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A Kerala Houseboat Cruise on the Backwaters

Kerala, the state in South-west India, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country and it’s easy to understand why. Blessed with gorgeous landscapes, beaches and hill stations, it also has a rich cultural heritage and an amazing food scene, and it is easy to understand why the local people have named it ‘God’s Own Country’. The backwaters of Kerala are a network of channels, rivers and lagoons that are located just inland from and running parallel to the Arabian Sea. Some of the lakes are connected naturally by rivers or by canals that have been constructed for that purpose. The water is brackish – freshwater meets the salty brine of the sea – and this gives the backwaters a very particular ecosystem. One of the most pleasurable ways to explore the area is on a Kerala houseboat, known locally as a kettuvallam. These enormous boats, some of which can be multi-storey, were originally used to transport rice and spices to the port of Cochin, the regional capital.

kerala houseboat

The boats have wooden hulls and a thatched roof. ‘Kettu’ means ‘tied’ and ‘vallam’ is a boat. These boats are constructed from long planks of wood tied with knots of coir and then coated in a resin derived from cashew nut kernels. No nails are used at any stage. Although they were originally designed to be cargo ships they have been adapted for tourism and converted to proper houseboats complete with a living area, kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms. The boats are available for hire for tourists to reside on, or they can be hired for a few hours at a time. It’s worth noting that boat hire isn’t cheap, especially compared with other prices in the region, but if you can afford it, it is definitely an experience worth undertaking.

Many houseboats are booked months in advance during the busy season and will follow a tour through the backwaters. If you aren’t visiting in the high season you might get lucky and find a boat that’s available to hire. We had been travelling down from Thekkady, arriving at Kumarakom at around 1pm. We managed to find a houseboat that was willing to take us on a four hour boat trip on the local lake and this price included lunch. The prices are for the hire of the boat and crew (normally a couple of people) so if you have a larger party the cost per person naturally reduces. You may find that if the boat is still available and hasn’t already found customers, it may be possible to negotiate a price.

The thing that is most striking about the houseboats is how spacious they are.

Kerala Houseboat

The living/dining area at the front has room for a dining table and plenty of seating space

The boat is steered from the front.

Kerala Houseboat

Then there is a long corridor from which there are large double bedrooms. Each bedroom has its own en-suite bathroom.

Kerala Houseboat

As with all areas in South India where food is served, there is a hand-washing area in the corridor.

Finally, the kitchen is located at the rear of the boat. Again, it is very spacious and has plenty of cooking facilities and storage space. Gas is provided by portable cannisters.

Kerala Houseboat

Lunch was already in the process of being prepared…

The journey on the Kerala houseboat took us from the boat’s mooring along the river and onto the wide Vembanad lake. The boats are motor driven but move at a slow pace which makes for a leisurely experience. It very much reflects the way of life in Kerala.

Kerala Houseboat
Kerala Houseboat

All along the shoreline it is possible to see fishing contraptions. They are formally known as shore operated lift nets, which doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as they look. These are used at night to catch prawns and other small fish. They are designed on a cantilever which ensures that the net descends into the sea when someone walks along the main beam. The catch is then raised by the use of ropes. Some have lights which are used to attract the fish.

Lunch on the Kerala houseboat comprised typical dishes from the region – a spicy fish curry with fish fry accompanied by vegetable side dishes and rice. We were asked how spicy we liked our food and we asked for it to be spiced as local people liked it. Like many dishes in Kerala we found that the spices were used for flavour rather than heat.  And, of course, it was utterly delicious.

Munnar tea and a banana fritter were served for dessert.

We were visiting at the end of the Monsoon season so some rain was probably inevitable. But even a downpour couldn’t dampen spirits.

Kerala Houseboat

A lazy afternoon cruising the beautiful backwaters on a Kerala houseboat, with the addition of a delicious lunch, was a most refined way of spending an afternoon.

Kerala Houseboat
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10 Comments

    • Thank you! Unfortunately the boat had to be back at its dock by dusk so we never got to see the fishing contraptions being used but they were really interesting and a very clever design. And yes, the catch was scrumptious!

    • It was a really lovely way to spend a lazy afternoon. We loved the food in Kerala. We visited a spice plantation in Munnar and it was fascinating to see the spices growing. We also brought loads back to cook with at home!

    • We were really surprised at how large they were. We did see some two storey houseboats out on the lake which were enormous!

  1. A trip around Kerala and the lakes has always been one of my plans for my extended trip to India. Thanks for the useful info and advice here.

    • Really glad that this was useful. We hope that you enjoy your visit to Kerala – we absolutely loved it!

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