The Keralan Backwaters comprise an intricate series of streams and canals (around 1,500km in total) across the West Coast of Kerala stretching out from a broad, beautiful lagoon known as Lake Vembanad. The Northern waterways are located near Valiyaparamba, while the Southern Backwaters are found approximately 365 kilometres south in Alleppey. There is a real difference between the two with those around Alleppey and Lake Vembanad being busier and full of thriving industries and daily life with narrow water ways. The north is much quieter in terms of life and travellers, perfect for kicking back and relaxing on deck. To get a real insight and comparison we’d recommend having 2 or 3 nights in a property or boat in the southern area before travelling north for one or two nights on a houseboat.
THE NORTHERN WATERWAYS
Northern Kerala is generally lesser visited than the South, but offers many similar experiences - wildlife, markets, tea and spice plantations and more. The same is true of the Northern backwaters, which are quieter and much less visited by tourists. It is truly idyllic: with wider channels and evocative palm fringed scenery, the experience is much more about enjoying the area’s natural beauty and relaxing with great sunsets. Tourists will encounter less interaction with locals as villages are set further back from the river banks, and there is less industry; the Northern area is much closer to the sea than the south, hence the water is salty and towns and villages don’t rely on it for cultivation. The proximity to the ocean also means there is easy access to lovely beaches.
Affectionately coined “Venice of the East”, Alleppey, or Alappuzha, is a complex and beautiful system of canals with a port that faces the Malabar Coast and a small and chaotic town centre. Earlier, this region was a busy trade centre. Today, it’s a tourist hotspot and the southernmost point of the popular Keralan backwaters. Although the centre of the city can be stressful to navigate, the surroundings are what make Alleppey delightful: western beaches, stretches of greenery, punted canoes on the many canals, toddy shops, and naturally, plenty of kettuvallam (Keralan houseboats).
Take a boat cruise through the waterways and watch fishermen and tradesmen toddy tapping, prawn farming, and Coir carpet making right before your eyes. Admire the paddy fields and greet locals on the rice barges as they pass.
Nearby, the picturesque town of Kottayam is dotted with charming churches, and Aranmula is close at hand, famous for its Snake Boat Race that takes place every year. In August on the second Saturday of the month, the crowds flock to Aranmula to witness the giant Snake Boats, each one manned expertly by more than 100 oarsmen, soaring through the waters with a phenomenal drive.
Ambalapuzha is home to the glorious Sreekrishna Temple, constructed in typical Keralan style and dating back to the 15-17th century AD while beautiful Marari Beach is just sixteen kilometres north of the city.
While most of the throngs of people looking for a Keralan backwater experience flock to Kottayam and Ashtamudi Lake, lovely Kumarakom on Vembanad Lake remains relatively unspoilt. This sleepy lakeside town is the place to come if you want to sit back admire the cluster of small islands at your leisure, spot exotic and rare bird species, take a lazy canoe ride, go fishing, and get to know local life and customs.
Kumarakom has now been declared a special tourism zone, thus protecting it from outside influences that might disturb the landscape and peace. Kumarakom has won many awards for innovation, environment, and responsible tourism. This is a place to quietly appreciate and respect.
The nearby Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is a highlight, and ornithology enthusiasts frequently spot brightly coloured native kingfishers, darters, egrets, woodpeckers, and the Siberian stork within the 14 acres of sanctuary parkland. Panthiramanal Island is a beautiful and tranquil island right on the Vembanad Lake, accessible only by boat, and home to hundreds of exotic species such as Siberian cranes, water ducks, cuckoos, and many more. Cruising on the lake by houseboat is a popular way to bird spot.
As with all the backwater destinations, the houseboat is the vessel of choice for travel and relaxation. Nearby, Ettuman is home to a beautiful Shiva Temple, where you can admire famous and intricate wooden carvings.