We headed north from Varkala Beach to our next stop, Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha), a main departure point point for boat trips through the Kerala Backwaters. This was a part of our tour through South India and Kerala, described in this post.
Alleppey is a small city. Like many Indian cities, it has an ancient past. It was called, by Marco Polo in 1292 CE, the “Venice of the East” due to the many canals that ran though the city at that time. I think most visitors now are interested in backwater cruises, and use Alleppey as a jumping off point. If one is interested, Alleppey is one city in Kerala where Westerners are usually permitted into the temples. There is a very interesting festival here, per Wikitravel:
The Ambalapuzha temple festival is particularly impressive. Five elephants carry the Krishna idol for quite a long distance with a music accompaniment. The temple is 14 kilometers away from Alappuzha. It is famous for its rose palpayasam. The temple makes this traditional very sweet milk-based dish as an offering. Because of long boiling the milk condenses turning light pink color.
For our two-night stopover here, we stayed at the Palmy Lake Resort, ate a sumptuous meal at the Chakara Restaurant, and took an overnight Backwater Cruise that was arranged for us by the helpful people at the Palmy Lake Resort.
The Kerala Backwaters are one of the main tourist attractions in Kerala. There are several thousand special backwater boats, called kettuvallams (derived from the barges that used to ply these waters), that operate from a number of locations next to the waters. From Wikipedia:
The Kerala backwaters are a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (known as the Malabar Coast) of Kerala state in southern India. The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both manmade and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length of Kerala state. The backwaters were formed by the action of waves and shore currents creating low barrier islands across the mouths of the many rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats range.
The Kerala Backwaters are a network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets, a labyrinthine system formed by more than 900 km of waterways, and sometimes compared to the American Bayou. In the midst of this landscape there are a number of towns and cities, which serve as the starting and end points of backwater cruises. National Waterway No. 3 from Kollam to Kottapuram, covers a distance of 205 km and runs almost parallel to the coast line of southern Kerala facilitating both cargo movement and backwater tourism.
The backwaters have a unique ecosystem – freshwater from the rivers meets the seawater from the Arabian Sea. In certain areas, such as the Vembanad Kayal, where a barrage has been built near Kumarakom, salt water from the sea is prevented from entering the deep inside, keeping the fresh water intact. Such fresh water is extensively used for irrigation purposes.
Many unique species of aquatic life including crabs, frogs and mudskippers, water birds such as terns, kingfishers, darters and cormorants, and animals such as otters and turtles live in and alongside the backwaters. Palm trees, pandanus shrubs, various leafy plants and bushes grow alongside the backwaters, providing a green hue to the surrounding landscape.
Vembanad Kayal is the largest of the lakes, covering an area of 200 km², and bordered by Alappuzha (Alleppey), Kottayam, and Ernakulam districts. The port of Kochi (Cochin) is located at the lake’s outlet to the Arabian Sea. Alleppey, “Venice of the East”, has a large network of canals that meander through the town. Vembanad is India’s longest lake.
As we drove north from Varkala Beach I notice a number of nice houses on the road. I have read that there are not many good jobs in Kerala, so many of the men go across the Arabian Sea to work in places like Dubai. There the wages are very good, and some are able to send money home and build nice big houses. Perhaps this is one of these. Also notice at the top of the house there is a covered roof area. In Tamil Nadu this would usually be thatch. In Kerala, all of these I have seen have some kind of sturdy watertight roof. Certainly with all the palm trees around, they could use palm thatch, which would be lower cost, but they do not. I imagine that the rains are harder in the monsoon in Kerala, so the roofs need to be more strongly built here to be waterproof. Maybe there are stronger winds, too?
The small towns we pass by seem the same as in Tamil Nadu; small shops line the street, open in front.
We passed by a bad accident. A cycle is down. The driver is surrounded by onlookers, so we do not see him. I am not sure what the other vehicle was, and I do not see it. We see lots of what seems like crazy driving, but few accidents.
By the road we see a number of structures like the one below. It is an entrance to a Hindu temple. The central figure on the top seems to be Siva, accompanied by Parvati, with Ganesh and Murugan to both sides.
This purple arch is, I think, in front of a wedding. These kinds of colorful, cloth-covered arches seem pretty common in Kerala, but not in Tamil Nadu. I am not sure how they are constructed, but there has to be some kind of structure underneath that can easily be built and taken down. This arch is surely temporary.
Here is a truck with the fanciest painted cab I have even seen.
Now we are in Alleppey, driving towards the place we will stay the night. We drive by one of the many canals going through town.
Some kind of ferry, or maybe a day trip tour boat, with many people on board, coming back to town in the canal.
Carol is walking through the grounds of the Palmy Lake Resort.
We stayed in one of the two rooms in this detached building, facing a grass lawn and palm trees.
That evening we wanted a treat, and so took a rickshaw to the Chakara Restaurant, the most expensive place in Alleppey.
Carol climbs up the circular wrought iron staircase into the restaurant.
Very nice tables and environment in which to have a good meal.
We are served a very cold beer. And then a great meal. Satisfying dinner tonight.
On the way back to the Palmy, we saw light reflected on the canal.
The next day we will go on an overnight backwater cruise. We leave the hotel pretty early and take a short drive. Already there are people, locals, on the water. Before we left the Palmy Lake Resort they made us breakfast to order.
Our boat trip started in Alleppey, and toured the south end of Vembanadu Lake, and some of the canals at the south end of the lake. This lake is the longest in all of India, and has the famous city of Cochin (Kochi) at its north end, and Alleppy at the south, between the lake and the Arabian Sea.
The Vembadad wetlands covers an area of more than 2000 square kilometers and is the largest wetlands in India. The lake is almost 100 kilometers long, and is fed by ten rivers. It is home to more than 20,000 waterfowls, and is also an ideal habitat for shrimp. Human activity has taken its toll on the environment here, changing the saltwater content of the wetlands system. Pollution from boats, pesticides and fertilizers also impacts this unique environment, as do illegal conversion of wetlands and encroachments by real estate groups. There are now conservation projects started that aim at preserving these wetlands before it is too late.
The map below shows most of the lake, except for the Cochin area at the north.
We boarded the boat. There are so many boats berthed here that we had to walk over one to get to ours. The crew carried our bags.
The walls on the boat are made from woven material, some kind of plant fiber. This is a pretty new boat, so the fiber is bright, not dulled with age. There are many new boats, I notice. I have read about a boat selling boom, financed by bank loans. I have read that there are so many new boats that it has lowered the incomes of everyone, enough so that some boat owners are unable to repay the loans.
This is the living and eating area of the boat we have booked.
The bedroom with a suitably soft mattress. There is a ceiling fan. There is even an air conditioner that can be used, paying extra.
Boats by the shore that have not left for the day, or have not been booked.
The channel ahead of us.
The crew laid out a nice looking fruit bowl for us, and gave us two coconuts to drink. They take very good care of their passengers in terms of feeding them well.
Looking forward out of the sitting area. The captain sits in the very front. There is a canopy that can be unrolled to protect him from the sun.
Two boats ahead of us as we motor out the channel.
Some of the boats have sides that go straight up. This way they can have more bedrooms. This one is like that, with a covered upper deck so more people can watch the backwaters go by. This boat is coming towards us, so is coming in. I do not see passengers, so maybe they are coming in to load up.
A number of beautiful houses line the waterway.
This roof line is a traditional one in Kerala. The two tall eaves are open so they can catch the breeze and bring it into the house.
This kettuvallam looks like it has second floor bedrooms, an apartment building on the water.
The waterway ahead, a number of boats to the left.
This is the smallest kettuvallam we see all day, just one small bedroom I think. My eye is more pleased by those boats with the woven sides that curve up to the roof line.
These two gents stay at a nearby hotel. They have great seats from which to watch the morning kettuvallam parade.
Carol takes one of many photos.
Looks almost like a traffic jam ahead of us.
Another pretty kettuvallam to our left side.
The railing on our kettuvallam is in what I now think of as the Travancore style, that we fist saw when we crossed into Kerala at the Padmanabhapuram Palace.
Idyllic scene, water, palm trees, more trees. I expected this to be what was the view everywhere, but it was not.
We passed by a small island, completely filled by a building. Perhaps a resort?
I think this building on the coast side was also a resort, though maybe only a big house.
Another boat passes us, an umbrella providing shade for the captain.
There were a number of small boats around in the water, being paddled with oars.
Also being pushed with poles. The water cannot be too deep.
Two different kinds of cormorants stand on this floating log.
This party boat has 20 or more Indian people on board, enjoying the backwater cruise.
I know this was a resort, one that you can only get to by boat.
See, here is the sign. They even gave a web address: www.istay.in.
Then we pulled over to the bank. They tied up the boat and put up a gangplank so we could get off. As you can see, we did not find debarking on the gangplank to be very easy.
They had asked us if we wanted to get some shrimp to eat tonight. We had said we did, so we stopped to get some fresh ones, from the lake.
Carol is taking a photo of the lakeside shop.
Here is one of the shrimp. I have never seen such long claws on a shrimp. The bottom of the lake must have lots of growth on it for the shrimp to evolve such long ‘arms.’ I am not sure if this is dinner, or some kind of water-going monster. Oh well, we have dinner.
Looking out of the sitting area of the boat.
This is a nice, peaceful environment in which to spend some relaxing time. One thing about a boat trip is that you usually do not go too fast, so you just have to let it be and relax.
A woman stands on a boat, getting read to step on the shore, I think.
She is next to this brightly colored house.
I think the woman in red is washing dishes. In the lake, naturally.
A small tour boat passes us, going the opposite direction. Maybe only two people are on board. There is room for at least six.
This woman is washing her hair in the lake.
These two gents are relaxing, one lying in the boat, the other on the bank.
A small ferry boat passes us going the other direction.
This is somebody’s ‘Scenic Villa.’
Pleasant yard and house behind a fence, surrounded by trees.
Women taking their baths in the lake.
Men poling their boats. The poles look to be about 20 feet long. Now we know know deep the channel is.
Here is a small tour boat, being rowed by an oarsman. This is a very peaceful way to see the lake.
Another ferry boat. It looks empty of people.
Double decker kettuvallam passing us.
Here is a waterside restaurant. It looks like several tour boats have stopped here for lunch, a popular place, about the only such place we pass by today.
One of the tour boats near the restaurant, many people on board.
We just quietly let the lake glide by from within our shaded boat. There is a ceiling fan if we need the cooling.
We tied up on the bank near this bridge.
We have stopped for lunch: fried fish, some kind of curry, and Keralan vegetables. Yum!
We start seeing churches.
And more nice houses. Certainly there are people with money who live here.
This is the St. Thomas Orthodox Church. The sign in the arch over the gate says, “St. Thomas pray for us.”
Another kettuvallam passes us.
I think this is a Hindu temple, with a black stone oil lamp in the gateway.
Roots of the tree go right down into the water.
Men fishing with nets. I see one man in a boat making noise by slapping the top of the water, I guess driving fish towards the nets in the other boat.
People waiting for the ferryboat.
Another church, I think some kind of Orthodox church from the church’s cross. In front of the church, to the left, is a flagpole, the same kind that you will see in many Hindu Temples. The only difference is that it is topped by a cross. If this is like the Hindu flagpole, then on special religious days flags are hoisted to announce the day to people passing by on the water.
Not all is holy. This sign announces toddy, an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting the juice that comes from sugar palms (Palmyra palms).
Richard sits watching the world go by, no shirt to stay cooler.
Not all the houses are big fancy ones. Here is just a small, maybe one-room, house.
There is quite a bit of boat traffic, mainly kettuvallams.
A boat goes by with a group of young men and women, enjoying a lazy day on the water.
Not all are outside watching the water go by. Here is a couple that is pretty friendly in one of the bedrooms. I would advise people in this case to close the curtains.
We turned into a small canal. Carol is taking photos out of the front of the boat.
I think this is the photo she was taking.
While we are here having a special holiday on the water, the kids living by the water have a normal school day.
Just like in the USA, the school kids have backpacks that seem almost bigger than they are.
This woman has hung out her wash, and stands with her toddler by the water. I can imagine a parent of a toddler being pretty nervous when their child is on the bank of the canal.
A man fishing with nets from the bank of the canal. I also saw several people in the evening light fishing with poles, I guess to catch something for dinner. I was not able to get a photo of them, though.
The pretty bank of the canal.
Behind the bank-side trees are rice fields that seem vast.
Ducks paddle through the water.
This seems like a flock of mixed species ducks, just like you see in the USA. I guess that is how ducks are.
Here is the cook, no duties now, so he can relax and watch the water go by.
The canal ahead. It is a little wider here.
This is a rice field, after the rice is harvested and some water has been let back in. I see a boat, and wonder what they are doing? Fishing? Going after something like clams? I just don’t know.
Many birds are in the moist fields. Besides these egrets there are many smaller birds that cannot be seen well in this photo.
A duck rookery is by the water’s edge. I guess this is a good place for ducks, since hundreds are here.
Three small houses next to each other. Out here in the rice fields it is probably nice to have neighbors.
Richard at the computer. We have a Tata Photon USB modem and were able to get Internet connection just about every place we visited on this trip, including in the Kerala Backwaters!
Woman walking on a narrow bank.
Rice field, stretching to the horizon.
We have come out of the canal into a wider channel. Rice fields still surround us on both sides, with palm trees by the banks.
An old man waves at us as we go by. It looks like he just sits in the chair watching the water life go by.
More fishermen, using a net by the bank.
The bank, with floating plants next to it and rice fields beyond it. Maybe these are water hyacinths?
A crane, doing some kind of work by the bank.
We have pulled up by the bank for the night. One of the boatmen is tying the boat up to a palm tree.
He then pulls in the stern with a rope. He will tie it up too.
Here is the kettuvallam, secure for the night.
Other boats pull in near us. I guess this is one of the regular areas where they tie up for the night.
I walk to the other side of the bank. There are rice fields, with white birds, I think egrets.
Many birds fill the sky.
The setting sun, reflected in the water.
The cook has cut some skewers for tonight’s shrimp.
We have a beer before dinner. Before we left we had to tell them how many and what kind of drinks to bring along. They had their own ideas about food and a menu plan. We just had to tell them veg or non-veg.
Evening palms on the other side of the channel, reflected in the water.
In the kitchen, he has cooked the shrimp, made some other dishes, and is cooking chapattis now.
They also carved some plant to make a nice candle for the meal.
Here is all the food laid out for us. Too much for us to eat it all.
Here is my plate, with a shrimp, chapatti, chicken curry, and a couple of vegetable dishes. What a feast!
Here is our candle-plant.
The morning dawned kind of gray.
The cook cut and served us a pineapple for breakfast. What a nice way to serve it. I will remember this and use it myself when I can.
We are watching the boats come back in, looking through the prow of the boat. The cook is sitting now. He is through for this trip, except for tying the boat up when we get to our berth.
A day-tour boat going out in the morning, the intrepid photographer sitting in front.
We are part of a line of boats coming in this morning.
Local women take their morning baths in the lake.
A solitary man does too.
Is this a house or a temple? I can’t tell.
Now we have to find our berth among all the kettuvallams that are tied up here.
Here is our captain, to the right, and cook. They are employees of the boat owner, not owners themselves. They do a good job, and the boat trip was more enjoyable because of what they did to take care of us.
A most pleasant overnight trip to see the Kerala Backwaters. I am glad to have done it, but do not feel the need to come back and do it again.
Sources for this article include Wikipedia, Wikitravels, and The Hindu, Online Edition for Friday, Apr 02, 2010.