Done properly, a visit to the Keralan Backwaters is one of the most incredible experiences in Southern India. But there’s a common preconception that staying in a houseboat is ‘the’ way to do it – which may not be true for everyone. Here, India expert James tells you why.
The Keralan Backwaters are, quite rightly, one of the biggest draws to India’s tropical Southwestern state. You get a real flavour of local life, witnessing local trade, slow-paced villages and beautiful landscapes, all the while cruising lazily on the water in an array of lovely boats.
But there’s one common preconception pushed on travellers; that you have to stay overnight on a houseboat to experience the Backwaters ‘properly’. The idea that this is the most idyllic experience, and the best way to immerse yourself fully in the atmosphere and pace of life.
In reality, one night on a houseboat isn’t quite as serene as you may think. The first, and probably the main reason, is that houseboats are quite large, being too wide to go down the narrower channels where the life and soul of the Backwaters really lies. It’s a shame to visit such a fascinating part of the world and get inches away from its true magic, only to be stopped by a tight corner!
You also don’t get an expert guide English speaking guide on board a houseboat. In such a culturally rich area, you really need a guide to point out what’s happening where; they can really give you a far greater insight, and take you beyond what meets the eye.
What’s more, the Backwaters are popular (they have been pretty much ever since the National Geographic Traveller pinned them as a ‘Destination of a Lifetime’ in 1999) and, for most people, a houseboat is deemed the preferred mode of transport. As such, it can get a little crowded – especially since one-night houseboats follow similar routes. Come 5pm, it is possible to find yourself moored among fellow tourists rather than amongst the local action. Additionally, as you’re so close to the water, mosquitoes can be even more of a pain than usual.
To be clear, though, this really only applies to one-night houseboat cruises. If you love boating and its relaxed nature, a 2-3 night houseboat cruise (on slightly smaller houseboats to get down narrower channels) is still a great way to explore the area. Having the extra time gives you space to get off-the-beaten-track and immerse yourself in beautiful surroundings and harder-to-reach channels.
For a lot of people, however, what I’d really recommend is staying on land in a beautiful backwaters property while doing guided day excursions through the narrower channels on smaller boats. This will give you a real feel for the area, with the comfort of a lovely base on land. Going on a houseboat during the day, combined with a night or two in a property, with an early morning foray into the narrower channels pieces the whole backwaters experience together beautifully as well.
It’s also important to note that the more remote northern water bodies of Kerala and the southern backwaters around Alleppey and Kumarakom offer remarkably different experiences – for my rundown on the differences between the two, have a look at this blog.