as the were washing their dishes or ding their laundry in the river. Communist party flags were hung above many of the houses and we were told later that most of the houses are built illegally but the local government which was communist for many decades, chose to look the other way. Some of the houses are perched on very narrow spits of land whilst others back onto reclaimed paddy fields.
For the first few hours we were pretty much on our own with just an occasional passing boat but as the afternoon progressed and the sun started to move lower in the sky, we found ourselves surrounded by other rice barges as all the captains seemed to be heading for their favourite overnight mooring spots. Day boats were heading back to their jetties to get rid of their passengers. It was fun to see the different ways that boat builders had individualised their structures according to how much space they had and how many passengers they wanted to take.
We tied up for the night at about 5.30 pm because it was November and the sun goes down not long after. The crew rushed to let the mosquito nets down so we wouldn't get eaten alive. When it finally got dark we could see the lights of only one other boat in the distance. Dinner was simpler than lunch with a chicken curry for my husband, veg curry for both of us, a tasty daal with rice and fresh chapattis. I have no idea if there was alcohol on board and we were too timid to ask though a nice cold beer would have been very welcome.
There's not too much you can really do once its gone dark and you've finished dinner. We understood from the captain that he and the two crew members would be sleeping on the deck in the area where we'd had dinner and we knew that they'd be up before first light to start making breakfast so we headed back to our cabin to give them some space and to escape the bugs which were bouncing off the mosquito nets. By eight o'clock we were in our cabin and by nine we were both fast asleep in the comfy bed. We left the fan on during the night as neither of us can stand air conditioning unless it's REALLY unavoidable and we slept like logs.
We woke with the sun around five in the morning, had cold showers, dressed and then set off again about 7.15 with the smell of breakfast cooking in the background. You'll never starve in Kerala and breakfast included omelette, toast, and the local Kerala pancakes stuffed with coconut and sugar. The cook had worked out that I didn't want sugar in my coffee by then and brought the coffee and sugar separately. It sounds like nothing, but it's a small victory every time you can get a coffee more or less the way you want it.
As we ate we headed back to base, taking photographs of fishermen casting their nets, dredgers diving and bringing up large scoops of sand for processing at a local factory, and of course lots more water birds going about their business too. When the little white church finally came back into view we were really sad to have to leave. We packed our bags, climbed across a couple of boats to reach the shore and left our crew with a hearty tip and our great thanks. The Backwaters were a magical place to visit and we'd loved our short visit. Most people who hire a rice barge only go out for less than 24 hours but if I went back again, I'd want to book longer. I love India with a passion, but the opportunity to get away from the world and soak up the beauty of the backwaters is one that's not to be missed.
I don't know what we actually paid for this trip because it was built into a 5 day/4 night package that was designed for us by makemytrip but I believe it was around £100-£120 for the two of us including all our food - not bad for a whole boat and the most peaceful experience in Southern India.
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